Just a few months ago, the #MeToo movement erupted, spreading across the globe and changing the face of feminism. Millions of women took their stories to the social media stage, calling for an end to silence on the discrimination and abuse they had suffered because of their gender. Women in the workplace, academia, and even in the media joined hands in sharing their narratives and airing their oppressions. It’s no wonder a movement of this scale seeped into even the most guarded countries.
But #MeToo wasn’t exactly welcome in China. In a communist state like the People’s Republic, social movements pose a threat to the Party’s domination of the narrative. A feminist social movement is something to be feared because it promotes western ideology while exposing the dark underbelly of misogyny in the country. Active censorship has in turn become the norm.
As a result, outspoken activists face threats of detainment, imprisonment, and violence against their families and loved ones. In March of 2015, the Chinese government suffered a global backlash for its arrest of five women who planned to hand out anti-harassment stickers in honor of International Women’s Day. As their story spread, they were dubbed the Feminist Five. Li Maizi, one of their number, states she was interrogated daily, shamed for being gay, accused of being a Western spy, and regularly woken at night to scrub floors. She was held in detention for thirty-seven days. She hadn’t passed out a single sticker.
Suppression of this kind is rooted in communist fear. If you allow one voice to be heard, how many will listen? If you allow one feminist to highlight gendered injustice in the country, how many more will speak out about the deteriorating state of women’s rights under a communist regime?
So when word about #MeToo reached China, Chinese officials reacted by pointing fingers and ridiculing US culture for its flaws while praising their own. After all, it was Mao who once said that “women hold up half the sky.” Harassment was nowhere to be found, right? Wrong.
In fact, sexual harassment and gender discrimination are ubiquitous in Chinese society, particularly in academia, where bribery and blackmail are commonplace. A 2014 survey by the Women’s Media Monitoring Network found that 59 percent of Chinese universities dealt with issues of gender discrimination. A 2016 survey on gender in academic institutions found that only 25 percent of professors believed there was an even sex ratio in their classes while 67 percent reported that female students were less common than male ones. Of women who did attend university, 75 percent reported encountering sexual harassment.
But censorship and suppression can only do so much to mask these flaws, especially in the twenty-first century. Social media’s unique ability to reach millions while guaranteeing physical safety, and in some cases anonymity, makes it the perfect platform to circumvent this suppression. Through the online story of one woman, Luo Xixi, the #MeToo movement finally broke through.
Luo Xixi is a Chinese citizen living in America. She gained recent #MeToo notoriety from a post on Weibo, China’s primary social media site, in which she described her experiences as a student in China’s Beihang University. At the school, she was subject to abuse by her thesis advisor and former supervisor Chen Xiaowu.
In the post, Luo describes Chen’s assault. What seemed like an initially harmless request to help Chen water plants at his sister’s house quickly devolved into an attempted rape. Luo states, “I was terrified, crying, saying ‘You do not want to do this, Chen, I am a virgin, I do not understand anything.’” At her insistence, Chen finally drove her home, requesting she tell no one of what occurred. Luo was just one of five other students she knew who had been abused by Chen during his time at the university.
Bullied into silence by her supervisor, Luo states she suffered from depression and hallucinations. It wasn’t until she discovered the #MeToo movement while living in Silicon Valley years later that she began to speak. Empowered by what she saw, Luo took her story online, where it was read and shared by roughly three million people. In a desperate attempt to sweep institutional responsibility under the rug, Chen was quickly fired from his position as vice president of Beihang’s graduate school.
His rapid removal was followed by a flurry of support for Luo and other women who had suffered similar treatment. Students from over fifty colleges signed online petitions while professors from nearly thirty universities signed an open letter written by Xiao Meili, a feminist living in Guangzhou.
As the #MeToo movement finally spilled into China, officials scrambled to block the hashtags #MeToo and #MeTooinChina. Outraged, feminists created the hashtag #RiceBunny—playing on the fact that the Chinese translation, 米兔, is pronounced “mi tu.” China has since removed the block, but the sting of that censorship remains.
In the weeks since, the Chinese Ministry of Education has issued a statement promising to develop anti-harassment programs for all Chinese universities. This announcement is a milestone for China in recognizing gendered abuse, but it cannot be met with open arms. Luo’s story may have fueled an online battle cry, but challenges remain. Young girls remain trapped in a legal system built to protect the officials that abuse them. Female employees still make only roughly seventy percent of their male counterparts’ salaries, and women’s rights activists remain fearful of abuse, harassment, and attack.
However, the modern Chinese woman has found a way to denounce the oppressions she faces. Over the past ten years alone, women’s enrollment in Chinese universities has increased, and there has been an accompanying increase in women’s activism and performance art. Online, activists have continued to circumvent censorship. The hashtag #RiverCrab gained popularity as a homonym for the word “censorship,” while the hashtag #GrassMudHorse gained infamy as a homonym for, well, a less tasteful term.
Social and political activists in China continue to oppose censorship, and social media has become their cornerstone. Given the right notoriety, online activism can act as a stepping stone to real change in China regarding women’s rights and more broadly, human rights. Through the continued and fearless work of activists like Li Maizi, Xiao Meili, and Luo Xixi, this change could become a reality.