Sophia Huang Xueqin has her own #MeToo moment. When she was a young intern working for a national news agency in China, a senior male reporter and mentor tried to grope and kiss her in a hotel room where they were working together. After he refused to take no for an answer, Huang escaped only by kicking him and kneeing him in the groin, and running off to a friend’s room.
But she never reported the incident. Instead, she quit her job, telling people that she wanted to try something new.
“Finally there were people brave enough to make it public and start the conversation,” she said in an interview. “Unfortunately, China reacted toward #MeToo with a lot of silence. Although I could understand why that was, I really felt defeated.”
Huang has invited others to come forward. She also started a poll on WeChat, a popular messaging app in China, in which 255 female journalists shared their experiences: More than 80 percent reported they had been sexually harassed, most on multiple occasions.
Yet very few women have joined her in going public.
“There is still a belief in China, deeply ingrained in traditional culture, that it is a virtue of women to be submissive to the wishes of others,” said women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan, whose own struggle to bring to justice a school principal for molesting six schoolgirls in 2013 — and the persecution she faced from the government and police for doing so — was recorded in the documentary "Hooligan Sparrow.”
“Women being resistant or vocal about their experiences are still stigmatized by people who say they simply don’t have self-respect,” she said.
Powerful perpetrators are habitually protected by the Chinese state, Ye said, while women’s rights groups are treated with suspicion by the Communist Party, branded as agents of foreign interference.
“As long as the Communist Party remains in power, it’s arguable China will never be ready for a #MeToo movement,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of the forthcoming book “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.”
“There’s no press freedom in China, and there’s no rule of law, so it’s extremely difficult for victims of sexual harassment to find justice of any kind,” Fincher said. “What incentive would they have to come out?”
But some still have. Back in October, one Silicon Valley woman did.
Born and brought up in China, Luo Xixi had studied at Beihang University in Beijing, and still remembers vividly the time when a leading computer scientist, Chen Xiaowu, lured her to his sister’s house on a pretext, locked the door and made his advance.
But in the days that followed the Weinstein revelations, some of Chen’s former students started to share their experiences of harassment at his hands, in a private chat room for graduates. Luo had seen action taken against predatory men on U.S. campuses, and when she saw Huang’s account, she decided it was time to speak out.
That she now has U.S. residency affords her some protection, Luo says, but it is also a “double-edged sword.” Chen, she said, had once mobilized fellow lecturers to warn female students against reporting him, telling them not to become “agents of evil foreign forces.”
Luo’s family back in China was initially very worried about the risk of a backlash if she spoke out, she said. “But they later became supportive, knowing I did the right thing. A lot of friends who I had not talked to for ages also reached out to me, and encouraged me to carry on.”
Sophia Huang has still not named her attacker, but Luo figured that only by naming Chen would a precedent be set. She also collected the testimony of four other women, one of whom said Chen made her pregnant and tried to bribe her to remain silent.
Luo’s post garnered more than 4 million views and 17,000 likes. When the accusations were reported in Chinese media, the university suspended Chen from teaching and launched an investigation.
In comments to the Beijing Youth Daily, Chen denied he had done anything illegal or in breach of party discipline. He did not answer his telephone this week, and The Washington Post could not reach him for comment.