Published in OpenDemocracy under the title Questioning rape in China
China is witnessing more and more spontaneous protests and online discussions against rape and the deeper structural issues that lie behind questions of sexuality.
In June 2016, a case of rape sparked rage and controversies on social media in China, though the discussion quickly dropped from the public eye. Two factors might have contributed to the uniqueness of this case and why it caught such attention: first of all, the offender is a senior journalist of Southern Daily, one of the most liberal newspapers among the very few in China; and two, the victim, an intern at the newspaper, stated that she “did not realise it was rape”.
“All victims have something to be despised” vs the crime of rape
On 27 June 2016, the young woman at the centre of the case, university senior H, contacted Cheng who was her mentor (laoshi) when she interned for Southern Daily, and asked him to confirm her internship. He responded first by flirting with her, and then demanded a relationship. As H was not aware of the fact that he was concealing the fact that he was married she did not protest, although she did feel that it was inappropriate, and agreed to go out with Cheng after their meeting. All of a sudden, Cheng asked to see H’s ID, grabbed it from her purse and used it to get a hotel room, and demanded that H come upstairs to talk to him.
A confused and scared H asked for help from her best friend on Wechat (Chinese version of Whatsapp with some Facebook features, one of the largest standalone messaging apps in the world by monthly active users), and her friend suggested that she call the police and film this on her phone as evidence. However, H felt it would be alright if they were just to talk, and went to the hotel room without notifying anyone else. Before she could react, she was forced into bed by Cheng who stated that he would pay her afterwards. Amongst all the disasters, he ejaculated in her vagina. H described the process as “confusing”, as she did not feel that he was hard at all and the process only lasted for about three minutes. Out of shock and reverence for Cheng, someone she had looked up to and respected as a mentor, H did what he asked of her: she went to the bathroom and washed herself (though later the police still managed to trace Cheng’s semen in her).
H’s friend insisted that they report this to the police, and took the liberty of publishing this story on Weibo, the most popular social media in China. Thus the case became known to the public and quickly went viral on the Internet.
The public reaction was mixed; while many criticised Southern Daily’s hypocrisy of subscribing to progressive and good professional ethics and at the same time allowing such injustice happen to a young woman, many questioned her naiveté: how could she follow Cheng into the room knowing there was danger ahead? Why didn’t she resist? H answered in an interview afterwards: “I thought only violence in a dark alley by a stranger was rape; I didn’t know being forced to do it with someone you know could be rape too.” But she certainly regretted her decisions, and kept blaming herself.
Mentorship vs submission under patriarchal pressure
Cheng is H’s senior and mentor at the paper. Mentorship, or simply reverence for one’s senior occupies a special place in China (and other Confucian societies such as Korea and Taiwan) where teachers and seniors are highly respected – since Confucius was foremost a legendary teacher. Despite the interruption of the Cultural Revolution when formal Confucian rituals and teachings were abolished, the tradition of revering and valuing teachers persists. For instance school education is still operated in a strict and harsh way compared to that of the West (though with statistically outstanding academic performance, see the controversial BBC documentary Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School). And seniors in many professions – including journalism – are referred to as laoshi, teachers, showing the position of mentors and the custom of revering professional seniors.
Confucian teachings also foster patriarchy, where traditionally women obey their husbands and grown sons in the family, and the boundary of their activities in this tradition, though long criticized and abolished, nonetheless constitute a particular form of patriarchy in modern occupations. It means that women in particular feel obliged to obey seniors in their professional life. Gary Hamilton (1990) remarks that Chinese patriarchy fundamentally differs from that found in the West, and the nature of this difference, to put it in an overly simple way, is that Western patriarchy emphasises the ultimate supremacy of persons, whereas Chinese patriarchy emphasises the ultimate supremacy of roles.
Studies on Chinese professionals also found that the career advancement of men and women was related to some form of favoritism, which was widely seen as directly linked to a cordial relationship of the manager with seniors. This kind of political behavior in Chinese culture serves in gender power relationships, as data shows that women associate themselves with disappointment and “feminised” positions. Professional woman in China often suffer double pressure in professional situations.
“One of the most liberal newspapers in China” vs sexism in the newsroom
In 2014, when the original New Year’s special editorial criticising society by Southern Weekly, (another famous newspaper of Southern Media Group), was changed significantly under the pressure from the propaganda officers, readers showed solidarity by offering signs against censorship.
Journalism, the occupation involved in this case, is not the most glamorous job in the world. Being a female journalist in China has all the problems more pronounced because all media in China are state-owned and heavily censored and regulated – in addition to being subject to patriarchy.
Nanfang media (Southern media), despite being the official GuangdongCommunist Party newspaper, is part of the Southern Media Group which is often considered to be a rare exception. This Guangzhou-based family of papers are known to produce superior reporting, and higher levels of frankness than many PRC mainstream press outlets. Resisting censorship and reporting from social and professional conscience. For instance, Southern Metropolis Daily reported a story against the irrationality and injustice generated by the hukou system in 2003, the practice of forced repatriation that had victimised a migrant who was actually an urban resident, resulting in the abolition of the Custody and Repatriation system (C&R) by the national government. Cheng himself was famous for speaking up for the under-represented groups. Hence it was particularly disappointing to many that someone from the Southern Media group was exposed as a bullying figure, which resulted in many ironic titles such as “reporter of rape cases reported to be a rapist”. Several more female employees of the Southern Daily also took a stand and stated that they had been harassed by Cheng too, which generated criticisms against Southern Daily as a model for integrity and professional ethics, and reflections on the media industry in China more broadly. In particular, the issue of gender inequality is now higher profile following this incident.
In response, the independent platform, CNPolitics, pointed out the damaging gender inequality in Chinese media industry. It referred to Haiyan Wang’s work Medias, Culture & Society and an earlier paper in which she refers to female journalists as “naked swimmers”. While accounting for more than 40% of the labor force in journalism, women still tend to occupy roles with lower pay and less power, and generically speaking they face three sources of gender inequality: women-unfriendly job contracts and salary systems, weak women’s organizations and trade unions, and the prevalence of a sexist newsroom culture.
Wang remarks that with the expansion of media outlets, the employment opportunities for media professionals have substantially increased, and women, who are now better educated than before, are obvious beneficiaries of it. Due to fierce competition between different media outlets, journalists are required to work longer hours, and this makes it more and more difficult for female journalists to obtain a good work–family balance. The working environment tends to be more unfriendly and exploitative to women than men, in the sense that women are usually the ones who are expected to take care of family and children after work. In addition, although media reform has indeed brought about more job opportunities for women journalists and increased their economic independence, it has also introduced new sources of gender inequality. And yet the discussion of this case disappeared from public discussion very soon after the incident. Cheng was detained on 27 June, and Southern Daily issued this statement:
The media industry, which should represent a critical and reflective role of a fast changing society, seems to have failed to pertain a high moral standard for individual media associates. There was even a proud disclaimer that “well, most of us have not raped interns!”. Even without rape, an extreme case of violence, sexism and other forms of inequality are all over this industry. “Once you’ve become pregnant, you drop to the bottom of the career pyramid”, one female journalist remarked.
Political progressives vs social conservatives
There is a clear contrast between Cheng’s professional image of standing up for social justice and his abuse of power relations that demean female colleagues. This, unfortunately, does not stand alone as a single case: liberal intelligentsia of China – mostly male – are accused of not considering gender issues to be part of the political concern. For instance, in an earlier article of mine I talked about how the radically leftwing house church in China holds a conservative view on marriage and gender. And many historians have written about how women were treated poorly in Yan’an during the height of Communist revolutions, under the slogan of sexual liberations and equality. To quote Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell, if a revolution is dominated by one gender, then it is merely a control group of male power replaced by another group of male power, while the structural inequalities persist.
Kexuejiazhongtaiyang (“Scientist planting the sun”), an author for Guokr.com, a platform for popularising scientific inquiries, published an article on the “male perspective on rape”, detailing the author’s experience of planning a rape which did not eventually happen. The intention of this article, as the author stated, was to warn female readers that “all males are potentially rapists, the best thing you can do is to protect yourself and leave nothing to chance with men.” This has angered both male and female netizens, as it misinterpreted a fundamental question regarding the issue of rape: rape is a form of violence that should not be solved by limiting the public space of anyone vulnerable to such violence.
Guokr.com has always been regarded as a progressive and liberal platform that disseminates scientific knowledge to the general public. To a certain extent, it is regarded as an authority in discerning popular rumours with systematic and scientific inquiries. This article however, showed a blind spot in its ideology.
Behind this case of rape – all the criticisms towards H, her inferior position at work and submissive attitude to her mentor, and the remarks that a women should protect herself to avoid rape – we are dealing with a system of privilege and exclusion. Because male and female individual identity is formed in relationship to society which gives meaning to social relations, and certain kinds of gender relations strengthen the power and inequality, the revolutionary system in China should respond and change this system.
Pioneer of sexual liberation vs opportunist under patriarchy
The story took a surprising turn when Muzimei, the first woman in China to openly blog about her various sexual encounters, spoke against H. Muzimei first remarked that “going to a hotel with a man and then calling then police is a badger game”, and later remarked that “wearing a condom does not count as rape”. Feminists were outraged, and criticised her for being egoistic and opportunistic. Once a heroine of sexual liberation and equality, she then turned out to be someone who represses the very human rights of women. While Muzimei did represent a challenge to existing gender bias and taboos in a patriarchal society, she failed to recognise the deeper structural issues behind questions of sexuality and trod on the vulnerable groups, representing, in fact, her own surviving skill as a member of the vulnerable and disadvantaged in a patriarchal society.
Nonetheless, we are able to see some progress from this case : local police began their investigation out of public pressure from Weibo; so did Southern Daily, which issued its statement on Weibo too. We can see that despite the lack of a free press, existing social media in China has begun to make a social impact and influence public opinion and even decisions.
As one Netizen remarked, rape will only stop at rapists, and there are certain social conditions and structures in need of change towards that end in the future. Very soon after this case, Zhao Wei, a 24-year-old legal assistant who had been in secret detention for a year was reported to have been released and, raped during her detention. Similar to H’s story, this was also widely discussed – to a certain extent – on Weibo and Wechat. Can these incidents generate more awareness of women’s rights and gender inequalities in China for both genders and beyond? While this question remains open, we are indeed witnessing more and more spontaneously organised protests and online discussions about the issue of rape and on these issues more broadly.