The employee alleged that she was forced to drink heavily at a banquet during a business trip and was then sexually assaulted by her boss. She informed her managers, but they failed to act and told her to keep quiet. So she staged a protest in the company canteen and shared details of her ordeal in an 11-page document posted on a company message board.
The company was Alibaba, China’s e-commerce giant, and the document quickly spread, creating a firestorm online. Chief executive Daniel Zhang struggled to contain the damage, saying he was ‘shocked, angry and shameful’. He fired the accused manager, and the two others who had failed to act were forced to resign. ‘We must rebuild, we must change,’ he said.
The scandal earlier this month followed the arrest of Kris Wu, a Chinese-Canadian pop star, in Beijing on suspicion of rape. He faced allegations from multiple women. This week a well-known host on Hunan TV was accused of rape. In a long online post, his alleged victim said she had audio, video and text evidence that she was drugged and assaulted by him two years ago.
Sexual harassment has rapidly become one of most discussed topics on Chinese social media. Even state media has waded in, highlighting the events at Alibaba. The Communist party’s anti-corruption watchdog warned that it will crack down on a corporate culture of heavy drinking, and ban songs with ‘harmful’ lyrics from karaoke machines.
This has raised the tantalising question of whether China is facing its #MeToo moment — and how that will be met by a male-dominated and deeply paranoid Chinese Communist party.
A culture of boorish drinking and entertaining, sexual discrimination and casual harassment is widespread in the Chinese workplace. In the past, most efforts to draw attention to abuse have faced CCP censorship and intimidation. Activists trying to give momentum to #MeToo have been arrested and face online harassment and abuse by nationalist trolls. And the law is stacked heavily against those seeking justice.
He Qian, a former journalist, became the face of the #MeToo movement in China two years ago when she accused a well-known journalist of sexual assault. It finally came to court earlier this year, but the judge sided against her and ordered her to pay the accuser’s legal fees and damages. She said she would continue to press her case, and critics accused the court of denying the existence of sexual harassment.
This was not an isolated example. Courts routinely give stronger protection to alleged harassers than their victims, who must prove their claims to a ‘high degree of likelihood’ (typically between 75 per cent and 85 per cent certainty).
Huang Xueqin, another journalist and prominent #MeToo activist who had sought to draw attention to harassment, was detained for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. The ‘feminist five’, a group of young activists were arrested in 2015 on the same charge after they tried to draw attention to harassment on public transport.
In March, Xiao Meili, a close associate of the feminist five, went for dinner with friends to a hotpot restaurant in the city of Chengdu. She asked a man sitting nearby to stop smoking, and received a barrage of abuse. The man then tipped the oily liquid from the hotpot over Xiao and her friends. Xiao went to the police, who refused to take sides, saying both were to blame. She then posted a video of the incident, which she had filmed with her mobile phone, and it went viral. She was bombarded with misogynistic online comments — many from nationalist trolls who conflated women’s rights with ‘foreign influence’. Under Xi Jinping, online nationalists have been given considerable leeway.
Discrimination runs deep in China. Few companies have mechanisms to deal with it and although the country has enacted a number of laws targeting sexism or harassment in the workplace, they are poorly enforced. Women face widespread job discrimination based on marital or parental status; companies avoid hiring (or get rid of) those who are likely to become pregnant.
The education ministry recently provoked an online storm when it suggested that young Chinese men had become too ‘feminine’. It issued a ‘Proposal to Prevent the Feminisation of Male Adolescents’, which called on schools to recruit retired athletes with a view to ‘cultivating students’ masculinity’. There was further outrage when a commentator with state broadcaster CCTV asked a female Chinese athlete who had just won an Olympic gold in the shot put whether she would change her ‘masculine appearance’ to find a husband.
Cynics point out that the current furoresuits the Communist party well. Alibaba, and big tech more generally, are the target of an official clampdown, so all the better if the scandal damages the company. Entertainers are fair game too — they are well removed from politics. The CCP may be calculating that it can channel the outrage in much the same way that it channels online nationalism against those perceived to have offended China. If the sexual assault accusations had involved a party official or party-linked entity, it is unlikely that discussion would be tolerated — or indeed that the case would have come to light at all.
‘Women hold up half the sky,’ Mao Zedong once wrote, a slogan often trotted out to demonstrate his supposed commitment to equality. In fact, as many biographies (beginning with that of this personal doctor) testify, Mao was a sexual predator. He abandoned his four wives and most of his children, and as he sunk into decrepitude he preyed on young women.
The CCP is paternalistic by nature. Xi, a dour autocrat, heads a seven-strong politburo standing committee, all grey, middle-aged men. Beneath them the 25-member politburo has just one woman. The ratio improves lower down the party ranks, but not by much.
#MeToo has had a galvanising effect in the West. In China, the ability of women’s rights groups to leverage the online outrage into a wider, western-style movement is constrained by Xi’s fierce crackdown on civil society, targeting NGOs, independent-minded journalists, dissidents, academics and lawyers. Feminists still face a Communist party suspicious and intolerant of anything that smacks of organised opposition and everything beyond its control.