A #MeToo Case Loses In Court And A Comic’s Taboo-Breaking Jokes Go Viral

A Hangzhou court has found a journalist guilty of defamation for accusing a senior colleague of sexually assaulting her in 2009, dealing the nation’s #MeToo movement a courtroom defeat. In 2018, He Qian alleged that Deng Fei groped her while she was a 21-year-old intern and he was chief reporter for Phoenix Weekly. Deng then sued He for defamation. A Hangzhou court concurred with Deng, ordering He Qian and Zou Sicong, who published her accusations on his website, to pay Deng $1,813 in damages. Her case bears obvious similarities to that of prominent #MeToo activist Xianzi, who last month appeared in court to press sexual harassment charges against CCTV anchor Zhu Jun. Public awareness surrounding gender violence rose sharply in 2020, especially after pop star Tan Weiwei released her single “Xiao Juan (Pseudonym),” which documented a litany of violent (and often unprosecuted) crimes perpetrated against women. For The Associated Press, Huizhong Wu reported on He Qian’s plight, and the difficulty victims of sexual assault have proving their case in court:

A court in the eastern city of Hangzhou ruled Tuesday that the evidence provided by Zou Sicong and He Qian against prominent journalist Deng Fei was “not enough to allow someone to firmly believe without any hesitation that what was described truly happened.”

[…] Throughout the process, Zou and He said they faced a higher burden of proof under Chinese law. Although China allowed sexual misconduct as a ground for lawsuits in 2019, the definition of such harassment remains murky and very few cases are filed. Many have been prosecuted in courts as labor disputes or under laws to protect public reputations.

[…] “This is equal to telling someone who was humiliated, who was hurt, that if you don’t have audio recordings or videos of the event, then you better hurry up and shut your mouth,” Zou’s and He’s lawyer, Xu Kai, said in a statement. “The court had imposed the entire burden of proof on Zou Sicong and He Qian.”

[…] Zhou Xiaoxuan [also known as Xianzi], the face of one of China’s most high-profile #MeToo cases, said she did not see the ruling as a defeat. “It was very brave then for He Qian to speak out about this with her real name. She did this for the rights of other women.” [Source]

At The New York Times, Javier C. Hernández interviewed He Qian and Zou Sicong, the two defendants:

“Chinese law needs to do more to respond to #MeToo,” Ms. He, who also uses the first name Belinda, said in an interview. “This is only the beginning and far from enough.”

[…] Mr. Zou said Chinese law should be more responsive to women who bring forward allegations of assault and harassment.

“Hoping a topic will just disappear and return to the old world is ignorant and peremptory,” he wrote on WeChat, a popular social media app. “I will take responsibility until the end for publishing the article about He Qian.”

[…] Feng Yuan, a co-founder of a women’s rights nonprofit group in Beijing, said the court had “completely denied the existence of sexual harassment.”

“Many people will feel even more powerless in the face of sexual harassment,” Ms. Feng said. [Source]

In the aftermath of Xianzi’s December trial, The Economist wrote about the Chinese Communist Party’s fraught relationship with feminist activists, who the Party views as potentially subversive:

Many aspects of the system in China are heavily skewed in favour of men, not least in employment and family matters. The World Economic Forum places China above South Korea and Japan in its ranking of countries by gender equality. But since Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012 his country has fallen from 69th to 106th on that list, below Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Despite this, more women than ever in China are gaining degrees. In 2009, for the first time, the number of female undergraduates surpassed those who were male. Since then women have retained this majority. Young highly educated women have been at the forefront of China’s #MeToo movement. Their demands for rights as women are “very difficult to suppress”, says Wang Zheng of the University of Michigan.

The Communist Party accuses “hostile foreign forces” of stoking such advocacy. In 2015 police arrested a group of women merely for planning to hand out stickers about sexual harassment on public transport. The “feminist five”, as they became known, were released only after weeks in prison, and after news of their plight had sparked outrage in China and abroad. When visiting the state-backed All-China Women’s Federation in 2018, President Xi said the organisation “absolutely must not become one of those organisations like they have in other countries for feminists or posh women”.

Though stifled by the government, campaigning has made some impact. “Prior to #MeToo, discussions about women and gender in mainstream media and on social media were quite limited,” says Zhang Zhiqi, the host of a podcast popular among feminists in China. “There’s now a lot more awareness about gender equality and I think that’s due to #MeToo.” [Source]

At ChinaFile, Shen Lu investigated the glaring gender disparities in the Chinese Communist Party’s ranks, which belie the Party’s own claims to upholding gender equality:

According to the state-sponsored All-China Women’s Federation, women comprise 37.5 percent of the 4 million members of the Party’s neighborhood and village committees, which enforce Party mandates and maintain social order. But, the higher women move up the rungs of government hierarchy, the fewer their female peers. Less than 9 percent of Party secretaries and heads of local governments at the provincial, municipal, and county levels are women. At the county level, women make up 9.33 percent of leadership, 5.29 percent at the city-level, and 3.23 percent at the provincial level. […] This data was last updated in 2017.

[…] Women don’t enjoy equal representation in the Party’s rank and file, either. As of 2018, they made up 27 percent of China’s 90 million Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members.

[…] But while Chinese women’s overall political representation has improved over the years, women still barely appear in positions of government and Party leadership, and seldom rise above the rank of deputy, according to data from the All-China Women’s Federation and National Bureau of Statistics. Currently, out of China’s 31 provincial governors, only two are women. In November, Shen Yiqin was promoted to Party secretary of Guizhou province, becoming China’s sole female provincial Party secretary, a position that is “the most important stepping stone to a Politburo seat,” according to Cheng Li, director of The Brookings Institution’s China Center. The two female provincial governors and one Party secretary make 4.84 percent of all governors and secretaries, an improvement from just the two governors, or 3.23 percent, in 2017.

[…] Indeed, data compiled by the international affairs scholars David Bulman and Kyle Jaros on the tenures and backgrounds of Provincial Party Standing Committee (PPSC) members between 1996 and 2017 show that female cadres disproportionately headed entities such as the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (41 percent) and United Front Work Department (26 percent). “These assignments imply that the Party perceives female cadre comparative advantage through traditionally gendered lenses: Female cadres are effective communicators and dialogue facilitators rather than leaders in their own right,” Bulman says. By contrast, women are underrepresented in functional departments where ultimate power resides. While 7.5 percent of all PPSC members were female, only 0.7 percent of Party secretaries and 6.2 percent of deputy Party secretaries were women, during those 21 years. [Source]


Serious debates about women’s status in Chinese society have also stirred the comedy world in recent weeks. At The New York Times, Tiffany May profiled Yang Li, whose sharp joke about men’s incongruous self-confidence went viral, to the chagrin of a small group of “defenders of men’s rights”:

One of her lines in particular has set off fierce online debate: “How can he look so average and still have so much confidence?” A lot of men didn’t find it funny. And that, said many of Ms. Yang’s defenders, is exactly the point.

[…] On Sunday, a group calling itself a defender of men’s rights began an online campaign aimed at getting the attention of government censors. It offered a sample letter to send to China’s media regulator accusing Ms. Yang of “insulting all men” and “propagating hatred.” The post was later deleted amid criticism.

[…] Ms. Yang responded to some of her male critics in a special routine last week, saying, “They think I’m the most abominable witch in the world. Everything they’ve suffered is because I said, ‘How can you look so average and be so confident?’”

[…] In her show last week, Ms. Yang said that her supporters outnumbered her critics.

“A joke can only get laughs for one reason,” she said. “Because it resonates.” [Source]

The Economist also covered Yang’s taboo-breaking success on the comedy show “Rock and Roast”, and the backlash led by a patriarchal establishment unwilling to share the stage:

Long the stars of Chinese joke-making, men are unhappy about being the butt of it. Chizi, a popular male contestant on “Rock and Roast” with a penchant for boorish jokes about women, sniffed that Ms Yang was “not performing comedy”. Guo Degang, a master of xiangsheng, a witty and often bawdy form of traditional comedy involving banter between two people, recently said he would not recruit women for his troupe (“out of respect”, he said). Very few women perform xiangsheng.

[…] The show, which began in 2017, has been a boost for Chinese stand-up and female participation in it. Evangeline Z says the form of comedy is “huge” in Shanghai. And she reckons up to half of the city’s 50-odd weekly performances are by women. But male and female comics alike warn spectators that what they are about to say could be offensive and they should not take offence. Xiao Ju, a 22-year-old part-time comedian, also in Shanghai, says that showgoers expect to come in for “a bit of easy laughter”, so are ruffled when the ribbing reveals something about themselves.

Female comedians elicit stronger reactions from the audience than male ones, says Xiao Ju. Many people are still shocked when women swear on stage. A gag about a prostitute told by a male comic draws tuts if delivered by a woman. “Sex is a perilous topic,” says Xiao Ju. “So are shit, piss and farts. If a man jokes about these, everyone laughs. If a woman does, she is disgusting.” For fear of offending, many stick to crowd-pleasing themes like families and jobs. [Source]



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