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China’s #MeToo Activists Have Transformed a Generation

Hanna Barczyk illustration for Foreign Policy

A small group of feminists has shifted attitudes—and prompted harsh pushback.

GUANGZHOU, China (Foreign Policy)—Sophia Huang’s fingers were racing over her two iPhones at a restaurant in downtown Guangzhou, southern China, as her food went cold.

Huang had just found out that the professor Chen Xiaowu, whose sexual harassment of a student ignited China’s #MeToo movement in January 2018, had been awarded the country’s most prestigious research grant. She was furiously posting on social media while at the same texting the representatives of Chen’s university.

“He wants to resurface,” she said, eyes on her screens. “We can’t allow it.”

Huang is among a group of feminists, working mostly out of Guangzhou, who have launched and nurtured China’s #MeToo movement. A wave of righteous anger that started on campuses has breached the heavy barriers of internet and media censorship.

But for Huang and the other leaders of the movement, that has meant walking a careful line: balancing the unleashed anger and frustration of women against an authoritarian, patriarchal regime that has cracked down fiercely on any group that might threaten its power. China’s #MeToo campaign has already brought real change—but it has also imposed limits on itself to avoid spurring a reaction that could end the movement while seeking ways to leverage what power it has.

The feminist leaders are highly educated and politically adept. In order to avoid the possibility of a clampdown, they don’t mobilize crowds or stage public protests. Instead, they skillfully use social media, negotiate with the authorities, and offer support to survivors. They come up with feasible solutions that don’t challenge the state—such as proposing anti-sexual harassment legislation, on-campus prevention mechanisms, and a helpline for victims—before they even raise the problem.

“We are an unprecedented and unrepeatable generation,” said Xiao Meili, one of China’s better-known feminists, who has been active since 2011. Social movements, she said, happen “when conditions get better, and then they get worse again.”

Portraits of Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Zheng Churan—who became known as the Feminist Five—during a protest calling for their release in Hong Kong on April 11, 2015. (Tyrone Siu)

On a chilly day in early March 2015, Wei Tingting’s cellphone rang. The woman on the phone said she was a police officer.

“Beijing is very windy, so please remember, don’t go out a lot,” she said.

“Yes, I know that,” Wei answered.

That was the end of their conversation. Wei, a chipper girl from southern China, didn’t need more. She knew that she and her fellow activists were being warned to cancel a rally, planned for March 7, just ahead of the International Women’s Day, to distribute anti-sexual harassment stickers on the Beijing subway.

The police tactic wasn’t unusual; during sensitive periods, known dissidents are often advised to “take a holiday for their health” by the police. And this was an exceptionally sensitive period—the meeting of the National People’s Congress had started in Beijing on March 5. China’s annual session of its rubber-stamp parliament is a popular time for petitioners who have suffered injustice from local officials to try to get exposure for their case—if they’re able to run the gantlet of police that shuts down the center of the city.

The police evidently decided that Wei and her comrades were unlikely to heed their warning. On March 6, the day before the planned event, police detained Wei and four other activists. They would later be known worldwide as the Feminist Five. Their 37-day detention was seen as a brutal overreaction by Beijing and spurred an international outcry.

Wei said the police’s prolonged questioning during that time was traumatic. But when she got out, she was inspired by the overwhelming support she had received from inside China and from abroad. China had started to grow a feminist movement, nurtured by organizations such as Feminist Voices, which held events in universities and had a built a powerful online presence.

In 2016, Wei moved to Guangzhou, where she lives with her partner in an apartment by the Pearl River. She established a new organization, the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, and she said she has been trying to “somehow work with the government” instead of “burning the house down” or being seen as an enemy of the authorities.

She still criticizes Beijing, but her timing and messages are more careful. One of her new goals is grounding her fight against sexual harassment in research. While there’s been some research on sexual violence in China, official statistics are missing or incomplete, a gap that Wei set out to fill. By putting numbers together, she could make an impact in the media, such as when a study her organization released in 2017 found that nearly 70 percent of college students who responded had experienced sexual violence or harassment. The study was quoted in the nationalist tabloid Global Times, and Wei was invited to speak about sexual harassment on a program aired by the state broadcaster CGTN during the parliamentary session.

In Guangzhou, Wei met Sophia Huang, an investigative journalist. As #MeToo rattled Hollywood in October 2017, Huang, who had been sexually harassed by a former senior colleague at the China News Service, decided China needed its own moment of reckoning. She posted pictures of herself holding a sign with the #MeToo hashtag on the social messaging service WeChat. She tried to get friends to join and share their stories but found that women were either embarrassed to speak out or were pressured by their families to keep silent.

Inspired by Wei’s dedication to finding data, Huang set to work on a survey about sexual harassment among female Chinese journalists—which attracted the attention of international media.

Meanwhile, in California, Luo Xixi, a software engineer, was watching reports about #MeToo every morning on Fox News.

The news gnawed at her because it reminded her of an experience from years before at Beihang University in Beijing. Luo said her former Ph.D. thesis advisor, Chen Xiaowu, a professor of computer science, drove her to his sister’s apartment so she could “tend to the plants.” Once there, he locked the door and attempted to rape her. Luo said the only thing that saved her was that she screamed, “I’m a virgin!”

For more than a decade after that, Luo kept quiet.

“Maybe my silence caused other girls to become victims too,” Luo said. “I said, ‘No, I have to step out. It’s not too late.’”

In fact, other survivors of Chen’s abuse had gravitated toward one another. Luo gathered them in a WeChat group called Hard Candy, named after the 2005 movie in which a teenage female vigilante punishes sexual abusers. She collected their evidence and, in October 2017, presented it to Beihang. The school stonewalled her, Luo said. (Beihang declined to answer questions for this story.) “Every day I would ask for progress,” Luo said. “Every day they tried to [use up] my patience. They expected me to back out.”

In November, Luo contacted Huang after reading about her #MeToo work. Together, they kept pressing Beihang—to no avail.

On Jan. 1, 2018, Luo published a first-person account of Chen’s alleged abuse at the same time as Huang posted a story detailing Luo’s experiences. The accounts went viral. Beihang representatives, who knew the story was coming, immediately suspended Chen and announced an investigation. Huang followed up with a letter asking Beihang to set up an anti-sexual harassment mechanism. The petition gathered more than 3,000 signatures in a couple of days.

Enter Zhang Leilei, another Guangzhou feminist activist, who had previously managed to infuriate authorities by turning herself into a living billboard against sexual harassment on public transportation. Zhang asked legions of her followers on Chinese social media to draft letters to their own universities.

She provided a template with five demands: sexual harassment prevention training for staff, classes for students, a channel accepting harassment reports, a biannual survey, and a department that could handle complaints.

More than 8,000 students signed petitions to 16 universities in a few days.

Within two weeks of Luo publishing her Weibo post, Beihang sacked Chen, and China’s Education Ministry came out with a rare statement pledging zero tolerance toward professors’ sexual misconduct and promising to fight sexual harassment on campuses. With the government on board, all the immediate responses to Luo’s story escaped censorship. Chen is reportedly still without a job, and the rapport Huang had built with his university led to his name being removed, months later, from the research grant list. The women’s careful organizing and swift follow-up essentially unleashed China’s #MeToo movement.

A female student in a classroom on Jan. 17, 2018, at Beijing’s Beihang University, which stripped a professor of his position as vice director of the graduate school after an investigation established he had sexually harassed multiple students. The hashtags #MeToo and #MeTooInChina quickly became trending topics on Weibo, with many others speaking about their assaults in the forums. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)

A flood of stories followed. Feminist leaders were deluged with messages from women who had experienced harassment but didn’t know who to talk to. Huang and Wei tried to help survivors by connecting them with pro bono lawyers and psychologists.

One such case was Renee Ren, a student at China University of Petroleum who reached out to Huang and Wei and decided to sue police in the coastal city of Qingdao in April 2018 over their handling of her on-campus rape investigation. Her unusual defiance unleashed a series of abuses by her university, including holding Ren and her parents locked in a hotel room for six days during a political summit in the city. When I visited her campus this summer, university leaders refused to talk to me, and a propaganda official called security on me.

In late May, Ren slit her wrists in an attempt to kill herself. She was hospitalized. Back in Guangzhou, Huang lay awake for two nights. She asked a volunteer psychologist and a social worker to visit Ren at the hospital. Police stopped them from seeing Ren and instead interrogated them for hours at the local station.

In June, a 19-year-old in northwestern Gansu province jumped to her death from the eighth floor of a department store. The teenager, Li Yiyi, said she had been sexually harassed by a schoolteacher. Her death was especially jarring because people on social media encouraged her to jump while onlookers booed her and clapped when she did it.

Just as the weight of these women’s stories was becoming too heavy, July brought a spate of prominent cases.

In the span of a few days, more than two dozen women brought sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men, including the heads of NGOs, a famous TV host, a magazine writer, two badminton coaches, and an influential Buddhist monk.

Many of the men attempted to brush off the accusations. Zhu Jun, a former presenter of China’s most-watched show, the Spring Festival Gala, who was accused of groping an intern, sued her for “spreading rumors.” And Zhang Wen, a magazine columnist who allegedly raped a woman while she was drunk, replied in a social media post: “It’s very natural for men and women to have intimate physical contact such as cuddling and kissing after drinking.” That prompted other women, including a well-known writer, to accuse him of sexual misconduct.

There were small victories. In the NGO world, Lei Chuang, the prominent head of a nonprofit for people with hepatitis B, immediately stepped down after being accused of sexually assaulting a woman.

The accusations against him reverberated across the NGO community and pushed people to act. In a couple of days, more than 100 nonprofits signed a petition pledging to build anti-sexual harassment mechanisms. Censors scrubbed the petition—which suggested that organizations hold anti-sexual harassment workshops every year, include the topic in employment papers, and set up a system for handling complaints—from Wei’s organization’s website. But the impact was felt: China’s nonprofits were becoming the first sector of society to adopt across-the-board anti-sexual harassment measures.

Tai Feng, who runs a helpline out of Guangzhou for gender discrimination in the workplace, said because Chinese NGOs are largely powerless, they are also more open to change. Tai’s helpline has become inundated by sexual harassment-related inquiries, so she has started drafting a booklet that details, step by step, what to do and whom to contact after experiencing harassment.

The mobilization of tens of thousands of young Chinese in a few days, and eventually millions more, might look sudden. But it was not surprising, Zhang said. People had read similar stories in previous years, such as abuse allegations at Xiamen University, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, and Beijing Film Academy. At the time, they were all censored after an initial period of exposure.

“People remember, and people get really angry, and it’s not something you can put pressure on, and they’ll forget,” Zhang said. “So the Chinese #MeToo movement is not only against sexual harassment. It’s also about fighting against this pressure, fighting against censorship.”

Feminist activists Xiao Meili, left, and Zhang Leilei in Guangzhou, China, on Jan. 25, 2018. (Reuters)

The government was profoundly uncomfortable with the movement from the start. The almost exclusively male leadership of the Communist Party is sensitive to anything that threatens to agitate society and question its legitimacy. So after the government’s initial support of the cause, by pledging to act after Chen’s case, a crackdown ensued. Petitions were removed, social media censored, and hashtags such as #MeToo in China disabled on Weibo, a popular but heavily controlled Twitterlike platform.

That sparked new creativity from the movement, using skills internet users have honed by long experience in dealing with censors. They switched from text to images, running an arms race against the authorities’ image filtering techniques; employed QR codes to send users to petitions quickly before they were taken down by the authorities; and used emoticons to convey punning messages. A bowl of rice (mi) and a rabbit (tu) became the new symbol.

In March 2018, Weibo and WeChat, the ubiquitous social media platform, suspended the accounts of the influential platform Feminist Voices. Police started approaching family members and former colleagues of the Guangzhou activists with questions about their work and “friendly advice” to halt it.

But at the same time, the women were maintaining the weak line of communication they had opened with the authorities through avenues such as state media. They worked with lawyers and members of a parliamentary advisory committee, who submitted proposals to address sexual harassment at the National People’s Congress in March—a symbolically significant move even if one unlikely to bear fruit immediately. Prior legal advances, such as disability discrimination laws or anti-domestic violence measures, have often taken a decade or more to move from their first tentative proposals to actual laws on the books—and even then sometimes remain unenforced.

When the government announced in August that it was adding a provision on sexual harassment to the new civil code draft, activists and lawyers saw it as a major symbolic win but little more than that. The country has yet to prosecute a single person for sexual harassment because the law is lacking, though it’s been almost two decades since the first cases rocked public opinion, said Guo Jianmei, an award-winning women’s rights lawyer whose legal aid center was shuttered by authorities in 2016. Prosecutions for rape or sexual assault are often hampered in China, demanding physical evidence and requiring a “perfect victim” in a system that often blames the accuser. Guo now leads the Beijing Qianqian Law Firm, which represents women and children who have suffered abuse.

She said real change will likely not stem from legislation, even if China does end up adopting an anti-sexual harassment law. Some Chinese laws are purposefully written vaguely so that they are difficult to enforce because the government prioritizes stability and economic growth over civil rights.

Other practical measures have also been short on the ground. There has been no follow-up to the Education Ministry’s crackdown pledges in January 2018. And among universities that have promised to establish anti-sexual harassment mechanisms, the duty has been taken on by the schools’ Communist Party cells, which are blocking students’ participation, according to sources. Peking, Tsinghua, and Beihang universities turned down interview requests for this story.

Yet even the government’s occasional responses to the feminists’ demands were very impressive, said Leta Hong Fincher, the author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China. The government isn’t sympathetic to the cause, she said, but it is responsive to public opinion.

Participants hold candles and placards during a vigil to mark International Women’s Day in Hong Kong on March 8, 2017. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

The success, however limited, of the movement is all the more remarkable given the chill that has settled on civil society in China under President Xi Jinping. NGOs have been shuttered, student activists and human rights lawyers arrested en masse, online speech massively curbed, and a million or more members of ethnic minorities dispatched to internment camps.

Some of the activism from past years carried out by feminists including Xiao Meili—such as protesting in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square or walking from Beijing to Guangzhou to raise awareness of sexual violence—would be unimaginable now.

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.

“For people who don’t understand China, it can be hard to appreciate how extraordinary it is that something like #MeToo has caught on so broadly across the country,” Hong Fincher said. “And that’s a testament to the extreme commitment, passion, and determination of these young feminist activists.”

And even as legal change seems far off, the movement has given voice to a generation of women. Luo Xixi’s partial victory against Chen inspired others to speak. Lu Pin, the founder of the banned Feminist Voices platform, who now lives in the United States, said young Chinese women are now far more likely than before to see feminism as a frame for understanding their problems.

But even the evasive strategies may not hold off the authorities, as the case of one young activist shows. Yue Xin, a student at the prestigious Peking University, joined the #MeToo movement in April 2018, when she requested that her school disclose the details of a 20-year-old investigation into a sexual misconduct case involving a professor that resulted into a student’s suicide. In July, she refocused her efforts on workers’ protests in southern China, joined by a group of young Marxists. Police detained them in August, and while most of the activists have since been released, Yue remains missing.

In December, Wei’s organization, the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, announced it was closing down under pressure from authorities. By now, the women are used to the ebbs and flows of the movement. Meanwhile, the chance of serious legal action is still very small.

Lu Xiaoquan of the Beijing Qianqian Law Firm echoes others when he says the correct strategy right now is to press organizations that face some, if limited, pressure from public opinion to adopt prevention mechanisms. Businesses and universities could follow the example of NGOs—but that will require enough space for survivors to be able to speak out and receive support.

In the meantime, a nascent network attempting to connect sexual assault and harassment victims with activists, lawyers, and psychologists has been quietly taking shape, on the backs of hundreds of volunteers—many of them based abroad—in recent months. Activists hope this will be the next stage—but they are also keeping the details deliberately quiet.

“We’ve sown a seed,” Lu said. “But there’s no such thing as a promising future.”

Wu Xiaoxi contributed reporting to this story.

Simina Mistreanu is a Beijing-based journalist. @SiminaMistreanu

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