Not Just Peng: #MeToo movements in China

(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Huang Xueqin, who publicly supported a woman when she accused a professor of sexual assault, was arrested in September. Wang Jianbing, who helped women report sexual harassment, was detained along with her. Neither has been heard from since. Meanwhile, several other women’s rights activists have faced smear campaigns on social media and some have seen their accounts shuttered.

When tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public view this month after accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault, it caused an international uproar. But back in China, Peng is just one of several people — activists and accusers alike — who have been hustled out of view, charged with crimes or trolled and silenced online for speaking out about the harassment, violence and discrimination women face every day.

According to AP, When Huang helped spark a grassroots #MeToo movement in China in 2018, it gained fairly wide visibility and achieved some measure of success, including getting the civil code to define sexual harassment for the first time. But it was also met with stiff resistance from Chinese authorities, who are quick to counter any social movement they fear could challenge their hold on power. That crackdown has intensified this year, part of wider efforts to limit what’s acceptable in the public discourse.

“They’re publicly excluding us from the legitimacy, from the legitimate public space,” said Lu Pin, an activist who now lives in the U.S. but is still active on women’s rights issues in China. “This society’s middle ground is disappearing.”

In a sign of how threatening the #MeToo movement and activism on women’s rights is to Chinese authorities, many activists have been dismissed as tools of foreign interference — a label used to discredit their concerns as fabrications by China’s enemies meant to destabilize it.

The ongoing crackdown has mostly targeted activists with little fame or clout and who often worked with marginalized groups.

Huang and Wang both had a history of advocating for disadvantaged groups, and have been charged with subversion of state power, according to a friend of both activists who saw a notice sent to Wang’s family. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of police retaliation. Police in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou where the two were arrested did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

The charge is vague and often used against political dissidents. Huang’s and Wang’s families have not heard from them since they were detained and are not able to contact them — another tactic often deployed in political cases.

The #MeToo movement burst into view in China, when Huang helped a woman named Luo Xixi to publicly accused her professor at Beihang University of trying to force her to have sex with him. The university conducted an investigation and fired the scholar, who it said had violated professional ethics.

Luo’s account inspired dozens of other women to come forward — all online. Thousands of students signed petitions and put pressure on their universities to address sexual violence. Women in other industries spoke up, leading to public discussions about the power imbalances between the sexes in many workplaces, the lack of justice for survivors of sexual violence, and the way gender can determine how one is treated in Chinese society.

While that national conversation was unsettling for authorities from the beginning, efforts to counter activism on women’s issues have increased this year, including by nationalist, pro-government influencers, some of who seem to have the blessing of authorities and have been praised by state media.

In a span of a few weeks in the spring, influencers with millions of followers launched a wave of attacks against women’s rights activists on Weibo, one of China’s leading social media platforms. They accused them of being anti-China and of being backed by foreign forces, without evidence. Such allegations have often been leveled at protest movements, including the pro-democracy one in Hong Kong that Beijing has relentlessly tried to stamp out.


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