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
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
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
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
"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. …