Compared with the US, the #MeToo movement had a much more uneasy journey in China, amid the country’s heavy censorship and repression of any kind of social movement. Now, Beijing has taken a further step to thwart the efforts of Chinese feminists, with the detention of a key figure of the movement.
Huang Xueqin, a 30-year-old activist and former journalist who also goes by Sophia, has reportedly been detained by police in Guangzhou, a large southern city near the border with Hong Kong, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper.
The charge used to detain Huang by the police is “picking quarrels and provoking trouble“—a common offence that has been weaponized by Beijing for rounding up feminists, journalists, rights activists and lawyers, and can be punished by up to five years in jail. Quartz could not immediately reach Huang’s lawyer Wan Miaoyan for comment.
The detention of Huang is a major setback for feminism in China, which was sent underground when China detained five Chinese feminists in 2015. The #MeToo movement, nevertheless, has gained unexpected traction in China since 2017, soon after American peers took to social media to voice their experiences under the hashtag.
There has been some progress in China since it kicked off after Chinese students at the elite Peking University tried to seek information about a two-decade-old case of a student who had killed herself after being sexually assaulted. The movement spread from universities to other institutions in China, and even took down a powerful Buddhist monk.
After working at popular Chinese news publications, including Guangdong-based Southern Metropolis Weekly and Xinkuaibao, Huang became active in voicing unfairness and fighting for women’s rights since 2017, when she revealed her own experience of encountering sexual harassment in the workplace. Huang conducted an online survey last year that drew responses from nearly 2,000 female journalists detailing their experiences of also being harassed sexually, with around 60% of the participants also said that they stayed silent, fearing the possible consequences of speaking up publicly.
“I used to ask people’s opinions about #MeToo on Facebook, and got lots of support for advocating for the movement… However I found in China, under the conservative social climate, Chinese females tend to be less willing to voice their opinions publicly on this issue. So I initiated this survey to know their thoughts using a mild way,” Huang said on a Chinese TV program (link in Chinese) last year.
Speaking to Quartz earlier this year, Huang said that despite all the pressures from authorities, she still thought #MeToo, and earlier efforts against sexual harassment, have had an impact. “You have tossed a stone, even if you are not yet making waves [everywhere].”
While Huang has drawn the ire of the authorities earlier, just as every other dissident in China does, a direct trigger for her arrest could be her articles on the ongoing Hong Kong protests that call for greater autonomy from Beijing and democracy. Huang published an article on Matters.com, a Medium-like Chinese-language website, detailing her experience (link in Chinese) participating in one of the demonstrations in Hong Kong in June. Huang said in the article that she was inspired by the braveness of Hong Kong citizens, and angered by the response of the Hong Kong government.
China has described the protests, which continue to enjoy popular support, as a “separatist attempt” by a small bunch of extremists in the city.