#MeToo Has Reached China, but Will It Have an Impact?

MondayWeb_2018-01-08_china_04 - iStock - H 2018

The country's entertainment sector is beginning to grapple with sexual harassment in the post-Weinstein era, but cultural barriers like victim shaming, limited legal recourse and the lack of a free press could stand in the way.

For anyone considering filing official complaints of sexual harassment within the Chinese film industry, the 2003 case of actress Zhang Yu is a cautionary tale. As a young woman just starting out in the Beijing-based film industry, Yu claimed that she was pressured into having sex with over a dozen directors with the promise of fame. After filing a number of lawsuits, Zhang provided more than 20 videos and audiotapes to the police, with a number of clips and stills becoming public online. Though it was widely believed that there was enough evidence to prove her case, she still lost her lawsuit and received no compensation. With her career essentially over, Zhang has since disappeared from the public eye.

Fifteen years later, the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal expanded to Asia following a Dec. 12 report that prominent Hong Kong-based producer-director Bey Logan, who ran the Weinstein Co.’s Asia office from 2005 to 2009, had been accused of multiple acts of sexual misconduct.

One has to wonder how Zhang’s case would be treated these days. Suddenly a subject considered taboo was once again making headlines throughout Asia, with the Logan scandal becoming the talk of Hong Kong’s insular film world and the anti-harassment #MeToo movement even gaining momentum in far more tradition-bound China.

Now the Chinese entertainment sector — the second largest in the world — is beginning to grapple with its own sexual harassment problems. But while age-old attitudes toward gender politics are definitely changing in the Middle Kingdom, insiders tell THR that significant cultural barriers — victim shaming, a lack of legal recourse and an all-but-nonexistent free press — will make progress difficult.

Last October, the English-language, state-owned China Daily newspaper took down a column about the #MeToo movement that claimed sexual assault was less prevalent in China than in the West. The author, Sava Hassan, a Canadian-Egyptian educator and periodic China Daily contributor, argued that “Chinese traditional values and conservative attitudes” safeguarded women against “inappropriate behavior from members of the opposite gender.”

The column sparked an immediate backlash by readers, many of whom cited statistics that show how widespread abuse in China really is. While it’s nearly impossible to find comprehensive national figures on sexual harassment in China, a 2016 survey by the China Family Planning Association found that 35 percent of college students experienced gender-based sexual violence or sexual harassment. A 2013 survey of 1,500 women by the Canton Public Opinion Research Centre, revealed 48 percent of those between ages 16 and 25 said they’d faced sexual harassment.

Even the Global Times, a Chinese paper closely tied to the ruling Communist Party, admitted, in a Jan. 4 column this year, that the survey figures were “appalling.” The paper, however, argued that increased reports of abuse pointed to the fact that women now have “dramatically enhanced status in China” compared with neighboring India, where, the writer Liu Lulu writes, “the high rate of sexual harassment is an indirect result of the low social status of females (in that country).”

A few voices within the Chinese government have also begun to speak out and acknowledge China's growing entertainment sector has a sexual harassment problem too — albeit one with unique cultural manifestations.

“Hollywood handles such issues in a very different way from China,” posted Wuhu city government official Zhou Peng An on his Weibo social media account in October, shortly after the Weinstein scandal broke. “In China, there are so many sexual harassment cases in the entertainment world. This can shock Hollywood. At least it shows Hollywood is more ashamed in the face of such sex scandals than the Chinese entertainment industry.... Some small actresses, who aren't yet famous 'big players,' they need to meet all kinds of unreasonable sexual demands from the producer, director or even investors. We often call this phenomenon the unspoken rules. It’s a more serious problem here in China." 

“Women in the Hong Kong film industry experience sexual misconduct and assault,” University of Hong Kong assistant professor Sylvia J. Martin tells THR. Author of Haunted: An Ethnography of the Hollywood and Hong Kong Media Industries, Martin argues that institutional sexism and gender power imbalances exist in both industries, but is becoming more recognized in Hollywood thanks to more activism and institutional structures to fight them. The historical legacy of Chinese concubine culture — essentially the social acceptance of mistresses and marital infidelity that reinforces an age-old power dynamic between men and women —  also seems to exert a normalizing effect on sexually predatory behavior within the entertainment sector.

“The worry about retaliation in coming forward about sexual harassment in China would be tremendous,” Martin says. “In both Hollywood and Hong Kong, there is a sense, especially among older generations, that women who work in film should not be surprised by harassment — an attitude of 'what did you expect?'"

Martin adds that historically, unlike in the U.S., China doesn't have a strong women's movement to provide a foundation for victims of harassment who want to speak out.

“There are features of the feminist movement in the U.S., such as attorney Anita Hill’s historic testimony about sexual harassment to the U.S. Senate, that are influencing Hollywood women’s industry groups and campaigns,” she adds.

Martin’s HKU colleague Tommy Tse, who co-authored the book Celebrity Culture and the Entertainment Industry in Asia, argues that while China has opened up to the West since the 1980s, “it hasn’t undergone feminist movements that, firstly, highlight female sexuality as autonomous and acceptable and, secondly, change perceptions of women playing more important — even if not equal — roles in the political, legal, commercial and public sphere. Marriage and family are still seen as most Chinese women’s ultimate life goals,” he says.

At the same time, China’s cultural conservatism, Communist history and traditional Confucianism have resulted in a less sexualized everyday texture to society than in the U.S. — which seems to translate into a diminished threat of quotidian harassment and assault. And as many women who have lived and worked extensively in the West and China will attest, there's often less casual sexualisation of women in Chinese society.

“Sexual whitewashing was encouraged during the Cultural Revolution, and equating men and women in a way still permeates in Chinese society today,” says Stephany Zoo, co-director of anti-sexual violence NGO Phoenix Risen, which works in China. “In my own experience of living in the U.S. and Shanghai, there’s almost a total lack of sexual harassment on the streets here. China is quite safe for women in that sense.”

But when assault and harassment inevitably do occur — usually involving male abuse of power, just as in the West — those same cultural forces tend to encourage a tendency of toxic victim-blaming.

There is legal recourse for harassment and abuse victims in the workplace in China. But while the country's civil courts tend to favor employees over employers in most cases, sexual harassment is an exception, according to Zoo.

“The response in Chinese culture is still typically first: ‘you must have been asking for it’ and ‘if you were being a good girl, then you wouldn't have gotten into this position,’" she explains. "This attitude is 100 percent culturally pervasive.”

Zoo's NGO has carried out workshops in China designed to foster more understanding around the issue of sexual misconduct in the workplace. One of the most striking takeaways, she says, is that most Chinese women even empowered white-collar types, rarely disclosed personal experiences of abuse to others, even close girlfriends.

"It’s still taboo to be outspoken about 'being taken advantage of sexually,' challenging male superiors, or exposing themselves to 'unfavorable situations,'” agrees Tse.

Of course, if there's one thing the #MeToo movement in the U.S. has revealed, it's that corporate HR departments were doing far too little to hold men in power accountable and to make women feel safe in coming forward. Instead, many women have gotten justice by outing predators through the press, from Weinstein onward.

Mainland China’s large state-controlled media outlets, however, are more likely to serve as just another barrier than as an outlet for exposing harassment. The government's heavy-handed censorship of social media also aims to snuff out any viral phenomenon that carries a whiff of social discord.

When a 28-year-old woman named Xu Yalu posted on Chinese social media service WeChat, using the #MeToo hashtag and detailing how she had been groped by an older man in her neighborhood on several occasions, the post went viral, attracting over a million views in two days — at which point it was promptly deleted by censors.

And even when a sympathetic press outlet has multiple sources willing to go on record, publication is risky due to Hong Kong and China's notoriously strict defamation laws, which place a high burden of proof on the media and accuser. If Weinstein were a Hong Kong movie mogul, local observers say, he may have been able to continue far longer by litigating his accusers into the shadows.

One arena where sexual assault appears to be gaining attention in China is in the education system, and among very young girls.

A prominent scientist at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics was suspended in early January after a former student accused him of sexual assault using the #MeToo moniker.

"The university takes seriously the recently named allegations made via social media regarding the ethics of our lecturer Chen Xiaowu," the institution said in a statement. "We have set up a working group as soon as we could to investigate and confirm them with dispatch, and Chen Xiaowu has been temporarily suspended from duty."

The accuser, a Chinese scholar named Luo Qianqian, alleges the scientist lured to her to a private residence and then tried to sexually assault her 12 years ago. Notably, though, the alleged victim currently resides in the U.S., where she has worked for years. She made her accusations over Chinese social media after following the #MeToo movement stateside.

Meanwhile, one of the most hard-hitting films to tackle the issue of sexual assault in China came out this past fall, just as the Weinstein scandal was reaching a fever pitch. Director Vivian Qu's fictional art house film Angels Wear White screened in the main competition at the Venice Film Festival and later received a substantial theatrical release in China, earning $3.4 million — a strong performance for a low-budget indie title.

Qu says she spent over a year researching sexual abuse in China, speaking with numerous Chinese psychiatrists and lawyers. The film sees events unfold after a migrant girl working in a motel witnesses the prelude to the abuse of two schoolgirls by their middle-aged male companion.

"Our slogan for the release was 'break the silence' because generally, people in China are not talking about it,” Qu tells THR. “No one wants to talk about it: parents, teachers and society in general.”

To those familiar with small-town Chinese life, Angels Wear White presents a realistic look at the fallout after allegations of abuse. The way some men in power collude to prevent exposure and the savage victim-blaming of preteen girls make for some of the film’s most raw and uncomfortable scenes.

“People don’t feel a big responsibility to help — they think they can just forget about it by not talking or thinking about it,” Qu says. “The reluctance of society to open up is probably more profound than any single case."

But Qu reads the enthusiasm for Angel’s Wear White in greater China as a sign that a modest turning point could be afoot. The film was nominated for best picture, best director and best actress at Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards in November, Chinese-language cinema's most esteemed awards event. Qu won in the best director category.

As in Hollywood, it’s likely that change will be driven by more of this: a new generation of independent women behind the camera, in positions of power. Conservative attitudes toward sex are shifting among China's younger generations, and in many urban centers that are claiming a level of independence and social freedom that amounts to a rising feminist movement of sorts. 

Ivy Zhong, founder of Jetavana Entertainment studio, and one of China's most accomplished female film executives, is leading the way.

"From my perspective, sexual harassment is negative and intolerable whether it's in Chinese or Western cultures," Zhong says. "This new generation of [Chinese] women is growing up in a multicultural world and receiving huge amounts of information each day. I believe they will create many great changes — and the film industry will be one part of the whole picture."