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Understanding sexual harassment in China is difficult. There are very few published reports on the subject. 'Equality' has long been the maxim, so pointing out inequality is largely frowned upon. The 1949 "Liberation" broke women out of the feudal patriarchy of the past. Women became part of the wage earning labor force. They gained more rights and new laws recognized men and women as equal. The "iron girls" were strong, robust and able to do the same work as men. On paper things had changed.
However, according to Liu Jieyu's book Gender and work in Urban China: Women workers of the unlucky generation, the experiences of women tell a different story. Within the household patriarchic structures men were still understood to be the breadwinners and decision makers. Household work still had to be done, and women were still the ones to do it. While boys went to school, girls stayed home to help their mothers. In the workplace women often had the lowest paid jobs and were the first to be fired.
If you've ever been to a KTV and seen men with their hostesses, or been introduced to somebody's "wife" who is 30 years younger and ignored for the whole evening, you start to feel that even after 64 years, equality hasn't progressed much further than being proclaimed on paper.
Sexual harassment in private and public spaces
Despite the inconsistencies of Mao era gender equality, I believe it laid the foundations for a perception of women in public spaces. Women in China became visible earlier than their counterparts in other places. They became a part of the street, part of the foreground and their sexuality or femininity had no place. The visibility of women and their portrayal of them as 'iron girls' in government propaganda may account for some of the reasons why sexual harassment from strangers in public seems less frequent, and may also go into explaining why foreign women experience less harassment here.
In a 2005 study by the University of Chicago, employed Chinese women reported significantly higher levels of harassment than unemployed women. The women interviewed spoke more of sexual harassment from people known to them, rather than strangers. It happens in the work place, often by coworkers. It happens at dinner parties or banquets once the beer and baijiu start flowing. It happens in a bar once a friend of a friend is introduced.
It seems that sexual harassment is institutionalized in the business world, more so than it is on the street. However, a recent rise in the number of complaints of harassment from strangers indicates that either a change has occurred and public spaces are becoming less safe for women or that more women are speaking out about it. Last month a China-based research firm, Canton Public Opinion Research Centre, released the results of a survey that asked women in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou about their experiences of sexual harassment. Of the women between the ages of 16-25, 48 percent said they have faced increased incidents.
China's rapid urbanization has meant that more women are leaving their traditional communities and heading to the cities to find work. According to a pending International Transport Workers Federation report, women are less likely to own private transport due to having lower incomes than men and are therefore more dependent on public transportation. This leads to more opportunities for harassment. With no night buses and no metro system, there are fewer opportunities for harassment in Kunming. A metro is currently under construction; perhaps when it is finished women here will experience an increase in harassment incidents as well.
As well as more opportunities leading to more incidents, sexual harassment usually accompanies women's changing understanding of their position in society. Harassment occurs where society's traditions butt up against modernization. Women who violate traditional understandings of dress, women who take on more powerful positions, and women with more open attitudes towards sex are all likely to experience an increase in sexual harassment.