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Half the Sky: #MeToo in China

On April 22, 2018, Peking University student and activist Yue Xin was shaken awake in the middle of the night—1 a.m., she recalled—by her school counselor and her mother. The counselor ordered her to delete all data on her phone and computer related to a records request she submitted 13 days earlier to Peking University. They insisted she give up the matter altogether. 

Beneath the hallowed pillars, gates, and pagodas of Peking University, a sprawling campus located in the northwest corner of China’s capital city and often dubbed “China’s Harvard,” lies the forgotten memory of a former student named Gao Yan. To the alarm of university officials and a mother fearful for her daughter’s future, Yue Xin threatened to revive Gao Yan’s memory from its 20-year-old shadows. 

“I love my mother,” wrote Yue Xin in an open letter, published one day after the nighttime intrusion. “I’d deeply admired and respected her for 20 years. My heart broke to see her wailing, slapping herself, kneeling and begging, and even threatening suicide.” 

In 1998, 21-year-old Gao Yan took her life. At one point ranked ranked at the top of her class in Peking University’s Chinese language and literature department, Gao Yan’s intellectual prowess was at first a blessing but ultimately a curse.

Three years prior, she was one of 70 students hand-picked to study under Shen Yang, a then-renowned Chinese literature professor at Peking University. Only a year later, Gao was repeatedly groped and sexually assaulted by Shen, who was 20 years her senior. At the same time, false, malicious rumors that Gao had fallen in with Shen began to circulate.

“Gao Yan’s smile would fade, her bright eyes flooding with tears. Even the occasional smiles would turn into tearful smiles,” Gao’s college roommate Li Youyou remembered in a letter published on April 5, 2018, that accused Shen of sexual assault. 

After Gao committed suicide, Shen was absolved by the pursuing internal university investigation, which claimed that Shen was forced to be intimate with Gao due to her “mental issues.” In the two ensuing decades, Shen remained professionally unscathed by Gao’s suicide, later teaching at Nanjing University and Shanghai Normal University. (In April 2018, after Li published the open letter condemning Shen, Nanjing University suspended its contract with Shen, and Shanghai Normal University terminated its contract with him.)

On April 9, 2018, Yue filed her freedom of information request, demanding that the university fully disclose records of its investigation of Gao Yan’s suicide. Four months later, on August 24, Yue and several other university workers and students, who were protesting workers’ conditions in Shenzhen, were detained following an early morning police raid. Her current whereabouts are unknown. 

Yue’s experience is emblematic of the story of China’s growing activist movement against gender violence—grim, yet also hopeful, with feminists resilient in the face of state repression.

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In the fall of 2017, the viral hashtag #MeToo took over the Western world, calling attention to the prevalence of sexual violence at all levels of society, from catcalling on daily commutes to the predatory behavior of movie executives and politicians. 

In China, a country with 675 million women, “Wo Ye Shi” (the Chinese translation of “Me Too”) caught fire among Chinese netizens in January 2018, when a woman named Luo Xixi accused her then-Beihang University professor of sexually assaulting her 12 years prior. Since then, Yue and many other university students have begun to call out sexual harassment on their campuses. 

“There were thousands of people who signed petitions with their real names demanding that their universities implement some kind of mechanism to handle sexual assault cases,” Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, said in an interview with The Politic.

After Yue filed her records request and published her letter in April 2018, there was an “incredible outpouring” of student support, according to Fincher. “Some classmates of hers at Beida [Peking University’s Chinese nickname] actually wrote these big character posters, dazibao, in support of her and hung them up on campus,” Fincher noted, invoking “very interesting historical parallels” to earlier student protests like the famous anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement in 1919. 

According to Valerie Hansen, a professor of Chinese history at Yale University, student protests have historically had more legitimacy than other protests. “It goes back to the idea that students can say more than other people,” Hansen said in an interview with The Politic. Alongside Chinese traditional culture that values scholarship, the Chinese government and society has viewed students protesters as a kind of protected group. “They have less to lose, right? They don’t have families or property,” said Hansen. 

“Me Too has now spread far beyond university campuses,” added Fincher. Within months of the first “Wo Ye Shi,” sexual misconduct allegations were made against men ranging from the head of the Buddhist Association of China to the well-known television host Zhu Jun. 

But as Xiaowen Liang, a Chinese feminist who now studies law in the United States at Fordham University, noted in an interview with The Politic, “Wo Ye Shi” only represents the latest development in feminism in China. Liang first became involved with Chinese feminist movements in 2012, when she and other feminists launched a street campaign called “Occupy Men’s Rooms,” protesting the unequal wait times for men and women’s public restrooms. 

Throughout the years, Liang and other feminists have launched many other campaigns against sexual harassment and gender discrimination, partially as a response to what Hansen called a “huge erosion of women’s rights” following China’s economic modernization in the late twentieth century. With the entrance of women into the workforce, Hansen noted the emergence of pervasive glass ceilings. “People may say something that sounds pro-feminist, but in the actual reality of giving out jobs and hiring people, often men are given preference,” Hansen said, noting pregnancy discrimination in employment practices. 

According to Liang, earlier campaigns helped lay the groundwork for Me Too in China. She recalled the online criticism of a viral campaign in 2012 protesting sexual harassment on Shanghai’s subway.

“Now when you read top comments this year about Me Too, you will see that it’s a totally different scenario. People actually support victims. People actually know about anti-sexual harassment,” Liang noted. “It’s been six years… A lot has changed.”

But Xu Yongqing, a student at the prestigious Jiaotong University in Shanghai, said that Me Too has yet to take off outside of college circles, which “tend to be a little more open-minded.”

“Most people have not really embraced this movement,” Xu said in an interview with The Politic. Xu noted a general societal resistance towards feminism in China, which stems from both traditions and more recent controversies. “I think that some traditional ideas hinder feminism, such as the idea that a wife should obey her husband, as well as that women are objects and shouldn’t have their own thoughts. In addition, there were some controversies a few years ago, where ‘fake feminists’ with ‘boyfriend requirements’ gave feminists a bad rap,” said Xu.  

Hansen agreed that traditional norms of zhongnanqingnü, which translates to “valuing men and minimizing women,” would be hard to overcome. “I just think throughout Chinese history—or world history, really—almost all societies have valued men more than women,” said Hansen, citing examples from Chinese traditional culture, like the preference for sons to carry on the family line, keep the family name, and worship the ancestral temples. 

But the largest obstacle to Me Too has come in the form of censorship by the Chinese government. According to Hansen, censorship has been deeply ingrained in Chinese policy throughout history, dating to the imperial era. “There’s never been freedom of speech,” she said, adding that the distinction between historical and modern censorship lies in scale. “I think the modern state can enforce it much more effectively,” especially since President Xi Jinping’s takeover in 2012.

In 2015, the Chinese government detained the “Feminist Five,” a group of Chinese women who had planned to hand out anti-sexual harassment fliers on International Women’s Day. 

“One of the big things Mao said was, ‘Women hold up half the sky.’ And that’s quoted all the time,” Hansen noted. Given that the Chinese Communist Party’s official position has emphasized equal rights between men and women, Liang said: “No one could understand why the government detained these people.”

But Fincher explained that the crackdown is due precisely to the movement’s strength. Not only is the feminist movement “perceived as a threat” because of its organization by “young,” “prominent,” and “quite fearless” feminist activists, but also because of “the crossing over of women’s rights issues, drawing attention to sexual violence, with labor rights activism, demanding better conditions for factory workers—it’s that overlapping of class boundaries and also geographic boundaries that is seen as a threat to the Communist Party, because it shows the potential for mass mobilization.” 

In 2015, the government released the Feminist Five after a month, but Liang recalled continued government opposition towards other feminist activism. In fact, the government shut down Liang’s feminist organization, which was “kind of underground,” after the Feminist Five’s release. 

Liang noted how technological advances have made censorship even more widespread in recent years. Whereas ten years ago, “censorship was controlled and monitored by human beings,” Liang emphasized that “it is now all machines controlling everything.”

Hansen emphasized the importance of free speech to women’s rights, contrasting the impact of the feminist movement in the United States to China’s censored feminism.  

“I think this is the big difference between America and China. In America, too, we have professors here who have been involved with things and they’re still teaching. But there’s a free press, and we know about it,” said Hansen. “But in China, I think the professors and the universities and the Communist Party have more power, and that the protesting students have much less power.

“Yes, America is not an equal society, but I think for people who are on the bottom half of American society, there are certain kinds of things that they can protest. And they can protest without having repercussions,” Hansen continued. “You wouldn’t be jailed. You wouldn’t really get into big trouble. Your life will continue, I think, in America. Whereas I think these student activists in China, I think their lives are going to change. I think the forces of power are entrenched in the West, but they’re even more in China.” 

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In the face of such stacked odds, however, activists are resisting government suppression. To avoid censorship, activists have responded with increasing technological sophistication and creativity, from evading recognition software by distorting images to preventing the deletion of information via blockchain. Indeed, as the Chinese government clamped down on posts tagged “#MeToo” and “#WoYeShi,” Chinese feminists began to change their vocabulary to dodge censors. “Me Too” became transliterated to “Mi Tu,” which directly translates to “Rice Bunny.” Circumventing text-based censors, activists incorporated the use of emojis to spread their message. 

Activists continue to face obstacles in this technological tug-of-war, from the challenges of widespread public use to going up against the behemoth of the Chinese government’s own technological capabilities. But activists like Liang see hope in their sustained resistance. Me Too in China has enjoyed, in Liang’s view, “decentralized” support from netizens across China. Liang said, “A lot of [articles on Me Too] have been posted and posted, deleted and deleted, again and again.” Despite the seemingly endless censorship, “People keep posting [deleted articles],” and “they do this all spontaneously.” 

Fincher agreed. “There have been some news reports that say Me Too has been slow to catch on in China, but I think that’s the wrong take,” Fincher said. “China is a police state. It’s extremely difficult to organize any social movement, which is why all of the ones we’ve seen, they’ve all either fizzled out or been crushed… Me Too is still going.”

In her letter, Yue was unafraid. “I am Yue Xin of 2014’s matriculating class at the School of Foreign Languages…I’m battling exhaustion to write this down. But,” she continued, “as a matter of principle, I couldn’t retreat.”