For a long time I was under the impression that walking the streets of China is much safer than in other countries (something both New York Times and Wall Street Journal agree with). This was despite the fact that two years ago a teenage boy selling flowers but who looked high on something, walked up to me and said "nice boobs" before grabbing a feel. Hey, it was late at night, I was in a seedy part of town wearing a low-cut top. I'm not saying I was asking for it, just that I was willing to write it off as an outlier.
But then late last year a stranger on a motorcycle pursued a friend of mine, attempting to grab her off her bicycle. And just a month ago another friend was walking down the street when a man bear-hugged her from behind. They struggled to the ground as she fought off his hands, slipping further down her shirt.
So I decided to take a quick informal survey of eight Chinese girlfriends of mine living in Beijing and was surprised to find that all but one had experienced some kind of inappropriate touching in public.
Of course, this is not to say that China has a unique problem (I've been flashed at or touched inappropriately in Argentina, Italy and Australia); rather that it has the same un-unique problem other countries have.
And according to a recent survey of 1500 people conducted by the Canton Public Opinion Research Centre, almost one-third believe sexual harassment is on the rise in China, predominantly on public busses, subways or in entertainment venues. Three per cent said they themselves had been subjected to harassment in the past three years.
If it is difficult to say with accuracy that sexual harassment is on the rise in China, one can posit theories explaining why there is, at the very least, the impression that it is. Conscience raising of women's rights – including understanding what sexual harassment is and one's right to be free from the threat of it – is battling for space in China's morality wars.
This was best illustrated last year when the official Weibo account of Shanghai Subway Line 2 tweeted a photo of a female passenger in a semi-transparent dress, with the caption: "If you're going to dress like this on the subway you should expect harassment. There are so many perverts on the subway, and we can't catch them all. Girl, have some respect for yourself!"
While the tweet was hardly condemned unanimously, there was significant outrage among Weibo users that an official channel would excuse away sexual harassment. One user quoted Chinese sociologist Pei Yu Xin: "These so-called 'standards of dress' are steeped in the patriarchal control of women's bodies: You (woman), do not have the power to reveal your body, your body exists to pleasure my (man's) desire. If you refuse to abide, it is within my right to discipline (harass) you. This kind of logic used in a number of rape cases places the blame on the woman, who is forced to consider herself a kind of accomplice."
Attempts to turn around China's "blame the victim" culture become especially vital when considering sexual harassment in the workplace. Women – and sometimes men – risk promotions and livelihoods if they rebuke the advances of their perpetrators or report misconduct to management. The country's first legislation prohibiting sexual harassment of women only passed in 2005, unsurprising in a country that traditionally considers sex a private matter and whose legal system (and culture of liability) is still in its infancy. It would be another three years before a sexual harasser would be successfully prosecuted, despite figures from a 2010 Chinese Academy of Social Sciences survey placing the portion of sexual harassment victims as high as 40 per cent of female employees at joint venture enterprises, and more than 70 per cent in the service industry.
In 2010, Chinese-American Joy Chen, a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and best-selling writer in China, blogged about her own experiences of sexual harassment by the CEO of a former workplace. "Whenever he saw me alone, he would come up from behind me and start kissing and licking my ears and neck. Just the memory of that still makes my skin crawl," she wrote.
According to Chen, the decline of workplace harassment in the United States – and the critical missing link in Chinese legislation – happened when liability fell not only on the perpetrator's shoulders, but on the company's as well. This gave businesses a financial motive to ferret out any cultures of abuse.
For several years now, women's rights organisation Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Centre has been calling for new legislation that holds employees responsible and recently met with victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. Director Wang Xingjuan told state media: "The sexual harassment made them give up jobs and led to misunderstanding from the public, even their families, which has affected their daily life and damaged their mental health." Wang also said that Chinese employers usually terminated women's contracts, and used settlements to resolve disputes.
Although not without struggle, overall the status of women in China continues to rise. Yet there remains people – particularly among the older generation – who are shocked that as a woman I go out drinking in bars, travel on my own and dare to walk the street at indecent hours (behaviour I admittedly modify place to place). They often say to me, "you're so independent!" in a tone that always leaves me unsure if it was a compliment or an admonition.
This conservatism is changing among a portion of Chinese youth who not only understand that one has the right to live without the fear of being sexually harassed, but live as if this is already the case. After all, change never happened without some calculated risk-taking.