Silence breakers in China face hostile legal and cultural environment

Updated 2018-01-19 11:22:03

○ The suspension of a Beijing university professor came after weeks of united calls and reports about his constant sexual harassment.

○ Yet numerous other sexual harassment cases in China are being neglected or mishandled by authorities.

Upon hearing the recent news that Chen Xiaowu, a professor at Beihang University (previously known as Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics) (BUAA), was finally disqualified by school authorities due to numerous sexual assault charges made against him, Luo Xixi could finally breathe again.

The Chinese woman, who now lives in the U.S., revealed last October how Chen had sexually assaulted her 12 years ago, when she was a student in Beijing. Together with others with similar complaints (who chose to remain anonymous), Luo pushed for his expulsion for over four months.

Following the uproar, China's Ministry of Education declared that authorities will look into a mechanism that prevents sexual assault on campuses. However, this is only one battle won in a larger war against sexual harassment at Chinese schools. Even though such cases are in fact quite common in China, most victims choose not to expose their harassers, and the few who do often find their voices quickly squelched in the process.

"Me too"

It all began on the morning of October 13, 2017, just as Luo was leaving for work, her husband asked her whether she had read the big news about Hollywood. She picked up her phone and found out that legendary movie producer Harvey Weinstein had been accused of sexual harassment by multiple actresses. Soon after, American actress Alyssa Milano launched the "#metoo" hashtag movement on social media.

"I told myself, 'Me too!' then I took a deep breath," Luo later wrote on China's Twitter-like microblog Weibo. That same day, she also happened to read an anonymous post online saying Beijing university professor Chen Xiaowu had been accused of sexually assaulting students. She couldn't believe that, after all these years, somebody was brave enough to expose him.

Two days later, Luo wrote about her own experience with Chen and posted it online. In 2004, while a student, Chen had asked her to his home under the pretense of taking care of his flowers. After locking the door behind her, Chen told Luo he had a tense relationship with his wife. The professor then attempted to rape Luo. She began to cry, which then made Chen stop.

Over the next few years at school, Luo was treated terribly under Chen and was put on medication by doctors after suffering from depression.

Sexual harassment is quite common on Chinese campuses. In 2016, Wei Tingting, founder of the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, wrote a report about sexual harassment in Chinese colleges, based on an online survey collected over one month among 6,592 respondents. The results showed that 68 percent of students had encountered degrees of sexual harassment at various levels.

After posting her story, Luo began receiving messages from other current or former BUAA students who claimed to also have been harassed by Chen. One said that Chen had called her his "girlfriend," and another said Chen forced students in his team to go out drinking with him.

Luo soon created a WeChat group called "Hard Candy," taking the name from a 2005 American movie starring Ellen Page as a girl who takes bloody revenge against a pedophile. So began Luo's journey to uphold justice. But it has been an arduous path, as many refused to stand up alongside her out of fear of retaliation from the accused or, even worse, mistreatment from school authorities.

Swept under the rug

Luo assembled mobile phone screenshots and recordings she received from other victims proving Chen's sexual harassment and also got in touch with members of the disciplinary committee at BUAA. She felt relieved.

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