No Longer Silent: Sexual Harassment in China


As working hours wound down in Sichuan, a southwestern Chinese province, 29-year-old human-resources manager Liu Lun invited recent college graduate and new hire Chen Dan into his office and asked her to be his girlfriend. When she refused, he grabbed her by the neck and forcefully kissed her. Colleagues overheard and called police. Chen escaped.

Across the country in Shanghai, 29-year-old Xiong Jie says, she accompanied her foreign manager on a walk after a company dinner. “Suddenly, he kissed me,” says Xiong. “I didn’t have time to react, and there was no one around to witness it.” When he apologized, Xiong says, she forgave him-until he did it again. She protested. He fired her.

Xiong searched for a new job. But Chen filed suit, using the 2005 amendment to the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women, which recognizes women’s right to arbitrate or litigate cases of sexual harassment and to seek legal or judicial aid in case of financial difficulty. In July 2008, Chen became the first to win a criminal case using the amendment. The court sentenced Liu to five months in jail.

Mao Zedong once famously declared, “Women hold up half the sky”; today, they also constitute half of China’s formal workforce-330 million of the nation’s 711.5 million employees, according to the All-China Women’s Foundation. Scholars conservatively put the number of Chinese women who have suffered workplace sexual harassment at 25 to 30 percent, but surveys over the past decade report numbers as high as 80 percent, with the majority of incidents occurring on the job. Sociologists and legal experts say few women seek legal recourse.

“Our country still has a ‘blame the victim’ culture,” says Wang Xingjuan, founding director of the Maple Women’s Counseling Center, one of China’s earliest women’s-rights NGOs. Many victims won’t come forward from the shame of having done something wrong, “saving face” rather than seeking justice.

Foreign and domestic firms have set policies for environmental, labor and corporate social-responsibility practices, but lag in providing sexual harassment policies and staff training, says Tang Can, a sociologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Companies blame local governments for failing to define the national law in more concrete, applicable terms. Shanghai was the first municipality to do so, in 2007, two years after the women’s rights amendment was enacted. Since then, 16 more of China’s 31 provinces and special administrative regions have begun drafting local definitions. Meanwhile, with women facing pressure to adhere to the rule of the collective and also navigate a competitive job market, it’s unclear how many women will step forward.

In 2001, China’s first sexual harassment case was brought by a woman employee who refused a manager’s advances at a state-owned company in Xi’an, Shaanxi. With no sexual harassment law yet in place, the case was brought under a law protecting “human dignity.” Ultimately, the court ruled the evidence insufficient and questioned the connection between human dignity and sexual harassment. Still, “sexual harassment” entered Chinese consciousness

“An Internet survey got conversation going and harassment became a very hot topic,” says Edward Chan, a University of Hong Kong associate professor. In 2002, Women No Longer Silent, billed as the “first Chinese television program to take on sexual harassment and sexual abuse,” tackled fictional power-abusing bosses and government cadres, along with victims’ lack of legal recourse-but ended happily. Life mimicked art in 2003 when a woman in Wuhan became the first plaintiff to win a harassment case under the “right to good reputation” statute.

No official body has recorded how many suits have been brought, and most aren’t public record, says Li Ying, deputy director of the Center for Women’s Law Studies & Legal Services of Peking University. Only Chen has won a criminal case; a few others have won civil settlements. But some women who have won such suits struggle to collect compensation, notes Jo Ling Kent, a Fulbright Scholar who studied sexual harassment cases in Beijing: “These verdicts are hailed as victories, but you have to go back and say, ‘Judge? Company? City? Government? Hello-you need to deliver!'”

“[The amendment] was very clear, but it was only a few sentences,” says Wang. And in China, making a law “doesn’t mean you have the support of the entire system,” adds Chan. “It’s a top-down approach.”

As Tang explains it, China’s metamorphosis from a socialist, planned economy to a capitalist one has robbed it of the institutionalized morality of the old danwei (work unit) that managed all personal as well as professional issues, including marriage licenses, housing and schooling for workers’ children. “Perhaps these strict danwei moral controls weren’t humanistic, but they were effective in controlling workplace sexual harassment,” says Tang. “Now, as companies turn towards marketization, the standardized evaluation is not based on moral rightness but monetary returns.”

Untrained employees pardon sexual harassment as cultural misunderstanding. “I thought maybe that was just the way foreign men behaved,” says Xiong. Similarly, an American working for a Beijing governmental health organization thought the same thing when her Chinese boss returned from an HIV-AIDS conference in Thailand and regaled her with stories of his extracurricular activities in Bangkok’s brothels. His behavior discomfited her, but she “chalked it up to cultural relativism.”

“A respectful workplace is about more than compliance with the law,” says Nicole Zhang, corporate marketing and public affairs manager of 3M China, which provides its 5,700 local employees with anonymous mechanisms to report abuse. “It is a working environment free of inappropriate behavior.”

Trying to help companies develop antiharassment policies, the women’s legal aid center at Peking University, which also represents sexual harassment victims in court, has cooperated with brand-name corporations to draw local companies into educational workshops. “[Chinese managers think it’s a great thing] that General Electric puts such serious effort into this ‘small matter,'” says Feng Jianmei, senior counsel of public policy for General Electric China, who presented the company’s policy to two Chinese firms.

The legal aid center will soon release a new three-year plan to confront sexual harassment, and Tang and Wang plan to publish new research. Meanwhile, everyday 330 million Chinese women go to work- each, in some way, very much alone.

Photo: Xiong Jie was first harassed, then fired for protesting. Photo by Megan Shank