#MeToo movement in China: Powerful yet fragile

The movement is growing in China despite obstructions by a sensitive state, indifferent public and misogynist elites.

Rin Linping AP
Chinese graduate student Ren Liping is seen after filing a petition to have her rape allegation case reexamined. She is one of the women fighting for justice in China in the MeToo era. [Andy Wong/AP]

Since last January, China has been experiencing a firestorm against sexual predation that reached universities, media outlets, sports teams, NGOs and even religious temples. More than 20 liberal intellectuals, media personalities and activists have now been accused of sexual misconduct, and several publicly shamed university professors have been dismissed. China’s Ministry of Education has pledged to implement institutional mechanisms to prevent sexual harassment at universities and the country’s top legislative is considering adding protections against sexual harassment into the civil code.

In a one-party state where feminist activism and public sphere more broadly are increasingly under tight control from the top, this movement demonstrates the endurance of citizen power through social media story-sharing, anti-censorship strategies, and collaboration between victims, media, lawyers, and civil society.

The Chinese #MeToo movement participants have creatively spread discussions on sexual harassment cases on social media and saved censored information through screenshots and blockchains. When the hashtag #MeToo was identified by state censors, Chinese netizens started to use other, less immediately recognisable hashtags such as “Woyeshi” (Chinese version of #MeToo) and #Mitu (#RiceBunny, a homophonic of “Me too” in Chinese) with emojis of cute cartoon rabbits eating rice. On another top social media app, WeChat, movement participants spread screenshots of victims’ sexual harassment stories, media investigations and commentaries, at times even posting the images upside down to confuse the filtering system.

In addition to social media strategies, activists also employ various encryption technologies to circumvent censorship. For example, the supporters of Pekin University student Yue Xin used blockchain, a public open-source technology that holds Bitcoin transaction data, to save her censored open letter about the official intimidation she faced for requesting information about a 20-year-old rape case involving another graduate. Yue’s supporters embedded the letter into the blockchain on the computing platform, Ethereum, which can keep transaction metadata of the cryptocurrency, Ether, from any alteration, and generate copies within the network. The letter is now permanently saved and can be accessed by people who look up Bitcoin transactions. 

A new media outlet, Matters, also saved detailed information of each sexual harassment case on their blockchain-based website. And several anonymous activists used this technology to build a website called “Snowflakes” to encourage victims to share their suffering by creating virtual snowflakes on the map that represent wounds caused by sexual assault. In providing legal support and mental health counselling, many grassroots groups also use encrypted messaging app Signal and open-source web hosting service GitHub.

Other than technological aptitude, cross-group collaboration between journalists, lawyers, victims and social media activists, a practice that defined much of Chinese activism for the past two decades, has also played a crucial role in propelling the Chinese MeToo movement.

The university sphere is a good example. In January, former Beihang University graduate Luo Xixi got support from an independent investigative reporter, Huang Xueqin, and a human rights lawyer, Wan Miaoyan, in preparing her public disclosure of sexual harassment by her former adviser, Chen Xiaowu. Huang rephrased the initial post to make it more evidence-based and helped Luo filter media interview requests. Wan Miaoyan applied her legal expertise to use this case as a wake-up call to institute new systemic mechanisms to address all sexual harassment cases at universities. As a result of this collaboration and a public outpour of support for Luo’s case, Beihang University fired Chen and pledged to consider establishing the anti-sexual harassment mechanism – making it the first of Chinese universities to consider such measures.

The university sector is not the only one that came under the limelight of cross-sector mobilisation. Since July, courageous victims and outspoken outlets like the Beijing News, China Newsweek, the Paper , Caixin Media, the Portrait Magazine (Renwu Zazhi) continued to expose a series of sexual harassment cases involving activist Lei Chuang, environmentalist Feng Yongfeng, media practitioner Zhang Wen, famous CCTV host Zhu Jun, and high-ranking monk Xuecheng, among others. Victims first disclosed their stories on social media, and media outlets verified the facts and kept the public updated by interviewing informed sources and checking documents, identifying patterns of sexual harassment, and investigating the systematic forces behind the individual cases. 

Other than helping expose abuse, civil society collaboration facilitated post-trauma healing and prevention training. NGOMeToo, NGOCN and Orange Umbrella, among other grassroots groups have offered psychological and legal support for sexually harassed women, organised anti-sexual harassment seminars, and shared self-protection strategies. Through their joint efforts, the fight against sexual harassment evolved from individual requests for fair treatment into a public reflection on its power dynamics, attracting party and state’s attention to its regulatory loopholes.

While the Chinese MeToo movement manifests the perseverance of China’s societal struggle against officially endorsed patriarchal norms, the movement also exposes fragilities in bottom-up mobilisation. First, the state’s response, as expected, has featured unyielding coercion. The state censored the majority of posts with the hashtag #MeToo, temporarily blocked some victims’ Weibo accounts, and permanently shut down Weibo and WeChat accounts of Feminists’ Voices, an NGO that promotes gender equality. Second, while public awareness about sexual harassment is rising, it is still primarily centred in elites circles. Anti-sexual harassment debates most often spread among well-informed elite intellectual groups, while the general public is more attentive to issues like vaccine scandals that carry more tangible and immediate implications on their daily lives. Moreover, many people, even liberal intellectuals, push back on this movement as potentially disruptive of social order and exaggerating of the influence of male-dominated power dynamics. A famous public intellectual and politics professor, Liu Yu, for instance, has warned that this movement might trigger false claims of sexual harassment and advised participants to try legal approaches before voicing concerns on social media. And a media practitioner, Zhang Wen, publicly accused of starting non-consensual sexual relationships with his female co-workers, responded that it is culturally appropriate for Chinese people to hug and kiss when drinking at large social gatherings. These implicit and explicit denials and justifications by China’s prominent intellectuals signal that Chinese society has still a long way to go in building a systemic gender equality agenda.

Even when collective action has worked, the measures taken are still fairly limited. While most of the exposed institutions fired the accused individuals, for instance, some have also tried to downplay the issue and bypass systemic responsibility. When the Sun Yat-sen University decided to dismiss one professor facing allegations of sexual misconduct, the university attributed the punishment to his “violation of the teachers’ code of conduct” instead of “sexual harassment.” Most importantly, anti-harassment measures advocated by universities focus solely on the punitive regulations rather than on pre-emptive initiatives in overhauling gender norms that are at the heart of this scandal.

Nonetheless, even such limited responses should be celebrated in a society that’s undergoing a political crackdown. The seeds of activism planted in the pre-Xi era continue to grow, albeit, often obstructed by a sensitive state, an indifferent public and misogynist elites.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance