Foreign brands are getting caught in China’s online gender wars

“Hyping up gender opposition.”
“Hyping up gender opposition.”
Image: REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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China has long been a political minefield for foreign brands, which have had to walk a fine line on geopolitical issues that are sensitive to Beijing to protect their business interests. Now, China’s growing tensions between young men and women over gender issues are becoming a new tripwire for firms.

Soon after Mercedes-Benz shared a video on Weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent, showing female Chinese stand-up comic Yang Li getting into one of its cars, men began flooding the comments section saying they would never buy the luxury car because of the brand’s association with Yang, whom they accuse of promoting hatred of men with her jokes mocking male privilege. The video was first posted by Vogue China, the Chinese edition of the US fashion magazine, which had invited Yang and other Chinese celebrities to an event last Wednesday (Oct. 13). As the sponsor of the event, Mercedes-Benz shared several videos from the night showing other celebrities in its cars. But the online attention quickly zeroed in on Yang’s video, according to the Global Times.

“Not sure whether it’s the public relations people at the car company who invited Yang…But I sincerely advise all car companies to fire feminists from their PR department,” said one commenter. “Couldn’t the company use a normal star, why did it have to find someone [like Yang] that undermines the bond between men and women,” said another. Women, though, defended Yang and Mercedes. “As the owner of a Mercedes-Benz car, I’m very happy to see the brand’s association with Yang. I have been deciding between BMW and Benz recently, and after seeing the video I would choose to purchase the latter again,” said a female user on Weibo.

The brand hasn’t removed the video from its account, but changed its viewing settings to followers only. Daimler AG, its German parent, declined to comment. Yang has no business partnership with Mercedes-Benz or any other car brand, according to her agency, which said this week it will take legal action against “malicious smearing and insults.”

The episode is a vivid illustration of the bitter debates between supporters and opponents of feminist views in China. Chinese women, especially well-educated ones, are increasingly demanding the same rights as their male peers and pushing back gender stereotypes, partly by showing their appreciation for outspoken figures like Yang. But their online opponents say that women are exaggerating the difficulties they face and trying to stir up tensions between men and women to gain attention. In fact, “hyping up gender opposition” has become a common term to attack anyone who voices unhappiness about the unfair treatment of women.

“The so-called ‘gender war’ is a result of long-existing gender inequality in China which hasn’t been resolved,” said Lu Pin, a New York-based feminist activist. “Many young women have realized the inequality in society and urgently want to solve the problem, but they don’t have any hope of seeing the issue tackled, which intensifies their emotions.”

Yang Li is a lightning rod in China

The 29-year-old comedian first rose to fame after her appearance in the popular Chinese online comedy show Rock and Roast last year. One of her jokes, about how men can be “average yet confident,” has become a catchphrase in China for women who want to complain about mansplaining or other condescending attitudes from men. For some young women, Yang has become a litmus test for their boyfriends—and distaste for Yang can be grounds for dumping.

Despite the controversy surrounding Yang, brands like Japanese cosmetics company Shiseido, whose target customers are young, affluent women, have turned to the comic to promote their products. But as Yang’s popularity grows among women, so does the opposition against her—she even received death threats at one point, she told Chinese media last year.

In March, Intel saw a huge backlash from mainly male users online after it used Yang in an ad, in which she joked that Intel holds its laptops to higher standards than she holds men to. Yang’s critics successfully pressured Intel to remove the ad. Intel declined to comment on the issue.  In response, many women posted hashtags including #I’m a woman, I support Yang Li on Weibo, and urged people to buy products that feature Yang in their promotions.

Yang, who has never explicitly identified herself or her comedy as feminist, seems to have accepted the reality that she’s both fiercely loved and hated in China. After the backlash over the Mercedes-Benz video, Yang posted photos from a fashion shoot on Weibo. “Since things have developed to this stage, I might as well post [the pictures]. I have focused on working on my appearance these days, don’t worry about me,” she wrote in a post this week. Yang’s agency didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

A remaining form of grassroots activism

The online gender wars are taking place in a generally worsening climate for Chinese feminism, making real-world activism too dangerous.

When Chinese women “attack a celebrity, it means they need a channel through which to vent their emotions,” said Lu, the US-based activist.

In 2015, Beijing detained five young feminists who were campaigning against sexual harassment on public transport for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge often used to target activists. The move forced many feminists to self-censor or go underground. Similarly, while the #MeToo campaign came to China, the movement’s landmark case most recently was thrown out after a court ruled the plaintiff,  Zhou Xiaoxuan, who brought a harassment case against famous TV host Zhu Jun, had insufficient evidence.

Yet, while public figures are generally careful to avoid talking about most political topics, that hasn’t extended to gender-related issues. And in contrast to Chinese consumer boycotts of companies like H&M over their stance on human rights issues in China, which is partly a state-led effort instigated by official media, calls for brands to abandon ambassadors for their views on gender appear to be more grassroots, initiated mostly by ordinary users.

The voicing of opinions on gender inequality can sometimes result in small but symbolic victories.

A feminist campaign against the sexist comments of China’s Go champion Ke Jie, for example, ended with Ke abandoning his social media account. Earlier this year, some women also initiated a small boycott campaign against French make-up brand Yves Saint Laurent for its association with a rapper some consider to be sexist (supporters of the singer, Liu Zhang, say he was unfairly targeted for a song that’s a critique of fan culture and not of women).

“Some guys managed to cancel Yang’s partnership for Intel, couldn’t we cancel the one Liu Zhang has with YSL?…Let’s get united sisters!” wrote a user on Weibo. Soon, a YSL live-streamed promotion that was supposed to feature Liu and another member of boy band INTO1, which Liu belongs to, quietly dropped Liu and only featured the other member at the event, without explaining why.

Both sides of the gender war want to create a “chilling effect” for their opponents through such backlash campaigns, said Lu, and sometimes the target can feel like a matter of chance. “It’s almost impossible to give the right amount of public scrutiny to public figures based on what they actually deserve…rather it depends on who is the most convenient target at the time,” she said.