HONG KONG — It was a thrashing to behold.
A government worker in northeastern China who complained of harassing text messages from her boss was captured on video beating him with the business end of a mop, spurring debate about the persistence of workplace harassment and turning her into an internet sensation.
In the 14-minute video, the woman, later identified by her last name, Zhou, can be seen throwing books at the face of her boss, identified as Wang, and dousing him with water, in addition to hitting him with the mop. He is seen hiding his face behind his fingers, attempting to apologize and saying that he had been joking when he sent the messages.
It is unclear exactly when the incident took place, but local news outlets said the woman filed a police report last week accusing her boss of harassment, and the video began circulating widely online this week. It has been viewed millions of times, with many social media users relishing what they saw as an uncommon display of resistance against an authority figure in a country with limited workplace protections against sexual harassment. Many users sided with the woman, lauding her for flipping the balance of power and calling her a defender of justice and a martial arts warrior.
Lu Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist activist, said that many people viewed the video as an outlet for pent-up anger over the general absence of accountability for harassers and of available recourse from courts or the police. Many victims of harassment feel powerless to report it and worry that they will be disbelieved or retaliated against if they do.
“Most of the time, women are forced to stay silent because it is hard for sexual harassment to be investigated,” Ms. Lu said in an interview on Tuesday. “This woman took matters in her own hands to protect herself. That her behavior is gaining so much attention is a reflection that there aren’t better ways.”
The Chinese state news media identified the man as the deputy director of a government poverty alleviation agency in the Beilin district of Suihua, a city in Heilongjiang Province. After an internal investigation found that he had “life discipline problems,” he was fired from his official duties in accordance with Communist Party disciplinary measures, according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency.
The employee was not disciplined, with officials saying she had an unspecified “mental illness.” No further details were available. Neither the man nor the woman could be reached for comment.
China introduced a law in 2005 prohibiting sexual harassment and giving victims the right to file complaints with their employers. A number of regulations followed in recent years, and they placed the onus on employers to “prevent and curb” sexual harassment. Few workplaces, however, have adopted robust policies against it, said Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.
“Very few lawsuits have been brought against harassers, and successful ones are fewer yet,” Mr. Longarino said in an interview. “If the case just boils down to witness accounts, the court often rules that there is insufficient evidence to prove that the harassment occurred.”
Harassment victims can even become the targets of lawsuits themselves. In 2019, after a woman in the Chinese city of Chengdu filed a police report saying that a colleague had harassed her, the colleague sued. Though the lawsuit was largely dismissed, the woman was ordered to make a court-reviewed apology in a work chat group where she had discussed the harassment, so as to undo the “adverse effects” on her colleague.
In the video of the mop episode, Ms. Zhou says that Mr. Wang sent her unwanted text messages on three occasions and that others in the office had received similar unwelcome attention. She can be seen and heard making a call and accusing her boss of assault.
While on the phone, she says that she has reported his actions to the police. According to local news outlets, the police said they registered her report against her boss last week and were investigating her claims. Government offices in the city of Suihua and the district of Beilin, as well as the Beilin district police, did not respond to requests for comment.
Activists called for more protections from the system for such cases.
“How can more victims who have not attracted public attention be supported?” Ms. Lu said. “These questions have only been raised, and there are no answers.”
Ms. Zhou’s case is helped by the recording of her boss’s admissions, Mr. Longarino said. In many situations, he said, “there is no viral video.”
Claire Fu contributed research from Beijing.