Feng Yuan, founder of Equality, a Beijing-based advocacy group, welcomed the move for its potential to impose “moral responsibility and pressure” on institutions. But she noted that the draft does not specify clear punishments for the violations it outlines. Instead, it uses phrases such as “will be ordered to make corrections” or “may be criticised and educated.”
“This law, to be honest, is more of a gesture than a specific plan of operation,” Feng said.
The gesture, at least, is extensive. As revised, the law would offer the most comprehensive legal definition yet of sexual harassment, to include behaviours such as sending unwanted sexually explicit images or pressuring someone into a relationship in exchange for benefits. It also instructs schools and employers to introduce anti-harassment training and channels for complaints.
The law would also codify women’s right to ask for compensation for housework during divorce proceedings — following the first-of-its-kind decision by a Chinese divorce court last year to award a woman the equivalent of $11,000 for her labour during her marriage.
Some provisions would go beyond those in other countries. In particular, the draft bans the use of “superstition” or other “emotional control” against women. While the draft does not offer further details, state media reports have said those bans would cover pickup artistry.
Pickup artistry — a practice that arrived in China from the United States — commonly refers to the use of manipulative techniques, including gaslighting, to demean women and lure them into having sex. It became a booming industry in China, with thousands of companies and websites promising to teach techniques, and it has been widely condemned by both the government and social media users.
Elsewhere, bans on emotional coercion are spotty. Britain banned it in 2015, while the United States has no federal law against it.
Yet the truly novel aspects of the Chinese law are limited. Many of the provisions already exist in other laws or regulations but have been poorly enforced. China’s labour law bans discrimination based on sex. The compensation-for-housework measure was included in a new civil code that went into effect last year.
While the law affirms women’s right to sue, its emphasis is largely on authorising government officials to take top-down action against offenders, said Darius Longarino, a researcher at Yale Law School who studies China.
“The priority should be on bottom-up enforcement, where you empower individuals who have been harassed to use the law to protect their rights,” he said.
It is rare for victims of harassment to go to court. An analysis by Longarino and others found that 93 per cent of sexual harassment cases decided in China between 2018 and 2020 were brought not by the alleged victim but by the alleged harasser, claiming defamation or wrongful termination. Women who have made public harassment claims have been forced to pay those they accused.
Nonlegal complaints can bring heavy consequences, too. In December, Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, fired a woman who had accused a superior of raping her. The company said that she had “spread falsehoods,” even though it had earlier fired the man she accused.
Even when women do sue their harassers, they face steep hurdles. Perhaps the most high-profile #MeToo case to go to court was brought by Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former intern at China’s state broadcaster, who asserted that Zhu Jun, a star anchor, had forcibly kissed and groped her. But the case faced years of delays. In September, a court dismissed the claim and said she had not provided enough evidence, though Zhou said the judges had rejected her efforts to introduce more.
In an interview, Zhou expressed scepticism that the revised law would change much.
“The judicial environment won’t be changed by one or two legal amendments,” she said. “It will take every court, every judge really understanding the plight of those who suffer from sexual harassment. This is probably still a very long, hard road.”
Emotional control could prove even harder to substantiate, especially in a country where open discussion of mental health can still carry a stigma. Guo Jing, a feminist activist from Wuhan, noted that psychologists are rarely admitted as expert witnesses in Chinese courts and that judges might be sceptical of claims of depression or other mental health conditions.
And patriarchal attitudes still remain deeply entrenched. After the draft revisions were published, several male bloggers with large followings on social media platform Weibo denounced the provisions against degrading or harassing women online, saying they would give “radical” feminists too much power to silence their critics.
Still, some women remain optimistic about the possible power of the proposed changes.
A woman in southern Guangdong province who asked only to use her last name, Han, out of fears for her safety, said that she had endured years of physical and emotional abuse by her ex-husband. Even though she managed to secure a divorce last year, he continues to stalk and threaten her, she said. She obtained a restraining order that cited chat logs and recordings.
Yet even with the restraining order, when Han called police, they often told her that threats alone were not enough for them to take action, as he had not physically harmed her, she said. If the law were revised, she continued, police would be forced to recognise that she had a right to seek their help.
“If the law changes, I will be even more convinced that everything I’m doing right now is right,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.