Huang Xueqin, who publicly supported a woman when she accused a professor of sexual abuse, was arrested in September. Wang Jianbing, who helped women report sexual harassment, was arrested along with her. None of them have been heard from since. At the same time, several other women’s rights activists have encountered smear campaigns on social media and some have seen their accounts closed.
When the tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public view this month after accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault, causing an international uproar. But back in China, Peng is just one of several people – both activists and prosecutors – who have fallen out of sight, been accused of crime or been conjured and silenced online for talking about harassment, violence and discrimination that women face every day.
When Huang helped launch a grassroots #MeToo movement in China in 2018, it gained considerable visibility and achieved some degree of success, including getting civil law to define sexual harassment for the first time. But it was also met with fierce opposition from Chinese authorities, who are quick to counter any social movement they fear could challenge their grip on power. That crackdown has intensified this year, part of broader efforts to limit what is acceptable in the public discourse.
“They publicly exclude us from legitimacy, from legitimate public space,” said Lu Pin, an activist who now lives in the United States but is still active in women’s rights issues in China. “The middle ground of this society is disappearing.”
As a sign of how threatening the #MeToo movement and activism for women’s rights are to Chinese authorities, many activists have been dismissed as tools of foreign interference – a label used to discredit their concerns as fabricated by China’s enemies aimed at destabilizing it. .
The ongoing crackdown has mostly targeted activists with little fame or influence and who have often worked with marginalized groups.
Huang and Wang both had a history of advocating for disadvantaged groups and have been accused of subversion by the government, according to a friend of both activists who saw a message sent to Wang’s family. He spoke on condition that he was anonymous for fear of police reprisals. Police in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou where the two were arrested did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
The accusation is vague and is often used against political dissent. Huang and Wang’s families have not heard from each other since they were arrested and cannot contact them – another tactic often used in political cases.
The #MeToo movement came to the fore in China when Huang helped a woman named Luo Xixi publicly accuse her professor at Beihang University of trying to force her to have sex with him. The university conducted an investigation and fired the researcher, who it said had violated professional ethics.
Luo’s account inspired dozens of other women to come forward – all online. Thousands of students signed name collections and put pressure on their universities to address sexual violence. Women in other industries spoke out, leading to public discussions about the gender balance of power in many workplaces, the lack of justice for survivors of sexual violence and how gender can determine how people are treated in Chinese society.
Although the national conversation was of concern to the authorities from the beginning, efforts to counteract activism in women’s issues have increased this year, including by nationalist, pro-government activists, some of whom seem to have the authorities’ blessing and have been praised by state media.
In a few weeks in the spring, influencers with millions of followers launched a wave of attacks on women’s rights activists on Weibo, one of China’s leading social media platforms. They accused them of being anti-China and of having the support of foreign forces, without proof. Such accusations have often been leveled at protest movements, including the pro-democracy one in Hong Kong, which Beijing has relentlessly sought to crack down on.
At the end of April, about a dozen activists and non-profit organizations found that their accounts were temporarily or permanently banned from publishing. It is not clear why in any case, but an activist who had lost his account, Liang Xiaowen, shared a message from Weibo saying that her account had “shared illegal and harmful information.”
Even Zhou Xiaoxuan, who accused the well-known state TV host Zhu Jun of groping for her when she was an intern and was once praised for her courage to speak out, was met with a campaign of harassment and can no longer post on her public accounts.
On Weibo, users send her private messages like, “Get out of China, I feel disgusting living with a type of person like you, on the same piece of land.” Another called her a piece of “toilet paper” that “foreigners would use and then throw away.”
The effect is such that all discussion of harassment, violence or inequality that women face has become increasingly shielded from the public view.
“Now the situation on social media is such that you have been completely shut down, you have no way to speak,” Zhou said.
The attacks have not been limited to the digital space. In September, when Zhou went to court in the civil case where she sued Zhu for damages and an apology, a group of aggressive spectators shouted at her and tried to stop her from talking to reporters. The police at the scene did not stop them.
Late at night, as Zhou left the courthouse and headed home, she said she was followed by men in two cars. The men waited outside her residential area for half an hour before leaving.
The pressure campaign also forced a low-profile group called the Hot Pepper Tribe, which worked with female migrant workers, to close in August. The group had tried to raise awareness of the difficulties of women working in factories, structures and other manual fields. It had come under pressure from authorities, although it is not clear why it was pointed out.
Still, activists are hopeful that the #MeToo movement has opened a door that cannot be closed.
“It’s not so easy to find some feminist bloggers and shut down their accounts,” Zhou said. “Becoming a feminist comes from discovering the kind of problems you face. And once you become a feminist, then it’s very difficult to give it up. And #MeToo’s very important importance is that it has inspired a broad feminist society.”
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