Shanghai Targets Sexual Harassment

Article excerpt

At first, Sarah Cheng didn't realize that she had been sexually harassed. Then the woman next to her on the bus told her that the man who'd just brushed up against her had done it intentionally.

"That was a watershed moment for me," says the young Shanghai native, who prefers to go by an English name. "After that, I now see inappropriate behavior that is often directed towards women in the city."

Aware that many of the city's female residents have been victims of unwanted sexual advances, Shanghai has become the first city in China to define what constitutes sexual harassment.

It is the latest in a series of moves by the central and local governments to update the legal system and provide a stronger foundation for the country's burgeoning economy. Protective of its position as one of the world's premier destinations for international business, Shanghai sees itself as a companion to New York, London, and Hong Kong and has decided that it needs the institutions to match.

"Shanghai wants to be seen as more sophisticated," says Matthew Durham, a Shanghai-based lawyer for the law firm Simmons & Simmons, "and the way in which women are treated is a key element of this perception."

On April 26, the Standing Committee of the Shanghai Municipal People's Congress passed the law, which defines sexual harassment and provides a legal channel through which victims can have their cases heard. According to the Xinhua News Agency, the law defines sexual harassment as inappropriate behavior as exhibited through "verbal abuse, written text, pictures, text messaging, and physical contact."

Further, the law stipulates that "Employers must take steps to ensure a positive atmosphere for their female staff to be able to work without fear of sexual harassment."

While the law provides no further instructions for businesses, some human-resources experts have recommended that companies add sexual harassment sections to their corporate handbooks and institute training seminars. Most large international companies already have policies in place based on sexual-harassment statutes in Europe and the United States.

China's slow moves on sexual harassment

Until the early 1980s, China's sexual culture was repressed, most obviously by the blue Mao suits worn by most Chinese that left much to the imagination. As women have come to feel more comfortable wearing fashionable outfits, many men have taken this as evidence of sexual interest.

"While Chinese men like me, who grew up in the 1980s, have become used to the revealing dressing habits of Shanghai's women, many who are my father's age are completely baffled by today's fashion," notes John Chen, who also used an English name. "They think anyone wearing a short skirt must have sex on their mind," he says.

China took its first step toward punishing sexual harassment in 2005 with an amendment to the 1992 Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women. Although the amendment declared that "Sexual harassment against women is forbidden," there was no attempt to define what behavior was considered inappropriate. …