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#MeToo in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan

Updated: Aug 22

Victims of sexual harassment and assault have long stayed silent. Many feel alone and ashamed. This reinforces a despondency trap, which deters reporting. Perpetrators thus continue with impunity - in homes, universities, offices, and parliaments too.


But over the past couple of years, feminists have defiantly demanded accountability. #MeToo started in the US but reverberated across East Asia - with differing degrees of success.


#MeToo activism was quashed in authoritarian China. Although Japan is democratic, its institutions are male dominated and hierarchical. South Korea is similarly patriarchal, but feminists have been emboldened by the peninsula's history of militant resistance. Taiwan benefits from democracy, activism, and small businesses that need skilled women. As women advanced economically they have also built more egalitarian institutions.

Feminist activism is most effective when civil society is unafraid and when women occupy the corridors of power.


Repressed in China

#MeToo in China was catalysed by Luo Xixi. Inspired by US activism, Xixi accused her former PhD supervisor of sexual harassment. Her widely-shared post emboldened others. Thousands started petitioning for reform and accountability at universities. High-profile men in academia, NGOs and the media were accused of assault. A famous state TV host (Zhun Jun) allegedly forced himself upon an intern. Her accusation went viral.

#MeToo garnered 4.5 million hits on Weibo. Young, educated women shared their experiences on social media. By hearing others, they gained confidence in righteous defiance.

‘It’s time for us to fight in solidarity ... 2018 is full of opportunities for people to put words into action and take to the streets’ – Feminist Voices (which had 180,000 followers on Weibo, and 70,000 on WeChat).

Fearing unrest, the Government swiftly cracked down. Feminist Voices was shut down, on both Weibo and WeChat. ‘MeTooinChina’ was blocked. Related posts were deleted.


Li Maizi (a feminist activist detained for planning a multi-city protest against sexual harassment) decried patriarchal authoritarianism:

I want to take back the night

And to be beautiful and free from harassment

Please empower me but don’t prison me

Why do you take my freedom from me?

Snap out of it!

Catch the perpetrator - not me.

Fearing arrest, feminist activists now organise clandestinely and self-censor. NGOs operate underground, recreating their identities, afraid to act publicly.


With resistance muzzled, institutions have little incentive to reform. Though the Government introduced a new civil code this summer, defining sexual harassment and creating a complaint mechanism, the police are notoriously unsympathetic. Seldom hearing dissent or finding support, many Chinese women see sexual harassment as inevitable.

Patriarchal authoritarianism appears to have entrenched impunity.

Silenced by Male Dominance in Japan

Unlike China, Japan is democratic. But women have always struggled to gain traction in this hierarchal, socially harmonious, male-dominated society.


#MeToo passed without much of a whimper.

Japan ranks 121 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Index. It has the second largest gender wage gap in the OECD, second only to South Korea. Men comprise 85% of managers and senior officials, and over 90% of legislators. Men, and men alone, have the money, networks, and publicity to win elections. Men dominate corporations, bureaucracies, courts, media, and the Diet. And men run these organisations in ways that protect and preserve male dominance.


The Japanese business community has always lobbied hard again legislative change, even opposing sexual harassment training. Courts routinely deny systematic discrimination. Individuals cannot even sue employers for sexual harassment. They can only ask the Ministry of Labour for mediation. The media mostly ignores those who report abuse.


Such impunity compounds men's advantage, and reinforces women's despondency.

Emboldened in South Korea

South Korea's gender pay gap is even worse than Japan's. Family-run conglomerates are famously hierarchal, male-dominated, and abusive. But unlike Japan it has a history of militant, bottom-up resistance. This appears to have emboldened feminist mobilisation.


#Metoo began when Seo Ji-hyeon (a public prosecutor) came forward in 2018, accusing of former senior office at the Ministry of Justice of sexual harassment. In a televised interview she explained,


'It took me eight years to realise that it was not my fault. I came on this interview today to tell everyone and victims that it is not their fault’.

For this, she was widely praised.


Seeing this, other women shared their grievances. Connected by a hashtag (no longer divided by kinship or region), Korean women found their allies, fighting back against structural discrimination.


This shifted expectations. Together, they accused a litany of film directors, actors, authors, teachers, professors. In Seoul, 193 women shared their experiences to assembled crowds. They garnered media attention. Ahn Hee-jung (governor and close ally of the president) was accused of repeatedly raping his secretary. 340 women’s organisations, labour unions and NGOs launched ‘Citizens’ Action with MeToo and campaigned ‘With You’.



In response to sustained activism, the Government of South Korea initiated investigations, surveys, and enacted new legislation. Ahn Hee-jung (the alleged rapist) was expelled from the Democratic party.


Recognising their collective strength and successes, South Korean women increasingly agitate for accountability.


In 2018, 20,000 women marched against spy-cams (up-skirt and hidden cameras in loos) and revenge porn (which is then circulated online). This led to more government attention, a ministerial committee, and more police investigations. A virtuous circle has begun.

Why is South Korea different?

Economically, South Korean women are no less trapped than their Japanese counterparts. But they gain strength from a relatively more adversarial civic culture.


Back in 1970, Jeon Tae-il set himself on fire, shouting ‘workers are human beings too!’. Decrying harsh conditions and low wages, protesting en masse, Korean workers became increasingly assertive. The democracy movement was equally militant. And by fighting back, relentlessly, they eventually usurped authoritarianism. This sharply contrasts with the top-down imposition of democracy in post-war Japan.


This history of militancy showed resistance was possible, against the odds.

Similarly if you study the US women's rights movement in the 1880s and 1960s, you'll see that many protagonists were hugely influenced by parallel struggles. The abolition of slavery inspired hope in the possibility of radical change, including suffrage.


Key take-away: a broader history of successful grassroots resistance can inspire feminist activism.

Taiwan's Economic Growth & More Egalitarian Institutions

Democratisation likewise emboldened Taiwanese feminists. They became increasingly organised, outspoken, and assertive.

Women increasingly took to the streets – such as when Ju-wen Teng was jailed for killing her abusive husband, and when Wan-ru Peng (feminist activist) was raped and murdered.


After sustained organising, especially amongst university students, sexual harassment was criminalised in 2005. Further legislation provided education, complaint mechanisms, investigations, and victim support. Just this year, in 2020, Taiwan's High Court sentenced a professor to 14 months imprisonment for sexual harassment. He was also fined.


Though many victims are reluctant to come forward, Taiwanese institutions have been relatively responsive and pro-active in protecting women's rights. Why?


Taiwan's economy needed women, and this empowered them politically.

Employers the world over, left to their own devices, prefer to hire, train, and promote men. They seen women as risky and unreliable: likely to exit upon childbirth and leave early for the school run. Firms then lose their investment.


Although employers prefer men, they recruit women when economically necessary. In the the 1920s-50s, US employers did not need skilled female labour, so imposed ‘marriage bars’. But with sustained economic growth, employers struggled with a shortage. They increasingly hired women.


South Korea and Japan have achieved rapid economic growth, but still have a surplus of highly educated men. Firms thus have little incentive to recruit or retain skilled women.


In the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan's labour market looked much like South Korea and Japan. Women predominated in low paid work, and exited upon marriage.


But then Taiwan ran out of skilled male labour!!


Taiwan’s development model has been more labour-intensive than Japan’s and Korea’s. SMEs (small and medium enterprises) are also key employers – double the share of Japan and Korea. Unlike big companies, SMEs cannot afford to heavily invest in training. They tend to hire in skilled workers.


By the 1980s, demand for skilled male labour was outpacing the supply of male graduates. Taiwanese employers preferred men, but they needed to recruit and retain married women. So they became more flexible: accommodating late arrivals (after the school run), family emergencies, and parental leave. Commercial banks removed the marriage bar as they desperately needed skilled women!

Taiwan also has a relatively larger public sector. Candidates are hired on the basis of rule-governed examinations, and workdays are relatively short (childcare compatible). Mothers can thus build careers. The gender pay gap is now just 14.6%, smaller than the USA's.

The Gender Pay Gap in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the USA

The rise of educated, wealthy, networked women meant more competitive female political candidates. Gender quotas were also adopted in response to feminist lobbying. Women comprise 42% of legislators. Taiwanese politics now has a female face. Female President Tsai Ing-wen was not only re-elected in 2020, but has also achieved a high approval rating (73%) - recognising her calm, competent response to our global pandemic.



So while Taiwan's civil society is not as combative as South Korea's, its institutions are less male dominated and more responsive to feminist demands.


OK! Four key points for those who skimmed:


  1. China's authoritarianism silences dissent, deters reporting, and entrenches impunity.

  2. Japan is democratic, but male dominance and the dearth of grassroots militancy compound a despondency trap;

  3. Korea's history of pro-democratic and pro-labour militancy has encouraged feminist activism against the odds;

  4. Taiwan benefits from democracy, activism, and small businesses that needed women.


Meta-point:

Successful organising and responsive governance enable a positive feedback loop. Growth trajectories also matter. As women advance economically, they can build and benefit from more female-friendly institutions.


Comments? Questions? Very welcome.



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