By Becky Prager
There are news reports that say #MeToo has been slow to take off in China. Well, what do you expect? China’s not a normal country. This is a hashtag campaign in a country where there is no internet freedom. The hashtag is routinely censored. Women’s personal stories of sexual abuse are routinely deleted within hours if not minutes. There is no press freedom, which was essential to #MeToo taking off in the U.S.
—Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China
The #MeToo movement, a social movement focusing on sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender equity, was born online and has been largely driven by social media in the U.S. The movement itself was sparked by a hashtag, created by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 and popularized by actress Alyssa Milano in 2017 in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault allegations. The fast-growing movement quickly spread worldwide. Only one month after Milano tweeted the phrase, “#MeToo” had been retweeted 23 million times by users from 85 different countries. Social media campaigns inspired by the #MeToo movement sprung up in Britain, France, Spain, India, and more. One of the more interesting #MeToo global offshoots, though, was China, a country whose government closely censors online activity, has a well-documented history of quashing activism, and has long resisted feminism. In a nation like China, #MeToo activists have been forced to reckon with a unique set of challenges, and the policy changes they seek may need to be broader than those related to sexual misconduct and gender equity in order for the movement to be truly successful there.
In the U.S. and other countries where government censorship of media is not legal, the spread of the #MeToo movement was much more easily facilitated. Without the government monitoring Twitter, it’s quite easy for the hashtag “#MeToo” and stories of women’s experiences with sexual assault and harassment to go viral. But in a country where the phrase “#MeToo” is ritually cleansed from social media platforms, it’s much more difficult to start a social-media-driven movement. The Chinese government is notorious for Internet censorship. It has blocked thousands of websites and apps in China, including hugely popular ones like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Google. (Chinese websites and apps serving similar functions to the banned ones have cropped up, but they are also subject to government censorship.) Internet searches for topics the government considers controversial like “Tiananmen Square” or “the Dalai Lama” have been scrubbed from search engines there.
The #MeToo movement has been no exception to this culture of online government censorship. This comes as no surprise in a nation in which the government has been cracking down on activism and feminism at increasing rates in recent years, including famously detaining five feminist activists in 2015. The #MeToo hashtag is disabled on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform comparable to Twitter. Social media content having to do with the #MeToo movement is censored, and petitions related to the movement are regularly removed. In March of 2018, the social media accounts of Feminist Voices, one of China’s leading feminist organizations, were suspended from Weibo and WeChat (another hugely popular Chinese social media platform similar to Facebook Messenger).
One of the more notable #MeToo moments in China was when Zhou Xiaoxuan posted on Weibo about a 2014 incident in which a famous state-sponsored television host, Zhu Jun, sexually harassed and groped her when she was a college student interning at the television station. Although the post was shared more than ten thousand times before censors took it down, the government’s swift and targeted response to the post reflected the lengths it was willing to go to control social media content. Messages were sent out to state media directing them to “immediately delete all information related to Zhu Jun” and “leave no area neglected.” A warning notice urged them not to “hype” the movement. The phrase “Zhu Jun” was also censored on social media platforms.
Sometimes the censorship can go beyond simply removing content from a website. Police in China have been known to pressure landlords to evict women who participate in the movement. Indeed, Zhou’s friend who reposted her story about Zhu on Weibo, causing it to go viral, was threatened by her landlord with eviction if she did not delete her post. N.G.O.s and legal aid groups that focus on sexual harassment, sexual assault, and women’s rights are also frequent government targets. A 2016 Chinese law made it easy for the government to monitor and control the work of such organizations, and many have been shut down by the authorities as a result. Government officials have also warned activists against speaking out, suggesting they could be treated as traitors colluding with foreigners if they continue in their efforts. The government has even gone as far as detaining citizens for posting what it considers undesirable content online—even on sites that are inaccessible in China, like Twitter.
The government’s attempts to control the movement have forced feminist leaders in China to get clever in how they communicate and organize online. When the hashtag #MeToo was disabled, members of the movement started using alternative phrases, such as “woyeshi,” the Chinese version of the iconic phrase. Social media users even started using a combination of the emojis for a bowl of rice (mi) and a rabbit (tu) to trick censors. Organizers have also taken advantage of blockchain technology and encrypted messaging apps to hide content from those who might seek to remove or censor it. They even take screenshots of sexual harassment and assault survivors’ testimonies and share the images on social media upside down to avoid the censors’ filtering techniques.
Given the severe obstacles it has faced, the movement has been remarkably successful. Despite censorship and government control, women like Zhou have still found ways to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault. Through their testimonies, university professors, N.G.O. leaders, pop stars, politicians, a prominent Buddhist monk, and more have been brought to justice in the public eye. There has even been some legislative change in response to the movement: the government announced in August 2018 it would add a provision on sexual harassment to its new civil code draft. But while this was seen as a victory, it didn’t do much to establish a path for women to vindicate their claims in the legal system. Sexual harassment and rape laws are vaguely worded in China, making them difficult to meaningfully enforce. Between 2010 and 2017, only 34 lawsuits addressing sexual harassment were filed in the Chinese judicial system, and only two of those were brought by victims themselves (many others were brought by alleged harassers suing their accusers or their employers). Both cases were later dismissed for lack of evidence.
This is not just a problem in China. Even in the U.S., sexual harassment and rape legislation hasn’t caught up to the #MeToo movement. But this hasn’t stopped the movement from creating significant cultural change in the U.S. Perhaps, therefore, the target in the Chinese #MeToo movement should not primarily be legislation relating to gender violence and discrimination, but rather the laws and policies that permit the government to control the mechanisms through which the #MeToo movement has operated since its inception in 2017. Without a change in censorship laws and policies, women’s voices will continue to be silenced, and the movement will continually be stunted, constantly trying to outsmart the authorities who aim to thwart them. In a movement driven by social media, until its people are free to speak as they wish online without fear of censorship or retaliation, China cannot truly say “me, too.”
Becky Prager is a third-year student at Harvard Law School.