Sexual harassment in China is still rife, feminists and NGOs said ahead of International Women's Day on Thursday, although the #MeToo movement has been gaining some traction on the country's tightly controlled social media platforms despite widespread state censorship.
A survey of more than 400 female Chinese journalists found that more than 80 percent of them had been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, report author and founder of the Anti-Sexual Harassment (ATSH) campaign group Sophina Huang said.
Huang, herself a former journalist for a state-run news agency and a Guangzhou newspaper, said she was inspired by the global #MeToo hashtag campaign encouraging victims of sexual abuse and harassment to speak out.
Huang's survey was based on 416 valid samples out of 1,762 responses from 15 areas of China, including Guangdong, Beijing, Shanghai, Hubei, Zhejiang, Shandong and Sichuan.
"Whether on campus or in the workplace, sexual harassment is widespread," Huang told journalists at a joint news conference with the Guangzhou Gender Education Center. "Therefore we must introduce an anti-harassment mechanism without delay."
Huang, whose report recommends anti-sexual harassment training, guidelines for the sensitive handling of complaints, punishment of perpetrators and psychological support for victims, said she will send her findings to major Chinese media, the ruling Chinese Communist Party-backed All China Women's Federation, and the department of propaganda.
"[We need] a system that includes preventative training, investigation of allegations, punishment of offenders and psychological counseling for the victims," Huang said. "All of these factors would add up to a system that works to prevent sexual harassment."
"We definitely need training and workshops in this area, but there is nothing like this in mainland China; there is nothing," she said.
The majority of respondents to Huang's study were heterosexual women journalists in the 18-34 age range, 83.7 percent of whom reported sexual harassment in the workplace.
Of these, more than 40 percent had been sexually harassed between two and four times, and 18.2 percent more than five times.
More than 90 percent of the perpetrators were male, with more than 40 percent holding a position of power over the victim, as their boss or supervisor.
Some 30 percent of cases involved colleagues, around 37 percent were perpetrated by strangers, and some 17 percent people the journalists had been sent to interview.
Harassment behaviors were reported as anything from unwanted sexual jokes or comments, showing victims obscene words or pictures, staring in a lewd manner or deliberately touching victims without their consent.
Only around three percent of victims complained to their organization, with two women taking their complaints to the police. The majority of victims said nothing, because they didn't think it would be effective, and could affect their privacy, careers or personal lives, Huang said.
But more than 61 percent said the incidents had affected their self-esteem and self-confidence, with at least 44 women reporting a negative impact on their personal relationships and social life.
Twenty-two respondents said they had quit their jobs as a result, while 29 said they suffered mental distress and depression and 10 self-harmed or had suicidal thoughts.
Government censors at work
Earlier this year, Beihang University fired a professor, Chen Xiaowu, after he was publicly accused by his former PhD candidate Luo Xixi on social media of sexual harassment and assault.
Luo's #MeToo whistleblowing was among the first to make headline news in China, and Chen's dismissal represented an "initial victory" for Chinese women, she has said.
But whenfeminists posted photos of themselves on social media to mark International Women's Day, hoping to build an online movement, their content was deleted immediately by government censors, activist Xiao Meili told RFA.
"Some people tried to start an anti-sexual harassment movement ... and 38 women at different universities started it, but everything they posted was deleted," she said. "[The authorities] seem to be targeting every possible topic, and what with tighter security during the National People's Congress (NPC), they're not happy about a participatory movement at this time."
Many women who campaign against sexual harassment and gender discrimination in China have also been directly targeted by the authorities.
The detention of five Chinese feminists detained ahead of International Women's Day 2015 as they planned a public campaign against sexual harassment on public transport prompted an international outcry.
Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan were released "on bail" in 2015 after being detained for several weeks on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," and have faced restrictions on their freedom of movement since.
In the southern province of Guangdong, the debate on sexual harassment on public transport has resulted in the introduction of segregated "female only" carriages on some subway lines in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
But a local resident surname Gao said there has been little public education to accompany the move.
"They haven't really done much propaganda work on this, so a lot of people don't know about it," Gao said. "Also, only a small section of the train has been set aside, which gives the impression that women are being corralled off and their freedom of movement curbed."
"The only way to tackle this problem is with a range of measures to tackle sexual harassment," she said.
Feminist activist Guo Jing said nongovernment groups have been pressing the authorities to tackle the issue through a number of campaigns in the past couple of years, but to no avail.
"But I think that these campaigns by civil groups are, at some level, forcing the government to face up to the issue," she said.
Chinese women are also lagging behind in terms of economic clout.
China ranked 100th out of 144 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2017.
Women's rights activist Zhang Qing said the ranking didn't come as a surprise to her.
"Chinese women are entering a dark period in their history," Zhang said. "There has been a lot of suppression of human rights since [President] Xi Jinping came to power, and women's rights were the first to bear the brunt of that onslaught."
"Also, we have never had a leader blatantly tell Chinese women, as Xi Jinping has, that we should stay home," she said, adding that plans to remove presidential term-limits will make life even harder for women.
"If Xi Jinping becomes the emperor, we won't get a change of leadership until he dies," she said. "How many more years will women have to put up with this treatment for?"
Reported by Wen Yuqing and Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng and Han Qing for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.