China’s best Go player was canceled by a feminist backlash

Thanks for your past attention.
Thanks for your past attention.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Ke Jie, once the best human Go player in the world, has got a new title in China: the No. 1 enemy of Chinese feminists.

One of the most renowned names in the field of Go, a strategy board game that combines chess and checkers, the 22-year-old is presently ranked No. 2—though his international fame, counterintuitively, stems in large part from losing to Google’s Alpha Go artificial intelligence program in 2017. But these days, the Chinese player has been in the spotlight not for his Go strategy, but for his open sexism on the microblog Weibo, where he had amassed 5 million followers.

Ke and his male fans have exchanged comments calling women that they think are overweight “tanks,” and Ke once joked in a 2016 Weibo post that top South Korean Go player Choi Jeong had set a “honey trap” (link in Chinese) when she defeated a male Chinese player that year, implying that Jeong had somehow used her feminine wiles to snatch a victory from her opponent. In many places, in the wake of the global #MeToo campaigns against harassment and misogyny, such public sexism by a sports star would have drawn some form of formal rebuke, but Ke remained a frequent guest on China’s TV programs, and was chosen in May as a candidate (link in Chinese) for a national award by authorities in one province.

Instead, the backlash came online, where Chinese feminists posted hundreds of posts (link in Chinese) attacking Ke’s remarks. Shortly after Ke was nominated in May by Yunan province for the award, which rewards outstanding workers across the country, some internet users waged a campaign to get the nomination canceled (link in Chinese), calling in to complain and sending authorities screenshots of his problematic comments. The sustained response drew the attention of many sports columnists, who started calling Ke “the No.1 enemy of feminists in China.” (link in Chinese).

On July 5, after weeks that saw especially vicious battles between female Weibo users and his male followers, Ke abruptly announced that he would quit Weibo, without explanation. “Thanks for your attention all along, good bye,” wrote Ke. There were signs that Ke was tiring of these online fights before his departure from the platform. In a now-deleted post (link in Chinese) from April, Ke said he was defeated in the war that he waged against “extreme” feminists, and that he wanted to extend a sincere apology to women he had insulted.  Ke didn’t respond to questions from Quartz.

In the comments on his announcement, many women cheered. “I’d like to broadcast this piece of good news with a loud speaker: the famous Go king is finally quitting the internet!” wrote one (link in Chinese).

Ke, it seemed, was paying the price for his cultivation of a controversial online community—China’s misogynistic “dog fans.”

A “spiritual icon” for China’s dog fans

“Ke became the ‘eye’ of an online storm that got out of control,” wrote Ma Shu, a Chinese columnist, on Ke’s withdrawal from Weibo (link in Chinese), saying he was “devoured” by his dog fans.

Often compared by women in China to the US “incel” community—short for “involuntary celibate“—the Chinese dog fan internet subculture, emerged around 2015 and gets its name from a nickname for the man who was both a mascot and the butt of the joke for the community. But while incels are mainly angry about being shut out of opportunities for romance, China’s dog fans are less focused—they also like to troll celebrity fan groups, celebrities or just about anyone, dismantling the seriousness of any social discussions they invade through the use of emojis and self-created acronyms [such as NMSL, which means “your mother is dead.”].  Feminists draw their ire because in recent years they have featured more prominently in the public sphere in China than in the past, as educated young women have become more outspoken on gender-related unfairness on social media.

Ke grabbed the attention of China’s dog fans when he started making more misogynistic remarks last year, such as describing a female celebrity who had a baby as having “laid an egg,” (link in Chinese), considered a derogatory way to talk about women. Because of his use of sexist phrases, as well as emojis popular among the community, many people felt he was intentionally trying to appeal to them, said Ma. “Dog fans used to have no spiritual icon before… But as a world champion and a genius, Ke Jie gave the group the opportunity to identify with a public figure,” wrote Ma.

For women, it irked to see such a prominent young person embrace sexism as part of a public persona. “When misogyny becomes part of the pop culture, and is even seen as cool… that should be something that would only trend on the dark web, but it can now be seen on the Chinese internet,” a user commented (link in Chinese).

In late June, two news events intensified the online backlash towards Ke and his followers. On June 28, an 18-year-old high school student who was found to have secretly filmed his female classmates in the toilet and was asked by the school to bring his parents with him to make a public apology, jumped off (link in Chinese) a building and died. According to Chinese media, he had left a note on which he wrote “Ke Jie” and “scared.”  It is unclear whether the student was referring to Ke by writing the name, or what he meant by it. Around the same time, a young man, who followed and was followed (link in Chinese) by Ke on Weibo, was put on academic probation (link in Chinese) by his university after he insulted the appearance of some female students in a video post. Ke quietly unfollowed the student after the incident.

There was a fresh burst of criticism of him from feminist voices after these incidents became public, with some commentators arguing Ke was partly to blame, since the actions of both young men appeared to mark them as “dog fans,” and Ke had never made any effort to discourage sexism among that set of his fans. And soon, Ke had deleted much of his Weibo activity and left the platform.

Some felt Ke was unfairly driven away from Weibo by outraged feminists. Women, however, said they hoped the star would take his time away from social media to reflect on the part he played in the online storm that engulfed him.

“There are some forces that one cannot rely on, and some groups of fans that one should not aim to attract… I hope Ke will play more Go games and read more books to cultivate himself after he quits Weibo,” said a user (link in Chinese).