In November 2021, a SNS post by female Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sexual relations with him. While the controversy triggered by this (hereinafter the “Peng Shuai affair”) has been analyzed by some from the point of view of power struggle, this article aims to take this affair as the starting point in its analysis of the social condition in China as the authorities tighten control ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics. It will also examine the Xi Jinping regime’s attitude toward social movements.
Aside from Peng, a considerable number of people had also gone missing before the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese authorities are probably wary of factors of instability that may lead to a social movement. The “Peng Shuai affair” involves an official of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the highest level, and this affair has become widely known internationally, making it impossible to hush up. The regime appears to have been hard put to come up with a response.
For a while, there had also been an upsurge of the #MeToo movement in China. However, guilty verdicts had often been pronounced simply to put an end to the high-profile cases in society when a financial settlement could not be reached, while in most other cases, the victims’ voice was never fully heard, and their cases were often consigned to oblivion.
This article will identify the distinguishing features of social control under the Xi regime by citing a number of cases of sexual violence or harassment in recent years and analyzing the relevant gender-related laws and litigation.
１．Missing People ahead of the Beijing Olympics
In early November 2021, tennis player Peng Shuai, who once won the ladies’ doubles championship at the Wimbledon Championships and the French Open, accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sexual relations on WeChat (the Chinese version of LINE). Subsequently, she disappeared from public view, prompting people who were worried about her to start a hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai on SNS in a widespread campaign to gather information.
In light of this development, on Nov. 14, Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) CEO Steve Simon indicated his grave concern and called for a thorough, fair, and transparent investigation. Later, on Nov. 21, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suddenly announced that “Chairman Thomas Bach held a 30-minute video call with Peng Shuai and was able to confirm her safety.” Peng’s whereabouts were actually reported on TV and by officials of government-affiliated media outlets. However, Simon further stated on Dec. 1: “I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation.” He announced the suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, arguing that “I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
The protest continued to gain momentum after this. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution criticizing the IOC for failing to explain how the video call was held and for working with the Chinese government to cover up this issue. A German sports organization also issued a statement asking the IOC to provide proof that Peng Shuai was safe and to conduct an independent investigation. Subsequently, the U.S., Australia, the UK, Canada, and Lithuania announced a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Olympics.
Peng Shuai is not the only one who has gone missing. The Chinese government routinely detain and place under surveillance people who voice criticism of the government or who are active in citizens’ movements or arrest them for threatening national security. Huang Xueqin, a journalist and #MeToo activist, and Wang Jianbing, an activist involved with labor issues, were detained by the authorities in September 2021 and have since been incommunicado. When Luo Xixi, who now lives in the U.S., alleged on SNS in 2018 that she was forced to have sex with her professor when she was a student of Beihang University, Huang Xueqin worked very hard to support her, such as by gathering witness statements to corroborate her allegation. In the aftermath of Luo’s accusation, dozens of other victims also raised their voice. The university conducted an investigation and later dismissed the professor in question (more details in the next section).
On Jan. 12, 2022, democratic activist Guo Feixong (penname of Yang Maodong) was arrested by the police in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” What he was actually guilty of has not been specified. Guo had asked to be allowed to go to the U.S. to look after his wife, who was undergoing treatment for cancer there, but the Chinese authorities had refused on grounds of “national security.” His whereabouts had been unknown after he published an appeal to Premier Li Keqiang in November of the previous year, calling on him to allow him to leave the country. His wife died in the U.S. on Jan. 10 without being able to see her husband.
Tang Jitian, a human rights activist and former lawyer, was scheduled to attend a human rights event in Beijing at the European Union (EU) Delegation in China on International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, 2021. He went missing on that very day. Tang’s eldest daughter, who was studying in Japan, had been seriously ill and in a coma since May last year. Tang had been asking the authorities to lift his exit ban so he could visit his daughter. His supporters are worried that he might be arrested like Guo Feixiong.
Human rights lawyer Xie Yang had also gone missing since mid-January. He was later found to have been detained on charges of inciting the subversion of state power. Xie was once detained in July 2015 along with some 300 human rights lawyers and others. He later told lawyer Jiang Tianyong (who was sentenced to two years in prison for inciting subversion of state power) and others that he was tortured by beating, sleep deprivation, and so forth. However, during the court hearing in December 2017, he testified that “there was no torture.” He did not receive a prison sentence at that time. So why was he taken into custody this time? Perhaps because he assisted Li Tiantian, an elementary school teacher in Hunan Province?
Last December, a teacher at the Shanghai Aurora College, a vocational school, was dismissed for voicing doubts about China’s claim that 300,000 people were killed in the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, telling the students, “We must not harbor resentment forever and must think of why the war had occurred.” Li Tiantian, who had voiced her support for this teacher on SNS, was forcibly confined in a mental hospital even though she was pregnant. With an increasing number of people voicing concern about Li’s safety, the government of Yongshun County, Hunan Province, where she was believed to have been taken, was swamped by phone calls protesting and inquiring about her. Thanks to the outrage, Li was able to return home, but Xie Yang was beaten up by village officials when he attempted to deliver her and her family consolation money, and his cell phone was destroyed.
For China, safeguarding “national security” means eliminating all forces that have a negative impact on the communist regime. However, how much financial and human resources does it have to devote to this cause? Did it have to arrest an activist and a lawyer as unreliable elements when they simply wanted to visit their sick wife and daughter? What have they done to “collude with foreign forces”?
２．The #MeToo Movement in China
We cannot know how Peng Shuai felt when she posted her allegation. Since she is most probably not in a position to speak freely now, there is no way to find out the truth. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that amid the strict political control, victims of sexual harassment and violence in China are in a difficult position.
The #MeToo movement had also thrived for a while in China. But now, the term itself has been eliminated from social media, and it is extremely rare for sexual harassment cases to be tried in court. This is because the plaintiff is required to present video footages, photos, and other items recording the crime as evidence, which comes as a heavy burden on the plaintiff. Cases brought to the employers are not dealt with adequately, so some victims feel that their only option is to post their case on the Internet to appeal to public opinion.
When a serious enough uproar was created in public opinion, there have been cases in which severe penalties were meted out to the perpetrators or dismissed cases were retried, resulting in a guilty verdict. However, as can be seen from the prominent cases in recent years cited below, in many instances, the authorities had intervened before the disturbance became serious through strict surveillance, information control, detention of the involved parties, and such other methods.
(1) Beihang University responded to Professor Chen Xiaowu’s sexual violence case after an accusation was made 12 years later
In January 2018, using her real name, Luo Xixi, a graduate of Beihang University’s graduate school (who finished her doctoral course in 2011), claimed that 12 years ago, Prof. Chen Xiaowu, her academic supervisor at that time, brought her to his home off-campus and assaulted her, (reposting an accusation she had made anonymously on the Chinese website Zhihu in October 2017). Chen allegedly perpetuated sexual harassment on at least seven female students over a period of more than 10 years, impregnating one of them. Beihang University conducted an investigation in response to this accusation and confirmed on Jan. 11 that sexual harassment had indeed taken place. Chen was dismissed from his position as vice president of the graduate school and his credentials as academic supervisor in the graduate school and his teacher’s license were revoked.
The university had reacted coldly when first contacted in October 2017. However, after the victim’s post using her real name went viral on the Internet and Renmin Ribao published a commentary supporting Luo’s decision to appeal to the public, the university took immediate action.
(2) Peking University acted on Prof. Shen Yang’s sexual violence case based on an accusation made 20 years later
In April 2018, Li Youyou (who entered Peking University in 1995; currently residing in Canada) accused the university’s Prof. Shen Yang (at that time, later moved to Nanjing University), a Changjiang Scholars Program professor (the highest academic award issued by the Chinese government) of sexual assault that took place 20 years ago. She claimed that after raping a student named Gao Yan, Shen slandered her by claiming she was mentally deranged, causing her to commit suicide in March 1998. In response to this, Peking University announced that, “The university takes this case very seriously. The committee on faculty members’ professional ethics and discipline will reinvestigate the case immediately.” Actually, after Gao Yan committed suicide in March 1998, the Xicheng branch of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau had recognized the facts of this case and reported that the university imposed administrative sanctions on Shen in July of that year. Nanjing University also set up a special working group to investigate this matter, later urging Shen to resign. After this incident, Beijing University reportedly began to consider drawing up “regulations against sexual harassment.”
(3) Non-indictment of the accused rescinded in the case of Li Yiyi’s suicide
On June 20, 2018, Li Yiyi (19 years old) threw herself from the eighth floor of a department store in the Xifeng District of Qingyang City, Kansu Province. Onlookers outside the department store had, reportedly, even urged her to “jump quickly!” Li was suffering from depression. Two years earlier, when she was 17 and a third-year high school student (in September 2016), she became a victim of sexual harassment by her homeroom teacher, Wu Yonghou. The school attempted a monetary settlement, but her parents filed a lawsuit. However, Wu was merely punished with an administrative detention of 10 days (in May 2017) and his case was dismissed in March 2018. During this time, Li had attempted suicide four times. The city’s education board later revoked Wu’s credentials as teacher after Li died, but he had been teaching at the same school until then. In August 2018, Wu’s non-indictment verdict was suddenly overturned, and the prosecutors went on to arraign him. On April 10, 2020, Wu was sentenced to two years in prison for indecent sexual assault and banned from working in education and other fields that come in contact with minors for three years after serving his term.
(4) Sexual assault case of prominent CCTV anchor dropped for insufficient evidence
Zhou Xiaoxuan, known as Xianzi on WeChat (Chinese version of Twitter), became a victim of sexual harassment when she visited CCTV anchor Zhu Jun’s dressing room to interview him when she was 21 years old and working as an intern in 2014. With Zhu flatly denying the accusation, Zhou sent a 3,000-character article stating her case to her WeChat group. Zhu is a household name who hosts the Spring Festival (lunar New Year) special TV program and so on.
Zhou filed a lawsuit at a court in Beijing, but she was barely given an opportunity to speak in court. Video footage taken outside Zhu’s dressing room, the dress she was wearing during the interview, photos, and other evidence she presented were not accepted. When she asked that her dress be tested for Zhu’s DNA, she was told by the court that the dress was now missing. On Sept. 14, 2021, her case was dismissed for insufficient evidence. Furthermore, her WeChat account with over 300,000 followers was completely blocked. Censorship against her tightened, preventing her from public discourse. In addition, Zhu sued her for libel. The police reportedly called Zhu the embodiment of the state’s “positive energy” movement that promotes good deeds, saying his reputation must not be compromised.
Zhou was also connected to her supporters through her WeChat account, but she later became unable to make any postings. To dodge censorship, she resorted to sending her writings to her supporters, who then posted them on their accounts. However, even her supporters’ accounts were terminated eventually. A feminist group on WeChat, while able to post chats, became unable to read messages from others after Zhou’s court hearing.
Furthermore, bloggers taking the authorities’ side began to criticize Zhou, claiming she was lying and that she “colluded with foreign forces” in her bid to steer up controversy. The state-run English newspaper Global Times published a commentary on Zhou’s case claiming that the Western media are trying to create the following image: “Chinese society is unhealthy; there is no social justice in China, and the rights of disadvantaged groups such as women cannot be guaranteed. For this very reason, Western governments and societies should punish and seek to change China,” and that the Western media is using the #MeToo movement to “create antagonism between genders and thus undermine the stability of Chinese society.”
3. Information on Gender-Related Court Cases
(1) Laws related to DV, sex crimes, and other gender issues
As seen from the above, in a situation where politics often takes precedence over the law, court cases related to sex crimes can hardly be said to have proceeded smoothly. The relevant laws consist only of provisions on rape (forcible sexual intercourse) and indecent sexual assault under the Criminal Code. In addition, for crimes such as human trafficking, rape is considered an aggravating factor when assessing culpability. In 2016, the Anti-Domestic Violence Law came into force and ordinances for the prevention of DV were formulated in various provinces.
In 2017, the judiciary allowed the filing of civil suits for sexual harassment for the first time, based on the “Provisions on the Cause of Action of Civil Cases” issued by the Supreme People’s Court. Specifically, “sexual harassment” was added to the list of grounds and causes of civil litigation in this document. While the “Provisions” is simply a set of administrative guidelines for judges, it is still an official document of the court stipulating the format of litigation documents. It can be said that this opened the possibility for victims of sexual harassment to file civil suits to seek redress.
Article 1010 of the Civil Code that came into force in 2021 provided for indemnity obligations for sexual harassment and the responsibility of companies, schools, and other organizations to prevent and investigate sexual harassment. While there were provisions related to sexual harassment in the Labour Law and other laws in the past, it is significant that this has been written into the Civil Code explicitly. Specific legal interpretations and judicial precedents will probably accumulate from now on.
From the above, it appears that the impact of SNS since the start of the #MeToo movement has been the main driving force behind these gradual reforms. With the promulgation of the Anti-DV Law and other laws, DV and sexual violence are increasingly being recognized as crimes. However, one of the remaining issues is that “threat” is still required for conviction of rape. The same debate is also taking place in Japan, and whether the victim resisted becomes a point of contention in trials. It is difficult for the plaintiff to prove “resistance,” so it is believed that “consent” should be the deciding factor. Furthermore, since men are not recognized as victims of rape, indecent sexual assault becomes the only applicable crime. Setting 14 years old as the eligible age for consent to have sexual intercourse is also said to be too low from the standpoint of protection of minors.
(2) Issues seen from a lawyer’s activities
I had an opportunity to have a discussion on sexual harassment and sex crimes with a female lawyer (S) in November 2021. She preferred not to be named for security reasons. S became a lawyer in 2010, and aside from gender-related cases, she has been involved with cases of work-related injuries and illnesses, disabled people, and political rights (such as freedom of speech). After she joined a group of Chinese human rights lawyers in 2013, she began to feel pressure from the authorities. She was also targeted in the “709 Crackdown” (mass arrest of lawyers) of 2015. Her lawyer’s license was suspended in 2017 but she was able to resume her work in 2019. While she is remaining cautious at present, she has been involved with several lawsuits and legal aid.
S explained that it is difficult to prove incidents of sexual harassment and sex crimes. She further stressed that the legal procedure laws need to be amended because the perpetrators sometimes sue the victims for libel after they are acquitted.
Another issue is “second rape.” This refers to the situation in which the obstetricians who examine the victims of sex crimes and sexual violence or the investigating police officers sometimes imply that they were partly to blame, and they are exposed to the inquisitiveness of others, suffering further psychological and social damage in the process. In China, particularly in the rural areas, many victims often fail to win their family’s understanding, which adds to their emotional pain. For example, even if a teacher is sentenced to prison for sex crimes, the victim’s family still criticizes her for “losing virginity,” “inviting disaster,” and so on.
There are also cases in which media reports trigger second rape. While most reporters handle personal information with care, place names and other information in their reports make it easy to identify the victim in areas with a small population. There are times when the second rape inflicts greater damage on the victim than the actual crime. S said that the promotion of gender education is important.
As to indemnity payment by the perpetrators to the victims, some perpetrators think that imprisonment is enough, so there is no need to pay, while others are too poor to pay. In some cases, the victim’s family spend the compensation money without her consent, and in such cases, filing another civil suit becomes a heavy burden on all concerned. Although there is indeed a compensation system for victims of crime, the screening process is very strict, and compensation is only 20,000-30,000 yuan at most.
The litigation process in court cases on sex crimes itself has a negative effect on the victims in some cases, and they often suffer from mental illnesses. The damage of second rape is also very serious, so few victims think lawsuits are worthwhile. Nevertheless, there are still people like S who persevere in advocating change in gender consciousness and providing litigation support and legal aid.
Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, the Xi Jinping regime is apprehensive of factors of instability that may lead to social movements. The “Peng Shuai affair” involves a CPC official at the highest level and has become widely known in the world, so the regime finds itself in a tight spot because it is unable to hush up the case. The CPC National Congress, held once in five years, is scheduled to take place this year, so the Xi Jinping regime needs to make preparations to lay the groundwork for Xi’s third term. However, the domestic economy is currently stagnant while there is growing discontent with the zero-Covid and other policies, revealing the regime’s vulnerabilities. Therefore, the Xi regime must avoid a resurgence of the #MeToo movement at a level comparable to that in 2018 by all means.
The government-affiliated English-language media outlet, CGTN (China Global Television Network), which actively conveys the Chinese authorities’ line, once reported on the rape case involving a university professor in Beijing in 2018 from the standpoint of the #MeToo movement. But now, it has begun to criticize Western democracy in December 2021 to coincide with the Summit for Democracy hosted by the U.S. With such rivalry between the democratic camp and China expected to continue, the Chinese government is likely to work hard on information manipulation, focusing particularly on concealing the contradictions in Chinese society.
8 According to information provided by author’s acquaintance.
9 Cai Xiaoying, “Beihang Professor Chen Xiaowu Dismissed; First Victory for China’s #MeToo Anti-Sexual Harassment Movement?” (in Chinese), BBC News, Jan. 17, 2018. “100 Days of the Muting of ‘Voice of Women’s Rights’: Nothing More Exciting Than Being an Activist” (in Chinese), Initium Media, June 23, 2018.[https://chinadigitaltimes.net/chinese/587496.html]
11 Cai Jiaxin, “Two Years after Young Indecent Assault Victim in Qingyang Jumped to Her Death, Home Room Teacher Released after Serving Prison Term, Parents Over 100,000 Yuan in Debt” (in Chinese), SOHU.COM, March 22, 2021.[https://www.sohu.com/a/456260468_120146415]
14 The Chinese Civil Code has a separate section on “Personality Rights.” In addition to sexual harassment (Article 1010), it has provisions on donation of human cells, clinical trials, genetic research, and so forth (Articles 1006-1009). There are no specific provisions on these matters in the Japanese Civil Code, and these are rather governed by general laws on illegal acts, judicial precedents, Act on the Protection of Personal Information, and such other special laws. Mori Hamada & Matsumoto, “On the Chinese Civil Code: Focus on Comparison with Japanese Civil Code” (in Japanese), Embassy of Japan in China Website, Jan. 5, 2021.[https://www.cn.emb-japan.go.jp/itpr_ja/00_000550.html]
15 Mass arrest of lawyers and activists in summer 2015. It is known as the “709 Crackdown” because it started around July 9. A statement issued by the families of those arrested in this crackdown on its one-year anniversary (Japanese translation) can be found on the Human Rights Now website. [https://hrn.or.jp/activity_statement/7877/]