Speaking Up Against Sexual Violence In The Context Of The Interplay Between Power Mechanisms


Twenty years after the rape and suicide of a 21-year-old student at Peking University, her former classmate came forward and reported the tragic story of her being raped by her literature professor, Shen Yang, who has denied the accusations. Yue Xin, along with seven other students, petitioned the University officials in April, calling for the transparency of all the related documents in the investigation of the case. In the weeks following the petition, however, Ms. Yue was threatened and silenced by the university administrators by means of a late-night visit, pressure from her parents, and threats of not being able to graduate. While the case could be seen as a local response following the international social movements trend #Metoo, the issue further reveals the price of speaking up for oneself and speaking up against injustice and the violations of human rights in China.

The two-word hashtag #Metoo is used to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual assault and violence, especially in workplaces. When it spread all over social media sites globally last fall, China remained silent.

Social movements aren’t usual in China, whether in history or in contemporary times. The most famous social movements in history were the student protests back in 1919, also known as the May Fourth Movement, when over 3,000 students from Peking University and other universities gathered around Tiananmen to protest against the Chinese government. The May Fourth Movement marked the momentous beginning of student protests in China, but not many protests survived and thrived thereafter, especially after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In the background of communism, where internal stability is essential for the government’s administration, anything that has the potential to threaten the internal stability is strictly controlled and monitored.

“Chinese men are taught to be protective of their women,” claimed an essay in the state-owned newspaper China Daily when responding to China’s silence on the international trend of the #Metoo movement. The article declared that there aren’t similar accusations in China, whereas in fact, there are indeed few prosecutions compared to the actual statistic of unreported cases.

Whereas the experience of encountering sexual violence is already traumatic, speaking up about it might be more disturbing in China, where any protests or social movements mus be discussed within the larger image of communist leadership.

In the Chinese cultural tradition, male domination and female subordination are a huge part when assigning duties. Women are expected to fulfill their assigned gender roles based on social expectations accordingly. While this has systematically changed and improved in contemporary times, the deeply embedded traditional values and ideas still exist and prevent victims from speaking up about their encounter with sexual violence or sexual harassment as it is deemed shameful.

The price of speaking up against sexual violence, or speaking up against any injustice not only violates social expectations on gender roles but also faces the possibility of being accused by the government as threats to the societal stability. More specifically, as speaking up against sexual violence and sexual harassment requires organisation and raising awareness to a very sensitive subject among the public in a heavy censorship regime. It is all so a threat to people in charge when it publicizes that those with power have and could utilize their power on those without.

The intention of student protesters who defend basic human needs and dignity are oftentimes overestimated by government elites as potential threats to the society’s male-dominated power mechanism. Therefore, by contextualizing the discussion of sexual violence at universities when the victim is a student and the perpetrator is a professor within the framework of a male-dominated communist society, the issue becomes much more complicated. It involves the university answering to the power dynamics between students and teachers, society’s answer to the violations of expected gender roles, and the government’s role in threats to the internal stability. However, the issue could be regarded as simply the violations of human rights and should only be discussed and solved accordingly.

Gender-Based Violence (GBV) a violation of basic human rights is practiced globally, regardless of cultural, social, or economic boundaries. Yet its victims often remain silent regarding their encounters. While gender-based violence sabotages the victim’s health both mentally and physically, it also undermines one’s dignity and autonomy. Furthermore, victims oftentimes suffer a series of after effects including “sexual and reproductive health consequences, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, traumatic fistula, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and even death,” according to United Nations Population Fund.

The rigid power mechanism in schools, in workplaces, and in societies is a constant force that produces social injustice between the impunity enjoyed by those of power and silence from those without that power. It is never easy to challenge that, but people should at least be aware of the reason that makes it so hard for victims to speak up.

Student activists, or any other human rights defenders, should be given more opportunities to have their say in the matter that requires social concern and more freedom in organizing coherent movements. Their voices should not be one-sidedly considered as threats to the stability of society, they deserve careful attention and response instead of the punishment of making prosecutions.

The reason why human societies have progressed is that people have the courage to be introspective about their past, which requires at least someone to speak out about the plight and raise public concern on the subject matter. The price of speaking up for oneself or speaking up against injustice will remain high without the ease of heavy censorship and pressure of a male-dominated society.