Born on Campus, China’s #MeToo Movement is Expanding to Other Spheres

By Huijuan Li

Recently, a crowd of journalists besieged two women in front of a district courthouse in Beijing, peppering them with questions about sexual harassment. The two women, who go by the social media handles Xianzi and Maishao, have accused one of China’s most renowned male TV anchors of sexually harassing Xianzi when she worked as his intern in 2014. The anchor, Zhu Jun, has since responded by suing both women for defamation. As this still-evolving case illustrates, the Chinese #MeToo (or #WoYeShi) movement, which started on campus, is gaining steam. Inspired by events in the U.S., the Chinese movement is now moving into increasingly public realms.

In China, #MeToo began with the case of Luo Qianqian. On January 1, the former graduate student at Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics, reported on WeChat that her advisor, Chen Xiaowu, harassed her 12 years ago and harassed other female students in the following 12 years. School officials responded quickly. On January 11, the university dismissed Chen from all academic, administrative and Communist Party positions. Three days later, the country’s Ministry of Education revoked his Yangtze River Scholar Award.

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Luo was not the first Chinese college graduate to allege sexual misconduct by a professor; however, she was the first who did so by name in mass media. Scared of China’s slut-shaming culture and facing pressure by school administrations, past victims usually dared not expose their names publicly and thus ended their cases with private settlements. Then, what empowered Luo to go public? In a newspaper interview, Luo emphasized the role the U.S. #MeToo movement played in her decision-making process. After graduating, Luo went to work and live in Silicon Valley. American culture, where victims of sexual violence received more compassion and support from their families and the public, helped Luo overcome her fears of slut-shaming. She was also inspired by U.S. #MeToo activists, who helped her summon the courage to speak up.

Other cases also show how foreign activists have inspired the Chinese #MeToo movement. In April, Li Youyou, an alumna of Peking University now living in Canada, published a blog post stating that a professor’s rape of her friend, Gao Yan, resulted in Gao’s 1998 suicide. Li said, “The #MeToo movement and the scandal of Professor Chen Xiaowu gave me the courage to get justice for her [Gao Yan].” In response , the university released 1998 documents concerning the investigation of the case. The reports denied the rape allegation but confirmed that the professor, Shen Yang, harassed Gao. Two other universities where the professor worked subsequently, Nanjing University and Shanghai Normal University, have since cut their ties with him.

After witnessing how Luo and Li’s online allegations were taken seriously by officials, more and more victims in mainland China are gathering their courage and beginning to speak up. Professors found responsible for sexual violence against their students have been removed from academic and administrative posts and from party membership by schools, academic associations and the Chinese Communist Party. With these career-damaging punishments as well as public shaming, they likely will be unable to find another job in academia.

In a few American #MeToo cases, renowned scholars have pressured school administrations, defending accused professors based on their academic achievement and reputation. This sort of academic camaraderie has not appeared in Chinese #MeToo cases, in part because Confucian pedagogical philosophy teaches that educators should be moral models for the whole society. Even today, Beijing Normal University, the most prestigious Chinese institution that trains schoolteachers, carries the school motto “Learn to be an excellent teacher, act as an exemplary person.” High moral expectations of teachers’ behavior have become part of the social consensus. Therefore, few Chinese professors will risk sacrificing their own reputations to defend problematic professors in public, not to mention interfering with schools’ investigation and punishment processes.

China’s #MeToo movement reflects both local and global values. The global #MeToo wave provided inspiration and encouragement for Chinese victims of sexual misconduct and feminist activists. Meanwhile, ethical legacies from traditional educational thought helped the #MeToo movement take hold on campus.

The Chinese #MeToo movement still faces challenges, including government censorship and patriarchal backlash, as seen in the Zhu-Xianzi case. However, the movement has made important headway. At some universities, harsh punishment of problematic faculty members has been followed by calls for a shift from punishment to prevention, including more detailed school regulations and national laws on sexual impropriety on campus. Meanwhile, Xianzi’s case suggests that the wave will continue to grow. Her example will encourage more victims to speak out and take the #MeToo movement beyond the campus, to new arenas where victims have remained silent — until now.

Huijuan Li is a doctoral candidate in history at Duke University with a master’s in East Asian Studies. Her research focuses on Chinese women and world Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Duke University is home to nearly 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a world-class faculty helping to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

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