China’s online #MeToo is changing the offline world, even if just a little

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The peak of China’s #MeToo movement seems to have past. Once heated discussions have died down and busy netizens have shifted their focus to the next topic.

On China’s most used search engine Baidu, searches for the word “MeToo” have dropped to one-tenth of its highest point in mid-July, according to Baidu statistics. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform and also where the movement originated, the word “MeToo” was excluded from statistics as the phrase was taken down from the social network. Its counterpart in Chinese “Rice Rabit” (米兔, pronounced as mee-too in Mandarin), coined to circumvent online content control, showed the similar trend.

“The number of the general public who are concerned with the subject is decreasing, but the discussion is still going on among the core members,” Teresa Xu, volunteer at an NGO battling sexual harassment, told TechNode. By core members, she meant people within the NGO communities who have been following the issue before #MeToo started.

Xu said after #MeToo started, more companies have come to consult them about anti-harassment training and policies at the workplace. “Whether these policies can be carried out properly is still questionable, but this is a good start,” Xu said.

Changes are also occurring in more notable places. One of the latest accusations was against
Shi Xuecheng (释学诚), Buddhist abbot at Beijing based Longquan Temple and the head of the Buddhist Association of China. He was accused of sexual harassment and money embezzlement in early August. The majority of the accusation has been confirmed by the National Religious Affairs Administration, and Shi Xuecheng was dismissed as abbot of Longquan Temple and removed from the Buddhist Association. The rest of the accusation is under investigation by Beijing municipal public security agencies.

The result is not without surprise, especially considering how quickly the authorities took town the related posts across different social networks when the scandal first broke out online.

A study conducted by People’s Public Security University of China showed that the exposed sexual predators represent only a tip of the iceberg. Among 5800 primary and middle school students the research team surveyed, only one in eight cases were reported by the media. In other words, those triumphs will be insignificant compared with the total number of victims of sexual harassment.

“If we look carefully at the accusers who started the campaign, we can find that they are still the ones that are able to make their voice heard. They are generally young people, who are better informed and have received better education,” Lyu Xiaoquan, a lawyer at Qianqian Law Firm, told TechNode. However, how much influence the #MeToo can have in the real world, or whether will this make an impact at all, is largely dependent on the attitudes of the government, Lyu added.

Stepping out of the shadow

The campaign started earlier this year, triggered by an allegation by a Beihang University graduate, Luo Qianqian. Luo, who is in the US, said she was inspired by the #MeToo movement in the States.

She accused Chen Xiaowu of sexual misconduct in 2004, who was deputy dean of the school of computer science at that time. Several of Chen’s other students posted similar allegations. Later, Chen was dismissed by the university after the school’s official investigation.

The online movement intensified quickly as more and more women stood out to expose sexual harassment imposed by powerful males. It exposed wrongdoings by noted media veterans, non-profit activists, public intellectuals and university professors.

Some of the accusations were blocked on WeChat, some were taken down on Weibo, but in general, there was always something left for people to read and to know about the newly exposed scandals. Social networks didn’t seem to be under too much pressure. However, things changed when the household name, Zhu Jun, was involved.

Zhu Jun is a show host at Chinese state-media China Central Television. He had been hosting the Chinese Spring Festival Gala, the most watched show in the country, from 1997 to 2017, and had a reputation for composure and amiableness. The initial accusation post survived less than a day. One of the most acclaimed Chinese media Caixin reported the story but the stories were blocked shortly.

Although the post was originally anonymous, the accuser recently revealed her real name was Xu Chao. The post first appeared on Weibo saying that Zhu Jun first bragged about his established position at CCTV, seducing her friends’ sister with future promotions, and then, groped her. His harassment was interrupted when someone else entered the room. Two weeks after the accusation, Zhu sued her for libel. The case will be heard at Beijing Haidian Court.

The control over the accusation posts tightened more when two monks associated with Longquan Temple, Shi Xianjia (释贤佳) and Shi Xianqi (释贤佳)’s accusation towards the abbot of Longquan Temple was made public on August 1. Their 95-page report detailed WeChat and SMS records about how the abbot had harassed several Buddhist nuns. Within a few hours, relevant posts disappeared from the internet. The entire report was blocked on WeChat, where people noticed even if they forwarded the report, others couldn’t receive it. On the following day, the National Religious Affairs Administration stated it had launched an investigation against the abbot and weeks later, the Administration confirmed the accusations.

The future of #MeToo depends on the attitudes of the government

Many accusers have apologized and received administrative punishments, like Chen’s dismissal by the university or Shi Xuecheng’s removal from the Buddhist association, but none of them has faced criminal charges yet.

Sexual harassment isn’t a single criminal charge in Chinese Criminal Laws and it is broken down to the crimes of rape, indecent acts, prostitution, and other illegal activities. To press charges, the victim should first report to the case to the police. When the accusation is confirmed after the police investigation, the accused person will be prosecuted by the procuratorates. In the recent cases, only a few have been reported to the police.

“There are a number of reasons why people resort to social networks rather than the police to expose sexual harassment,” Lyu said, “one is the date when the offense is conducted. If the crime was committed a long time ago, the evidence might not exist anymore, and another is people’s perception of which method is more effective.”

How local police stations treat the victims is essential, Lyn said. There’s been social stigma and victim-blaming towards the victims of sex offenses in the culture and this hasn’t changed in recent years, Lyn added. Even some of the local police officers hold similar mindsets, he explained.

After Xu’s friend was harassed by Zhu, she went to report to the police. However, the police persuaded her to drop the case because the police told her that Zhu is a beloved TV show host and the accusation could harm his reputation and hurt his audience.

As to the concerns that the public opinion may affect legal justice and wrongfully accuse the innocent people, Lyn said he thought the accusations so far have been correct. “Public opinion affecting the impartiality of judicial decisions is more concerning when the country’s legal system is independent and mature, which is not the case in China,” Lyn said. He believed the online #MeToo movement was a milestone in China’s civil right struggles as more and more women are encouraged to step forward.