Shanghai targets sexual harassment

A city law passed in late March would, for the first time in China, give victims legal recourse.

At first, Sarah Cheng didn't realize that she had been sexually harassed. Then the woman next to her on the bus told her that the man who'd just brushed up against her had done it intentionally.

"That was a watershed moment for me," says the young Shanghai native, who prefers to go by an English name. "After that, I now see inappropriate behavior that is often directed towards women in the city."

Aware that many of the city's female residents have been victims of unwanted sexual advances, Shanghai has become the first city in China to define what constitutes sexual harassment.

It is the latest in a series of moves by the central and local governments to update the legal system and provide a stronger foundation for the country's burgeoning economy. Protective of its position as one of the world's premier destinations for international business, Shanghai sees itself as a companion to New York, London, and Hong Kong and has decided that it needs the institutions to match.

"Shanghai wants to be seen as more sophisticated," says Matthew Durham, a Shanghai-based lawyer for the law firm Simmons & Simmons, "and the way in which women are treated is a key element of this perception."

On April 26, the Standing Committee of the Shanghai Municipal People's Congress passed the law, which defines sexual harassment and provides a legal channel through which victims can have their cases heard. According to the Xinhua News Agency, the law defines sexual harassment as inappropriate behavior as exhibited through "verbal abuse, written text, pictures, text messaging, and physical contact."

Further, the law stipulates that "Employers must take steps to ensure a positive atmosphere for their female staff to be able to work without fear of sexual harassment."

While the law provides no further instructions for businesses, some human-resources experts have recommended that companies add sexual harassment sections to their corporate handbooks and institute training seminars. Most large international companies already have policies in place based on sexual-harassment statutes in Europe and the United States.

China's slow moves on sexual harassment

Until the early 1980s, China's sexual culture was repressed, most obviously by the blue Mao suits worn by most Chinese that left much to the imagination. As women have come to feel more comfortable wearing fashionable outfits, many men have taken this as evidence of sexual interest.

"While Chinese men like me, who grew up in the 1980s, have become used to the revealing dressing habits of Shanghai's women, many who are my father's age are completely baffled by today's fashion," notes John Chen, who also used an English name. "They think anyone wearing a short skirt must have sex on their mind," he says.

China took its first step toward punishing sexual harassment in 2005 with an amendment to the 1992 Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women. Although the amendment declared that "Sexual harassment against women is forbidden," there was no attempt to define what behavior was considered inappropriate.

As is often the case in China, it was left to local governments to further refine and enact the law. Several cities and provinces, including Shaanxi and Anhui, have drafted rules similar to Shanghai's.

Shanghai has become the symbol of China's increasing economic dominance, and the city's media-savvy leaders pushed for the law, in part, to enhance Shanghai's business reputation. Several experts said that while women's groups played a role in the law's passage, it was business image more than domestic pressure that propelled Shanghai's government into action.

A 'culture of silence' for Chinese women

Sexual harassment is only one of several gender-related topics, once considered off-limits, that have now been propelled into the public discourse. A 2006 survey conducted by reported that university-educated men in Shanghai can expect to earn one-third more than their female counterparts. The survey received a great deal of media attention and sparked anger among many of the city's women.

Nevertheless, It's hard to determine how widespread sexual harassment is in Shanghai, in part because of "a dominant culture of silence for women," says Liu Bohong of the All-China Women's Federation. As a result, data on sexual harassment is still limited.

The most authoritative study on sexual harassment in urban China appeared in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Using 2000 data from the Chinese Health and Family Life survey, the study found that 12.5 percent of all women and 15.1 percent of urban women had experienced sexual harassment in the previous year. Further, the study reported that in general, harassment came not from authority figures but from co-workers. Yet another survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported that 40 percent of women in private or foreign-funded companies had been sexually harassed.

While attitudes towards women have improved since the rise of the Communists and their ideas of gender equity in 1949, the lack of legal and social recourse for such cases has sustained the "culture of silence." A survey conducted by the popular Chinese website found that only 20 percent of the 8,000 respondents thought it appropriate for women to approach the authorities if harassed.

Xu Anqi, the director of the Center for Women's Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, notes that "some women worry that they will be dismissed for bringing complaints or will be accused of seducing their co-workers or bosses."

While the law appears to represent progress, the extent of its impact is hard to determine. "The lack of case-law precedent is a significant problem here," says Mr. Durham.

Although some men said they were worried that harmless flirting will now be mistaken as a sexual advance, Ms. Liu welcomes the shift in attitude. "Men need to start thinking, 'What kind of joke is welcome? What comments offend the dignity of women?' "

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