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China's recent rape scandals are a #MeToo victory, activists say — even if the government won't admit it

Editor's Note: (A version of this story appeared in CNN's Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country's rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.)

Hong Kong (CNN) Two explosive rape allegations have rocked China in recent weeks, turning a spotlight on the country's stifled #MeToo movement and problems of sexual assault.

On Monday, the e-commerce giant Alibaba said it had fired an employee who was accused of sexually assaulting another employee during a business trip. The week before, Beijing police said they had arrested Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu on suspicion of rape, according to a statement.

In both cases, victims had posted their allegations on Chinese social media, which sparked an online furor and prompted police to investigate. Neither Wu nor the Alibaba employee have been charged with any crime.

The authorities' swift actions won praise from some online, who pointed to the two cases as an indication of the effective rule of law and criminal justice in China. Yet it raised eyebrows among others, who say it instead highlights how rare it is for survivors to speak out and seek justice.

"It is unsurprising that both cases have drawn such wide attention, given (Kris Wu) and Alibaba's high profile," said Feng Yuan, a feminist scholar and activist. "But this also serves as a reminder that for many other cases of sexual harassment and assault, if the accused are not so famous or influential, (victims) might not have their voices heard at all."

Sexual assault survivors have long faced strong stigma and resistance in China, at the official level as well as among the public. And while surveys in recent years suggest that sexual assault and harassment is prevalent in the country of 1.4 billion people, the number of actual prosecutions is small.

Between 2013 and 2017, 43,000 people were prosecuted for "crimes of violating women's personal rights," according to the office of China's top prosecutor. Those crimes include trafficking, rape and forced prostitution.

The issue was pushed to the fore in 2018 when the #MeToo movement went global. In China, too, it prompted more women to share their experiences with sexual misconduct and assault — but the movement was quickly quashed. The government moved to block growing online discussion, including censoring the hashtag and many related posts, while state-run media published articles claiming sexual assault isn't a problem in China.

There have been some steps of progress since then. In 2020, China passed a new civil code that, for the first time, defined actions that can constitute sexual harassment.

But there are still gaps in the law, like a lack of clear guidelines for enforcement. And the government is still reluctant to discuss sexual misconduct as a systemic problem, activists say, instead preferring to report on individual cases and cast blame elsewhere.

For instance, a government watchdog agency said the Kris Wu case illustrated "the black hand of the capital" and "the wild growth of the entertainment industry." And in an editorial article, the state-run Global Times tabloid said the Alibaba scandal reflected a need for greater "legal and moral supervision" in the tech world, and for companies to better align their "capital" with societal values.

Their language echoes the government's broader clampdown on the private sector, with regulators increasingly targeting businesses with fines and restrictions.

Notably absent from official rhetoric is any emphasis on what activists say are the roots of the problem: lack of support for survivors of gender-based violence and entrenched gender inequality in many aspects of society.

Part of the reason the government is so wary of acknowledging public outrage around these underlying issues is because it might encourage greater social organizing and activism, said Lv Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist now based in New York.

The government has cracked down heavily on China's feminist movement in recent years. Famously, in 2015, five young feminists were detained over their campaign for gender equality, though they were eventually released after international outcry. Government supporters and nationalist trolls have also attacked feminist social media accounts, with some platforms removing their accounts entirely.

Neither of the alleged victims who stepped forward in both the Kris Wu and Alibaba cases alluded to #MeToo, which can easily draw censorship on social media, Feng said. "For a while, even the term 'sexual harassment' became a sensitive word," she added.

However, for many activists, the two cases still offer a ray of hope — and a sign that even if the government doesn't want to talk about sexual misconduct, the public does.

"No matter whether they call it #MeToo or not, the essence is #MeToo," said Feng. "Although most prominent feminist social media accounts have been censored, the victims can always manage to find their own ways to speak out."

When the two victims came forward with their allegations against Wu and Alibaba, they were overwhelmingly met with support online. A hashtag, #GirlsHelpGirls, even began circulating on the social media platform Weibo to encourage other women to speak up — before Weibo eventually limited use of the hashtag.

The wave of support demonstrates how "the #MeToo movement has constantly been shaping public opinion and transforming ideas," said Lv. "A few years ago, things like this might not even become a controversy, or they might get ignored."

"The legal outcome of these cases is hard to say — what will happen to these cases, especially the criminal part, is hard to predict," she added. "But in terms of public opinion, it's a victory."

Aerial propaganda dogfight in full force

A J-20 stealth fighter jet of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Airforce in a training session in Zhuhai, China, on October 30, 2018.

Since its first flight a decade ago, the People's Liberation Army Air Force's J-20 stealth fighter has been touted as the pinnacle of Chinese military aviation.

But observers in the West have seen precious little of it, save for an occasional air show or military parade.

This week, however, the twin-engine jets are being showcased as the highlight of joint China-Russia military drills in China's northwest.

The state-run Global Times said the first appearance of the J-20s in joint exercises illustrate enhanced China-Russia military cooperation in the face of security challenges in Asia, as well as "direct threats from the US and its allies."

The report did not specify the nature of those alleged threats, but the J-20s' appearance at the China-Russia drills comes just a few weeks after the US Air Force put on its biggest-ever display of stealth fighter power in Asia, sending more than two dozen F-22 Raptor jets to an exercise on the Pacific islands of Guam and Tinian.

When the J-20 first flew a decade ago, China touted it as the answer to American F-22s and F-35s, the world's premier stealth aircraft. And after the PLA declared it combat-ready in 2018, Chinese military expert Song Zongping, in a post on the PLA's English-language website, said the J-20 would "engage with rivals in the future who dare to provoke China in the air."

--By Brad Lendon

Tesla sales cratered in China

Tesla sales have dropped sharply in China, according to a trade group report, suggesting it is losing ground in the world's largest market for both traditional and electric vehicles.

The China Passenger Car Association reported Tesla's sales in China fell to 8,621 cars in July, down nearly 70% from June. But the export of cars built at Tesla's Shanghai plant jumped to 24,347 for July, compared with 5,017 in June. That means total sales of Chinese-built Teslas fell less than 1% overall.

Critics say the steep decline of sales to Chinese consumers is yet another sign of the growing problems the company faces in the country. Tesla is contending with increased competition from Chinese EV makers as well as a run of bad publicity, including a recall of virtually all of the cars that have been built in Shanghai. In that case, customers were given a free software update to resolve issues with the cruise control system in certain models.

The company also faced protests by Telsa owners at this year's Shanghai auto show over poor car quality and various safety concerns flagged by Chinese regulators.

Teslas accounted for just 3.9% of July sales of battery electric vehicles in China, down from 12.6% in June, said analyst Gordon Johnson, who has been among the harshest critics of the company. He said that decline shows Tesla is facing fiercer competition from local EV startups.

"Overall, it now seems clear that Tesla has overbuilt Chinese capacity when compared to domestic demand, which will result in further price cuts and margin pressure," Johnson said. "Given China is supposed to be Tesla's 'growth market,' these numbers should concern any Tesla bull."

But Tesla investors seemed unfazed by the sales dip, as shares declined less than 1% Tuesday. That's in sharp contrast to the steeper drops in the stock price following similar weak reports from the CPCA in April and May.

Unlike other automakers, Tesla does not breakdown sales by market and only reports sales quarterly, not monthly. So the numbers from the CPCA are not confirmed. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

-- By Chris Isidore and Laura He

Around Asia

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  • China has punished more than 40 local officials for failing to control a spiraling Delta variant outbreak, as authorities scramble to curb the worst resurgence of Covid-19 the country has seen in more than a year.
  • US State Department officials are discussing the drawdown of the US embassy in Kabul, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, as the Taliban continues to gain ground in Afghanistan.
  • Many countries in Asia-Pacific are now facing their worst-ever Covid outbreaks after handling the pandemic relatively well for a year and a half — throwing the zero-Covid strategy into question.
  • A Chinese court has upheld the death sentence for Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, a Canadian convicted of drug smuggling in China in 2018.