China’s #MeToo movement, explained
By Siodhbhra Parkin and Jiayun Feng | July 12, 2019
Founded by American activist Tarana Burke in 2006, the “Me Too” movement achieved cultural prominence in October 2017, after two dozen women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The hashtag #MeToo trended worldwide, and soon evolved into a global movement, with growing contingents of women speaking up about their experiences with sexual harassment, assault, and rape.
In China, the #MeToo movement arrived relatively late, at the beginning of 2018, but when it did, it erupted on social media.
The first case that captured public attention was the one of professor Chén Xiǎowǔ 陈小武 at Beihang University (北京航空航天大学 Běijīng Hángkōng Hángtiān Dàxué). Luó Xīxī 罗茜茜, a former student of his, publicized allegations of sexual harassment against him. In an essay (in Chinese), Luo explained that her decision to expose Chen’s longstanding predatory behavior was triggered by both Weinstein and anonymous social media posts written by Chen’s other victims. “I said a silent ‘Me Too’ to myself,” Luo wrote, referring to the moment she was struck with the desire to speak up.
Chen was removed from his teaching position as a result.
Afterwards, other Chinese women spoke out about sexual misconduct by men in positions of power. The movement has spread beyond campuses and brought down a number of prominent figures across multiple industries. In July 2018, the NGO world had its #MeToo moment when Léi Chuǎng 雷闯, founder of a major charity dedicated to eliminating discrimination against people with hepatitis B, admitted to and apologized for sexually assaulting a woman. In the same month, a 17-year-old female athlete came forward with allegations of sexual assault against Liu Jianjun 刘坚军 and Zhang Wei 张伟, two well-known badminton coaches from Zhejiang Province. Shì Xuéchéng 释学诚, the abbot of Beijing’s Longquan Temple and one of China’s highest-ranking monks, was removed from his post amid allegations of sexual assault.
Last April, a story that was more than two decades old returned to the public spotlight when Shěn Yáng 沈阳, a literature professor at Peking University (PKU) in the 1990s, was accused of raping and sexually harassing his student Gāo Yán 高岩, who friends said committed suicide after tolerating years of harassment. In a collective call for justice, a coalition of student activists at PKU successfully pushed school authorities to open a new investigation into the matter. Their activism, however, came at a high price. Yuè Xīn 岳昕, the most outspoken and passionate activist, reportedly endured days of harassment and intimidation from school officials.
Illustration by Anna Vignet
2018 was the height of China’s #MeToo movement. Since then, the momentum has slowed considerably. Still, there is hope that the movement hasn’t been forgotten. Xiánzǐ 弦子, who has accused TV host Zhū Jūn 朱军 of sexual harassment during her internship at CCTV in 2014, has brought her case to court in a civil lawsuit. Meanwhile, 21-year-old University of Minnesota student Jingyao Liu is currently in a legal battle against ecommerce billionaire Liú Qiángdōng 刘强东, who she says raped her in the U.S.
These and future cases should serve as necessary reminders for the Chinese public of the structural oppression and violence toward women in Chinese society. A disturbing number of perpetrators credibly accused of sexual misconduct have faced no consequences. Meanwhile, many suvivors opt to stay silent in fear of potential retaliation in the form of workplace discrimination, ostracization, and doxing. The Chinese justice system is also woefully equipped to protect women from sexual violence. Even though the new Draft Civil Code, which is set for a final review by 2020, will for the first time officially define sexual harassment, it’s uncertain how effective the law will be and how it will be enforced.
It might be too soon to say if China’s #MeToo movement will have far-reaching and long-lasting effects on a country where patriarchy remains deeply entrenched. But as we will document in here, there are reasons to believe some positive changes for Chinese women are on the horizon.
#MeToo in China: A timeline of events
Lü Pin on how #MeToo can grow and endure in China
As one of the leading activists in Chinese feminist discourse, Lǚ Pín 吕频 has been a close observer of the #MeToo movement, and has experienced its highs and lows. On International Women’s Day this year, she told us in an interview that “the movement is clearly losing momentum.” Lu cautioned that it’s unclear when the next wave of collective activism will happen.
Roughly four months after the interview, we spoke with Lü Pin again about how the ongoing case of Liu Qiangdong has ignited a necessary conversation about victim-blaming, the nature of intersectionality in today’s China between the #MeToo movement and others like LGBTQ rights, and how the movement should progress.
“The greatest success of the #MeToo movement is that, to an unprecedented extent, it put the issues of the feminist rights movement in the public view. It sheds a fresh light on women’s rights and experiences and made them a topic of public discussion. So in this respect, the #MeToo movement has already been successful in one of its main objectives: Raising public awareness of feminist issues.”
“Liu Qiangdong’s case illustrates some of the core elements of male chauvinist thinking. His wealth also adds another layer to the discourse — many people will defend him just because of the obsession with wealth in Chinese society, and indeed, they have done so. But others have called this out and the discussion continues.”
“In 2012, our influence was very small, maybe 100 people. But in 2019, we’re talking about a reach of over a million people. Most people still disagree with us, but overall, the discussion is happening on a much greater scale. This will make all the difference, and this is where the success of the #MeToo movement lies.”
#MeToo-associated hashtags with Chinese characteristics
As powerful and viral as it is in social media history, the original English hashtag #MeToo only lived for a fleeting moment on the Chinese internet before online censors swooped in to block it. However, the story did not end here. In order to evade censorship, Chinese feminist activists and internet users came up with a list of creative hashtags with Chinese characteristics. Together, these hashtags resulted in a large-scale online storm fueled by an outpouring of personal stories, constructive comments, remarks of solidarity, and calls to action.
The hashtag that gained the most traction in this online movement is #米兔#, a word derived from the Chinese words for rice and bunny. Pronounced “mǐ tù” and sometimes used in the form of a rice bowl and rabbit face emoji combination, the hashtag’s virality manifested how powerfully the core message of the movement resonated with Chinese women despite the government’s crackdown.
Unfortunately, #米兔# also fell afoul of China’s censors at some point in the past year. One related hashtag that’s still alive on the Chinese internet is #我也是#, (wǒ yě shì — “I am too”) which has been viewed more than 4 million times and sparked almost 10,000 discussions.
This year, in the wake of the Liu Qiangdong scandal, more #MeToo-inspired hashtags found traction on Chinese social media. For example, #HereForJingyao#, used as a symbol to express solidarity with Liu Jingyao, took off on Weibo in April when news broke that Liu had taken her accusations to court. To date, roughly 3 million Weibo users have seen the hashtag and it has generated over 7,600 posts.
When the all-too-familiar rhetoric of victim-blaming started to proliferate on social media, Chinese women who found Liu Jingyao’s experience relatable and heart-wrenching used the hashtag #我也不是完美受害者# (wǒ yě bùshì wánměi shòuhàizhě — “I’m not a perfect victim
“) as a direct response to the dismissive language that many Chinese internet users employed when discussing the case. In a country where the taboo around sharing stories about sexual assault endures, especially among female victims, the hashtag was a massive success on Weibo as it garnered more than 18 million views and about 23,000 discussions.
Xianzi (left) takes press interviews after an evidence exchange hearing on October 25, 2018. Credit: Zhou Na by ChinaFile
#MeToo in China — a reading list
Lü Pin I Did feminists really get ‘duped’? Some thoughts about the video that seemingly shows Liu Qiangdong was framed in rape case
By Lǚ Pín 吕频
April 23, 2019
Outside the American court system, Liu Jingyao, the Chinese student who accused Richard Liu of sexual assault, was dragged into an online smear campaign launched by an anonymous user on the Chinese internet, who shared several videos that show the alleged victim inviting Liu to her apartment and holding onto his arm when walking together. Although the clips eventually proved to be misleadingly edited, they had already caused damaged Liu Jingyao’s credibility and successfully convinced many observers, who initially supported her, to change their opinions on the matter. In a call for unswerving solidarity with Jingyao, Lü Pin wrote:
“I believe Jingyao because I want her to have a sense of safety and belonging. We’ll never know what really happened that day only if we can understand each other better and she feels secure enough to tell us the truth. I put my trust in her because I see her fighting. In the early stages of the battle, she earned nothing but damage on her health, education, and reputation. She certainly knows how risky it is to resort to legal action in this scenario and how vicious public opinion can be. But she still insists filing a lawsuit against Liu. She must know what she’s doing with absolute certainty. Since this is the case, I want to be with her moving forward.”
When women break their silence
By Wáng Tiāntǐng 王天挺
January 10, 2019
Inspired by the #MeToo movement, more and more Chinese women are speaking up, but their courage comes at a cost. For many of them, to share a deeply personal story about sexual harassment and/or assault is to reveal the most vulnerate side of them to the public and opens the possibility of facing retaliation and exposing themselves to hateful remarks and slanderous messages from complete strangers on the internet.
In this profile featuring a group of well-known silence breakers in China, the author illustrates how structural oppression and violence towards women keeps harming the victims after they came forward.
Xianzi: It’s weird that people are placing high expectations on a sexual harassment victim like me
December 18, 2018
“Some people on the internet never contemplate what action they can take in the real world to change things positively. The only thing they do is wait for a result. Some people told me that they would be extremely disappointed if I dropped the case. But I feel it’s weird that people are placing high expectations on a sexual harassment victim like me. For all the victims I’ve met in my life, I hope they do well. That’s all I want for them.”
China’s #MeToo activists have transformed a generation
By Simina Mistreanu
January 10, 2019
“The feminists have avoided confronting the state directly. Instead of staging public protests, for instance, they have pursued direct talks with university reps and other officials. They are helping to publicize survivors’ sympathetic stories in the media, which on the one hand promotes the movement and on the other emboldens others to step forward. They sometimes mobilize online audiences, but they do so carefully and always with a constructive tone: They demand anti-sexual harassment mechanisms, for example, instead of leaders’ resignation. They avoid associating their work with politics. That has meant some compromises — it’s impossible, for instance, to talk about the culture of sexual abuse within some of China’s most powerful institutions. But it allows the movement to survive at a time when others have been stamped out.”
The face of China’s #MeToo movement enters the fray
By Zhou Na
February 12, 2019
In the summer of 2018, a woman who goes by the nickname Xiánzǐ 弦子, a former intern at China Central Television (CCTV), spoke out about her experience of being forcibly kissed and groped by Zhū Jūn 朱军, a 54-year-old well-known television host in China. About four months later, Zhou and her friend Màishāo 卖烧, who shared her story in a viral post on Weibo, teamed up in the face of a defamation lawsuit filed by Zhu. Meanwhile, Zhou fought back by suing Zhu for infringement of her right to personal dignity.
From October to December last year, independent photographer Zhou Na followed Zhou Xiaoxuan as she “prepared for her court cases, managed media requests, corresponded with admirers and detractors, and grappled with both the symbolic and practical consequences of her decision to speak out.” The result is this touching collection of photos.
One year of #MeToo: How the movement eludes government surveillance in China
By Han Zhang
October 10, 2018
“But, for many women, the burden of keeping their struggle private outweighs the risks of speaking out. A twenty-one-year-old woman who alleges that she was assaulted by a music-festival executive says that she struggled with clinical depression after the incident, and even considered suicide. (The executive denies the allegations.) ‘I’m prepared to die,’ she wrote in a letter posted to Weibo on July 29th, three days after Xianzi’s post went up. ‘But before that I want to fight.’”
She’s on a #MeToo mission in China, battling censors and lawsuits
By Javier C. Hernández
January 4, 2019
“Ms. Zhou says she considers herself lucky, not courageous, because her case earned wide attention in the news media. Many women in China struggle to be heard, she said, noting that some victims wait in line for days at police stations, only to be ignored.”
China is attempting to muzzle #MeToo
By Leta Hong Fincher
February 8, 2018
“As the #MeToo campaign spreads from one university to another in China, it is demonstrating the extraordinary resilience of a feminist movement that has posed a unique challenge to China’s male-dominated, authoritarian regime. For the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, organized feminist activists, independent of the ruling Communist Party, have tapped into a broad discontent among Chinese women and developed a level of influence over public opinion that is unusual for any social movement in China.”