The #MeToo Movement with Chinese Character

by    /  May 25, 2018  / No comments

Zheng Xi, a Me Too activist in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China. Image via The Guardian.

The hashtag #MeToo has spread all over the world. It is not the first time that women have stood up to protect their rights and against sexual harassment. But this time the movement is rolling like a snowball around the globe. Women and men in all continents, even in Muslim countries, respond with enthusiasm. The recent Eurovision Song Contest winner, Netta Barzilai, from Israel, has shown her feminist stance with the song “Toy”–“I’m not your toy, you stupid boy” is her empowering lyric for the movement (though it’s a bit childish and coy).

Even during this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the #MeToo movement was in the spotlight when the actress Cate Blanchett, who was harassed by Harvey Weinstein, lead a protest demonstration joined by 82 colleagues and prominent film stars. At the closing ceremony on May 19th, the Italian actress Asia Argento exposed that she, at the age of 21, was raped by Weinstein in 1997.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison til 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners, and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

Maybe the seriousness of this women’s awakening movement has been pushed into the ordinary corner of sex and scandal. With so many beautiful, famous actresses becoming involved, the movement has begun to look a bit like a Hollywood show. But the fact that it’s so common for women to become easy prey to their supervisors in the workplace in every culture and society has left women worldwide thunderstruck. In China, according to tradition, a girl has to obey the father in the family, and after marriage, she obeys her husband, and when the man dies, she obeys her son. These are the so-called “three obediences”. In communist China, Mao Zedong said: “Women hold up the half of the sky,” but Chinese women are not really liberated. Only their labor, their economic contribution, is valued by the communist party, whereas men control most of the state’s power.

In the early 1980s, China was leading the capitalist “brave new world” when Deng Xiaoping wanted a part of the Chinese population to become rich; he said that regardless of “whether the cat is white or black, whoever catches the mouse is a good cat.” Under such a political mindset, the role of Chinese women is to become good “pussy cats” and be tamed pets for the men. New vocabularies emerge: “second wife-concubine” (er-nai), “little third-mistress” (xiaosan), and “sweetie secretary” (xiaomi). Women truly become toys for men in power.

There is an open secret in China that if a woman wants to have a career in the film and television industry, she has to offer her body to the bosses. Normally, powerful politicians and CEOs have dozens of concubines. Therefore the #MeToo movement has not touched a nerve in these areas. However, educated women are the first to respond to this movement with concrete and brave action. Eight female students of Peking University’s Foreign Languages Institute, among them Yue Xin, submitted a request on April 9th to the university administration asking about a case of rape committed by Prof. Shen Yang against the student Gao Yan, which lead to her suicide in 1998. Although the university’s ethics committee explained that it would review the case, in reality, the authority has put pressure on Ms. Yue and her family to keep their mouths shut. Thus Yue Xin exposed her situation in an open letter: “Since Apr. 9, I have been called in continually for ‘chats’ with university staff, lecturers and senior leaders, even at 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. on a couple of occasions. During these chats, the phrase ‘whether or not you will be able to graduate successfully’ was mentioned many times.” Consequently, a “big character poster” appeared on campus to support the courageous act of Ms. Yue Xin. It indeed stirred the dusty and stagnating atmosphere of this prestigious school, where the May Fourth movement once started, almost a century ago.

After Yue Xin’s group request, there were several other female students who stood up and denounced Prof. Shen Yang for his sexual assault. A close friend of Ms. Gao Yan, Ms. Li Youyou, now living in the U.S., also published an article online saying that Gao has told her that she was raped by the professor, later disseminating the rumor that Gao was mentally ill and lied, which had caused her to fall into deep agony until she eventually committed suicide. During the follow-up investigation, the professor denied that he had a love affair with Gao. Prof. Shen had been the former Deputy Director of the Chinese Department at Peking University, and later he became the Chairman of Nanjing University’s School of Literature as well as a recipient of the Yangtze River Scholar award, a high honor in China. After all the open accusation, it is said that he finally lost his position at Nanjing University and at Shanghai Normal University. The Yangtze award has been withdrawn, too.

The doctoral candidate of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Luo Qianqian, was actually the first female student in China to respond to the hashtag #MeToo. Ms. Luo denounced her doctoral advisor Prof. Chen Xiaowu for sexual harassment last October, after the university authority confirmed the facts and suspended Chen’s professorship. Ms. Luo started to publicize the case, saying that there are several other students besides her who are also victims of the same professor. Ms. Luo has collected testimonies and recorded interviews with the victims.

There is a severe imbalance of power between teachers and students in universities, especially in graduate schools. Because professors have the overwhelming power to decide whether a student can graduate “gracefully” with a good record, and whether she can get recommendations to find a well-paying job, her career is in the hands of her instructor. The lack of a system that protects the rights of young female students leads to abuse of power. According to a 2016 survey by the Gender Education Center in Guangzhou, among the 7,000 university students, 75% of the women have been sexually harassed (not necessarily by their teachers). Over 50% choose to keep silent, and 60% of those say that there is no use at all in denouncing their abusers or harassers.

It is an unspoken belief in society that sexually assaulted women should not be seen as victims. Instead, people often believe that she is making a deal with the perpetrator to receive a benefit.

The fact that the #MeToo movement with “Chinese character” has been spread throughout university campuses and not in the film and entertainment industry shows that Chinese women are indeed awakening, even if the movement is still in its budding stage. Be aware: Soon, in China, we will hear not “Workers of the world, unite!” but “Prostitutes, concubines, mistresses, stand up, unite!”

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