In 2006, the ‘me too’ movement was born out of Tarana Burke’s vision to help people who have survived sexual violence. A little over a decade later, the movement went viral with the hashtag #MeToo on Twitter, following a New Yorker piece on Harvey Weinstein. Now in 2019, the movement is no longer limited to just the United States. Despite what some may think, one such county it has reached is China.
While #MeToo has reached China, this is not the country’s first wave of feminism. Yu, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, explains that there have been three waves of feminism in China, with the #MeToo movement spearheading the fourth wave. The first wave began with the May Fourth movement, and fought for equal rights for women in education, employment, marriage and divorce, and politics. The second wave, beginning in 1949 and lasting until the late 1970s, emphasized the importance of women as “builders of society”. The third wave lasted a decade, between the 1980s and 1990s. This current wave, the fourth wave, sprung out of a string of public performances in 2012.
During Valentine’s day in 2012, women across China put on a series of public demonstrations to bring issues of sexual assault and gender inequality to light. They wore bloodied wedding dresses in Beijing, occupied men’s bathrooms in Guangzhou, and protested in the subways of Shanghai.
Although 2012 is the starting point for the current wave of feminism, 2015 was a turning point for the movement when five feminist activists were arrested. The five women: Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, and Wang Man, are known as the Feminist Five. Ironically, they were arrested for organizing a protest on sexual harassment on International Women’s Day. Several months later in June, a woman who applied to be a line cook at a restaurant was rejected on the basis of her gender.
In 2018, a student by the name of Luo Xixi wrote a letter on Weibo, a major Chinese social media platform, stating that she was sexually assaulted by her professor. Luo Xixi’s case is considered to be the start of China’s #MeToo movement, as part of the fourth wave of feminism. Her letter was widely read by amongst users, and gave rise to a series of other allegations from students to professional women.
Indeed, one of the most well-known cases in China involves Xianzi, a former female intern, at China Central Television (CCTV) and a TV presenter at the station, Zhu Jun. Xianzi posted her story on WeChat, a social media platform. Later, Xu Chao, Xianzi’s friend posted a screenshot of her post on Weibo, yet the post was later deleted by the blogging site.
The disappearance of Xianzi’s story form Weibo is not an uncommon occurrence. As stated by Leta Hong Fincher, an American journalist and scholar at Columbia University, “there is no internet freedom…[or] press freedom.” Certain hashtags on social media, such as #MeToo, are heavily censored and can be removed in within minutes, says Fincher.
In fact, when two monks published a document dictating how they were sexually abused by the president of China’s Buddhist Association, Shi Xuecheng, the topic became blocked on the internet.
Despite the difficulties social media users are facing when talking about such subjects, they have been able to find ways around the censored hashtag. Users have replaced the original #MeToo hashtag with emojis of a bowl of rice and a bunny. This is because in Chinese rice is pronounced as “mi,” and bunny as “tu,” – not at all dissimilar sounding from “me too”.
In addition to using a homonym of #MeToo to avoid being censored, users are also posting photos in different orientations or “[blemish]ing” them to make it more difficult for algorithms to find them.
Although people posting about #MeToo have gone to great lengths to avoid censorship, at the end of the day they know that there is still a chance that their posts will be taken down. Feminist groups using WeChat’s messaging services have guidelines reminding members to take and “post screenshots and links”.
Why are protests and posts on sexual assault and gender inequality so heavily restricted and censored in China?
During Chairman Mao Zedong’s tenure in office, women and men were regarded as equals. He famously said that women should “hold up half the sky”. Yet Chinese women are now being arrested and silenced for speaking out against gender inequality and sexual assault.
Diana Fu, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto (Scarborough), explains the shift in the treatment of women. Fu states that “feminists are astute activists,” and therefore a political threat. They expose inequalities “that prick the public’s conscience.” They “threaten China’s party-state by communicating with labor activists.” The last time labour activists forged an alliance was during the 1989 Tianamen Square protests.
Moreover Fincher, at a panel hosted by the Council of Foreign Relations, adds that “sexism and misogyny is the core underpinning of China’s authoritarian rule. China’s leaders depend on the subjugation of women in order to sustain in the Communist Party, in order to survive.”
At the same panel discussion, Lu Pin, the editor-in-chief of Feminist Voices, and Liang Xiaowen, a feminist activist in China, state that the Chinese government is patriarchal, homophobic, and misogynist.
This is reflected in the treatment of women by the government over the years. In 2007, the Chinese government ran a campaign “stigmatizing” unmarried women over the age of 27, calling them “leftover.”
Additionally, the pressure for women to marry has economic consequences as well. Often times women are not included in their marital-home deeds despite 70% of them contributing to the purchase of their home. This, as Fincher states, only increases the gender wealth gap.
In the midst of censorship, arrests, and lawsuits, there have been small wins for women. Two major cities in China have made women-only cars available on the train during peak hours. Although arguably, the designated women-only cars are not very effective, if at all. Leta Hong Fincher and Liang Xiaowen have also found that young men are supportive of the feminist movement.
As the #MeToo movement continues, feminists around the world are watching how President Xi will address these ongoing issues. Stigmatizing unmarried women and censoring acts of sexual violence is no way to continue. Many place their hopes in the younger generations’ ability to be creative in ensuring that their voices are heard.