Why #MeToo Doesn’t Translate in China

A professor at Beihang University in China was recently suspended over accusations of sexual harassment made by a former student, Luo Xixi, who now lives and works in Silicon Valley. Inspired by the news of the #MeToo movement, Xixi used Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, to post a description of how her professor attempted to rape her 12 years ago when she was completing her PhD in Computer Science.

She tagged her post #WoYeShi, the Chinese translation of #MeToo. Then it went viral.

In a country where, three years ago, five women known as The Feminist Five were arrested for using stickers to raise awareness of sexual harassment on subway cars, this comes as a heartening surprise. Despite being home to 670 million women—the world’s largest female population—China has not had a feminist movement since 1919. Modern Chinese feminism has primarily been a matter of state policy, developed with the best interests of the state, not women, in mind. China deserves credit for understanding that women’s participation was indispensable to the economic growth it sought to achieve—a notion that neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea have failed to register, and are paying dearly for—but it still falls short, despite some remarkable achievements.

Today, Chinese women enroll in higher-education at rates that exceed those of their male counterparts; since 2011, they have represented the majority of bachelor degree earners in China. While it may sound like streamers should be falling from their half of sky, their educational excellence was probably not intended or foreseen, and the transition to a more educated, career-oriented female population has not been seamlessly received. In 2005, Chinese universities began raising test score admissions requirements for female applicants in an effort to stymie the flow of high-achieving women into their programs. The term “leftover woman” persists in the region—used to describe a woman who has failed to marry by her culturally-imposed sell by date of 25 or 27, depending on who’s counting. And it’s still not uncommon for female PhDs in China to be viewed as a third sex, an errant species considered far too educated to consider partnering or procreating with.

But now, one has spoken.

Xixi no longer lives in China, which likely contributed to her willingness to expose her former professor. It is telling that she chose to do it in Chinese and on a Chinese platform, after filing an official complaint to the university. She is not the first Chinese woman to speak out about sexual harassment from a professor, but her story has been the most shared, likely because it is the most personal and comes on the heels of #MeToo—which has not been reported on by mainstream Chinese media, presumably out of fear of a similar shakedown in China—as well as a kindergarten abuse scandal that roiled Beijing in November, during which students at an upscale school suffered injuries as horrific as lesions to the anus.

Although thousands of people have left comments on Xixi’s post, it has not triggered an outpouring of #MeToo stories. Instead, netizens have expressed their anger by damning the professor, reprimanding the university or lamenting the abundance of “oily men,” popular Chinese internet slang for sleazy middle-aged men, in their society. While many have praised Xixi for her candor, few have followed her lead.

Fear of retribution makes it hard to be public about individual experiences—especially in Chinese academia, where professors are treated with supreme reverence and authority. (It is not uncommon for them to require favors such as being taken to a lavish dinner before a defense to ensure a passing grade.) Still, Xixi’s story—in which she describes how she got her professor to back off after shouting out that she was a virgin—has rattled the core of Chinese society, where education and virginity remain highly prized. By speaking up, she forced others to recognize and reckon with the fact that sexual harassment is prevalent in Chinese schools and universities—and that an infrastructure to address it, report it and educate against it is long overdue.

In September 2017, Wei TingTing, an activist based in the southern city of Guangzhou, conducted a survey on sexual harassment which yielded over 6,000 responses and 140 personal accounts. Based on its results, she is now crowdfunding to establish a national platform for education, training and support for victims of sexual harassment. Although some articles related to her project have been censored, she is encouraged to see that the Chinese Ministry of Education has issued a document saying that it should earnestly study and establish a long-term mechanism for preventing and treating harassment in colleges and universities.

How willing the Ministry will be to collaborate with students in this endeavor remains to be seen, and signals so far have been mixed. A letter to the Communication University of China written by the well-known activist Xiao Yue and signed by 15 other alumni has been repeatedly scrubbed from Weibo and WeChat, the two largest Chinese social media platforms. Its requests were simple: educate faculty, staff and students about sexual harassment; create anonymous online surveys to identify the extent of it; establish channels through which to report it. A similar letter with 10,000 signatures was also swiftly censored.

For activists like Wei TingTing and Xiao Yue, censorship (or worse) is business as usual, which is why they’ve learned to come up with creative workarounds. A recent one developed by an anonymous Chinese feminist activist has been #MiTu (米兔), which is pronounced like #MeToo but translates to the far more innocuous-sounding “rice bunny.” Having to resort to this level of wordplay to comment on a topic that has been dominating international headlines for months reflects the complexities of leading a feminist movement in a place where marches and hashtags are still considered too radical for the powers that be, and where an ever-fluctuating threshold for activism makes it impossible to know when the government might switch on the offensive. But its growing popularity also speaks to the power of an increasingly informed population of rice bunnies standing up to say #MiTu—or #WeToo must be part of the global conversation.

Roseann Lake is the author of Leftover in China, The World Shaping the World’s Next Superpower. Currently The Economist’s Cuba correspondent, she was previously based in Beijing, where she worked for five years as a television reporter and journalist. You can find her on Twitter and read more about her work here. She lives between New York City and Havana.  

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