How #MeToo Is Taking on a Life of Its Own in Asia

The reckoning over sexual assault in the U.S. has helped reignite long-simmering movements in South Korea, China and beyond. But speaking out comes with huge risks

It’s been eight years since Seo Ji-hyun says she was sexually harassed, but it’s still painful to recall. “For a long time, I tortured myself by blaming myself for everything,” she says, speaking to TIME on a cloudy September morning in Seoul’s trendy Apgujeong neighborhood. In 2010, Seo, a top-level prosecutor in South Korea, alleges that she was repeatedly groped at a funeral by a senior male colleague, while the country’s Justice Minister sat nearby.

Seo reported the incident to her managers shortly after, but was subjected to performance audits that she describes as unfair, and assigned to a lower level branch outside Seoul—a move she says did not match her strong track record at work. Last fall, after suffering long term health problems such as panic attacks and trouble sleeping, Seo watched as the #MeToo movement took off in Hollywood. She began to grasp how widespread sexual harassment and assault were, and realized even “world-famous actresses” had suffered as she had. “I had more confidence in believing that it wasn’t my fault,” she says.

As the reckoning spread across the U.S., Canada and parts of Europe, millions of survivors described their experiences of groping, rape, unwanted kissing, abuse and threats; others simply posted “me too” on social media. In November, Seo asked for a meeting with senior management to open an investigation into the incident, and to find the truth regarding her treatment at work in the years since she reported the incident. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Seo decided to add her voice to the rising global chorus on January 29—sharing her experience in an open letter on her workplace intranet and signing it with #MeToo at the end.

Within a few hours of posting, she says the Justice Department said her statement was false and refused to issue an apology. (The Ministry of Justice did not respond to TIME’s repeated requests for comment on the case; Seo’s alleged harasser has denied the charge, saying he was too drunk at the time to recall what happened.) That evening, Seo spoke on one of South Korea’s most influential evening news programs. “The reason I did the interview was to tell many people out there that it’s not their fault,” she says.

Her words resonated. Today, Seo’s interview is widely credited with kickstarting South Korea’s own #MeToo movement, triggering a wave of women speaking out against film directors, poets, actors, and others. Meanwhile, Ko Mi-kyung, president of Korea Women’s Hotline, an organization supporting survivors of domestic violence and sexual harassment, estimates that it received a 23% increase in the number of calls in the weeks following Seo’s interview. Those are particularly widespread problems: a 2014 U.N. report showed South Korea had the third highest rate of female murder victims in the world; and in a 2017 study, almost 80% of South Korean men surveyed by the Korean Institute of Criminology said they had physically or psychologically abused a girlfriend.

South Korea wasn’t the only country in Asia where women’s rights activists were paying attention to how the #MeToo movement on the other side of the globe was evolving. As high profile perpetrators in the West publicly apologized for their behavior and some lost positions of power, many in Asia saw a chance to reignite long-simmering movements pushing for gender equality and shape their own national conversations about gender inequality.

Like in the U.S., the movements in Asian countries have been started and sustained by ordinary citizens. But while celebrities and media figures helped make #MeToo go viral in the U.S., there have been fewer high-profile cases in Asia. “Those who are fighting are not famous people,” says Lu Pin, the founder of grassroots Chinese activist platform Feminist Voices. “It is countless grassroots people echoing each other.”

Some credit the U.S. movement with helping bring the conversation out into the open. “It’s no longer seen as a niche issue,” says Anna-Karin Jatfors, Regional Director for U.N. Women’s Asia-Pacific operation. Others, like Lu Pin, say activists were always looking for this opportunity—and were eager to forge their own country’s interpretation of #MeToo.

While China’s movement has borrowed the hashtag, others have used their movements to address deeply-entrenched inequalities, including access to abortion, domestic abuse and murder. In Asia, #MeToo isn’t just synonymous with sexual harassment and assault. As women across the region turn their anger into action, its manifestations have become a broader feminist rallying cry. In Japan, #WithYou has been used to express solidarity with survivors of workplace harassment; in Thailand, women voiced their frustration at being slut-shamed with #DontTellMeHowToDress; and in the Philippines, women have flooded social media and the streets in protest against President Rodrigo Duterte’s sexist comments, under the hashtag #BabaeAko (I Am Woman.)

But daring to speak out in some of these deeply patriarchal societies comes with enormous risks. In democratic South Korea, even as women take to the streets demanding justice on violence and sexual harassment, they cover their faces out of fear of backlash. In China—a repressive state where crackdowns on human rights activists and minority populations are escalating—women must contend with their posts on social media being censored and online feminist platforms being shut down.

One sexual assault survivor in Hangzhou applauds the bravery of celebrities in Hollywood who have spoken out. “Such courage makes me believe that after they speak out, they can be honest with themselves.” But the situation is different in China, she tells TIME. “A lot of people say that when a woman speaks up, or even when [rape or assault] happens, that’s the moment they die.”

Seo Ji-hyun poses for a portrait in Seoul in September. (Tim Franco for TIME)
Seo Ji-hyun poses for a portrait in Seoul in September.
Tim Franco for TIME

In China, state hostility toward public protest means women’s rights activists cannot flood the streets. Instead, they go online. Unlike elsewhere in Asia, the government’s tight grip on freedom of information means it’s more difficult for activists to look to other countries’ movements for inspiration. That hasn’t stopped a new generation of digitally-savvy women working to amplify #MeToo stories, with the help of Virtual Private Networks [VPN] ensuring a safe, encrypted Internet connection. “Thanks to the Internet, and VPNs, their minds are not constrained by the firewall,” says Wang Zheng, Professor of Women’s Studies and History at the University of Michigan.

The movement took off on January 1, when Luo Xixi, a former student at Beihang University in Beijing, wrote an open letter on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform. Luo alleged that when she was a PhD candidate in 2004, her professor Chen Xiaowu drove her to his sister’s home and tried to force himself on her. Chen denied the allegations but 10 days later, after an investigation, he was fired and the university revoked his teaching qualifications, issuing a public statement saying they found Chen had sexually harassed students.

Luo’s post was viewed more than 3 million times in one day and sparked a series of other allegations against at least a dozen university professors. A 2017 survey carried out by Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center and Beijing Impact Law Firm on college students and graduates showed almost 75% of women reported being sexually harassed in their lifetime, with more than 40% of incidents taking place in public space on college campuses. (By comparison, in the U.S., a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that one in five women in college experiences sexual assault.) Ripples of the movement eventually reached beyond China’s university campuses, with a flurry of allegations embroiling leading figures in China’s NGO and media sectors coming to a head in July.

The roots of today’s movement can be traced back to feminist campaigns several years earlier. Back in 2012, young women gained widespread attention for public performances, including wearing “bloodied” wedding dresses on Valentine’s Day in Beijing to draw attention to domestic violence, occupying men’s bathrooms in Guangzhou to protest inequality in public restrooms and protesting slut-shaming in Shanghai’s subway.

A turning point came in 2015, when five female activists, known widely as ‘the Feminist Five,’ were detained on charges of “provoking trouble” after planning a multi-city protest to tackle sexual harassment on public transport. After international condemnation, authorities were forced to backtrack and released the women a month after their detention. “These political activists spent years making the ground fertile for the blossoming of the #MeToo movement in China today,” says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.

That blossoming hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Chinese government. Since the detention of the Feminist Five, activists say the space for raising awareness about gender equality issues has been shrinking. In the 20th century, feminism was seen as a communist principle: women rose to official positions and worked to dismantle feudal laws that dictated systems of marriage, as well as promoting women’s literacy and equal pay.

But the younger generation of women’s rights activists works outside the system, with little resources and without the blessing of the state. In May 2017, state media pointed to “hostile forces” using “Western feminism” to interfere in the country’s affairs, a phrase that has cropped up again during this year’s wave of sexual harassment claims across the country’s social media. If the 2012 performances were planned now, says activist Xiao Yue, better known as Xiao Meili, who took part in some, “we would have been arrested before it even happened.”

Although the number of Chinese internet users has reached over 800 million, with more than 376 million monthly active users on Weibo, censors are quick to block or delete any content deemed disruptive or sensitive. A 25-year-old former CCTV intern, Xian Zi (who asked TIME not to publish her real name for fear of reprisals), alleges that high-profile TV presenter Zhu Jun molested her in a makeup room in 2014, when she was an intern at China Central Television, the country’s state television broadcaster. (His lawyer denies her allegation and CCTV has not responded to TIME’s requests for comments.)

“I wanted to share my own experiences with other girls,” she tells TIME of her decision to post about her experience on social media in July. “Even though I can’t guarantee what will happen when they speak up.” Her story was re-posted by another user on Weibo, but was censored after only two hours; in August, she found that posts on her own newly-created Weibo account were temporarily blocked from being re-posted for more than two weeks. Xian Zi also received multiple anonymous phone calls threatening to find her mother at home.

In August, Zhu Jun denied the allegations in a lawyer’s letter posted online and, soon after, filed a lawsuit against Xian Zi, as well as a friend of hers who posted the story on Weibo, and the platform itself for “reputation dispute.” (Weibo did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.) In a court document reviewed by TIME, Zhu said Xian Zi’s accusations are “made up” and “seriously not factual.” He requests public apologies and asks for the posts to be deleted online, as well as $95,000 in compensation. On Sept. 25, Xian Zi filed a suit against Zhu on grounds of “personality infringement.”

Xian Zi is set to become one of the first people in China’s #MeToo movement to confront their alleged perpetrator in court. Her story is one of many social media posts detailing experiences of sexual harassment that have been censored. But while posts may be repeatedly deleted on social media, traces of the stories and debates can still be found online. “The waves that people created won’t disappear in vain,” says Lu Pin. Activists say there seems to be a growing awareness about sexual harassment among internet users and #MeToo activists have managed to creatively circumvent censorship in a variety of ways—distorting images, using emojis, manipulating Chinese characters and using codes sourced from Github.

Some share other women’s stories on their own social media, drawing attention to their cases and creating a kind of virtual support network. One hashtag referencing sexual harassment within China’s rock music circuit, loosely translated as #RockCircleMe2, began circulating on Weibo in July and received over 8 million views and more than 7,000 posts on the topic. A loose, decentralized web of volunteers has managed to make the movement more resistant to the tide of authoritarianism. “When the authorities know that you are an organizer, they can come to catch or harass you,” says Xiao. “But now everybody is the organizer.”

Female protesters shout slogans during a rally against 'spy-cam porn' in central Seoul on Aug. 4, 2018. (Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images)
Female protesters shout slogans during a rally against 'spy-cam porn' in central Seoul on Aug. 4, 2018.
Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images

Seo, the South Korean prosecutor, has been on medical leave since her television interview in January, enjoying spending more time with her 10-year-old son. She tells TIME that she still hasn’t received an apology regarding the incident or her treatment afterward. “I think that nothing has changed in the Prosecutor’s Office. I’ve heard that they still think of me as an enemy who disgraced the Office, and that they are still not trusting my words.”

Seo isn’t the only woman in South Korea to face severe backlash. Lawyer Lee Eun-eui, who successfully sued her employer, Samsung, in a landmark sexual harassment lawsuit back in 2008, says 80% of her clients are claiming cases relating to workplace discrimination and harassment. Many end up being denounced as “gold-diggers,” receiving a torrent of online abuse, and even being countersued by alleged perpetrators of harassment or assault. “In these scenarios, who would have the courage to speak out?” she asks, sipping iced tea after a long day in a Seoul courtroom.

South Koreans may not face the kind of restrictive censorship coming from the government in China, but many are acutely aware of the dangers of being seen to support feminist causes. Some wear face masks at rallies, wary of having their personal details leaked to the public, being fired, stalked or even the threat of acid attacks. The Inconvenient Courage group that organizes rallies in Seoul also chooses to remain anonymous. They focus on fighting the country’s spy-cam porn epidemic—the well-documented problem of hidden cameras in Korea’s public toilets and changing rooms. That secretly captured footage regularly makes its way to online pornography websites—leading to almost 6,500 cases reported in 2017, according to police.

Still, clad in masks or not, women are turning out in unprecedented numbers. In August, over 40,000 women attended an anti-spy-cam porn rally; later that month, 20,000 took to the streets of the capital after a top politician was acquitted on rape charges. “Women are speaking out and fighting in solidarity because they can’t live like this anymore. This is a battle that we can’t retreat from,” Ko says.

Despite the backlash, activists and survivors in the region remain hopeful and defiant—especially as glimmers of institutional change appear. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is calling for tougher punishments on spy-cam perpetrators, and Seoul’s government is launching a clean-up campaign to rid the city’s public toilets of hidden cameras. China announced in August a plan for new legislation that would define and target sexual harassment in workplaces, and in September, Japan’s Labor Policy Council held discussions on proposals for laws and regulations to address the same issue.

While #MeToo and its iterations have not effected much systemic or societal change in some countries across the region, South Korea and China are two places where the culture of activism remains strong. Many women in both these countries feel hopeful about change. “I think I truly feel the meaning of #MeToo,” one survivor in Hangzhou tells TIME. “It connects every individual who had harm done to them and makes them no longer feel like they are lowly, isolated or helpless. Instead, they can form alliances, encourage each other and become the courage of each other.”

It’s still tough to predict what survivors might achieve in terms of legislative change. But in South Korea, Seo’s testimony does seem to have changed perceptions about sexual harassment. In a society where a prosecutor is considered one of the most prestigious jobs, many were shocked to realize that even powerful women like Seo were vulnerable to sexual harassment and silenced. As with celebrities speaking out in Hollywood, her case exposed how pervasive the problem is. “She really shook the stereotype of sexual violence victims,” says Bae Eun-kyung, Professor of Gender Studies at Seoul National University.

And in both China and South Korea, the broader cultural impact of speaking out in such challenging environments is creating a groundswell of support and solidarity. Women like Seo and Xian Zi want nothing less than to change how survivors of abuse are perceived. “South Korea has a culture of demanding that victims act like victims: they should always be in pain, and cry, and cannot be happy,” Seo says. “I want to show the image of the survivor as happy and confident.”

With reporting by Jinyoung Park / Seoul

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