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Ending the silence: The woman trying to start China's #MeToo moment

Sophia Huang Xueqin/dpa

China’s conservative culture and tight government controls over the media and civil society have so far prevented a discussion about sexual harassment from taking root. But one young journalist believes the country urgently needs to have its own #MeToo moment.

Beijing (dpa) – Sophia Huang Xueqin, a 29-year-old journalist from Guangzhou, was attending a workshop in Singapore earlier this year with participants from 13 countries when she felt the need to bring up the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The women she talked to, hailing from other Asian countries, reflected her experiences: They, too, had been sexually harassed while doing their job.

Around the same time, in mid-October, the #MeToo hashtag swept over Western social media, with women sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault. Huang jumped right in. She wrote "#METOO" on a piece of paper and posed for photos in colourful and artsy settings around Singapore.

She was determined to use the images to help start the conversation in China. But when she encouraged her social media friends to post pictures and share their experiences, she received just one set of pictures and no personal stories. She decided it would have to be done another way.

"In China we have a very strong conservative culture," Huang tells dpa. "Chinese women have a strong sense of humiliation when we suffer such harassment. We’re not comfortable going public with the details. We’re afraid of retaliation and of challenging the authority."

When stories of sexual harassment do emerge, victim-blaming is pervasive, says Feng Yuan, a women’s rights advocate and co-founder of Equality, a Beijing nonprofit. Because women have not been taught to speak out through sexual education, harassment is seen as devaluing the victim or as having been caused by the victim herself.

"It’s always on the woman: What did she do? What did she say? What did she wear?" says Eva Lee, a 35-year-old restaurant manager in Beijing.

In anonymous surveys, however, women do speak out. A study by two professors at City University of Hong Kong found that 80 per cent of working women in China had at some point in their careers experienced sexual harassment. And a Peking University survey found that 35 per cent of Chinese university students have experienced sexual violence or harassment.

Huang decided to launch a survey of her own – one focussing on the experiences of female journalists in China.

"I am more familiar with this situation," she says. "Journalists are supposed to be more resourceful, to know how to protect themselves. But if this group has this problem, it means it’s a national one."

The issue is deeply personal to her. During her first job post-graduation at a news agency in 2011, she was forced to fend off an attack by a senior colleague. They had both travelled to the southern city of Shenzhen for a story and were spending the night at a hotel. The colleague suggested that they work out of her hotel room. With her tight deadline in mind, she agreed.

The man soon started touching and kissing her, ignoring her requests for him to stop, she says. Huang kicked his crotch and ran out of the room. She resigned from her job a month later.

Aside from telling a few close friends, she kept quiet about the incident – until last year, when social media comments blaming a 21-year-old female journalist who had reportedly been raped by an older colleague, pushed her buttons.

In June 2016, Huang published a detailed account on the WeChat messaging platform of the sexual harassment she had experienced. Talking about it again in Singapore made her realize it still bothered her.

"It’s a scar, it has healed, but I didn’t really take care of it, so it still hurts when I touch it," she says.

Until she decided to speak out, Huang was like the almost 55 per cent of the respondents to her survey, who said they kept quiet about being harassed. Only 0.5 per cent reported it to police, while 4.2 per cent contacted HR.

A reason why Chinese women rarely report their abusers is that they don’t trust that the law will protect them, says Liu Furui, an editor at the nonprofit Media Monitor for Women Network.

Along with the survey, Huang has also launched an online platform – called AntiSexualHarassment (ATSH) – which she envisions as a set of resources for survivors and a place where they can share their stories. She has already been contacted by women’s rights experts and lawyers and hopes to set up a system of workplace training for preventing sexual harassment.

She also wants to help women speak out against high-profile abusers in a way similar to the singling out of famous and powerful men in the United States.

But her work is not without risks. The Chinese government regularly cracks down on activists of all kinds. In 2015, a group of women called the Feminist Five were arrested for trying to start a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation.

Huang says she is aware of the risks and believes the government should play a bigger part in preventing sexual harassment.

"I feel like this is something I should do and it’s the right thing to do, even if it will take a lot of time."

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