Following her letter, students across China wrote letters detailing sexual harassment they suffered not only from Chen at Beihang University, but also from others at different campuses. The #MeToo hashtag on Weibo collected over 4.5 million hits, and the nascent movement won its first victory when Beihang University fired Chen from his posts and the Chinese Ministry of Education revoked Chen’s qualification as a Yangtze River Scholar, a prestigious award given to academics. So far, there have been more than 70 open letters with hundreds of signatures on social media calling for campus sexual-harassment prevention—and there haven’t been any reports of knocks on the door in the night.
#MeToo in China is notable for how it’s lived almost entirely on social media. The movement is carried through open letters and petitions, most written by female university students or alumnae. #MeToo has enjoyed progress in China both because of and in spite of the internet. Social media has enabled its wide reach and community, but it has also restricted the movement by making it visible to censors, who have deleted posts and even the hashtag. A petition urging Fudan University to tackle campus sexual harassment gained more than 300 signatures in a day before being deleted. In late January, Xu Kaibin, a male professor at Wuhan University, published a landmark anti-sexual harassment petition that over 50 professors from more than 30 Chinese colleges signed. While state media reported on the petition, other media acknowledgments, such as an interview with Xu by Beijing News, have been scrubbed from the internet.
But feminists have worked to counter censors: As the hashtag #MeToo came under fire, women started using homonym hashtags. An anonymous activist explained the strategy behind hashtags on the popular WeChat blog Feminist Voices: “I hope [the hashtag] can ... contagiously spread positive public opinion. Speaking up isn’t to vent but to promote.” There have been no Women’s March–style protests for #MeToo in China, but the internet has allowed this generation of Chinese feminists to mobilize online.
China doesn’t have a legal system prepared to handle sexual-assault crimes, and sexual harassment is even more difficult to prevent and punish due to the ambiguity of laws against it. Citing lack of evidence, a Xi’an court dismissed China’s first sexual-harassment case in 2001. Though in 2005 sexual harassment became expressly forbidden in law, that law lacks a definition of sexual harassment or guidelines for how to prosecute its crimes. Meanwhile, a study by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center showed that 70 percent of college students and graduates claim to have experienced sexual harassment, with 75 percent of them being women.
In such a legal environment, virality has become the path to justice. After her professor denied her story, Luo Xixi’s open letter was supported by her sharing online the sexual WeChat messages he had written her. Open letters themselves have precedent: In 2014, 256 professors and students signed open letters urging the Ministry of Education to create anti–sexual harassment policies for university campuses. The letter was motivated by a viral blog post written by a former student of Wu Chunming, a professor at Xiamen University, that accused him of molesting her and multiple classmates. In response, the university suspended Wu and the ministry issued a document prohibiting professors from sexually harassing students, though, similar to the 2005 law, it remained vague on terms.