Sexual assault scandals in China revive stifled #MeToo discussion

Sexual harassment and assault were issues that were rarely broached in public in China until the #MeToo movement took root in 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - Extensive coverage in China of sexual assault scandals involving tech giant Alibaba and celebrity Kris Wu, without obvious censorship, has rekindled discussion of the topic in a country where the #MeToo movement has previously been stifled.

Sexual harassment and assault were issues that were, for years, rarely broached in public in China until the #MeToo movement took root in 2018, only to face online censorship and official pushback, including the arrest of activists.

Exchanges on the Weibo social media platform on sexual harassment faced by women in the workplace or during drinking sessions with work colleagues, were among the most discussed topics on Monday (Aug 9) and Tuesday, with more than 500 million views.

"Who will protect working women from the ugly alcohol drinking culture?" and "how should women in the workplace guard against sexual harassment?" were among the top-trending related topics.

State broadcaster CCTV published a video quoting experts on what steps women could take to gather evidence should they be sexually assaulted, prompting social media users to say that the onus should be on men to know that such actions are wrong.

Recently, police detained Chinese-Canadian pop singer Kris Wu over allegations of plying underage women with alcohol and seducing them. On Monday, tech giant Alibaba Group fired an employee after he was accused of sexual assault by a female staff member.

It was not immediately clear why neither case was censored inside China's "Great Firewall". Analysts say the cases have emerged at a time when the authorities have discouraged excessive celebrity worship and Alibaba has emerged as a top target in a campaign to rein in China's tech giants after years of a largely hands-off approach.

Mr Zhan Jiang, a retired Beijing Foreign Studies University journalism professor, said scrutiny of the Wu and Alibaba cases was not sensitive for the government.

"Entertainment has nothing to do with politics," Mr Zhan said. "Alibaba is currently in the eye of the storm, and it has little to do with official interests, so the authorities are not concerned."

China says it seeks to empower women and protect their rights, and last year, enacted legislation that for the first time defines actions that can constitute sexual harassment.

But China does not tolerate activities and discourse that it worries could agitate social order or signify defiance to its authority, and pressure has continued on feminist groups, which have seen their online channels or platforms shut down in recent months.

In 2015, the authorities arrested five activists, dubbed the "Feminist Five", who were planning to demonstrate against sexual harassment on public transport.

Three years later, the #MeToo hashtag on Weibo, as well as alternatives, were censored after dozens of people took to the platform to publish accounts of sexual harassment by prominent figures including monks, professors and media personalities.

Still, #MeToo activists said they were heartened that the furore over the Mr Wu and Alibaba cases was fuelling new awareness.

A detailed account by another woman, who said on Weibo she had been assaulted during a working dinner while employed with ride-hailing giant Didi Global, also went viral with more than 3 million views and thousands of comments. A Didi spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

"It will definitely have a positive impact," said Ms Zhou Xiaoxuan, who in 2018 fuelled the movement by publicly accusing television personality Zhu Jun at state broadcaster CCTV of groping and forcibly kissing her, allegations he denies.

Ms Zhou sued Mr Zhu for damages three years ago, but her complaint has not been resolved.

"It expands the pool of support for feminist rights and also drives discussion of sexual assault from a position of power," she said of the recent high-profile cases.

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