On Valentine’s Day in 2012, Xiao Meili walked through a Beijing commercial district in a wedding dress, its shimmering white folds splattered with red. She and two other Chinese activists had decided to march through the busy shopping area in gowns covered in fake blood to raise awareness about domestic abuse, which affects 1 in 4 women in China, according to 2017 government estimates. As they carried signs with slogans like “Love is not an excuse for violence,” Xiao says passersby expressed their curiosity and support.
Activists have been advocating for equal rights for women in China for years, but because of the government’s strict rule, they face different struggles than their counterparts in the West — including online censorship, arrests, and forced evictions. “In a country where the government still exerts tight control over ideology, those inside the system rarely find the courage to speak up,” Xiao wrote in a 2015 op-ed. “Strong public pressure is necessary. We cannot afford to go about our campaign quietly.”
Despite Mao Zedong’s revolutionary slogans about how women in China “hold up half the sky,” Chinese culture remains deeply patriarchal in a way that mixes communism, capitalism, and Confucian values. There are widespread reports of sexual harassment and gender discrimination — including surveys that show onre-third of Chinese college students experience sexual violence or assault — but Chinese courts are often unwilling to accept legal cases, and women are still barred from majoring in certain subjects at college, like marine engineering and geological exploration. “The actual status of women [in China] is a very profound issue,” Chinese journalist Hu Shuli told The Associated Press. Caixlin, the magazine she founded, has reported on sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, despite censorship of the subject on social media.
China is currently undergoing a #MeToo moment of its own, sparked by a social media post in late December by former doctoral student Luo Xixi, who accused Beihang University professor Chen Xiaowu of sexually harassing her and several other women while she was a student. Luo alleged that Chen drove to her house off campus and tried to force himself on her with the door locked. The post went viral and Beihang ultimately stripped Chen of his position as executive vice director after investigating the accusations.
Some of the most vocal #MeToo discourse has subsequently taken place in academic settings, with students and professors at Beihang University and the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) petitioning their universities to enforce more anti-sexual harassment measures. More than 50 professors at Beihang signed an online petition calling for a detailed set of rules to deal with sexual harassment on college campuses.
Historically, the government has undertaken some measures to help combat sexual harassment. In Guangzhou, there are subway cars reserved for women during rush hour, so that they can avoid groping. Men can only ride those cars during non-peak hours. Since 2016, airports in Beijing, Shenzhen, Kunming, and Wuhan have pink-colored security lines and checkpoints for women, so that women can avoid being frisked by male security guards.
Chinese authorities have slowly begun to recognize sexual harassment as a problem, as indicated by state-run media reports, which can generally tell the institutional temperature of an issue. The People’s Daily wrote on January 7th that victims who come forward with their stories should be supported, while the Guangming Daily wrote on January 17th that sexual harassment in education was an important concern. China’s Ministry of Education announced plans on January 16th to “work with related departments to establish a long-term mechanism to prevent sexual harassment at universities and colleges.”
But despite these initially encouraging signs, when the movement sprouted into an online and university-wide campaign, the government was swift to shut it down. Beihang students had planned a January 14th march from the school to the nearby UIBE, but it was ultimately canceled by organizers; some students later told Reuters that their school told them not to attend.
Social media posts about #MeToo in China have been continuously deleted by government censors, which have blocked not only the hashtag itself but related phrases like “anti-sexual harassment.” #MeToo in China is translated as #WoYeShi (我也是), or #MeToo在中国, though activists are now using multiple hashtags to try and circumvent the censors. (The latest one, #RiceBunny, uses the emoji for rice (mǐ) and bunny (tù) as a clever transliteration of #MeToo.)
Despite the government’s lip service about sympathy for women’s rights, it still takes the stance that public protests cross a line into what it considers defiance to authority. China’s government has a history of cracking down on protests and performance art that it deems subversive, and feminist activists have not been immune. In 2015, 10 Chinese feminists were arrested for planning to hand out stickers about sexual harassment on International Women’s Day in Beijing. Some were let go shortly after their arrest, but five others were criminally detained for five weeks, and even accused by interrogators of being spies. The women were dubbed as the Feminist Five and their plight went viral, inspiring the hashtag #FreetheFive — and eventually, their release.
According to Christine Liu, a Chinese American activist who lived in Hangzhou at the time, the incident had a chilling effect on feminist activism in China. “After the people were detained, it kind of threw a huge wrench at the feminist movement,” Liu said. Many students and activists now try to not identify themselves too openly, which is why online petitions have since become the predominant method of advocating for change — a long list of names is a harder target to persecute than a single person.
Zheng Churan, one of the Feminist Five who was detained by the police for 37 days, recently wrote a lengthy reflection on the longer-term impact of the arrests. “After emerging from detention, the feminist advocacy organization I was originally a part of was forced to close,” she writes. “I keenly felt the closing of political space. It became impossible for feminist activists to take to the streets and publicly demonstrate or use ‘performance art’ to express our demands for policy change.” Online discussions about feminism were frequently censored as well. The Feminist Voices account on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, was suspended for 30 days in February 2017 because the account had reported on the Women’s March in the US.
But feminist activists in China have continued their work, though the obstacles created by the government sometimes mean they have to get more creative. In 2017, Xiao and Zhang Leilei raised the equivalent of $5,800 to place anti-sexual harassment ads on billboards, but the government refused to allow it. So instead, Zhang and other activists hung re-creations of the ad around their necks and used their bodies as human billboard space, promoting their work on Weibo with the hashtag #Iamabillboardonthemove.
According to Xiao and Zhang, police officers visited their house two months later and told them to move out of Guangzhou, which had been chosen to host the Fortune Global Forum. Lu Pin, the creator of the Feminist Voices Weibo account, said that 2015’s events compelled her to stay in the United States, because “anti-feminism forces [in China] act in concert with censorship to repress feminist voices.”
“There’s no doubt that the government is going to try to control [#MeToo], and it’s already doing that,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother, an upcoming book about China’s feminist movement. But her overall outlook on #MeToo is still positive, and seeing how large the trend has grown in China has helped her shed initial doubts. “It’s very hard to appreciate when you’re not in China and you’re from the outside, and you see all these petitions springing up at Chinese universities. It’s very hard to appreciate what a big deal that is… This kind of thing does not happen in China and it hasn’t happened in many, many years.”
Xiao and Zheng were in New York City last month for a feminist event hosted by a Chinese community organization, where 40-plus attendees listened attentively as they summarized their work over the past decade. Both emphasized that despite police harassment and other unpleasant encounters with the government, they don’t oppose the Chinese government; they simply want more rights for women and protection from sexual harassers. Their willingness to speak to foreign media is itself brave, as China generally frowns upon citizens having contact with foreign journalists. They’ve since returned to China to continue their activism there.
“China’s feminist movement has a very long history, since [before] 1919,” Zheng told The Verge.” [It] has always been working hard to create a more equal system for women in China… This sort of message can’t be suppressed because as long as there are people who are sexually harassed every day, there will be more and more people feeling the need to speak out.”
Throughout its modern history, the Chinese government has often worked to suppress numerous political movements in order to shore up the status quo, from the student protests at Tiananmen Square to the global movement of Arab Spring to the Umbrella Movement toward democracy in Hong Kong. And their crackdowns often succeed, for a time. But inevitably, another grassroots movement rises, one that learns from previous campaigns’ shortcomings and grows more agile. #MeToo is the next step for the feminist activism in China — a movement that has been working for women’s rights since long before America’s #MeToo — and it won’t be the last.
When an audience member at the New York City event asked Xiao and Zheng whether they’d ever stop being activists, Xiao laughed. “I think we’re at the point of no return. It’s hard to go back now.”