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China: Female Civil Servants Face Discrimination, Harassment

1 in 5 Civil Service Job Ads Specify 'Men Only'

© 2018 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch
(Hong Kong) – The Chinese government should end gender discrimination in its civil service hiring, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also conduct transparent and impartial investigations into sexual harassment allegations made by female civil servants, and hold those responsible to account.

Human Rights Watch found that in the Chinese government’s recently released 2019 national civil service job list, 19 percent of the postings specify a preference or requirement for men. In an April 2018 report on gender discrimination in job advertisements in China, Human Rights Watch reported that 13 percent of the postings in the 2017 civil service list and 19 percent in the 2018 list specified “men only,” “men preferred,” or “suitable for men.” Chinese law prohibits gender discrimination in hiring, but job discrimination remains a widespread problem in the country.

“President Xi Jinping claims to uphold Chinese law but his administration won’t even protect women civil servants from outrageous discrimination,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Chinese authorities need to end this appalling practice in civil service hiring immediately.”

Gender Discrimination in Hiring

In October, the Chinese government released the 2019 National Civil Service Positions List (国家公务员职位表). The list contains positions in the government, the Chinese Communist Party, and other government-controlled political parties that will become available across the country over the coming year. These are among the country’s most competitive jobs, as they are relatively high paying and offer high job security and excellent health, retirement, housing, and other benefits. Over 1.4 million people registered to take the national civil service test that will be given at the end of 2018 to compete for fewer than 14,500 vacancies.

Among the nearly 10,000 job postings – some of which were for multiple vacancies – in the 2019 list, Human Rights Watch found that 14 percent of postings specify a preference for male applicants and five percent specify a requirement for male applicants. Conversely, there are no postings stating a requirement or preference for female applicants. This means that the Chinese government considers there to be many jobs that women cannot do or do as well as a man, but none only women can do.

The discriminatory job postings often state, “frequent overtime work,” “heavy workload,” and “frequent travel” as reasons for excluding women. For example, a position at the Tianjin Bureau of Post Service Management for “supervision and management of the post industry” states, “need to carry out law enforcement and supervision work, heavy workload, suitable for men.”

The Ministry of Public Security advertised 33 positions, 27 of which specified “men only,” making the ministry one of the worse violators among central government agencies. For example, a posting for a job at the information and communication center responsible for data analysis says, “need to work overtime frequently, high intensity work, only men need apply.”

Discriminatory job advertisements are in violation of Chinese law. The Labor Law (劳动法), the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests (妇女权益保障法), the Employment Promotion Law (就业促进法), and the Provisions on Employment Services and Employment Management (就业服务与就业管理规定) all prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender. These laws also state that except for the few types of work or posts specified by the state as being unsuitable for women, employers “cannot refuse to recruit women or enhance the recruiting standards for females because of gender.” China’s Advertising Law (广告法) also bans “gender discriminatory content” in advertising, a provision that on its face should apply to job ads.

Sexual Harassment in the Civil Service

As the #MeToo movement gained momentum in China this year, and as a slew of prominent journalists, academics, and activists were accused of sexual harassment, some women in the civil service also came forward to tell their stories.

Human Rights Watch found numerous posts on Chinese social media platforms and online forums where anonymous female civil servants described their experiences being sexually harassed, and sought advice on handling sexual harassment by male superiors. “I’m being sexually harassed by the deputy party secretary in my work unit, is there any way I can get him dismissed?” one post read. “I worked so hard to get this job. … [I] don’t want to quit because of this kind of person. The one should be dismissed is that leader.”

China’s Law on Civil Servants states that civil servants are prohibited from engaging in behaviors that “violate professional ethnics, social morals,” but it does not provide any detail on what conduct is prohibited. The Chinese Communist Party’s internal rules state that party members who “have inappropriate sexual relationship with others that causes adverse effects” could be dismissed from party positions or stripped of party membership, and those who use power to “have inappropriate sexual relationships” are to be punished more heavily. The Central Commission on Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the party’s internal disciplinary body, and its local offices are responsible for investigating allegations against party members.

President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign has punished over a million Communist Party officials since it began in 2013. Many of the disciplined officials were also accused of sexual misconduct. For example, the former top official at the internet regulatory body, Lu Wei, was accused of “abusing his positions for sex.” It was not clear what exactly these officials have done, and in official announcements of their downfall, their wrongdoings were rarely framed as sexual harassment.

Chinese law bans sexual harassment against women in the workplace, but the law lacks 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 through the courts. 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. Only 2 of those 34 cases were brought by victims suing alleged harassers, and both were dismissed for lack of evidence. In addition, because the Chinese Communist Party controls the courts, it is unlikely that a party official could be sued successfully for sexual harassment.

“As China’s growing #MeToo movement shows, Chinese women not only face unfair barriers to joining the civil service, but sexual harassment in those jobs,” Richardson said. “The Chinese government needs to send an unequivocal message to its workforce that it will not tolerate sexual harassment.”

Personal Accounts of Sexual Harassment in China’s Civil Service

Human Rights Watch tried to contact some of the women who wrote the online posts describing their experiences with sexual harassment in the civil service, but received no responses. While Human Rights Watch could not confirm the authenticity of individual posts, the issues raised were consistent across the posts.

In October, in a widely circulated post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, an anonymous former civil servant detailed instances of sexual harassment she experienced and witnessed while working in a local government agency. They included female civil servants being ordered by supervisors to drink alcohol during meals, and to accompany them to karaoke bars at night, during which they were verbally and physically harassed.

“The most frightening part is that all these behaviors all seem very natural to them [the male civil servants], as if it is what it is supposed be, just like eating and breathing,” the post said. “Nobody thinks there is anything wrong. Under the power structure, it is nearly impossible to stand up and criticize (unless you don’t want the job anymore).” The post garnered thousands of comments, including many from people who said they were current or former female civil servants who had also experienced sexual harassment at work.

Many female civil servants in their online posts described their frustrating experiences with reporting sexual harassment to superiors or authorities. One woman wrote in July 2018 that she reported a colleague to the director of her agency after he engaged in harassing conduct such as touching her legs and putting his hand under her shirt without her consent in the office. She said that when she did so, the director asked, “Did you show any signs that you are interested in him?” Eventually, the director ordered the woman’s colleague to apologize to her. “The incident ended there. It didn’t affect the colleague’s promotion,” she wrote.

In January, a community corrections worker wrote that she reported her supervisor, an official in the Xi’an Bureau of Justice, for harassment including touching her without her consent and taking off his pants in front of her in the office to the local Commission on Discipline Inspection (CDI). After doing so, she learned that the CDI official who handled her case had told her supervisor that she had filed a case against him. “I got to know that [the supervisor] and [the CDI official] were in the same military unit before being transferred [here], and they dine together often. Knowing this terrified me,” the corrections worker wrote. After the online post became widely circulated, the Xi’an Bureau of Justice announced that it had suspended the supervisor from his position and was investigating the case.

In April 2009, a female civil servant, surnamed Zhang, at Xi’an’ Bureau of Quality and Technology Supervision attempted suicide in the office after being continually harassed by the head of the bureau, Deng Zongsheng. Earlier, a relative of Zhang’s had met with Deng in Deng’s office and warned him to stop harassing Zhang. As a result, both Zhang and her relative were summoned by the police for harassing Deng. After the Chinese media’s coverage of Zhang’s attempted suicide, the  Xi'an CDI announced it had removed Deng from his position at the bureau. But instead of concluding that Deng had sexually harassed Zhang, the CDI said the disciplinary action was because Deng “had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a female cadre in the bureau.”

Many female civil servants think that their chances of receiving help in ending harassment are so low – and the risk of retaliation for making a complaint so high – that the only way out of their predicament is to quit their jobs. In a November 2017 post, a civil servant in an economic development bureau detailed how she and a female colleague started to collect evidence – including recording their supervisor’s harassing calls and taking screenshots of his messages – after they had both decided to leave their positions. “Since he came to our work unit, especially after he started to manage me, every day when I’m at work, I’m not in a good mood,” she wrote. “I feel stressed, especially on the days he came to look for me – it’s like being in hell. I just want to escape, to hide, to be far away from this person.” 

Women trying to cope with harassment and keep their jobs described strategies they had developed. In a September 2018 post, a civil servant in a provincial Communist Party committee wrote that to dodge drinking with male bosses, “[I] recommend two useful excuses. One is [to say that you’re] ‘preparing to have a second child.’ The other is [to say that you] ‘have organ diseases,’ such as heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, etc.” Another civil servant wrote, “[I] have learned to put a cup of tea in front of me, after drinking alcohol, [I] pretend to drink tea, in fact, I spit out the alcohol into the tea cup.” In a 2013 article in a Chinese magazine, a female civil servant in Hunan province wrote that to avoid dancing with her male colleagues, “[I] pretended my dancing skill was too bad. [I] just deliberately stepped on their feet.”

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