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#MeToo in China: Female Journalists Confront Sexual Harassment

Wmc Features Xueqing Huang 011019
Former journalist Xueqing Huang published the groundbreaking study that found widespread sexual harassment of female journalists. Photo provided by Xueqing Huang,

As the #MeToo movement drew unprecedented attention to sexual harassment across the world, hundreds of Chinese female journalists also shared their stories of facing sexual harassment in a report published in 2018. “A Report on Workplace Sexual Harassment of Chinese Female Journalists” reveals widespread incidents and abysmal institutional responses to sexual harassment in Chinese journalism. Meanwhile, feminist organizations that try to improve the situation and female journalists who have exposed their assaulters are facing repression from China’s government. 

The year 2016 saw one of the most significant cases regarding sexual exploitation in Chinese media in recent years. A college student who interned at an influential media company, the Southern Newspaper Media Group, said that a senior journalist had raped her when she tried to obtain a certification of her internship. The story went viral on social media. Xueqing Huang, a former journalist who followed the case closely, was later inspired by the #MeToo movement and conducted a study of sexual harassment against Chinese female journalists. With support from an NGO, Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, Huang collected valid responses from 416 female journalists, and 89 of them further shared their stories with her.

Huang’s report showed that 348 out of 416 respondents, or 83.7 percent, had experienced workplace sexual harassment, and more than half of them experienced more than one incident. The most common forms of sexual harassment were “telling sexual jokes and presenting sexual photos without consent” and “unwanted physical touching.” Each manner had been experienced by close to 50 percent of respondents. One respondent reported an incident in which her colleagues shared pictures of women with little clothing in a work-related chat group. She reminded them that the pictures were indecent, and one of her superiors responded, “What is decency in bed?”

The report found that the largest group of offenders are female journalists’ superiors. For more than 40 percent of the women who had experienced harassment, the offense was committed by a superior. More than 40 percent of respondents who have experienced sexual harassment were offended by their superiors. The second largest source of harassment was colleagues, with an occurrence rate of 30 percent. Interview subjects were the offenders in 17 percent of cases. The fact that most of the perpetrators are in a position that could influence female journalists’ work evaluations and assignments makes it particularly difficult for the women to combat harassment, since confrontation may damage their careers. 

A respondent said, “Most of the people in this industry do not acknowledge the concept of sexual harassment. Instead, they believe this is some ‘resources exchanging.’ They can never see the inequality of power and resources, as well as women’s struggles, behind these scenes.” This ignorance of gender inequality among media professionals results in a dangerous and unfriendly working environment for female journalists.

Twenty-six female journalists who participated in the study said that they had been forced into having sex. One of the cases was described by a respondent who was a reporter at a daily newspaper. Since the print newspaper business was starting to decline, journalists were assigned to sell quotas of new subscriptions. When the woman reporter visited local officials in a town to fulfill her quota of 50 subscriptions, an official invited her and her colleague to dinner, where he asked her to drink a great deal of wine; as it is impolite in traditional Chinese culture to refuse drinking wine on social occasions, she felt obligated to drink it. After she was back to her hotel and had fallen asleep, the official broke into her room and raped her.

Furthermore, an unsupportive legal and professional environment in China deters most survivors from seeking help. More than 50 percent of survivors chose to stay silent about workplace harassment and sexual assault. Most of them thought voicing complaints would not make any difference. The cases collected by Huang confirmed their fears — among 13 survivors who reported sexual misconduct to company administrators, only two received a positive response from the company, while the other companies refused to take action or asked the accuser not to mention the issue anymore.

Only two out of the 348 survivors reported the cases to the police, and in both cases, the police took no action regarding the offender. A survivor recalled that the police had said, “We have cases of mayhem and murder to deal with. You were just touched, not raped. Don’t be dramatic.” In the rape case of the Southern Newspaper Media Group, the accused was detained after the accuser talked to the police, but he was not charged because of insufficient evidence.

Considering the usually unhelpful responses from the police and companies, some survivors choose to expose perpetrators on social media. This approach may draw massive attention to the offense, but it carries the risk of retaliation. In July 2018, inspired by the #MeToo movement, a former intern at the state broadcaster using the pseudonym Xianzi made a public accusation that Zhu Jun, one of the most recognizable TV hosts in China, had sexually assaulted her four years before. As Zhu in many ways represents the public image of the state, Xianzi and her parents were threatened by the police and strangers to stop talking about the case. Zhu then sued Xianzi for defamation, asking for compensation of approximately $100,000. The case is now awaiting trial.

The hostility of the workplace exerts a negative influence on the career development and mental health of Chinese female journalists. According to Huang’s report, 44 out of 176 survivors who experienced sexual harassment more than once have a problem with trusting others; 29 of them feel that they are under constant mental pressure; 22 resigned or transferred to another position after the incident; 10 have considered suicide or self-harm. A respondent stated, “It is ironic. We think we are using our pens as voices to speak for the public and the weak, but we are ashamed of defending our rights…This environment drives females out of this profession. Media are losing talented people, then the environment worsens further.”

According to PR Newswire, an international consulting company founded in America, 52.5 percent of entry-level journalists in China are women, but the percentage drops to 30.8 percent among senior journalists who are over 31 years old. This decrease supports the respondents’ opinion that gender inequality in media organizations is driving women out of the field.

As the #MeToo movement drives changes in media and other areas in the U.S., Chinese feminists also seek improvement against sexual harassment in journalism, as well as in other fields. Huang asked 45 media organizations in China about whether they had adopted any measure to address sexual harassment. None of them were able to describe any measure before the report’s publication. After the report was published and drew considerable attention, however, two media organizations responded that they were taking measures to prevent sexual harassment.

The Chinese #MeToo movement first took hold in January 2018. Students from multiple universities accused more than 20 professors of sexual harassing and exploiting students. To support the students, feminist activist Zhang Leilei encouraged students to write letters to their university presidents to request their universities to institute anti-sexual harassment measures. Before the government censored the initiative, more than 8,000 students and alumni of 94 universities wrote or co-signed letters to their university presidents. Three top universities started working groups to develop anti-sexual harassment measures, and the education departments of some relatively developed cities announced measures against sexual harassment, as well as measures to improve gender equality on campus.

Chinese feminists’ efforts to improve gender awareness in journalism began decades ago. The Media Monitor for Women Network, founded in 1996, and Women Awakening Network, founded in 2004, are the two most significant NGOs working on the issues. They provide workshops, information, and resources to promote gender awareness among media professionals and greater visibility for women in media. Sipan Li, the founder of Women Awakening Network, said the efforts had brought improvement, but the NGO suspended these activities because they were threatened and harassed by the police.

Huang’s report is groundbreaking in the sense of shedding light on longstanding issues regarding sexual harassment in Chinese journalism. However, six months after the report was issued, the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center — the NGO that helped Huang with the report — was forced to close by the Chinese government. Li Sipan said, “There will be a long period of time when feminists can hardly do anything.” The progress of gender equality in China continues to confront political difficulties that will require continued bravery and persistence to surmount.

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