Is China refusing to acknowledge its sexual assault problem?

Is China refusing to acknowledge its sexual assault problem?

On October 16, China's government-run English-language newspaper China Daily reportedly published an opinion article called “Weinstein case demonstrates cultural differences” and subtitled it "What prevents sexual harassment from being a common phenomenon in China, as it is in most Western societies?"

Throughout, Canadian Egyptian educator Sava Hassan argued that sexual assault wasn't a universal problem like we all thought. Instead, it is an issue that originated in the West, and one that Chinese society had evaded.

“It is a well-known fact that China is a traditional society based upon commendable values and virtues that respect the dignity and humanity of its citizens, regardless of their gender," she wrote. "Chinese authority deals harshly with those who disrespect themselves by behaving inappropriately toward others. Chinese men are taught to be protective of their women. Behaving inappropriately toward women, including harassing them sexually, contradicts every Chinese traditional value and custom.”

The article has since been removed from the site, but deleting it couldn't remove it from the memory of anyone who had read it. These were the people who claimed to know "the truth about China", and what a colossally ugly truth it was. Rather than no sexual assault problem at all, they argued that China had a mammoth sexual assault problem that it was simply refusing to acknowledge.

Perhaps the most important response of them all came from Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, a Foreign Policy contributing writer who wrote a powerful piece that centred around the time she arrived in Xiamen as a fresh-faced 19-year-old looking to make new friends during her semester abroad. After instantly being accosted by flocks of Chinese men, keen to know if she was "open" and if her love life resembled Rachel, Monica and Phoebe's on Friends, she was raped on her second day in the country.

Her story could be dismissed as a one-off, that one time those commendable Chinese values and virtues didn't quite pull through. But take a look at China's track record on issues like rape and harassment and you'll see that it speaks loudly and clearly for itself.

While other countries around the world have some conception of how many people are raped or sexually assaulted each year, the communist Chinese government has repeatedly refused to publish figures on rape, meaning that we have little way of knowing exactly how many victims there are out there. Various other surveys and statistics have clawed back the curtain on the situation, with the United Nations multi-country study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific determining that 22.2 per cent of men in urban and rural areas of China had forced a female to have sex and a social media user 2015 survey stating that more than 30 percent of college students in China have experienced sexual harassment.

Reports suggest that, much like in western culture, millions of Chinese women - and men - keep shtum after they've been preyed upon. However, whereas women in the West often get dismissed as liars or informed that they don't have sufficient evidence for the criminal justice system to take them seriously, it appears Chinese victims not only get ignored, they also face persecution about being targeted.

A prime example of this is Zhou Qin, a female teacher in the Guizhou province, who claimed to have been raped in 2011 by Bijie Ashi Town Land and Resources Department Director, Wang Zhonggui. When she reported the alleged crime to the police, she was informed that what she was describing was not actually rape, due to the fact that her attacker used a condom.

After reportedly reaching a "dead end" on the case, government officials attempted to persuade her to settle privately; she refused to be silenced, disclosing her experience in an online forum asking the public for help. Only after the story went viral did authorities detain her rapist - seemingly under the condition that she did not give out any further interviews to the media.

Another reported case tells the story of a 22-year-old woman who was allegedly gang-raped by security guards in Beijing, falling to her death from a window straight afterwards. After local authorities denied any foul play, protests swept the streets with hundreds of people joining the uprising against censorship. But instead of admitting there was a major problem, authorities quickly removed images of the protests, along with any discussion of it that had taken place online.

Time and time again, it appears that anyone who attempts to make the rape issue visible is punished. No one can forget the story of Tang Hui, a Chinese woman who was sent to a labour camp for protesting that the men who abused her 11-year-old daughter be more harshly punished. She was eventually awarded £317 in compensation for her troubles. Then there was the "Feminist Five" who were detained by police for planning a campaign against sexual harassment on buses and subways. Many people agree that the only reason they were released is because the media and public caught wind of the story.

If all of these cases ring true, the question is, why are the Chinese government so keen to cover up the sexual assault problem rather than face it head on? The answer is perhaps staring us in the face with China Daily's immediate leap to comparing China with the West. Critics have claimed that the government stubbornly promotes the political ideology that rape is an issue in plenty of other countries across the world, but not in China.

People who have had the opportunity to live, work and visit China have claimed that any sexual freedom indulged in is seen as being inherently Western: sex before marriage, the proliferation of pornography and the sex toy market are all put down to an admiration of western lifestyles, ignoring the number of other circumstances they are owed to, including industrialisation and urbanisation and overall increasingly modern attitudes in society. Many argue that China underwent a sexual revolution, but its communist government didn't get the memo.

Ultimately, it has been suggested that the government would rather censor all evidence of sexual assault than be akin to the morally-questionable and debauched West, where we encourage casual sexual relationships among young men and women and where you'll find scantily-clad women searching for business on every street corner.

But, in promoting this doctrine, China ensures that, instead of paying once, sexual assault victims pay multiple times - all in aid of protecting their country's reputation as a "morally superior". Meanwhile, much like in the West, the attackers pay nothing - a trend that needs stop be stopped in China, and in the many other countries where it is seemingly the norm.

Whereas the "promiscuous" West can somewhat rely on their social media channels to raise awareness with campaigns like #metoo, Facebook and Twitter are banned in China, meaning that the women of the country remain, to a certain degree, isolated in their attempts to kickstart their crusade. Not only this, they are also hindered by women's reluctance to share their stories - as we often are in the West - perhaps well aware that nothing will come of it.

Yet, with the West in the beginning stages of confronting their problem with sexual assault, China must be forced to confront theirs soon. Because it's one that seems to become bigger with every passing day.