Gender, Inequality

How women in China kept the #MeToo movement alive despite strict censorship

Young women in China are fighting against sexual harassment and censorship using rice bunnies

While the MeToo hashtag gained huge momentum in the States after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted #MeToo in 2017, garnering up to 19 million tweets on Twitter. In China, the movement started with a 3000-word post on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging site, from a Beihang University alumna named Luo Xixi.

What started off as 3000 words would lead to a powerful and complicated movement in China.

In the post, Xixi shared how during her years as a Ph.D. student in China, she was harassed by her supervisor Chen Xiaowu, a notable professor. Hours after she posted her story it went viral, it gained over 3 million views and engaged debate on sexual harassment. Days after the post, education authorities sacked professor Chen and revoked his status as a Yangtze River Scholar.

This victory encouraged more women to come forward with their stories online and petitions by university students urged their institutes to combat sexual harassment.

Though just as the movement started to garner momentum after Chen’s crackdown, the government started to remove posts and pages relating to the movement. The MeToo hashtag and its variations were blocked by censors in an attempt to stifle its existence.

Any movement in China is difficult to take off due to the government’s intervention. This is due to President Xi Jinping media policy passed in 2016 that allows his party to have sovereignty over all media outlets in China. Under his rule several human rights activists have been arrested, NGOs shutdown and Muslim minorities put in internment camps. Any collective protests or demonstrations that questions ‘traditional’ Chinese views are seen as trouble by the government.

Though activists were quick to configure creative ways to bypass this censorship. Homophones and images such as ‘rice bunny’ were used to make posts harder to delete and detect.

Another setback in the movement is that China lacks a clear definition of sexual harassment. And while in 2005 the government passed a law forbidding sexual harassment, there was no clear guideline to prosecute attackers.

Due to these vague laws, reporting sexual assault is difficult for women along with the culture of victim blaming. Women find it hard to come out with experience as they feel afraid that no one will listen to them and might cost them their reputation. They only had the internet to turn to report their stories as the government lacked concrete law to prosecute harassers and the constant culture of victim-shaming.

New legislation introduced for 2020 could come as a major win for the movement as the government has added a sexual harassment provision to the civil code draft that would allow victims subjected to physical or verbal harassment can hold perpetrators civilly responsible. 

Zhou Xiaoxuan, a 25-year-old screenwriter, is another leader in China’s MeToo movement.  She posted a letter online describing how she was sexually harassed by the famous news anchor, Zhu Jun.

Her essay went viral and was shared by thousands across the internet. This was huge, as Zhu Jun is one of the most recognizable faces in China, having hosted China’s Annual New Year Extravaganza for almost two decades.

The movement that was discreet and hampered by the government finally ignited and spread across the nation. However, the government like in most instances tried to censor her story online and on television.

Nevertheless, the crackdown of a famous personality would re-engage the conversation on sexual harassment in China. Making Xiaoxuan a symbol of the movement and hope for women.

Jun then denied the accusations made and sued her for defamation of character. Xiaoxuan being persistent announced she’d fight back by counter-suing the TV host for sexual harassment.

Now, this is major news, China has never had a successful sexual harassment lawsuit because of the lack of policy and law around it.

Although, if the court accepts Xiaoxuan’s request to file this sexual harassment complaint. It would be the country’s first civil sexual harassment lawsuit.

China’s #Metoo movement is not only a fight against censorship, sexual harassment and assault but a call for re-structuring power dynamics.

Power dynamics that force women to stay submissive and rob them of their own voice. With feminists fighting censorship and carrying the movement despite the lack of freedom of speech and persistent censorship. Women are fighting the patriarchal culture by sharing their stories and encouraging other women to do so. Although, it might be difficult for the movement to reach government officials due to the ruling party’s stiff authority over society and media.  But the #MeToo has grown into something far bigger in China. 

In an interview, Zhou Xiaoxuan said, “I don’t know one day if it could change, but my lawyer told me that I must fight to the end because of them. So I will fight to the end.”