Toilet dispute says a lot about women’s place in China

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IN 2012 A GROUP feminists protested the lack of public toilets for women by using men’s toilets instead (see photo). The state security police responded by harassing and threatening them. But the government took their cause. Cities have started to build more toilets for women. Last year at the UNChina cited this as a great achievement in its efforts over the past five years to improve the lot of women. He did not mention the people who had pushed for such a change.

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Most toilet reform activists have been forced to abandon their campaign. Some are subject to intense state surveillance. Many became fitness fanatics, going to gyms to run and lift weights. “A lot of us suffer from depression and anxiety,” says one. “Exercise is a way for us to prepare for whatever comes next, good or bad.”

Feminist causes are not dead. The country’s media are not allowed to report on the #MeToo movement, an online campaign against sexual harassment that took off around the world in 2017. But the same grievances have arisen in China. A growing number of women are suing powerful men for sexual assault. #MeToo has fueled an “unprecedented interest” in women’s rights, says Lu Pin, a Chinese feminist who went into exile in America in 2015.

Officials are making an effort to show that they care. In 2019, China’s highest court added sexual harassment as a ground for prosecution. The Education Department is now working with universities and schools to curb it on campuses. An anti-sexual harassment clause was included in China’s first civil code, which entered into force this year. Darius Longarino of Yale Law School says the Communist Party often clamps down on activists while trying to show that it is solving the problems they raise.

But the party has used its control of the media and the internet to turn the #MeToo-related debate into something more suited to its own needs. Censors have removed the use of the #MeToo hashtag and its Chinese equivalent, but allowed selective discussion of a handful of cases that cast a negative light on the people or institutions that are in the party’s sights.

The entertainment industry and its celebrities are among the party’s targets. He fears that they are undermining moral righteousness in China by imitating Hollywood’s worst excesses. In August, police arrested Kris Wu, a pop star, after being accused by a college student of pressuring women to have sex with him. The government has banned many online groups that drooled over him and other male celebrities. Some of them were also forums for debate on women’s rights.

This year, state media also highlighted an alleged sex crime involving a director of tech giant Alibaba. The man was accused by an employee of forcing her, while on a business trip, to drink until she passed out and then raping her. The company fired the man, who was later cleared by police of any crime. The scandal coincided with a sweeping regulatory crackdown on Alibaba and other large non-state tech companies, apparently motivated in part by the party’s desire to reduce its enormous economic clout.

Despite its efforts to appear awake, the party is reluctant to upset a patriarchal social order in which women are systematically treated as sex objects, enslaved to men. The justice system still favors stalkers. The burden of proof is very high for women who lay charges of sexual assault. An analysis of civil cases between 2018 and 2020 by academics at Yale Law School found that over 90% of sexual harassment cases were initiated by alleged perpetrators against their accusers (for slandering them) or their employers (for slandering them). have disciplined them).

In September, a Beijing court dismissed a woman’s claim for redress, which had become the country’s most notorious sexual harassment case. The complainant had accused a well-known television presenter of groping and forcing kissing her while she was an intern. The judge said she did not have enough evidence. The plaintiff, known as Xianzi, is considering appealing. The verdict, she said, made it “very easy for the public to assume that I was lying.”

Unlike the case involving the Alibaba employee, state media reporters were banned from covering Xianzi’s plea. In the week leading up to the verdict, anyone who posted information about the case had their social media accounts frozen. Xianzi’s own accounts have been partially or totally blocked.

Such experiences are common among outspoken feminists in China. By excluding them from social media, while tolerating the rants of their critics, censors are fueling the flames of bigotry. Women who try to share their experiences of sexual harassment in the office, or being forced to drink large amounts of alcohol at work banquets, are often “ashamed or labeled as anti-government or hostile foreign forces,” Xianzi says.

Anti-feminist sentiment is fueled by party conservatism. Xi Jinping tries to project an aura of masculinity (his attacks on showbiz have also included a ban on effeminate men from appearing on television). He is known in China as “Xi Dada”, which literally means “Uncle Xi”. It promotes traditional Confucian values, which emphasize the role of women as obedient wives and mothers.

Online trolls attacking #MeToo use the same authoritarian and chauvinistic language the party enjoys, notes Ms. Lu, the American feminist. They also engage in a sort of grassroots activism, with their numerous social media accounts and freelance websites spicing up the party’s message with extra sprinkles of anti-liberal vitriol. It is the only type of advocacy allowed.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “The Long Wait”


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