Ahead of International Women’s Day, feminists in China had asked netizens to take a stand against sexual harassment.
Feminist campaign gets blocked in China on International Women’s Day
The campaign, initiated by 38 activists, was circulating on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
But by midday, the Chinese hashtag "#38antiharassment" was being blocked by Chinese censors and was no longer accessible.
Activist Zhang Leilei, who helped to organize the campaign, told Inkstone she had expected the censorship, but was disappointed by it.
“The campaign was something that we should do,” she said. “And it’s not the first time that we were censored.”
The aborted campaign, on a day meant to celebrate women’s achievements, in many ways parallels how the wider #MeToo movement has been received in China.
The global movement has brought down movie stars and politicians in Western countries, but here in China, heavy internet censorship and conservative culture make it extremely difficult to start a national dialogue on sexual harassment.
A slow beginning
The international #MeToo movement began last October, just days after The New York Times and The New Yorker published shocking stories about the behavior of film producer Harvey Weinstein.
The campaign didn’t immediately strike a chord in China.
But by New Year's day, US-based engineer Luo Xixi told her story.
On Weibo, she revealed how she was sexually harassed by her professor when she was pursuing a graduate degree at Beihang University in Beijing 12 years ago.
Her post went viral on Chinese social media.
After Luo came forward, other young women, including students and alumni, wrote petitions to their universities, demanding the management to address the issue of sexual harassment properly.
More than 9,000 people took part in the digital campaign.
Luo's alleged aggressor was fired from his position at the prestigious university.
Time for a Change?
China’s Education Ministry also announced in mid-January that it would launch a study of setting up a system that prevents sexual harassment in universities.
Sophia Huang, a freelance journalist who helped Luo to tell her story, told Inkstone that the movement’s success in China had exceeded her expectations.
"We are doing this step by step and we don't want to stop at just getting media exposure," Huang said.
"We have to communicate [with authorities] in a mild but determined manner. It's easy to criticise and scold, but it's not that easy to voice constructive opinion."
Currently, China has no law that specifically targets sexual harassment.
Huang said three members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body, would submit proposals to address sexual harassment on college campuses.
Huang is hopeful that laws will come into effect in a year or two.
Feminist activist Zhang, who played an active role in the anti sexual-harassment campaign, also feels pleased.
"A lot of young people have been mobilized and they are very active," Zhang said.
"We will be following the future development. Policy changes need time but I feel optimistic about it."
But Huang also sees the boundaries of the #MeToo movement in China.
"It's limited to universities but we haven't seen much in workplaces."
In China’s conservative culture, sexual harassment and assault have long been taboo subjects.
Victims also have to battle a state-driven crackdown on activism and an ineffectual legal system.
"It's nice that the campaign has been able to get attention, but we still need to see how things can be actually changed on the ground, how the government will introduce policies and laws to effectively deal with sexual harassment, and how public education can be promoted to prohibit sexual harassment,” Patrick Poon of Amnesty International told Inkstone.
According to a survey conducted last year by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Centre and law firm Beijing Impact, more than 69% of Chinese university students had experienced some form of sexual harassment, although less than 4% had reported it.
The situation is unlikely to improve overnight, but China's feminists are gearing up for the fight.