Photo Credit: Peng Yue

The Hidden Harassment in Chinese Workplaces

Chinese women face an uphill battle to define, recognize, and report unwanted sexual attention at work

In Our Time, journalist Susan Brownmiller’s memoir of the early American feminist movement, recounts a surreal period when society was becoming aware of sexual harassment but stopped just short of giving it a name. A Cornell University seminar, where female attendees shared personal experiences of unwanted sexual advances at work, ended with an eerie realization that “to a person, every one of us…had experienced something like this at some point… And none of us had told anyone before.”

Later, the attendees tried to draft an appeal for an ex-staff member who was being denied unemployment benefits because she was embarrassed and at a loss to describe the experience that caused her to quit: “We wanted something that embraced a full range of subtle and unsubtle persistent behaviors…Sexual harassment! Instantly we agreed. That’s what it was.”

These lessons from a 1970s American classroom find strange resonance in the legal and activist landscape of workplace sexual harassment in China. Outlawed— though only against women—in 2005, sexual harassment is stated by Chinese national and provincial regulation as something employers need to “take necessary measures to prevent and stop” or else be liable for penalties and fines. However, most of these regulations lack a clear definition of what constitutes either “sexual harassment” or “necessary measures”.

In a survey in 2008 of workers in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou by Beijing’s Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center, around 95 percent of respondents of both sexes had heard of the term “性骚扰” (sexual harassment). According to the survey report, the term entered the Chinese lexicon from the West in the 1990s and is considered a synonym for an older term, “耍流氓” (hooliganism) like a pervert), which was actually a crime in China between 1979 and 1997.

The survey results reveal uneven understandings in the definition of sexual harassment. While over 70 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that the victims’ feeling of discomfort is equally important as the actions of the perpetrator in determining whether sexual harassment has taken place, 25 percent did not agree. More than 90 percent of respondents agreed that “language” and “[physical] actions” could constitute sexual harassment, but only 60 percent of men and 68 percent of women considered “attitude” and “media”, such as sharing lewd photos and text messages, to be sexual harassment.

Around 30 percent of women and 40 percent of men who have met with sexual harassment have done nothing in response, with half of this sample believing that to take action was “to make a big deal out of nothing”.

The lack of a clear definition has led to confusion for both employee and employer on what behaviors are not acceptable and could be brought to the attention of employers or other authorities. A 2009 survey of four enterprises by NGO Women Watch China showed that only 34.4 percent had filed a complaint against the company’s human resources department, but that 50 percent filed complaints in cases of “serious harassment”. The news media also highlights cases of sexual assault and rape when discussing sexual harassment and potential steps for employees to take, creating further confusion on whether more subtle or infrequent sexual behaviors could also be brought to employers’ attention.

Admittedly, the news media might be hamstrung by the fact that complaints about more subtle forms of sexual harassment don’t tend to make it to the courts, much less the attention of the public. In court cases where an employee has sued the employer for failing to stop sexual harassment, or punishing the employee for making a complaint, it falls to the victim to prove the harassment. The first successful example of such a case in Guangdong Province, in which a worker named Liu Yan (alias, also known as Ms. A or Lu) sued a Guangzhou tire company for dismissing her after she complained about harassment from a supervisor, took place in 2009. “It was actually more like a case of sexual assault,” said Geoffrey Crothall, communication director of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. “It happened at an office party, and someone actually took a photograph of the harassment and assault in progress.”

Three photographs showing Liu being manhandled by her manager, plus recordings from the meeting where she brought the incident to the company’s attention, were enough to win Liu 3,000 RMB in compensation from the company. She did not get her job back, nor were the damages enough to cover her legal fees, and she was branded a “troublemaker” when applying for new jobs. Yet her case is considered one of the success stories; according to the workers surveyed by Women Watch China, most victims just choose to forbear or resign. As for the blue collar sector and migrant workers, a 2010 study of female factory workers by Guangzhou’s Sunflower Center revealed that no respondent who has suffered sexual harassment have sought help from their employer, trade union, women’s federation, or the police.

In the aftermath of Liu’s case, the city of Guangzhou also updated its “Regulations for the Protection of Women’s Rights” with an outline of behaviors that counted as sexual harassment, as well as first known list in Chinese regulation of recommended actions for employers to take after receiving a complaint. It is unclear, however, whether these recommendations correctly pegged the causes of the problem: the suggestions include “removing the employee filing the complaint from under the supervisor about whom the compliant is served”, “replace wooden doors with glass doors to the offices of supervisor who is the subject of complaint”, and “encourage open-plan offices”.

These simple fixes could also make things even harder for the victim. In 2014, a plaintiff in Zhejiang Province actually lost her lawsuit against her company for severance pay they owed her after she had to resign due to sexual harassment. The court ruled that the company was not liable to pay because they handled her initial complaint as best they could—in this case, contacting police and collecting video and physical evidence, actually more of an effort than a glass door.

Around 57 percent of the Maple Center’s respondents believed that having more specific laws against sexual harassment would be an effective deterrence; around 18 percent preferred to have better institutions for handling complaints, and only around seven percent recommended better education about sexual harassment as the solution. Both Guangzhou and these respondents’ preference to straightforward solutions over attacking the causes may be a pragmatic choice.

“Most male bosses and coworkers have absolutely no idea, for instance, that it’s not acceptable to make lewd comments about female workers’ clothing or appearance, unless it’s spelled out in black and white,” Crothall said. “But the authorities can make an effort to make sure they are aware what the specific disadvantages are, what isn’t acceptable. Once that’s done there should be penalties and employers have to be held to that standard.”

“Hidden Harassment” is a story from our newest issue, “Gender Equality”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.


author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the former managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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