First court ruling in China against sexual harassment on public transportation

Society & Culture

Shanghai has stepped up its initiative to combat sexual harassment on the city’s public transit system, sentencing one man to six months in prison after he groped an adult woman and an underage girl on a subway train.

According to the indictment (in Chinese), the incident occurred on July 1, when the 34-year-old sex offender, whose last name is Wang, was caught grabbing the victims’ breasts and other body parts on a Line 8 subway train. After the woman called Wang out for his molestation, he was surrounded by other passengers on the train, and then apprehended by the police as he attempted to flee the scene.

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Wang was arrested on indecency charges in August and sentenced to six months in jail by the Jing’an District People’s Court, making him the first person to be criminally punished for groping passengers on public transportation in the city.

Sexual assault on public transit is alarmingly common in China. According to a 2015 nationwide survey (in Chinese) conducted by the China Youth Daily, more than half of the 1,117 female respondents said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment on a bus or on the subway. Over 70 percent of the participants, including the 906 male participants, urged legislators to toughen laws against mass transit gropers and create a blacklist for repeat offenders.

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But while the problem has gained increasing attention since the #MeToo movement took off in China last year, the crime of forcible touching is classified as a misdemeanor by Chinese laws. Before Wang’s case, offenders managed to get away with less-severe penalties like 15-day “administrative detentions” without any time in real prison.

There are also practical difficulties for feminists who try to raise public awareness about the  issue. In 2015, five female activists were detained after attempting to launch a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation.

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That didn’t deter other courageous feminist individuals and groups from speaking up. In 2017, after failed attempts to display advertisements against sexual harassment at subway stations, Zhāng Lěilěi 张累累, an activist in Guangzhou, successfully encouraged 100 volunteers to wear placards with anti-sexual-harassment slogans while riding the subway, which generated a lot of lively discussion on the internet.

Last year, the state-run Beijing Women’s Federation ran an awareness campaign in parts of the capital’s subway system. Its posters called upon people to “not act like a silent lamb” or “an indifferent onlooker” if they see a passenger being groped.