The #MeToo movement beyond the reach of China’s women workers
In October 2017, female celebrities in USA publicly denounced famous producer Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault and encouraged all women who were sexually violated to speak out of their painful experience, and used the hash-tag #MeToo on social media. Under the presidency of Donald Trump who was a far-right politician allegedly involved in several sex scandals, a social movement calling for gender equality and against patriarchy quickly developed and soon spread to east Asia.
On 1 January 2018, graduate from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (hereafter “Beihang University”) Luo Xi-xi openly denounced a professor Chen Xia-wu for sexual harassment. The incident kicked-off the Chinese version of #MeToo movement. Shortly after, teachers from tertiary education institutes, people from charitable sectors, journalists and celebrities were accused of sexual harassment or even sexual assault on social media. However, despite its vigour, the #MeToo movement of China was out of reach of a large group of women – female workers.
According to research conducted by two NGOs serving female workers, about 70% of the female worker experienced different degree of sexual harassment in factories, and only 10% of them reported to the supervisors or police, or sought help from the All-China’s Women Federation or union. According to official statistics, there were about 100 million women workers in China in 2016 and the #MeToo movement missed to reach this big group of women. The only related news was that women workers in Shenzhen Foxcomm factory demanded the employer and official union to set up anti-sexual harassment policy in the factory, which was yet to be realized.
Patriarchy combined with capitalism imposed heavy restrictions over the female workers. After 12-hour work in the factory, they have to manage housework, children’s study and other tasks. They have to face growing economic burden when a one-room apartment in an old building in “urban village” would cost RMB1250-2600 and the rent might double every year. As their children do not have “hu-kou” registration locally and denied by public schools which are relatively cheap, they had to pay expensive fee for supplementary classes in the hope that knowledge would eventually change their lives. For them, life is full of suppression, when facing sexual harassment, they would rather stay silent as survival is the more important thing.
To them, the #MeToo movement was restricted: #MeToo did not belong to them or the grassroots. To them, #MeToo was about celebrities, the knowledgeable and the elite classes, whose targets were often public figures with social status. The one reporting the case should also have social prestige and able to convince the public who would impose sanction on the perpetrators. However, the female workers were “nobody” in the society, their voice unheard and rights unprotected. Their social experiences were sufficient to make them resign to their fate and deny the possibility of justice through action.
The female workers’ experience showed that to empower women and eradicate suppression against them, challenging gender inequality alone is not sufficient. We also have to fight against exploitation of capitalism and demand for more public funding to improve livelihood of the grassroots and liberate women from the suppression. We should support women workers to fight for adequate employment conditions such as equal-pay for equal-work, standard working hours, full-payment of work-time work, etc.. They should also be encouraged to set up their unions to work for collective protection, such as anti-sexual mechanism, so that individuals bare less cost of resistance and the #MeToo movement would be able to reach more women workers and bring change to women workers in China.