In China, it’s rare for people to speak out about their rights—when they do, authorities, eager to maintain public order and security, are swift to shut it down, no matter what the cause.
It’s why authorities clamped down in 2015 on something as innocuous as protesting against sexual harassment on public buses: Five women, who later became known as the “Feminist Five,” were detained for 30 days on the suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after planning protests in multiple cities. It’s also why Ye Haiyan, an activist who tried to expose cases of sexual abuse against schoolgirls in Hainan province in 2013, was detained and assaulted by public security officers.
“Authorities don’t care so much about the topic itself, it’s who’s involved and how many people participate in these movements that matter,” said Zhang Leilei, a 24-year-old feminist activist in Guangzhou. “Their logic is not to fix a problem, but to quash people who try to fix the problem.”
Chinese authorities may not have expected female activists to come back this year after the setback of 2015—but they did, with a vengeance.
As the #MeToo movement took off around the world, women in China did not stay silent. In January, a graduate of a Chinese university detailed on social media how a professor forced himself on her (link in Chinese) a decade ago. That inspired many to post their stories with the hashtag #MeToo, or the Chinese version #Woyeshi. Censors acted quickly to delete those posts.
That didn’t stop the movement. In fact, people were only further provoked after authorities tried to silence Yue Xin, a student at the prestigious Peking University who in April petitioned for information regarding a decades-old sexual harassment case in which a female student died. Posters went up around campus accusing the institution of betraying its values, with some even making reference to a student-led patriotic uprising in 1919 (paywall). They were quickly taken down. A school counselor told Yue that she had “no real freedom,” according to an open letter written by Yue (link in Chinese). The school didn’t respond to requests for comment.
That the #MeToo movement has managed to gain traction at all in China is surprising, given the steadily deteriorating environment for civil society under president Xi Jinping. Even parents seeking answers to allegations that their children were abused at an elite Beijing kindergarten last year have been silenced.
Despite the tightening restrictions, young activists have proven “very brave” and continued to fight for gender equality, said Zhang Lijia, a writer and commentator on social issues. The fact that it’s led by savvy, educated feminists has contributed to the #MeToo movement in China, she added.
It’s not just feminists speaking up. People across the country are. Recent research suggests that 15% of women (link in Chinese) living in urban areas and aged between 20 to 64 in China have been sexually harassed at some point in their life.
Li Maizi, one of the Feminist Five, notes that the #MeToo movement in China is decentralized, which is one reason it’s made a comeback recently, spreading beyond campuses. This month more than a dozen Chinese women have come forward with accusations of sexual assault and harassment against prominent men, including authors, journalists, and leaders of charity organizations.
On Thursday (July 26), an open letter accusing Zhu Jun, a news anchor at state broadcaster CCTV, of sexual assault began circulating on the social network Weibo. That rejuvenated the #MeToo hashtag, with 760,000 Weibo users (link in Chinese) searching for the topic at one point.
The letter’s author said Zhu molested her in a dressing room when she was an intern at CCTV in 2014, but she only spoke up after seeing the growing feminism movement in China this year. She wrote that the police suggested she drop the case, and also put pressure on her parents, both of whom worked for the government. They also told her not to taint society’s impressions of CCTV and Zhu, a longtime host of China’s annual New Year gala, because both had “big and positive influences” (link in Chinese). Until today, the author still refuses to give her real name, fearing repercussions to her family, according to the New York Times (paywall). Zhu didn’t reply to comment requests sent via Weibo.
Censors acted quickly after the open letter started spreading. Users found they couldn’t repost related news reports a few hours after (link in Chinese) Zhu became a trending topic on Weibo. A search of the #MeToo hashtag today showed “the topic doesn’t exist according to relevant laws and policies.” Weibo didn’t reply to requests for comment.
“Censorship can only stop public discussion for a while,” Fu King-wa, a Hong Kong-based media scholar who runs a project tracking censorship on Weibo, told the New York Times (paywall). “When something big happens again, it will come back.”
“Every time there’s a hot issue, the authorities treat the public like an enemy, and gradually they lose people’s trust,” said Zhao Nan, a 22-year-old college student in the central Henan province. “But if we don’t speak up for others today, who will speak up for us later when we have a similar situation?”