Cover of Liu Jieyu's book: Gender Sexuality and Power in Chinese Companies.

China: #MeToo, inequality, harassment and sexual politics in the workplace

The recent collapse of a high-profile sexual harassment case brought against a well-known television host has reignited debate in China over workplace gender roles and reinvigorated the country’s #MeToo movement.

Zhou Xiaoxuan, 27, says she was an intern at Chinese state-owned media company CCTV when Zhu Jun, a prominent TV presenter, groped and forcibly kissed her. The case was dismissed on September 14 on the grounds it did not meet the required standard of proof.

When Zhou first raised the allegations on social media in 2018 she quickly became the face of China’s #MeToo movement. Supporters gathered outside the court to protest the decision as Zhou vowed to appeal.

Media coverage of sexual harassment cases in China has triggered a general discussion of the problem of workplace gender relations. But the ensuing discussion often reflects a lack of public awareness about what actually constitutes workplace sexual harassment and the persistent gendered expectation of sexuality that women should take responsibility for maintaining their own sexual reputation.

Privileged generation

Women of the “One Child generation” (1979 – 2016) are often portrayed in the Chinese media as having enviable lives. They are seen as part of a privileged generation: urban, highly educated, professional, with a wide range of opportunities.

Lifting the lid on gender inequality in China’s workplaces.
Author provided

Materially and socially, these women also enjoy far greater prospects than older urban women and rural women in the labour market.

But they are not immune from the wider sexualisation of women that has been a feature of post-Mao China. Drawing upon observations of office culture and interviews with urban professional women, my book Gender Sexuality and Power in Chinese Companies: Beauties at Work, reveals that gender inequalities and sexual politics are embedded in most of China’s state owned and private-owned companies.

Sex in the workplace

In China’s workplace culture, too often women are considered an instrument for men’s entertainment and a tool to boost organisational morale and productivity. Women employees are routinely subject to sexual innuendo at work. One female manager told me:

The first time when I heard the joke, I was really uncomfortable. They told dirty jokes about me, I wanted to find a crack on the ground and slip into it… Nowadays I am completely used to it. I am neither angry nor care. I have no reaction. When I hear the joke, I feel the same as when someone asks “have you eaten?”

Despite this commodification and sexualisation of women, past cultural restrictions on sexual expression or discussion have given Chinese women little or no opportunity for sexual autonomy. Chinese women who actively engaged in sexual joking or activities are considered morally decadent. So in order to maintain their respectablity, professional women normally remain silent when they are the object of sexual jokes or innuendo.

Scene from a Chinese boardroom. Suited executive shakes hands with another businessman as a woman looks on.
Men who tell sexual jokes are seen as good for morale in Chinese offices. Women are expected to speak when they are spoken to.
imtmphoto via Shutterstock

Men who are good at sexual banter are approved of as icebreakers by senior management – a desirable quality in a client-facing environment, ultimately enhancing their career development. Women in the workplace, meanwhile, are expected to learn to live with innuendos and sexual jokes as part of the office routine. As one woman told me: “Women are brought into the workplace for amusement”.

Women as ‘entertainment’

This sexualised business culture often includes visits with clients to entertainment venues (involving banquets, karaoke parties and saunas). Professional women in these situations are all-too often vulnerable to sexual harassment and exploitation. On these entertainment occasions, using women’s sexual appeal to secure business deals is quite common and a deliberate tactic, despite it being exhausting and extremely stressful for women.

One woman manager in an insurance company described the Karaoke parties:

If you didn’t sing, the manager would point at you specifically, saying to me: ‘Why not sing a duet together with the guest?’ Then if the client wants to dance, I have to accompany him too. But sometimes if you bump into someone whose action is a bit inappropriate [implying unwanted touching], that’s really unlucky.

Women frequently reported incidents of unwanted touching, from hugging and kissing to sexual advances. They said there were no workplace rules to offer them protection. At the same time, women had to deal with the expectation on the part of their colleagues that they should be able to deal with this. As a female regional branch manager of a pharmaceutical company put it:

If a woman couldn’t take this lightheartedly, I’d advise her not to stay in this occupation.

Needed: culture change

Sexual respectability is part of what defines the moral status of Chinese women, so women professionals find themselves constantly walking a fine line between respectability and disrepute. Men, of course, don’t have to deal with this sort of moral judgement.

What is to be done? The necessary first step is to expose the patriarchal and highly sexualised work culture in 21st-century workplaces in China. But it’s equally important to discuss the gendered nature of sexuality in broader Chinese society. While men happily consume women’s sexuality in the market economy, women have to tread carefully in order to maintain their sexual respectability.

What is needed is state-led institutional reform of China’s business sector. Companies need to put in place formal mechanism so that female workers no longer have to deal with these routine but highly stressful sexual encounters on their own.

The Conversation

Jieyu Liu’s research on sexual politics in the Chinese workplaces receives funding from the British Academy (SG48096).