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Student takes on police, university as China’s #MeToo movement grows

@Simina Mistreanu/dpa

Speaking out against sexual harassment is an uphill battle for a growing number of Chinese women who decide to do so.

Qingdao, China (dpa) – On the sixth day after university officials forced Renee Ren, a student, and her parents into two hotel rooms next to campus, a school administrator told them they were free to go. Ren had just one thought on her mind: suing them.

Ren, 26, a master’s student at China University of Petroleum in Qingdao, has been clashing with her school and two local police stations for months as she pushed for an investigation into her alleged rape on campus.

Inspired by the global #MeToo movement, in April she sued the police stations, in what is considered the first case of its kind in China. She says police repeatedly tried to dissuade her from filing a report against the student who allegedly raped her, did not perform the required physical examination, and failed to obtain surveillance camera recordings that would have helped her case.

But as she worked to draw attention to her plight by addressing students in the university square and travelling to Beijing to seek legal counsel, the school rallied to silence her. Ren and her parents say university officials detained them inside a hotel in June, while the coastal city of Qingdao was hosting an international summit attended by world leaders including the Chinese and Russian presidents. Videos support their claims.

The university has not answered questions dpa sent weeks ago. When a reporter visited the campus last week, a professor and a propaganda official who had promised to speak about the case could not be found. The geosciences school’s dean, Lin Chengyan, declined to be interviewed. And the head of the propaganda department, which is in charge of communication for the school, apparently called security to block the reporter from exiting the building after the visit.

Ren’s uphill battle is unfolding against the backdrop of China’s growing #MeToo movement. Last week, about two dozen women came out with sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men, including a host on China’s state broadcaster, a magazine columnist and two well-known charity leaders.

The government, which attempts to stifle any type of social unrest, censored the social media discussion. But the recent stories stand to show how women who shed light on sexual harassment run up against systemic discrimination in areas such as law enforcement, academia and the workplace.

Besides Ren, two other women said police attempted to dissuade them from pressing charges against their alleged perpetrators. An intern at broadcaster CCTV accused Zhu Jun, the presenter of the annual Spring Festival gala, China’s most-watched show, of groping her. She said police urged her to drop the case and consider CCTV and Zhu’s "huge positive influence" on society.

Another woman who accused a Hainan Airlines trainee pilot of attempted rape, reported a similar experience. Police officers involved in that investigation have been suspended, according to authorities in the southern city of Haikou.

Ren said police and university officials repeatedly tried to persuade her to not file a report against her alleged rapist, who was her ex-boyfriend.

"A female police officer told me that not every [sexual] experience was perfect," she said.

After university officials said they forgot the password for the surveillance camera in the garage where the rape allegedly happened, police stopped their investigation, Ren said. That’s when she decided to sue them. The two police departments have declined to speak to dpa.

Ren’s case is novel for China, where courts are subordinated to the ruling Communist Party. An individual’s odds of winning an administrative lawsuit against a government entity are "very, very small," said lawyer Lu Xiaoquan of Beijing Qianqian Law Firm. If Ren does win in court, her case could become a powerful precedent.

Besides society’s victim-blaming in sexual assaults, women also face discrimination at the institutional level, Lu said. China’s legislation on sexual assault lags in that it fails to prevent additional harm to victims during the handling of cases and afterwards.

China also needs to define sexual harassment and draw up specific legislation to prevent and punish it, lawyers say.

For now, the more women are speaking out against sexual harassment, the more they find themselves facing backlash from every direction.

"You’re not fighting just with the guy who did it to you but fighting with the whole system," said journalist and activist Sophia Huang.

Ren said she often felt discouraged while arguing with the university and police, especially as her pursuit for justice has affected her family. While she and her parents were held at the hotel last month, her father lost his job, Ren’s mother said.

"Sometimes you are desperate because they are too strong," Ren said. "They have money, they have rights. I have nothing."

Several lawyers have offered her free counsel but none is representing her, as they are wary of the government’s ongoing crackdown against rights lawyers and activists. For now, all Ren can do is continue to speak up for herself.

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