Sexual harassment debate breathes new life into China's #MeToo movement

An online debate about the definition of sexual harassment has broken out in China after a series of allegations were made against an influential screenwriter.

Sexual harassment debate breathes new life into China's #MeToo movement

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Hong Kong CNN

In China, an online debate has erupted over the definition of sexual misconduct in response to a series allegations against a prominent screenwriter. This heated discussion has reignited interest in China's #MeToo campaign.

Shi Hang, 52-year-old, well known in China's literary and media circles, was fired from several companies after over a dozen women made allegations of sexual harassment.

The controversy has highlighted the resilience of China’s #MeToo campaign, which has faced frequent setbacks because of censorship and a crackdown on feminism.

In interviews and social media posts, Shi's accusers, who didn't reveal their names, described a pattern alleged misconduct ranging from sexually suggestive comments to groping, kissing and groping, in incidents that spanned over a decade.

Shi denied in two different statements that she was sexually harassed and said the encounters had been consensual.

He wrote on Weibo last week, China's Twitter-like, highly restricted platform where he has three million followers, that he had never forced a woman to do anything against her will.

Shi posted screenshots from conversations with his accusers that appear to show the accusers did not object to Shi's flirtatious remarks.

Shi's accusers rebutted this defense later, stating that the power imbalance between the two parties - an established and respected name against young women and fans looking to break into the business - made pushing back on Shi difficult.

Five of Shi Hang's accusers made a statement online, which was reported by several state media outlets. This is the traditional thinking of those in power.

CNN's request for comment from Shi and his accusers was not answered.

The aftermath

Since then, the allegations have sparked a furious debate in Chinese social media. Related hashtags have been trending for several days and garnered hundreds of millions views on Weibo.

Some users defended Shi, referring to the encounters simply as "flirting". Some users rallied in support of Shi's accusers. They argued that gender inequality had created a culture which normalized sexual harassment.

Dai An, an activist in Chengdu (southwest China), said that Chinese women are more open to speaking up. She told CNN that 'it's a new era and the environment which was once accepted has changed'.

Women don't like to be silenced anymore and don't tolerate men who use sex to show off their power.

Shi has since been dropped by several businesses. She also reviews movies and books, and appears on cultural events, variety shows, and at cultural events.

Xiron, a Beijing-based publishing house, announced that it would remove Shi's endorsement from 'Fang SiChi's First Love Paradise', which tells the tale of a 13 year-old girl who is forced into sex with her teacher. This book was influential in Taiwan's #MeToo campaign because of its themes of vulnerability and power.

New Weekly, an online news magazine based in Guangzhou, as well as a Beijing-based bookstore and theater, have also terminated their contracts with Shi.

According to a prominent Chinese woman, now living in New Jersey and who declined to be identified, this is the first time a group of Chinese organizations has publicly ended their relationship with a celeb due to sexual harassment.

This shows, she said, that feminists have more power than ever to influence public opinion and, therefore, create pressure on institutions.

The feminist said that the pressure from the public was only successful because these institutions were unable to rely on censorship or government support for protection.

Beleaguered Movement

The Chinese Communist Party has suppressed the #MeToo Movement in China for years. It views any grassroots organization that challenges their monopoly of authority with suspicion.

In the last few years, several prominent female activists have been detained and silenced. Huang Xueqin was accused of 'inciting the subversion of power', and jailed for 600 days.

The allegations against Shi in the latest scandal appeared to have largely avoided censorship. However, other #MeToo incidents targeting prominent officials and state-affiliated individuals have been muffled.

Peng Shuai was quickly silenced when she accused former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli on social media of sexual assault in 2021. Zhou Xiaoxuan was blocked repeatedly on Chinese social media sites after she accused Zhu Jun, a star presenter of state television, of groping her and kissing forcibly.

China's #MeToo campaign did enjoy some rare legal victories. Chinese-Canadian Kris Wu, a pop star from Canada, was sentenced last year to 13 years for rape after allegations by an 18-year old Chinese student. Wu's arrest was swift and coincided with the government's crackdown on the entertainment industry.

China's #MeToo survivors who choose to take their abusers to court often face a grueling legal fight. In August last year, a Chinese Court rejected Zhou's appeal, ending her long-running case. This was a major blow for the #MeToo movement.

China didn't define sexual harassment as an offense in its law until 2021. That was when the civil code, which defines sexual harassment in China's laws for the first ever time, was enacted.

According to the code, an individual may bring a civil suit against someone who harasses them sexually 'in verbal remarks or written language, through images, physical actions, or in any other way'.

The Chinese feminist in New Jersey said that despite the failure of sexual harassing lawsuits in the past few years, it was 'increasingly obvious' that seeking legal remedies is not possible.

The victims of [Shi]'s case have clearly learned that they are unlikely to succeed in bringing a complaint or filing a suit.

Some Shi supporters on Chinese social media have asked why Shi's accusers didn't call the police.

Xiao Mo is one of Shi's accusers. She said in a long Weibo posting that calling the police was not the 'best way to solve all problems', especially since she realized that she had been sexually abused only a few months after the incident.

"Even if he is summoned at the police station for sexual harassment, how long can he stay in jail?" She wrote. CNN declined to interview Xiao Mo.

Our main appeal is to expose the truth so that people of good will can come to their own conclusions.