China mulls tighter laws on sexual harassment, discrimination against women

The move comes amid concern over tennis star Peng Shuai, and a government bid to get women to have more children.
By Rita Cheng
China mulls tighter laws on sexual harassment, discrimination against women Zhou Xiaoxuan, also known as Xianzi, looks back at supporters before attending a hearing in her sexual harassment case against a prominent television host in Beijing, Sept. 14, 2021.

Chinese lawmakers could tighten legal regulations on sexual harassment and other women's rights issues despite the widespread suppression by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of the country's feminist and #MeToo movements, including sexual assault allegations by tennis star Peng Shuai.

Among the amendments currently being considered by the National People's Congress (NPC) is a clearer definition of sexual harassment, including "verbal expressions with sexual content or implications," "inappropriate or unnecessarily physical behavior," "the dissemination or display of texts, audio, video, news articles or images [with sexual content or implications]," as well as "implying that a sexual relationship will confer certain benefits," and other similar situations.

Victimized women will have the right to report such behavior, and to have their organizations or government agencies deal with it in a timely manner, according to a Legal Daily article republished on the official NPC website.

"Some old problems yet to be properly resolved when it comes to protecting women's rights," the article said. "Some new issues have also emerged as a result of economic and social development."

The potential legal changes come amid international concern over the treatment of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who recently retracted allegations of being "forced" into a sexual relationship with former vice premier Zhang Gaoli made in a quickly deleted Nov. 2 social media post, in an interview with a pro-Beijing newspaper that rights activists said was likely scripted and coerced by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

A change in the language of the previous law, from "personal rights" to a concept closer to the "right to personal dignity," is intended to ban the psychological abuse and emotional manipulation of women and girls.

New York-based feminist Zhang Jing said any amendment was better than nothing, but questioned whether any amended legislation would be implemented in practice.

"Will somebody be punished for violating a woman's right to personal dignity? What kind of punishment? How many years [in jail]?" she said, expressing skepticism that the law would be implemented.

"China's constitution guarantees the right to free speech," Zhang said. "But does China actually have freedom of speech?"

She said the proposals are likely in response to the #MeToo movement, both in China and overseas, but also likely linked to the CCP's bid to encourage women to have more children to combat a rapidly aging population.

"One thing is the ... pressure of international public opinion over the Peng Shuai incident," she said. "But it's also about the demographic crisis, falling birth-rates."

"They want to curry favor with Chinese women, so working women will be more willing to have children."

She said the wording of the law was surprising, given that there has been scant success for those who came forward with #MeToo allegations against powerful men in China.

"It's a bit surreal seeing the official media talking about [this stuff]," Zhang said. "The #MeToo movement was supposed to encourage women to speak out ... but the Chinese government has always suppressed us, saying we are influenced by foreign powers, and a danger to social stability."

'Special measures'

The amendment, if passed, will also include "special measures" to level the playing field between men and women, and requires government departments and agencies to draw up measures to ensure that they perform better on gender equality, it said.

Other proposed measures include a unified nationwide helpline and a public interest litigation system to protect women's rights, it said.

It said employers currently appear confused about what is meant by gender discrimination in the workplace, leading to "contradictions in practice."

The amendments will explicitly ban employers from issuing male-only recruitment ads, and from asking women about their marital status and their plans for childbirth, or from requiring applicants to submit to a pregnancy test.

"[The amendments] will ... put higher demands on employers ... and provide stronger legal protection for women in the workplace," NPC deputy and Shaanxi-based lawyer Fang Yan was quoted as saying in the Legal Daily article.

The proposed amendments will also outlaw training classes in "women's virtues," a set of sexist prescriptions from imperial China regulating women's sexuality, relationships, speech and comportment, that have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years.

Tougher measures governing the trafficking and illegal adoption of girls and women are also included, the report said, as well as new rules on medical consent leaving the final decision in the hands of a pregnant woman, rather than her husband.

Women will also be able to make a claim for compensation for household tasks carried out during a marriage, as part of their divorce settlement.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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