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Chinese women create WeChat group in wake of wave of sex harassment cases

by Beh Lih Yi and Shanshan Chen

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Battling censorship and stereotypes, Chinese women are organizing online to harness the momentum of the country’s nascent #MeToo movement in a push for authorities and businesses to end sexual misconduct.

The latest wave of claims of sexual misconduct emerged last month after Lei Chuang, the founder of Yi You — a charity that fights discrimination against people with hepatitis B — confessed to a sexual assault and quit his position.

The claims have snowballed since then. At least 20 women have come forward to share allegations of sexual misconduct against other prominent individuals, from the charity sector to media and academia.

Elaine Chen, a brand manager for a beauty product, said she was astonished and angered by the Yi You case. She took to online chat groups to discuss the issue with other women to decide what to do.

“Our purpose is very simple — that every woman who comes forward and shares their story can find some sort of support,” Chen said in a phone interview as she took a break from interviewing candidates for a job opening at her company. “We want to create a safe space for women to speak up. And if they want to reach out for help, for legal advice or counseling, they know help is here.”

Chen is part of a group on WeChat, China’s most popular messenger app, that has grown to over 200 people within a few weeks. Volunteers are taking up tasks such as recording new cases, offering legal advice and organizing media campaigns.

Some of the sexual misconduct cases that have been reported in the media were first discussed in the group.

“This will be a long-term campaign. We can’t just sit here and do nothing,” said Chen, a 28-year-old who, like others in the group, juggles her job and activism.

Official data on sexual harassment in China are hard to come by, but the nonprofit China Family Planning Association said in 2016 that a third of college students reported suffering sexual violence or sexual assault.

But although accusations of sexual misconduct by dozens of women against U.S. film producer Harvey Weinstein triggered a #MeToo movement across the globe last year, it was conspicuously quiet in China in the beginning.

China’s #MeToo-style moment came in December after a university professor was accused of sexual misconduct — but the movement fizzled out quickly.

Chinese authorities have tried to contain the issue, censoring some of the social media posts on Weibo, the country’s equivalent of Twitter.

Millions of social media users have, however, found ways to circumvent censorship, such as using the phrase “rice bunny” — pronounced “mi tu” in Mandarin.

Bai Fei, a women’s rights campaigner who helped set up the WeChat group, said a team of volunteers is tasked with compiling the cases before making them public. Often these budding campaigners do not know each other in real life. “We do not necessarily meet with the victims, too, as sometimes they want to protect their privacy.”

The women are now pushing for a code of conduct in the workplace and asking businesses and charities to set up a mechanism such as a hotline or website to allow victims to report sexual harassment anonymously.

The nonprofit Inno Community Development Organization, which is spearheading the initiative, said the code of conduct is still being drafted, but 400 individuals and charities have already pledged to support it.

“We hope that all the industries will have such mechanisms to deter future cases,” said Wang Ying, the deputy director of the group, based in the southern city of Guangzhou.

“Our strategy now is to target businesses and the different industries, but at the end of the day, we hope there will be legal reforms at the national level,” she said.

Lu Xiaoquan from the Beijing-based Qianqian law firm, which provides legal aid on women’s rights cases, said a main challenge is the lack of a specific anti-harassment law in China. As a result, women must use other legal provisions, such as those governing labor disputes, he said.

“This dilutes the significance of the whole case, because you can’t use sexual misconduct as the main premise — it is just supporting evidence,” he said.

Lu cautioned that true reform cannot be achieved solely through changes to laws, as women are still subject to widespread discrimination, as well as deeply entrenched traditional values that put pressure on them to be submissive.

But the latest #MeToo-style campaign in China signals that “it is becoming more and more common that sexual violence survivors are ready to speak up and fight for their rights.”

“This is a good start,” said Lu. “As the Chinese saying goes — a single spark can set the whole field alight.”