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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Sexual harassment in China: What Beijing can learn from India

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on December 07, 2020 and can be accessed here.

Hundreds of people waited outside the Haidian Beijing Court on a freezing December day, as one of the most high-profile cases on sexual harassment finally reached the judicial system. Zha Jun, a famous CCTV presenter had harassed Xianzi (Zhou Xiaoxuan) in 2014 when she was an intern working at the television station, and she came out with her account on social media in 2018. The post soon went viral, and she filed a civil lawsuit against the TV star, who filed a countersuit against her on the grounds of defamation.

While Zha Jun did not turn up for the hearing, Xianzi’s legal team requested an open to the public, people’s jury trial, which would mean that the sitting judges recuse themselves. While it is unclear how the case will go forward, it is crucial since a few cases of sexual harassment ever manage to see the light of the day in China. All hashtags related to the case have been censored on Chinese social media, just as Xianzi’s initial post in 2018 after it went viral.

The international #MeToo protests in 2018 led to Chinese universities becoming the ground zero for sexual harassment cases. These spread to social media, where it faced a clampdown by the state. Very few of these have taken the legal route because of the victim's personal and reputational costs. The Chinese judicial system has been slow to recognise sexual harassment as a malaise in society. It was as late as 2005 when the government enacted the first national legislation prohibiting sexual harassment. In June 2020, the country saw the first successful sexual harassment lawsuit in the history of the Chinese legal system.

Earlier this year, the Chinese government also introduced its first-ever Civil Code, and in it, included Article 1010, which is aimed at preventing sexual harassment at the workplace. However, the legal route faces the larger problem that China is a country that “rules by law” rather than follows a “rule of law.” Therefore, judicial decisions are often held hostage to politics and power.

It is interesting to see how this contrasts with the situation in India. In the past, I have written about how low crime rates mean that China is one of the safer places in the world to be a woman. The #MeToo Movement in India led to significant changes in the Indian workplace after protests by women about the state.

One can draw many parallels between the case of Xianzi and Indian journalist Priya Ramani, who is being sued by former Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar. Akbar alleges that Ramani’s tweets about him during the MeToo Movement caused him reputational damage—of course, he has conveniently forgotten that Ramani is only one of 15 women to call out his harassment.

Of course, India has much stronger laws against sexual harassment, considering how important it is in Indian society and how often it makes it to the headlines. However, even the women who participated in the 2018 #Metoo Movement argue that it has not led to any long-term change. While few of the accused men have been held responsible, many victims have faced personal and professional ostracisation. However, the difference ostensibly between the two countries is that the Chinese Communist Party actively sees feminist protest movements as a threat to the stability of the country.

As Leta Hong Fincher notes in Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, “The Chinese government’s backlash against feminism is a form of state-level, fragile masculinity, terrified at the prospect of emancipated women rising up to challenge the Communist Party’s political legitimacy.” Therefore, this structure of the Chinese State means that women’s rights will continue to be an enduring battle—one that is not easily solved.

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