Fri, Feb 02, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Chinese authorities reverse course on #MeToo movement in colleges

Women’s rights activists applaud the investigations, but worry that online censorship and the authorities’ fears of grassroots movements could prevent real change

By Christian Shepherd  /  Reuters, BEIJING

Illustration: Mountain People

After declaring they were ready to fight sexual harassment on university campuses, the Chinese authorities now appear to be seeking to contain a nascent #MeToo movement.

On Jan. 14, the Chinese Ministry of Education announced it had stripped a professor at Beihang University in Beijing, who is facing sexual harassment allegations, of an academic title and said it would not tolerate activity that harms students and would look into setting up a robust mechanism to prevent sexual harassment.

A week later, more than 50 professors put their names to an online proposal calling for a detailed and strict set of rules to combat campus sexual harassment.

However, a march planned that day from Beihang to the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE), another Beijing school where a professor has faced accusations of harassment, was canceled by organizers, two of the event planners said.

The organizers declined to say why it was called off, but three would-be participants, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, said they were told by their school not to attend.

Neither university would comment on the proposed march.

There has also been censorship of online postings supporting the #MeToo movement and some universities have warned students to tone down the campaign, women’s rights activists and students said.

The education ministry declined to respond to telephone calls and faxes seeking comment.

The authorities have been slowly acknowledging in state-media commentaries that there is a systematic problem of sexual harassment on Chinese college campuses.

On Jan. 7, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) paper, the People’s Daily, said that victims of sexual harassment should be shown support if they go public with allegations, and the Guangming Daily, another official party publication, said on Jan. 17 that the issue of sexual harassment in education cannot be ignored.

However, while the issue of sexual harassment has become increasingly high profile on campuses in China, there have — in contrast with the US — been few public allegations of sexual harassment in other areas of Chinese society, including politics, business and entertainment.

One-third of Chinese college students say they have suffered sexual violence or sexual assault, according to data from the China Family Planning Association released in 2016, with the most common allegations being that they were harassed with sexual language and forced to kiss someone, or suffered inappropriate touching.

The catalyst for a Chinese #MeToo-style movement came on Dec. 31 last year when US-based Chinese software engineer Luo Xixi (羅茜茜) published a blog post accusing Beihang professor Chen Xiaowu (陳小武) of sexual harassment.

In her post, Luo republished an account, originally run anonymously on Chinese Web site Zhihu.com in October last year, of an evening 12 years ago when she alleges Chen had driven her to a house off-campus, locked the door and tried to force himself upon her.

He relented when she started crying and said she was a virgin, she said.

After conducting an investigation, Beihang said Chen was found to have sexually harassed students and was removed from his positions at the university.

The education ministry stripped him of a title soon after.

Beihang declined to comment further.

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