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China’s Victims of Sexual Harassment Denied Justice

#MeToo Gains Momentum, But Little Public Confidence in Legal Remedies

A vendor sells #MeToo badges a protest march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California U.S. November 12, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Among the over 50 million court verdicts from 2010 to 2017 available publicly, only 34 focused on sexual harassment, according to a June study by the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center. Among those 34 cases, only two were brought by victims suing alleged harassers, and both of those cases were dismissed for lack of evidence. In fact, the majority of the 34 cases were brought by alleged harassers themselves, claiming breach of contract after they were dismissed by employers for sexual harassment, or for defamation-related reasons after accusations were made public by victims or employers.

The microscopic number of sexual harassment lawsuits is no indication that harassment isn’t a problem in China. Nearly 40 percent of women in China said they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The absence of court cases indicates instead the difficulties women face seeking legal redress for abuse.

While few sexual harassment cases are brought in court, there are signs women may be more willing to speak out in China. This year several university professors were accused on Chinese social media of sexually harassing female students. And the #MeToo movement recently picked up momentum after a woman accused prominent anti-discrimination activist Lei Chuang of sexual assault. A slew of prominent journalists, intellectuals, and activists have since been accused on social media of sexual misconduct. Some have made public apologies.

These women’s courage is inspiring, but hopes for justice remain low. One journalist, Shangguan Luan, wrote “given the lack of systemic redress,” China’s #MeToo movement is more about “easing depression” than “seeking accountability.” In a telling case, a woman said on July 25 after she reported to the police that prominent TV host Zhu Jun had sexually harassed her, police forced her to withdraw the complaint, claiming that Zhu, as host of the annual Spring Festive gala at the state media, had “enormous ‘positive influence’ on the society.” Soon after the exposé, posts about the case began to be removed from Chinese social media.

Chinese law bans sexual harassment against women in the workplace, but the laws lack a clear definition of sexual harassment and provisions creating a specific cause of action for sexual harassment. This makes it difficult for victims to seek redress. But these #MeToo accusations may jumpstart a broader movement showing abusers that women are fed up with being silent victims, and the government that it needs to amend the laws to give victims justice.

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