TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – Huang Xueqin, who publicly supported a woman accusing a professor of sexual assault, was arrested in September. Wang Jianbing, who helped women report sexual harassment, was detained with her. Nothing has been heard from either of them since then. Meanwhile, several other suffragettes were exposed to smear campaigns on social media and some saw their accounts closed.
When tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from the public eye this month after accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault, it caused an international stir. But back in China, Peng is just one of several people – activists and prosecutors alike – who have been sidelined, charged with crime, or trolled and silenced online for speaking out on a daily basis about harassment, violence and discrimination against women .
When Huang helped spark a grassroots #MeToo movement in China in 2018, it gained fairly broad visibility and achieved some level of success, including getting the Civil Code to define sexual harassment for the first time. But it also met fierce opposition from the Chinese authorities, who are quick to oppose any social movement they fear may challenge their power. That crackdown has intensified this year as part of broader efforts to limit what is acceptable in public discourse.
“They are publicly excluding us from legitimacy, from legitimate public space,” said Lu Pin, an activist who now lives in the US but is still committed to women’s rights issues in China. “The middle ground of this society is disappearing.”
As a sign of how threatening the #MeToo movement and women’s rights activism are to the Chinese authorities, many women activists have been dismissed as tools of foreign interference – a label used to discredit their concerns as inventions by China’s enemies, the intended to destabilize it.
The prolonged crackdown was mainly aimed at activists of little fame or influence, who often worked with marginalized groups.
Huang and Wang had both campaigned on behalf of disadvantaged groups and were charged with undermining state power, according to a friend of the two activists who saw a notice sent to Wang’s family. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of police reprisals. The 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 is often used against political dissidents. Huang and Wang’s families have not heard from them since they were arrested and cannot contact them, another tactic often used in political cases.
The #MeToo movement came into focus in China when Huang helped a woman named Luo Xixi publicly accuse her professor at Beihang University of trying to force her to have sex with him. The university has conducted an investigation and fired the scholar who allegedly had violated professional ethics.
Luo’s account inspired dozens of other women to sign up, all online. Thousands of students signed petitions and put pressure on their universities to crack down on sexual violence. Women in other industries spoke up and sparked 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 treatment in Chinese society.
While this national discussion has been troubling to the authorities from the start, efforts to counteract women’s activism have increased this year, including by nationalist, pro-government influencers, some of whom appear to have the authorities’ blessings and have been praised by state media .
Within a few weeks in 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 her of being against China without evidence and of being supported by foreign forces. Such allegations have often been made against protest movements, including the pro-democracy in Hong Kong, which Beijing has relentlessly tried to stamp out.
By the end of April, about a dozen activists and nonprofits found that their accounts were temporarily or permanently suspended. It’s not always clear why, but one activist who lost her account, Liang Xiaowen, shared a message from Weibo that her account had “shared illegal and harmful information.”
Even Zhou Xiaoxuan, who accused the well-known state TV host Zhu Jun of groping her as an intern and was once praised for her courage to speak up, was subjected to harassment and can no longer post on her public accounts.
On Weibo, users send her private messages like, “Get out of China, I feel disgusted living on the same piece of land with someone like you.” Another called it a piece of “toilet paper” that “foreigners would use and then throw away.”
As a result, any discussion of harassment, violence or inequality that women face is increasingly screened off from the public.
“Now the situation on social media is that you are completely closed off, you have no way of talking,” said Zhou.
The attacks were not limited to the digital space. When Zhou went to a civil trial suing Zhu for damages and an apology in September, a group of aggressive bystanders yelled at her and tried to prevent her from speaking to reporters. The local police did not stop them.
When Zhou left the courthouse and drove home late at night, she said she was followed by men in two cars. The men waited outside their apartment complex for half an hour before leaving.
The print campaign also forced an unremarkable group called the Hot Pepper Tribe, which worked with migrant workers, to close in August. The group tried to raise awareness of the needs of women who work in factories, construction and other manual jobs. It had come under pressure from the authorities, although it is not clear why it was chosen.
Still, activists hope the #MeToo movement has opened a door that cannot be closed.
“It’s not that easy to find a few feminist bloggers and close their accounts,” said Zhou. “Becoming a feminist means figuring out what problems you are facing. And once you’re a feminist, it’s very difficult to give up. And the very important meaning of #MeToo is that it has inspired a broad feminist community. “
Associate Press Secretary Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this report.