China – Not As Safe As You Think

In the past, when people have asked me “is China safe?” I have answered “yes.” And most people would agree. In fact, if you Google “is China safe?” you will find plenty of forums that tout the safety of China, even for women. Yet I have been seeing more and more incidents of Western women assaulted in China and have experienced it myself. The truth is no country is “safe.” Assault can and does happen everywhere. It might happen more frequently in other countries, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t become a victim of assault. In fact, I believe that China is far more dangerous than people let on. Part of the problem is that not enough women speak out about it.

Chinese Women in China

Let me clarify that yes, this article is mainly about the experiences of expat women in China and not local Chinese women or expat women of Chinese ethnicity. This is because China is extremely dangerous for Chinese women. China has some of the highest rape and domestic abuse rates in the world. In some studies, as many as 60% of women surveyed admitted to being abused by their partner and in other studies nearly 25% of men admit to raping a woman. Even in public, most people will not stop a man from assaulting a woman because they don’t want to get involved in a “domestic situation.” China doesn’t even have laws to protect women from domestic abuse. However, being a Chinese local and being a tourist or an expat are completely different experiences. Many times, expats are lured into a false sense of safety. And it is this false safety that has me concerned. I believe assault among expat women is much higher than we have been lead to believe.

Expat Women Assaulted by Chinese Men

I’ve actually been wanting to write this post for a long time. Late last year, Jocelyn Eikenburg at Speaking of China wrote about the time she was sexually assaulted by a Beijing private driver and the way she is constantly street harassed. She says,

It happened in Beijing when a driver a friend arranged to send me to the airport ended up touching one of my breasts. He did it just before I was about to leave his car – as if he had wanted to touch me the entire time and held out for the right moment. It was creepy and despicable and the kind of thing I hope will never happen again.

She also says

Years ago, I often told friends how I would walk through Shanghai late into the evenings and never feel worried about getting raped or jumped by anyone.

But now I wonder if I really had it right or not. Was I safe in Shanghai because we lived in the center of the city, where lots of people streamed through the streets day and night? Or was I simply naïve?

Unfortunately, I think she, like me, was simply naïve. A large reason is because, as she also says “I’ve not wanted to share it for a long time – believing, as she did, that somehow it was all my fault.”

When women don’t share their stories, the stories simply pile up. If you read the comments, you will see many, many more stories about assault, harassment, and stalking.

There was a guy who just kept popping up everywhere I was and he seemed to know my schedule. He would always try to chat and get my phone number. One day, I got on the bus and he followed me on it.

Things like that have happened to me as well. I once got a massage in Xi’an, I was with friends and it was supposedly a “reputable place.” The masseuse started to finger me and I didn’t know what to do.

I lived in China for three years and faced a few similarly bad situations. I’m glad you’ve brought this up, because although I would still consider Shanghai to be a safe place, bad things happen everywhere and I often felt my problems were dismissed because ‘China is a safe place!’

There is an extremely frightening account by Zhou JiaYi on her blog Shandongxifu about her assault by three men in Shenzhen.

There were 3 men. They were middle aged and obviously transients to the city from their country-side, labor-worn appearances.

“She speaks Chinese!” one of the men exclaimed. Now I had really sparked their interest. They got closer and started to critique my appearance more. They told me how I didn’t look American because I wasn’t fat. They said they loved my blond hair. I kept walking assuring myself that I was in public in broad daylight, but I felt awkward.

They started talking about my pale skin. Then as one of men pointed out I was slighted tanned on my chest, he literally used his hand to point it out by brushing his finger above the opening of my button down dress.

I reactively swatted his hand away and looked the man in horror. The men smiled. I was feisty.

I started forward but was detained. The other men had grabbed my arms and my attempts to get away only brought them forward with me. Panic rushed through me. I momentarily looked around at the passersby who watched me with curiosity and pity. I had been in China before and I knew that no one would ever help a stranger; They would simply stop and watch. I had been in Shenzhen long enough to know that the police wouldn’t help, even if I had happened to see one in that very second. I was scared.
I fought against the three men as they started to pull me away out the crowds, move their hands towards forbidden places, and start to tear at buttons on my dress.

You should really read the whole post. She doesn’t say when exactly the incident happened, but it is clear that a considerable amount of time passed between the assault and when she finally worked up the courage to write about it. Once again, she stayed silent while everyone else went along thinking China was totally safe.

My Experiences with Assault and Harassment

I’ve never been sexually assaulted in China, but I have been assaulted, and I’ve written about it before.

As I started to pull away, the man grabbed me by the arm. At first, I was shocked. How dare he touch me?!? I instinctively tried to pull my arm from his grasp. But he didn’t let go and started talking angrily in Chinese. I revved my bike to help me get more force to pull myself away, but when I did he grabbed my arm with both of his hands letting go of his own bike and started yelling at me. At first, I was just offended, but now I was scared. My Chinese is still very poor so I just started screaming in English “help me! Help me! He is hurting me!” which he was. He had on gloves that were of some strange rough material that was digging into my skin and his grip was very tight to keep me from escaping. 

Thankfully, nothing like this has happened to me since, but I still feel panicky when I think about it.

Most recently, I have been at the forefront of fighting harassment here in Shenzhen. There is a Chinese man who calls himself Nathan but I call The Shenzhen Creeper who has been harassing and stalking expat women in Shenzhen for over a year. He is the reason we had to turn the Shenzhen Writers Circle into Women Writers of Shenzhen. The women in the group simply didn’t feel safe with him in our community. Whenever a new expat woman would join our group (only expat women; he has never stalked a Chinese member of our group), he would get their WeChat (like China’s Facebook and instant messenger) and their email address and continually message them. Most of the messages may seem harmless enough, asking if the women want to get coffee or go to a movie, but several of them have been creepy, asking where the women live, work, or go to the gym. He has sent long love songs to women and asked if they “see themselves” in his love poems. I should also mention that Creeper is married and has a one-year-old daughter.

Most of the women simply tried to ignore him, say they were too busy, and stop attending events. But the messages never stop. Several of the women have told him directly to stop messaging them, but he hasn’t. I confronted him about his behavior, but he denied that he was doing anything wrong and has claimed that he is the victim of gross mischaracterization and persecution by me.

Many people may think a few messages are “no big deal,” but from a woman’s perspective, any unwanted attention can be seen as threatening. And Creeper has reacted with verbal and emotional violence. He has threatened to have me arrested, sued, and has threatened my employer. He has even threatened my guy friends who have stood up for me, telling them that they would also end up in court if they take my side. The women are not unreasonable in their fears that Creeper could escalate things if they were to outright reject him. Even though he was ejected from the writers group, he still finds ways to contact our members occasionally. He has also found other social groups that have large numbers of expat women and has been stalking their members.

Speaking Out

I am not saying that the onus of stopping assaults and harassment in China is on the victims. However, if women don’t speak out about their experiences, many more women could be hurt by this false belief that “China is safe.” There is no shame in speaking out if you have been a victim of abuse. And no longer should people stick their head in the sand and pretend that assault in China doesn’t happen. If you have been assaulted, speak out. If you know that someone is being assaulted or harassed, speak out against it. Everyone must work together to stop abuse.