Society

Chinese universities urged to do more to fight sexual harassment in wake of #MeToo cases

  • Mainland higher education institutes urged to copy Hong Kong’s policies by setting up dedicated committees including student representatives to fight the problem
  • NPC delegate Michael Tien says too many cases have been buried partly because ‘traditional values’ make victims reluctant to come forward

Laurie Chen UPDATED :

Mainland Chinese universities have been urged to set up official committees that include student representatives to tackle sexual harassment after the #MeToo movement highlighted a number of accusations against high-profile academics.

Michael Tien Puk-sun, a Hong Kong representative at the National People’s Congress, proposed that the policies adopted by the city’s universities should be extended to mainland campuses as soon as possible.

Tien, who is also a Hong Kong Legislative Council member, acknowledged that campus sexual harassment has been a long-standing and previously buried problem in China.

“I think it has a lot to do with traditional Chinese values … most of the time we keep things inside us and may not even tell our parents,” he said on the sidelines of Beijing’s annual policymaking meeting.

“We are afraid of being laughed at, or that there’s no evidence. Most likely a lot of students are worried about receiving some kind of undesirable result at the end.”

Michael Tien said students were worried about the consequences of coming forward. Photo: Simon Song

A 2016 campus sexual harassment survey of more than 6,000 students and recent graduates conducted by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Centre found that more than 70 per cent said they had been sexually harassed, but only 4 per cent said they reported it to the university or police.

“The composition of the investigating committee needs to be evenly distributed [between students, staff and alumni] – this is key because otherwise it’s just a show. If you make all teaching fellows in the university members, there’s a suspicion they may be covering up for each other,” said Tien.

Tien named the example of Chen Xiaowu, the Beihang University professor whose sacking over a historical sexual harassment allegations in January 2018 helped spark China’s #MeToo movement, as an inspiration for his proposal.

Sexual harassment in China’s male-dominated civil service accepted as the norm, observers say

Since then, a number of high-profile Chinese academics have been accused of sexual harassment, many of whom have been dismissed. The movement has also highlighted accusations against high-profile figures in sectors such as journalism and entertainment.

But Tien wants to start “one step at a time”, with the university sector, using the Hong Kong model.

Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission states that all education institutions must implement an anti-sexual harassment policy and complaints handling procedure.

In contrast, mainland Chinese academic institutions do not have an explicit sexual harassment policy. Cases of alleged sexual harassment by staff are often handled by the university’s Communist Party branch discipline inspection committee under the vague offence of “violation of a teacher’s moral ethics”.

As a result of #MeToo, students from more than 50 universities have signed open letters calling for anti-sexual harassment policies on campus, formal reporting systems and harsher consequences for offenders.

A professor at Beihang University in the Chinese capital was sacked after he was accused of sexual harassment. Photo: Handout

However, the grass roots movement has encountered difficulties in becoming truly mainstream as activists have had their allegations censored on social media and faced resistance from university officials seeking to quell student unrest.

Feminist activists such as Li Maizi have also called for similar anti-sexual harassment committees to be set up in universities for several months.

Feng Yuan, founder of the Beijing women’s rights non-governmental organisation Equality, welcomed the proposal but warned that it may be difficult to put into practice, given the lack of awareness surrounding the problems and the difficulty in finding prevention specialists, which would make it harder to set up policies and organisations to tackle the issue.

“However, the relevant departments may be tactical about this and say they will pay attention to this proposal in the abstract … but in reality may give no active response, with no practical work plan and timescale,” said Feng.