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BEIJING — The women recount being forced into sex by bosses and trusted co-workers. They speak of being shunned by friends and discouraged by the authorities from pressing charges. They recall being told their lives would be ruined if they spoke up.
In gripping open letters posted on social media sites, more than a dozen Chinese women have come forward in recent days with accusations of sexual assault and harassment against prominent Chinese journalists, intellectuals and charity leaders.
The outpouring of allegations has been a focus of discussions on the internet in China and given momentum to the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement, which has struggled amid government censorship and a male-dominated society that often shames victims of sexual assault.
Most of the accusations were published on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, and have since circulated widely on a variety of social platforms.
While the letters, many of them anonymous, do not appear to have been part of a coordinated campaign, they offer a collective indictment of the patriarchal culture that pervades Chinese society.
In a letter published on Wednesday, a woman accuses a well-known Chinese intellectual, Zhang Wen, of raping her after a dinner party and telling her, “You can never shake off the fate of becoming my woman.” Mr. Zhang said the sex was consensual.
In another letter published on Thursday, a former intern at CCTV, the state-owned broadcaster, says an anchor at the network, Zhu Jun, molested her in 2014 in his dressing room. When she went to the police, she says, the authorities suggested she should drop the case to avoid harming the “positive” image of Mr. Zhu and CCTV.
“This is the world we live in,” she wrote, lamenting the prevalence of harassment.
Mr. Zhu, the CCTV anchor, could not be reached for comment. The former intern who accused him of molesting her in a dressing room, who published her letter anonymously, recounted the incident in a telephone interview on Thursday. She declined to be named, citing fears for her family’s safety.
Activists for gender equality say they see the burst of accusations as a sign that China’s #MeToo movement, which has so far been mostly limited to university campuses, is spreading to the workplace.
“It’s only the beginning of ‘Me Too’ in China,” said Li Tingting, an activist for gender equality. “The men-dominant structure is everywhere. The rape culture is still powerful.”
Once a champion of gender equality, the Chinese government has greeted the #MeToo movement cautiously. Some officials are nervous about its foreign roots and see it as a force for disruption in a society that prizes stability.
The government has deployed censors to limit the movement’s spread. As the letters by the women appeared this week on social media, censors went into action, banning the English #MeToo hashtag on social media sites and deleting some letters.
Still, the accusations have prompted vigorous online debate within China, with some posted comments applauding the women for coming forward and others accusing them of seeking fame.
Several of the men denied the accusations.
In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Zhang, the intellectual, acknowledged having sex with the woman who wrote the letter, but he described it as consensual. Several other women, including the writer Jiang Fangzhou, have since accused him of harassment.
Mr. Zhang, who has worked at China Newsweek and written for international publications, said in the statement it was common for colleagues in the media industry to hug and kiss after drinking together.
The wave of allegations this week extended beyond the media industry to the nonprofit sphere.
An advocate for hepatitis B patients, Lei Chuang, resigned on Monday from the charity he founded after a co-worker accused him of assaulting her after a hiking trip. Then, the environmentalist Feng Yongfeng resigned from his charity on Tuesday after being accused of harassing several women.
That the resignations came so swiftly was surprising in a country where accusations of abuse and harassment against women are often ignored and laws on rape and harassment are vague.
The #MeToo movement in China was initiated earlier this year on university campuses, as students circulated open letters decrying sexual misbehavior by professors and demanding better protections. There were some signs of success, with universities agreeing to do more to investigate cases of abuse and increase awareness about sexual harassment.
But the activism ran up against the country’s strict limits on free speech. In April, students and professors denounced the leadership of Peking University for trying to stifle activism about sexual harassment.
Experts say it will be difficult for the #MeToo movement to take on government officials or prominent business executives, given the ruling Communist Party’s tight control of civil society.
King-wa Fu, a media scholar at the University of Hong Kong, said officials most likely feared the power of the #MeToo movement to bring many people together to target “higher authorities” like corporations, universities and the government. Still, he said he was hopeful the movement could continue to have an impact in China.
“Censorship can only stop public discussion for awhile,” Professor Fu said. “When something big happens again, it will come back.”
Follow Javier C. Hernández on Twitter: @HernandezJavier.
Charlotte Pu contributed research.
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Online Momentum Fortifies #MeToo Movement in China
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