In the fall of 2004, when I was 19, I studied abroad in the beautiful coastal Chinese city of Xiamen. One Friday evening, I attended an English meetup at a local university, hoping to make some Chinese friends. To my surprise, a group of Chinese men — young, but older than I was — flocked to me, asking me repeatedly if I had any boyfriends, if my dating life resembled the popular American sitcom Friends, and if I was “open,” which I later learned was a poor translation for a Chinese phrase that meant “sexually liberal.” I was not.
The next day, one of them asked me to go swimming at a local hot springs with a group of his friends. It sounded fun. I said yes. But as it turned out, there were no friends, and I had no cellphone. Later that day, he raped me. That moment marked a new era for me — the Before Christ and Anno Domini that split my soul and altered the trajectory of my life
Unwittingly, I had walked into the middle of a struggle to redefine Chinese identity, in a nation at times unable to come to terms with its own sexual revolution — or the epidemic of violence behind its closed doors.
China’s repressed struggle became visible last week as America belatedly dealt with longstanding sexual assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Investigations by the New York Times and the New Yorker revealed Weinstein’s decades of abuse and assault against dozens of women in which a male-dominated media industry was complicit. The allegations triggered a society-wide reckoning, as women across the country and around the world who have experienced sexual assault posted the deceptively simple five letters “me too” on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. It was a stunning public display that seemed to shed light on a universal experience.
It was just at this point that Chinese state-run media decided to wade into this shared public moment of confession and vulnerability in order to win points for its supposed civilizational superiority.
On Oct. 16, the government-run English-language newspaper China Daily published an opinion article called “Weinstein case demonstrates cultural differences,” that posed the question: “What prevents sexual harassment from being a common phenomenon in China, as it is in most Western societies?” Sexual violence wasn’t universal, the author — Sava Hassan, a “Canadian Egyptian educator” who taught in China — argued. “It is a well-known fact that China is a traditional society based upon commendable values and virtues that respect the dignity and humanity of its citizens, regardless of their gender,” it explained. “Chinese authority deals harshly with those who disrespect themselves by behaving inappropriately toward others.” (The article has since been removed from the site.)
The idea that Chinese society is somehow inherently less sexist than other societies is, of course, ludicrous. But it’s part of a worldview, heavily promoted by the Chinese Communist Party, that sees violence and social instability as an ideological or even civilizational flaw. And with Western democracy as its primary competitor, the party takes every opportunity, no matter how vulgar, to demonstrate China’s superiority over what it presents as a chaotic, violent, and debauched West.
That explains both the tasteless China Daily piece — and what happened to me.
Up until the early 20th century, Chinese family structure and sexual values remained — to use the party’s own term — “feudal.” Women fell under the authority of their male relatives, and female chastity was highly prized, while men could keep concubines. After 1949, the party prioritized marriage reform as part of its goal to create a New China by sweeping away Western imperialism and feudal traditions alike. The very first law passed in the newly established People’s Republic was the marriage law of 1950, which encouraged love-based matches, made concubinage and child marriage illegal, and gave men and women equal rights in divorce proceedings.
This was no Western-style sexual revolution; Chinese society remained deeply conservative, and the Communist state preferred to keep it that way. Sex before marriage was illegal, sex education was largely nonexistent, and publications about sex or romance were prohibited as bourgeois. Behind closed doors, the abuse of women was still common. Coercion by their superiors in the Communist hierarchy often appears in memoirs, and sexual assault on the young women traveling as Red Guards or “sent down to the countryside” from the city during the Cultural Revolution seems to have been frequent. Actress Bai Ling has talked of her sexual abuse while serving in a People’s Liberation Army “entertainment unit” as a teenager.
But with the economic reforms after 1978, industrialization and urbanization radically altered the nature of relationships. Factories sprouted up in cities across the eastern coast. The flow of rural migrants into urban areas in search of work removed them from direct family and village oversight. New education and career opportunities kept young people single longer and threw them together in confined urban spaces away from families. Young people in China began to do what young people in similar situations elsewhere in the world have always done — flirt, date, have sex. In 1989, just 15.5 percent of China’s populace had sex before marriage, according to Chinese sexologist Li Yinhe; by 2012, that number had risen to more than 70 percent.
Chinese attitudes towards sex in some ways lurched into modernity, while in other ways remained deeply traditional. Prostitution flourished but women were still expected to be virgins when they married. Discussion of sexually transmitted diseases remained taboo; the government was complicit in the cover-up of an AIDS epidemic in the 1990s. Rules against unmarried couples sharing hotel rooms were finally lifted in the 2000s, years after they’d stopped being enforced, although the rare children born outside of marriage faced massive state stigma. To help keep the population under control, the state encouraged the use of contraception, and grocery stores put brightly-wrapped condom packages in the checkout aisles next to mints and gum. But public discussion and debate over these sweeping changes remained stunted. Even the phrase “cohabitation” could embarrass polite company.
With China’s opening also came first a trickle, and then a flood, of foreign popular culture. Japanese fashion, Hong Kong magazines, and Hollywood films exposed a mass Chinese audience to ideas of young love, romantic choice, and sexual freedom. When a slightly censored version of The Bridges of Madison County, a movie that portrayed a passionate extramarital affair, opened in Beijing in 1996, it sold 1.3 million tickets on its first weekend there.
But it wasn’t easy for many Chinese to adapt to the shredding of the asceticism of the early Communist era. The party had long linked China’s success, and its own legitimacy, to an essential struggle against imperialism, capitalism, and Western bourgeois values. China’s economic distinctiveness relative to the West was swiftly disintegrating. Would its sense of moral distinctiveness vanish as well?
The problem is that the economic changes were helping cause the moral and behavioral ones — and the state preferred to lionize the former while officially opposing the latter. So rather than acknowledge the ways that urbanization, industrialization, and globalization were undermining traditional ways of life, Chinese authorities conveniently blamed their country’s new bedroom behaviors on an insidious, foreign enemy. As early as 1990, state media blamed the proliferation of pornography within China on “Western cultural infiltration.” A rash of recent laws prohibit television and movies from depicting cleavage, one-night stands, and “admiration for Western lifestyles.”
But these chastisements did little to alter anyone’s behavior, and it wasn’t long before China’s free market economy had exploited, for its own ends, the association between sex and the West. Pictures of foreign women — typically blonde Caucasians, like me — came to regularly grace packages of lingerie, sex toys, and knockoff condom brands. Inevitably, the connection entered the Chinese vernacular. I’ve heard Chinese men describe the Chinese women who frequent Shanghai nightclubs as “more Westernized than the West.”
But perhaps nothing clinched the deal like Friends. The American sitcom became an unparalleled sensation across China, so popular that its characters and storylines remain a lingua franca between young Chinese and visiting Americans to this day; there’s even a Friends-themed coffee shop in Beijing. In the show’s 10 seasons, the six main characters had a combined total of 85 sexual partners who appeared on screen. The sitcom — and by association, American culture and the entire West writ large — came to embody the sexual freedoms that had revolutionized the Chinese bedroom.
The perceived image of white women in China “fused the sexual and the political,” noted Louisa Schein, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, in her 1994 article, “The Consumption of Color and the Politics of White Skin in Post-Mao China.” When Chinese looked at the bodies of Western women, they saw freedom, democracy, abandon, critique of morality, or any number of different ideas, wrote Schein. The white woman thus served as an important element in the “recuperation of the East-West binarism” — a stable, essential Chinese society and an inferior, borrowed Western culture — a duality that provided an “antidote” to the rapid, chaotic influx of modernity and change.
In other words, the images Chinese saw in illicit magazines and on television and, later, the internet, made it easy to write off these sweeping social changes as a kind of Western sexual imperialism. The result was a workable solution to the problem of Chinese identity in a post-communist society — Chinese may choose to participate in casual relationships, but in doing so, they would be indulging in a type of freedom that is inherently Western. The same cognitive dissonance worked for the Communist Party as well. Sexual freedom was permitted, but any resulting social ills were understood to be the fault of the West, not the Chinese government.
Of course, when I was 19, I knew nothing of this. I’d just stepped off a plane from my small Christian university in a West Texas town, where there were hundreds of churches but just a handful of clubs. That Friday evening at English Corner, the Chinese men around me entertained a notion of American womanhood that bore little resemblance to me, or most other young American women for that matter. When they looked at me, they saw Rachel, or Phoebe, or Monica. They saw the living embodiment of sexual revolution. They saw a West that existed only in their own minds, a West without values or dignity.
The next day, in a last-ditch effort to save myself, I told the attacker I was a virgin. He didn’t believe me. He simply couldn’t.
This was far from an isolated incident for me, though it was by far the worst. In the four years I lived in China over the past decade and a half, I lost count of the number of Chinese men who assumed that because I was American, they could touch me, say lewd things to me, or take me home with them; they often said as much. “Many Chinese people, older and conservative-minded especially, ” said Lijia Zhang, journalist and author of the novel Lotus, “think all Western people are sexually loose, women in particular.”
American television didn’t cause this behavior, of course; it’s simply become a new way to excuse it. It may come as no surprise that Chinese society, stubbornly patriarchal, and its governing party, obsessed with stability, have both been unable to acknowledge the epidemic of violence against women that flourishes within the country. In a 2013 U.N. Population Fund survey of one Chinese county, fully one in five male respondents admitted to having committed rape. Two percent admitted they had participated in a gang rape; 44 percent of men said they had engaged in physical violence against an intimate partner.
“This is endemic to the Chinese system, it’s a severe problem,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of the forthcoming book Betraying Big Brother: The Rise of China’s Feminist Resistance. The Chinese government does not release statistics on sexual assault, viewing it as a politically sensitive social problem, Hong Fincher explained. “China doesn’t want to admit how bad the problems are with sexual violence … and of course there’s an ideological component to that.”
Violent cases tend to trigger the Chinese government’s instincts for self-preservation rather than criminal justice. In May 2013, after a 22-year-old woman was allegedly gang raped by security guards in Beijing and then fell to her death from a window, local authorities denied any foul play. Her family and hundreds of others protested in the southern quarter of the capital city. Riot police swarmed the protests; photos and discussion of the protests circulated online but were swiftly removed by censors.
The denial at work is delicately intertwined with nationalism and political ideology. After the brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi, India, in late 2012, state news agency Xinhua syndicated an article titled “A Case of Gang Rape Reflects the True India.” The episode, the piece crowed, had shocked the globe and “pulled back the veil of democracy.” When India’s Daughter, the 2015 documentary about that rape, was released, it wasn’t censored but rather was widely available on Chinese streaming websites. At the time, I had a Chinese colleague who, like many of the young Chinese men of his generation, evinced a confident and unquestioned nationalism. After watching the film, he expressed to me his gratitude that he hailed from a better, safer country. Something like that could never happen in China, he smugly told me.
I bit my tongue, but my hands shook as I turned back to my computer.
Others have been braver and bolder than me. Feminist activist Li Tingting and four fellow Chinese activists attracted global attention when Chinese authorities detained them for more than a month after their March 2015 attempt to raise awareness about sexual assault on public transit. Still, there’s little chance that the #MeToo campaign will trend in China anytime soon. Chinese social media is its own isolated ecosystem, by design. Twitter and Facebook are both blocked in China, precisely so that outside ideas and movements can’t spread.
So women will continue to pay the price for China’s inability to take responsibility for its own changing society, and for the party’s ideological insecurity both toward the wider world and within the country that it governs. I paid this price with my own body. But I will bite my tongue no more.