Thursday, 25 January 2018

MeToo# In China? Not Quite

The MeToo# movement that has done such fabulous work in mobilizing people to resist sexual harassment in the United States has come to China, and cyber-protests have broken out across the country. Alas, government authorities have censored social media and cut off public discussion, preventing wider dissemination of these ideas. But this is nonetheless a social movement, a feminist resistance crusade--another demonstration of dissatisfaction with Beijing, one that’s mimicking protests occurring elsewhere in more open societies, especially the United States.

That’s the story and it’s a moving one.

It’s also rather misleading.

Some facts as reported aren’t in dispute.

There is sexual harassment of women in China that is regular, persistent, and horrifying. The objectification of women and the commodification of the female body are deeply ingrained in current Chinese culture. The overwhelmingly majority of men discriminate against female colleagues (especially assistants and staff) in the workplace as well as in other venues, using position and power to extract sex and obedience. Anyone working here in China—in an office, a university, a factory—is well-acquainted with the ways in which favors are so often sought and dispensed based upon appearance, on the expectation that women will succumb to the charms of the boss--or else suffer the consequences. Just as China is a political and social hierarchy with little pretense about or regard for gender equality, so do many Chinese men expect to be able to dominate and domineer Chinese women. Observers who haven’t seen such behavior are simply not paying attention, or believe such conduct to be acceptable.

More often recently, some women here have begun to fight back—and bully for them. A few have sued; a handful or more have written about their experiences; and some have expressed their outrage online—and paid for publicizing their pain.

But that’s a long way from saying that there’s a feminist resistance movement in China.

Of course, there’s anger here—and certainly on this issue, there should be. But not every outrage constitutes an opposition movement or social crusade in China. If that were the case, one would see local protests becoming major demonstrations that would spread and sustain themselves.[1] One can't, because they don't.

Just about any reader can find angry people in China online, just as one can see them outside government offices, property management companies, investment firms, and the like. But those gatherings in China are almost always efforts to get justice for one’s individual case. Regret and an urge to retaliate against those who’ve wronged aren’t rebellion or even revolts; only rarely are these rallies ever collective, or with a larger purpose in mind. People in China tend to come together locally and for limited purposes—the sum of the aggregate, not to organize but to object[2], often to receive compensation, restitution of some kind. Often those protesting get a hearing, some form of reparations, and then return home.

There’s also the argument that if the Chinese government hadn’t censored the online discussion of the American MeToo# movement that there would have been a groundswell of organized protest on the streets here.

That’s supposition at best—a logical fallacy that cannot be tested unless Chinese censors start taking longer naps.

Equally unproven is the oft-heard assumption that Chinese officials are terrified of threats to the regime and therefore act out of fear to forestall social protests.

But how would anyone really know that, especially as there’s not a lot of evidence to support such a claim? Indeed, when one actually talks to officials here and takes the time and trouble to examine their statements, the prevailing conclusion is that the authorities feel a sense of power and confidence in their abilities—which may be why they’re called “authorities” in a government that is all about that authority, as opposed to participation or civil society.

And why is it that the Chinese government is a monolith again (or still)? Isn’t it possible—even likely—that there are officials here (even men) who sympathize with those expressing anger at the rampant sexism in Chinese society? Do officials suddenly not have sisters, daughters, or mothers? And do they need to know of someone affected in that way to understand the problem? There’s no one in China in a position of power with a sense of morality? Really?

Perhaps worst of all is the inference that Chinese women somehow needed the example of the US MeToo# Movement to start speaking out. Surely Chinese women already knew of sexual harassment and daily discrimination in Chinese society because they live here; they didn’t need anyone abroad to tell them.[3] Presuming that Chinese women required some form of instruction to give voice to their outrage smacks of colonialism, and is its own small form of discrimination.

That a greater number of Chinese women seem to be speaking out about abhorrent experiences is a good—no, a great thing. There’s conviction and courage in those efforts alone—and alone and lonely it must be, because they’re not doing so en masse in the streets or cyberspace. Chinese women who suffer such outrages deserve attention and moral support. They may or may not need foreign conferences and foundations and grants to various scholars and activists to tell Chinese women what they already know themselves, because they're out to protect themselves, not to project themselves.*

Indeed, it's quite likely that Chinese women are entirely capable of handling matters their way in their own time. In any event, one suspects that they’d appreciate if their efforts were presented as what they are, instead of being projected by all too many into something that they’re not.

[1] Observers trying to claim otherwise like to point to the oft-cited but very seldom read study done by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on social protests. What’s less often noted is that the study was published in 2006 and largely relied on data reported in previous years. For a rare exception to this tendency, there’s this carefully reported piece.

[2] That’s also why one can easily find women still writing about their own specific cases of sexual harassment on social media to this day. The authorities are often letting those expressions stay up; it’s the connection to organizing along the lines of the American MeToo# movement that are being quickly scrubbed.

[3] The vast majority of the cases of women here seeking justice of some sort for being harassed predate the MeToo# Movement. In this specific context at least, many Chinese women were there first.

*Though some of the scholarly efforts are laudable, more than a few tend to reflect the self-reinforcing nature of such attempts. Someone identifies a shortcoming in China and gets funding to study it, while activists receive attention and support trying to remedy that shortcoming. When matters stay the same in China (as they almost always do)—well, more money and support are clearly required, recipients say, and is nearly always forthcoming. How any of these efforts actually engineer social change in China--as opposed to say, career development--is unclear.

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