When will China implement laws to combat sexual harassment?

Beijing, China – Xiao Liang never imagined her mentor would one day become her predator.

In 2016, the young writer was just months away from graduating when her favourite professor, Zheng (name changed), invited her for dinner at a public spa which has private rooms.

The evening started with a warm discussion about her work. But it ended with Xiao being cornered in a room as Zheng tried to force her into sex. The student was able to escape but the evening left its mark on her.

“I was horrified. For a long time, I couldn’t sleep. I knew this man to be very respectable and kind. I wondered if it was my fault, whether I had unknowingly given him the wrong message,” Xiao, now 25, told Al Jazeera.

The next morning, Zheng sent her a message saying he hoped there would be “no hard feelings” between them. The message ended: “Happy International Women’s Day!”.

For more than a year, Xiao kept the incident to herself. Subtle changes in appearance – she cut her hair very short and started wearing loose clothes – went mostly unnoticed by those around her.

“I was afraid. I didn’t want men to notice me,” added Xiao.

As Zheng continued teaching at the institution, she felt powerless to change anything.

Silence surrounding sexual assault allegations is common across China. The country lacks a legal definition of sexual harassment, as well as laws to deal with these cases.

But there are signs that this is changing.

In 2017, a social media post sent shockwaves through China’s academic community. Prominent Beijing professor Chen Xiaowu was accused of assaulting a former student 13 years ago. Several subsequent allegations resulted in Chen being sacked in January 2018.

This incident sparked China’s #Metoo campaign and gave Xiao the encouragement she needed to speak out about her own experience.

She wrote an online piece about the encounter with Zheng and contacted the university, Shanghai Commercial College, to complain. The response she received was not what she expected.

“They ignored me. Until now, they haven’t given me a proper response. Officials there couldn’t believe these things could happen there. I believe he still teaches and I’m worried for his female students.”

Shanghai Commercial College has not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Legislation in the works

China is now planning draft legislation which would, for the first time, define sexual harassment and also make employers responsible for preventing it.

“It would encourage people to go to court and defend their rights,” said Feng Yuan, a former journalist who works as a sexual assault victims’ advocate in Beijing. 

Feng said China’s #Metoo campaign gained momentum in recent months but, for many, progress is still lacking.

“It’s slow and hard. On one hand we have more and more victims standing up to report cases, but investigations are often slow and opaque. Results are then often hushed,” said Feng before adding that stronger penalties and prevention measures were needed.

While universities were the original epicentre of China’s #Metoo movement, several prominent figures were called out on social media in recent months.

Following allegations, Lei Chuang stepped down as head of his charity organisation YiYou.

Last month, Shi Xuecheng , the country’s highest-ranking Buddhist monk, resigned as president of a government-backed Buddhist Association after a 95-page document accusing him of assaulting nuns was leaked online.

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But while Feng welcomes the new draft law, she said it could be years before it’s implemented.

According to Chinese state media, the draft code is set to be completed by 2020 and would need to be voted in at the National People’s Congress.

In China, the current gap in legislation means sexual harassment complaints are often dealt with as labour disputes, with successful lawsuits being rare.

According to a report released in June by the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Centre, sexual assault was a major factor in only 34 cases out of millions of verdicts delivered by courts between 2010 and 2017.

Alleged victims, meanwhile, are also likely to be sued. Last month, state television news anchor Zhu Jun announced he was suing social media users for circulating an anonymous post accusing him of sexual misconduct.

“We need to continue to push for the improvement and implementation of this law,” said Xiao Meili, a Guangzhou-based feminist activist who considers the draft code a win for China’s #Metoo advocates but adds the work is far from over.

“Right now, the direct effect may be small. But what it has done is provide more legitimacy for the survivors who stand up. It’s also a sign that #Metoo in China is working, and that we can change the attitude of the government.”

Xiao agrees, saying that the draft law has given victims like her new hope. While Zheng and his university haven’t addressed her complaint yet, she says she has no intention of giving up.

“Many choose not to fight for justice because its risky as these professors can have a huge influence on their careers. But I’ve grown and feel stronger since it happened,” said Xiao. “The more I speak out, the more I realise I’m not alone.”

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