Belittled and Humiliated: How a Social Media Post Sparked a Broader Discussion on Workplace Harassment in China

Workplace harassment happens everyday, but often it goes unnoticed. Recently, a high-profile singer posted comments made by her boss on Weibo, sparking a fresh debate about an age-old problem.

“She is ugly and unfashionable. She has no values, and her singing is poor. She was merely a backup dancer before.” These comments sounds like an Internet troll spreading hate on social media, but they were actually the comments that Chinese singer Yamy received from her agency’s manager.

28-year-old Chinese singer Guo Ying, who is more commonly known by her stage name Yamy, was a member of the popular girl group Rocket Girls 101. In 2018, Yamy finished 5th in the Produce 101 Chinese reality show and became a key member in the later formed Rocket Girls 101.

Sina Entertainment released a redacted version of a recording from the JC Universe Entertainment staff meeting in April. JC Universe Entertainment has been Yamy’s agent since her debut in 2017.

In the three-minute long video, Xu Mingzhao, the owner of JC Universe Entertainment, belittled Yamy’s appearance in front of several employees in the company. Xu further blamed the company’s declining performances on the 28-year-old singer and said she “dressed like a hedgehog” to mock her choices of clothes. In his continued rant, Xu also blasted Yamy’s singing skills and her background prior to her success in the Produce 101 show.

Yamy took the matter between her and her former boss to social media on July 21. In a post on her personal Weibo, the 28-year-old confronted her former boss over his abusive attitude: “I am an employee, and you are the employer. My lifetime income is probably not even 0.01% of yours, but that does not mean my work is inferior to yours.” Yamy further addressed Xu’s comments on her appearance: “Maybe you do not like how I look, but that does not mean you can humiliate my dignity. Maybe you have supported me in the past, but that does not mean you can be abusive. I will protect my love and courage with all I have, and will not be bullied by you anymore.”

Yamy has 6.08 million fans on Weibo. The post on her mistreatment was reposted more than 600,000 times. Several other members of Rocket Girls 101 voiced their support to Yamy via Weibo as well. Top comments from her Weibo commended the 28-year-old for standing up against harassment and vexatious attacks from her former manager: “Please respect women.”“Stand up for Yamy.” “That company should be bankrupted already.” Among the 230,000 comments under the post, many expressed support for the former Rocket Girls 101 band member while defending her against the workplace harassment that she experienced.

Yamy requested to end her contract with JC Universe Entertainment following the end of Rocket Girls 101. In response, Xu Mingzhao left the following message: “Noted, and do not make a scene for the death of your career.” Yamy has not taken any legal action against her former agency thus far.

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The JC Universe Entertainment owner refused to apologize to Yamy despite facing pressure. In his first post to respond to the issue, Xu called the trending social media post “a deliberate attack.” Xu further threatened the person who recorded the meeting by saying that “she must be shaking so badly, and nobody will ever talk to her anymore.”

Those lines and messages sparked further criticism and forced the owner of JC Universe Entertainment to release another post to address the issue. Xu insisted on refusing to apologize to Yamy, while soften his stance by acknowledging that his words and actions may constitute workplace harassment.

The hashtag workplace PUA became a topic that resonated on Chinese social media after the incident. The topic received 590 million views and had attracted more than 59,000 posts. While in the English-language, PUA is usually referred to as trying to hit on girls, on the Chinese social media platform, it became a phrase addressing workplace harassment.

The issue between Yamy and her former boss then turned into a broader discussion on existing and escalating workplace harassment issues in China. And in fact, based on research and past stories, we need to realize that this kind of toxic work culture has been prevalent in Chinese workplaces for a long time.

In 2018, three members of Rocket Girls 101 decided to quit the group after feeling burnt out from long working hours and commitments. Earlier in 2019, the 996 working culture, which implies that employees start working from 9 in the morning, finish at 9 in the evening, and work 6 days per week, made international headlines after a group of labor rights activists created a website named to expose such practices adopted by a large number of Chinese companies, especially those in the tech industry.

Despite challenges and criticism of this working culture, several founders and senior management executives defended the practices. Jack Ma called the 996 working culture a true blessing, while Richard Liu, the founder of Chinese E-commerce who was previously arrested over sexual assault allegations, said that those who cannot work as hard do not deserve a job in his company.

Besides just long working hours, workplace harassment also comes in other forms. In May 2020, a company in Chengdu was reported to engage in hazing: To punish employees who did not meet performance targets, the company managers reportedly forced some employees to choose between drinking 1.5L of water at once, or eating extra-spicy snacks. Some employees were feeling unwell after eating the spicy snacks and ended up in hospital emergency rooms.

A 2011 study suggests that 40% of employees in China experienced some level of workplace harassment. LinkedIn China listed a few examples of workplace harassment: From mentally manipulating employees, damaging employees’ self-esteem, fear mongering and causing panic, personal attacks, and setting unrealistic goals. Furthermore, toxic working culture, workplace harassment, lack of workers’ protection, and mental health remain topics that are not getting sufficient media attention in China. While many share their experience encountering workplace harassment and mistreatment on social media, the number of studies, media articles, and government legislation remain limited.

In countries like the UK and Canada, workplace harassment and harassment are prohibited under the law. Government authorities in various jurisdictions offer clear definitions, guidance, and paths for potential victims to file complaints or take legal actions. But for employees in China, the steps to seek legal actions against their employers and former employers are not an easy one. The arbitration processes are lengthy and also costly for ordinary employees. It is unlikely for employers to face significant legal consequences. With less risks involved in breaching employment laws and regulations, business owners and managers tend to show little respect to the existing rules and regulations and act against professional HR advice.

Reports from Sina Finance listed a series of absurd and disturbing reasons to be terminated by Chinese companies. Employees were terminated for being accused as a spy or giving birth to twins boys. And in many cases, female employees are in more vulnerable positions in maintaining their job as there are many occasions when they are fired during or shortly after taking their maternity leave.

While China is showing significant economic growth in recent years, government legislation on labor rights and protection needs more attention from the public to prevent this type of behaviour in the future.

In 2014, a study from Wuhan University acknowledged that China lacks legislation and has not taken significant actions to prevent or protect employees from facing the risks of experiencing workplace harassment. A 2015 study published on the Chinese Journal of Clinical Psychology attributed many workplace harassment issues to certain characteristics from Chinese culture: Staying silent, keeping one’s head down, and not speaking up against injustice all contributed to abusive behaviours in the workplace, and many other issues in life.

With high popularity and over 6 million followers on Weibo, Yamy can take her grievance to social media and gather media attention in a matter of hours. But for many others working in China, the potential danger of encountering workplace harassment remains significant. It is a positive sign that through a story from an entertainment star, discussions and experiences started to catch the attention of many Internet users, especially the younger generation employees in China. However, in order to push for more positive changes and better solutions, more needs to be done to address the systemic issue that affects the wellbeing of the majority of the Chinese working class.