How a 1998 rape and suicide case is inflaming China’s #MeToo movement

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Moya Crockett
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Gao Yan killed herself 20 years ago after allegedly being raped by a professor. Now, her story is being held up as an example of how women are mistreated in China. 

The #MeToo movement was started by Tarana Burke in 2006, before being picked up in Hollywood last autumn and spreading like wildfire around the world. In the West, the crusade against sexual harassment and assault has been able to gather steam online, with millions of women sharing their stories on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.

In China, however, women’s attempts to speak out about sexual misconduct have been repeatedly suppressed by the government, which maintains strict control over the internet and media. The Chinese Communist Party appears to have concerns that feminist activism will disrupt its vision of a stable (and male-dominated) society: in 2015, five women were detained for planning to hand out leaflets about sexual harassment. Women have been frequently censored when they attempt to discuss #MeToo online, with social media and blog posts deleted and related hashtags blocked.

The Chinese state has been unable to quash the nascent campaign entirely. Open letters and petitions can be seen by thousands before they are taken down by censors, and women have come up with ingenious way to get around blocked hashtags, such as sharing stories of sexual harassment using the hashtag #米兔 (which translates as #RiceBunny but reads phonetically as “mi tu”). But overall, the movement has struggled to break into mainstream consciousness.

That may now be set to change thanks to renewed attention on a 20-year-old rape case. The New York Times reports that in recent days, millions of people in China have taken to social media to share the story of Gao Yan, a young woman who committed suicide after allegedly being raped two decades ago. On the 20th anniversary of her death, supporters of the #MeToo movement in China have used her story as a rallying cry, calling on the government to do more to tackle sexual abuse. 

Chinese president Xi Jinping delivers a speech in March. China’s male-dominated government has attempted to suppress online conversations about #MeToo 

Gao was a Chinese literature student at Peking University when she took her own life in 1998. Her friends and family say she told them she had been raped by Shen Yang, at the time a professor at the university. Gao also told her classmates that Shen had spread rumours that she was mentally ill, apparently in an attempt to discredit her. She killed herself soon after.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of Gao’s death, her friends shared memories of her life and her allegations against Shen on social media, using her story as an example of how women in China frequently face structural discrimination and mistreatment.

On Qingming, an annual festival for remembering the dead, one former classmate published an online essay in which she criticised Shen for not apologising. “Twenty years have passed,” Li Youyou wrote in the open letter, posted on 5 April. “Your constant lies and crimes should be put to an end.”

The essay went viral, prompting several Chinese universities to condemn Shen’s behaviour. Peking University, where Shen taught until 2011, promised to do more to prevent sexual harassment; it also revealed that the professor had been given a warning over suspicion of inappropriate behaviour in 1998 after police investigated the case. Shen has denied the allegations against him. 

Women in China have found ways of getting around government censorship online 

Universities have proven to be the most fertile ground for the #MeToo movement to take root in China. This is perhaps not surprising: the country has a long history of student activists pushing back against state control, and large numbers of young women at Chinese universities say they have experienced sexual harassment. One 2017 study by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Centre showed that 70% of college students and graduates said they had been sexually harassed, 75% of whom were women.

Indeed, it was a story about sexual harassment at a higher education institution that first got people talking about the issue in a Chinese context. In January, Luo Xixi – a Chinese citizen now living in California – posted an open letter on the social media platform Weibo, in which she detailed the harassment she was subjected to by a former professor.

The #MeToo movement in China was sparked by a letter by US resident Luo Xixi

Luo said that Chen Xiaowu, her former supervisor at Beihang University in Beijing, attempted to force himself upon her in 2004. He only relented when she wept and told him she was a virgin, she said, and told her he had only been testing her “moral conduct”. He also warned her not to discuss the incident with anyone.

After Luo’s letter went viral, several of Chen’s other former students came forward with their own allegations against him. He has denied all the accusations made against him, but was subsequently dismissed from his post at Beihang University.

But while some universities appear to be ready to take action in the face of sexual harassment allegations, it remains to be seen whether Chinese society at large is ready to address the issue of sexual misconduct. China’s legal system is generally unprepared to handle sexual assault crimes, and laws against sexual harassment are vague and difficult to enforce. The country did not see a sexual harassment court case until 2001, and it was dismissed due to lack of evidence.

Read the full report on the story of Gao Yan here.

Images: Getty Images