by Javier C. Hernández and Zoe Mou
BEIJING — They call themselves “silence breakers,” circulate petitions demanding investigations into sexual harassment and share internet memes like clenched fists with painted nails.
But Chinese women are finding it difficult to organize a far-reaching #MeToo movement, going up against not just a male-dominated culture but also the ruling Communist Party itself.
Government censors, apparently fearing social unrest, are trying to hobble the campaign, blocking the use of phrases like “anti-sexual harassment” on social media and deleting online petitions calling for greater protections for women. And officials have warned some activists against speaking out, suggesting that they may be seen as traitors colluding with foreigners if they persist.
“So many sincere and eager voices are being muted,” said Zhang Leilei, 24, an activist in the southern city of Guangzhou who has helped circulate dozens of petitions among college students. “We are angry and shocked.”
Women are demanding investigations into bosses, teachers and co-workers. They are pressing universities to investigate harassment complaints more forcefully. And they are taking to social media to rail against sexism and denounce the lack of women in high office.
A handful of university officials have already lost their jobs in cases that have prompted national debate, including one involving a professor accused of harassing a half-dozen students over the past 15 years.
The campaign is testing the limits of a government that frowns on citizen-led movements, has a poor record of promoting women’s rights and controls all news media. While investigative reporting ignited the #MeToo movement in the United States, women in China are forced to tell their stories directly online.
“'Me Too’ was an alarm bell for all of us,” said Sophia Huang Xueqin, 30, a journalist in southern China who started a social media platform to report sexual harassment. “We’re not brave enough to stand out as one individual. But together, we can be strong.”
Huang, who said she left her job at a national news service several years ago after being harassed by a senior colleague, said many women were ashamed to speak out because of the stigma associated with it. “It feels like we’re still in a traditional world where women are supposed to stay at home and support the family and feed the kids,” she said.
The Communist Party often embraces gender equality as a propaganda theme, noting the strides women made in the first decades of its rule. Mao famously declared that “women hold up half the sky.”
But in recent years, the government has done little to prevent a resurgence of sexism and workplace discrimination. Men dominate the party’s upper ranks, and government officials and powerful business executives are often protected from allegations of wrongdoing.
Laws on rape and harassment are vague, legal experts say, and courts do not often rule in favor of women who pursue complaints against employers. Employers rarely investigate complaints or dole out meaningful punishments.
“Most victims remain silent,” said Li Ying, a lawyer and the director of the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, an advocacy group. “They can’t afford to lose their jobs.”
The #MeToo movement is largely limited to educated, urban women. Many have been inspired by Luo Xixi, a graduate of Beihang University, an aeronautics school in Beijing, who recently published an essay online that was read by more than three million people. Luo said she was one of seven women who had been harassed by a professor, Chen Xiaowu.
More than a decade ago, she wrote, Chen lured her off campus and tried to have sex with her, despite her pleas that he stop. He denied the allegations, but the university fired him this month, saying he had harassed several students.
In her essay, Luo urged Chinese women to “stand up bravely and say ‘No!'”
Some have described her story as the “first step in the Long March” against sexual harassment in China. But Luo, who now lives in the United States, said the movement would need to be “mild and gentle” to avoid pushback from the government.
“Only in this way can the Chinese campaign against sexual harassment live on and develop,” she wrote in an email.
Activists say it will probably take decades to change public attitudes about harassment. At many companies, women are underpaid and relegated to menial roles. Men take co-workers as mistresses and openly remark on the appearance of female colleagues.
Fanny M.C. Cheung, a professor of psychology and vice president of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said many women did not report harassment because Chinese culture had taught them to respect hierarchy. “People are not encouraged to speak up against superiors,” Cheung said. “If you can’t change public attitudes, it’s very difficult to have a true endorsement of gender equality.”
Already, the Chinese government appears uncomfortable with the growing number of women who are going public with charges of abuse.
Xu Yalu, 28, a marketing specialist, recently took to social media to recount being groped on the street in Shanghai several times. She posted photos of the man but said the police refused to take action, telling her he was too old to be arrested. Soon she was inundated with misogynistic comments and her post was deleted by censors.
“It’s not my fault that I was sexually assaulted,” Xu said. “Why should I be afraid or ashamed of talking about it?”
Even relatively mundane calls for change have been stamped out. Censors recently deleted an online petition calling on Peking University to offer seminars on improper conduct and create committees to investigate abuse reports. And a top social media platform has intermittently blocked the use of the “MeToo China” hashtag.
Students have tried to elude the censors by using different phrases to denounce harassment and assault. But several activists have been warned by professors that they may be perceived as assisting “hostile foreign forces,” according to Xiao Meili, a graduate of the Communication University of China in Beijing.
“Spontaneously organized movements are not appreciated,” said Zheng Xi, a doctoral student at Zhejiang University who is leading a campaign to persuade city governments to post signs against harassment.
Some advocates worry that the movement may face more concerted government opposition if it grows too large. In 2015, the Beijing police detained five feminists who tried to distribute leaflets warning of sexual harassment on public transit. Legal aid centers for women have been shut down.
Many Chinese women who have come forward with stories of abuse have been scorned by friends, co-workers and relatives. But some say doing so gave them a feeling of liberation.
For seven months, Zhang Qiongwen, 22, lived with a secret. A dean at her university in southern China, Zhou Bin, abused her on several occasions, she says, masturbating in front of her and forcing her to kiss him. He threatened to prevent her and her classmates from graduating if she reported him, she says.
Zhang’s friends warned her that if she reported the harassment it would ruin her reputation. Another dean, Cheng Shuijin, asked her not to go public, she recounted, saying, “The correct thing to do is to pretend nothing happened.”
Haunted by the incident, Zhang began thinking of suicide. But late last year, she broke her silence, posting an essay online titled, “A Must-Read for Female Students at Our School About Protecting Yourself From Predators.” Then she reported Zhou to the police.
In December, the two deans, Zhou and Cheng, were fired in connection with the case. Both men declined to comment.
“I couldn’t erase such a brutal thing from my mind,” Zhang said. “I didn’t want my silence to enable more crimes.”