China's recent rape scandals are a #MeToo victory, activists say — even if the government won't admit it

Supporters of Zhou Xiaoxuan, a Chinese feminist, protesting in Beijing on December 2, 2020.

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Hong Kong (CNN)Two explosive rape allegations have rocked China in recent weeks, turning a spotlight on the country's stifled #MeToo movement and problems of sexual assault.

On Monday, the e-commerce giant Alibaba said it had fired an employee who was accused of sexually assaulting another employee during a business trip. The week before, Beijing police said they had arrested Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu on suspicion of rape, according to a statement.
In both cases, victims had posted their allegations on Chinese social media, which sparked an online furor and prompted police to investigate. Neither Wu nor the Alibaba employee have been charged with any crime.
    The authorities' swift actions won praise from some online, who pointed to the two cases as an indication of the effective rule of law and criminal justice in China. Yet it raised eyebrows among others, who say it instead highlights how rare it is for survivors to speak out and seek justice.
      "It is unsurprising that both cases have drawn such wide attention, given (Kris Wu) and Alibaba's high profile," said Feng Yuan, a feminist scholar and activist. "But this also serves as a reminder that for many other cases of sexual harassment and assault, if the accused are not so famous or influential, (victims) might not have their voices heard at all."
      Sexual assault survivors have long faced strong stigma and resistance in China, at the official level as well as among the public. And while surveys in recent years suggest that sexual assault and harassment is prevalent in the country of 1.4 billion people, the number of actual prosecutions is small.
      Between 2013 and 2017, 43,000 people were prosecuted for "crimes of violating women's personal rights," according to the office of China's top prosecutor. Those crimes include trafficking, rape and forced prostitution.
        The issue was pushed to the fore in 2018 when the #MeToo movement went global. In China, too, it prompted more women to share their experiences with sexual misconduct and assault — but the movement was quickly quashed. The government moved to block growing online discussion, including censoring the hashtag and many related posts, while state-run media published articles claiming sexual assault isn't a problem in China.
        There have been some steps of progress since then. In 2020, China passed a new civil code that, for the first time, defined actions that can constitute sexual harassment.
        But there are still gaps in the law, like a lack of clear guidelines for enforcement. And the government is still reluctant to discuss sexual misconduct as a systemic problem, activists say, instead preferring to report on individual cases and cast blame elsewhere.
        For instance, a government watchdog agency said the Kris Wu case illustrated "the black hand of the capital" and "the wild growth of the entertainment industry." And in an editorial article, the state-run Global Times tabloid said the Alibaba scandal reflected a need for greater "legal and moral supervision" in the tech world, and for companies to better align their "capital" with societal values.
        Their language echoes the government's broader clampdown on the private sector, with regulators increasingly targeting businesses with fines and restrictions.
        Notably absent from official rhetoric is any emphasis on what activists say are the roots of the problem: lack of support for survivors of gender-based violence and entrenched gender inequality in many aspects of society.
        Part of the reason the government is so wary of acknowledging public outrage around these underlying issues is because it might encourage greater social organizing and activism, said Lv Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist now based in New York.
        The government has cracked down heavily on China's feminist movement in recent years. Famously, in 2015, five young feminists were detained over their campaign for gender equality, though they were eventually released after international outcry. Government supporters and nationalist trolls have also attacked feminist social media accounts, with some platforms removing their accounts entirely.