#MeToo beginning to have an effect in China

This article is more than 12 months old

#MeToo movement showing signs of catching on in the country despite tight media controls

In China, women calling themselves the "silence breakers" have demanded investigations into allegations of sexual harassment.

In doing so, they pit themselves against a macho culture, a Communist Party deeply allergic to independent citizens' initiatives, and an exaggerated and assiduously-cultivated respect for hierarchies, themselves male-dominated.

These women who seek to break the silence must contend with a widespread sense of shame on the part of those assaulted, but having embarked on the path of resistance they must dismiss such genuflection before traditional prejudice.

Ms Xu Yalu, a young marketing executive in Shanghai, described on social media her experience of being groped on the street by a man whom the police deemed too elderly to arrest.

"It's not my fault that I was sexually assaulted. Why should I be afraid or ashamed of talking about it?" she said.

Shame, and its proper placing at the feet of the perpetrator rather than the victim, is at the heart of the sudden outpouring about sexual assault and harassment, usually perpetrated by men in positions of power, and the spread of the movement to apportion blame where it belongs.

In Western democracies, the revelations of such incidents generally attract condemnation of the perpetrator, sympathy for the victim, recourse to law, the hasty rewriting of codes of behaviour.

In some cases, the moral obloquy attached to a charge of harassment or assault is such that the alleged offender might be punished by dismissal before any offence is proven, or even properly examined, and relatively mild, if inappropriate, advances are ranked beside serious assaults.

Yet such missteps underscore the fact that the response has been both wide and deep. Everyone in public life wants to be on the same side against this suddenly public malaise. That is not the case in authoritarian states.

In Russia, women who complain of harassment are generally mocked and ignored, including by other women. Both the government and the powerful Russian Orthodox church commend traditional family hierarchies, which privilege the man.

In China, a (possibly) extreme example of the culture was caught on a video posted on a popular web site: the teaching in one of many "morality schools" set up to educate women in obedience.

One teacher was shown telling her class: "Don't fight back when beaten. Don't talk back when scolded. And, no matter what, don't get divorced."

These schools point to a semi-subterranean, but highly divisive, clash of cultures. On one side, a return to a society where women submissively accept men as masters, both in the home and in the nation; on the other, an appeal to the values of equality and respect.

The women who protest have to fight custom, a male-dominated society, a ruling party that hates challenges to its monopoly of knowing what is good for the country as well as the fearfulness of many women, often hard-pressed and poor, who feel they have no choice but put up with how they are treated.

In their favour, apart from their own courage, is the Internet. Mostly barred from the party-controlled mainstream media, they take to the Chinese equivalents of Facebook and Twitter to find allies and shame oppressors.

The fact that, in an authoritarian, media-censored state, women will speak out and share their experiences, shows that a belief in equal dignity, equality of treatment and the need for rational and agreed boundaries to power is, at least potentially, a sign that liberal values are catching on among the people.

The writer co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.