Digital Feminism in China
Digital feminism is defined as the promotion of feminist ideas through the internet. Digital media has shaped the way feminist activism is taking place both within and outside of China's digital sphere in recent years. The rise of digital feminism has grown in particular with the growing of the MeToo movement and increase use of the internet and social media platforms, allowing users to share stories of nonconsensual sexual encounters that include many high-profile individuals. These digital platforms have become the center ground for various feminist discourse, but despite the evolving digital environment that allows feminist ideas to thrive, there exists backlash and controversies in regards to its use and response, such as inaccessibility and state censorship.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Rise of Digital Feminism in China
- 3 Prominent Cases
- 4 Ethical Concerns
- 5 Reactions
- 6 References
Feminism in China
China has been a predominantly patriarchal society brought upon by Confucianism and Feudalism, although gender relations have been evolving over the last few decades. Various feminist movements came out of the New Cultural Movement and May Fourth Movement, and many feminists had joined the Chinese Communist Party with hopes of pushing legislation to improve gender relations. When Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, was in power, he famously stated that “women hold up half the sky”. As China embraced the globalization of capitalism in the 1980s, there was a push for women to adhere to traditional notions of femininity and domesticity. Since current Chinese president Xi Jinping came into power in 2012, the resurgence of confucius ideals has led to a resurgence of traditional gender roles into the 21st century.
Rise of Digital Feminism in China
The MeToo movement originated in the United States when the hashtag #MeToo went viral on social media platforms like Twitter. The term was first coined by activist Tarana Burke, but had a resurgence in 2017 after multiple accusations of sexual assault against Hollywood Producer Harvey Weinstein were made public. This resulted in a multitude of predominantly female celebrities coming forward with their own experiences of sexual abuse, particularly after actress Alyssa Milano asked people to come forward with their own stories online. Despite its origins within an American digisphere, the movement began gaining traction in online communities across the world.
Role of Communication Technologies in China
The use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has been seen as tools for mobilization in various contexts. Researchers W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg had recognize digital media’s ability to organize and mobilize people through collective action, coining the term "connective actions". The use of social media popularized the MeToo movement, akin to similar movements like the Arab Springs, The Occupy Movement, and #BlackLivesMatter. The widespread use of digital technologies in the 1990s led to a surge in the democratization of online communication, although subsequent actions by the Chinese government quickly seized control over online interactions, known as "The Great Firewall of China". The Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China stated that:
“Citizens’ freedom and privacy of correspondence is protected by law, which stipulates at the same time that while exercising such freedom and rights, citizens are not allowed to infringe upon state, social and collective interests or the legitimate freedom and rights of other citizens. No organization or individual may utilize telecommunication networks to engage in activities that jeopardize state security, the public interest or the legitimate rights and interests of other people”.
This allows the state to govern the digital interactions between its millions of users.
The first instance of China’s bottom-up feminism was marked with China’s opening up to the West in the 1990s, while the second wave was marked by the popularization of social media in the 2010s. After the subsequent rise of the MeToo movement in the United States, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat became the main digital grounds for feminist discourse in China. This movement first gained traction in universities and later spread across different factions of Chinese society. The hashtag #MeToo, or #WoYeShi, was adopted by Chinese citizens to talk about stories of sexual assault and harassment, and among these were several high-profile cases involving prominent individuals.
Information communication technologies have also played an important role in disseminating individual accounts of sexual harassment and abuse. Women in particular have used the rise of digital platforms in order to express their support or share their own stories. Activists and citizens alike have used the popularity of social media platforms like Weibo in order to explore feminist ideas despite China’s censorship over its internet content. In addition to social media platforms, blogs and articles often questioned the patriarchal values of Chinese society. In one instance, Professor Chang Jiang of Tsinghua University collected and anonymously shared stories of women and young girls and their experiences with sexual assault. His use of the hashtag #Iwillbeyourvoice began making the rounds online alongside #MeToo and #ricebunny, which sounds like "me too" in Mandarin.
Other ways in which women are seen to practice self-empowerment online include the ability to choose and edit a profile image. Researchers in China state that technology and selfies in particular have the ability to empower female social media users “to express themselves in a way that transcends that passivity and objectification associated with traditional media”, resulting in what they claim to be a growing sense of self-love. Jin Zeng mentions that members of the Chinese diaspora also had a hand in the proliferation of the MeToo movement in China. These members, predominantly from North America, utilized Chinese ICTs to spread the movement overseas, where most western social media platforms are blocked.
Weibo and WeChat, two of China’s most popular social media platforms, have become the center ground for feminist discourse. WeChat in particular allows its users to create group chats that provide more intimate and collaborative interactions between users and user groups, resulting in what researchers Xiaobo Wang and Chen Chen claim to be more effective in pushing online engagement into offline activity. While Weibo offers greater anonymity and is curated by hashtags, feminist activist Lu Pin criticizes that the online Metoo movement is too "flat", and that activism should extend to teaching the general public about feminist ideas and discourse as opposed to highlighting individual narratives.
There exist multiple prominent cases in which ICTs have been seen to facilitate online feminist activism in China. In January 2018, a young woman by the name of Luo Qianqian published on social media platform Weibo about Chen Xiaowu, a professor at Beihang University, and his alleged sexual harassment against her back in 2006 when she was a doctoral student. The post gained approximately three million hits online and resulted in other victims coming forth with anonymous complaints about similar experiences involving Chen, many of which were reported to the university by Luo herself. This led to the eventual resignation of Chen after widespread attention and significant backlash. This particular incident was seen as the beginning of the Metoo movement in China, although activist Lu Pin believes the movement to have come in waves.
Another case involved accusations against a Sun Yat-sen University professor by the name of Zhang Peng after four students and a fellow professor made complaints against his behavior to the administration. This led to an investigation that later stripped Zhang of his teaching role and awards. In a separate incident, a number of nuns had accused Xue Cheng, a Longquan Monastery abbot, of harassment at a Buddhist learning center in Beijing.
As the movement began spread outside of universities, another prominent case in 2018 involved an intern by the name of Zhou Xiaoxuan, nicknamed Xianzi, accusing Jun Zhu, a journalist at China Central Television (CCTV) of molesting her in a dressing room. Xianzi stated that although she had reported this encounter with the police after the events had allegedly taken place, the case did not result in any arrests or charges. The subsequent rise of the MeToo movement in 2018 influenced her decision to have authorities reopen the case, which resulted in a court hearing against the accused on December 2, 2020. This case has since been dismissed due to lack of evidence.
A 1998 case involved a student, Gao Yan, accusing her professor, Shen Yang, of rape. She had committed suicide shortly after. The surge of the online MeToo movement influenced Gao’s friends to post remembrances online. In 2018, Yue Xin, a female student at Peking University in Beijing where Gao had attended, shared a letter online detailing the university’s alleged warnings against her about researching this case, which led to the censorship of her letter and name off of social media platforms, though some students continued sharing the letter through Bitcoin transactions to evade online censors.
In 2021, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai had accused Zhang Gaoli, a retired vice-premier, of sexual assault through her verified Weibo account. The post was swiftly removed within minutes and resulted in the banning of her name and the word "tennis" on social media. Despite this, screenshots of the post continued to spread between netizens. Peng’s alleged disappearance from the public afterwards and subsequent withdrawal of the accusations prompted international concerns over her safety, though a Chinese newspaper had stated that Peng is well and released tapes that showed her out in public.
There exist ethical concerns around the response against the use of the internet to promote feminism in China, as well as criticisms of the use of information communication technologies to facilitate activism.
According to Merriam-Webster, censorship is described as the institution, system or practice of censoring, often to suppress or delete information. There exist concerns over China’s state censorship on internet culture and its effects on activism. The country’s restrictions on what is said online is stated to have decreased mobilization efforts and collective action. Censors block anything that could potentially solicit social unrest. Author Leta Hong Fincher states that the ability for participants in the MeToo movement to gather had the potential to undermine social stability in China. Government response towards the growth of the MeToo movement and its supporters was swift. #MeToo posts were oftentimes deleted immediately after being posted online, with authorities warning citizens to “not report on the relevant petition incidents” due to fears of the movement disrupting Chinese society. In one instance, a female university student told researchers Zhongxuan Lin and Liu Yang that after making an accusation of harassment against a professor, “university officials called me in for a very serious conversation where they said I might be collaborating with some anti-government foreign power…”.
Professor Chang Jiang’s Weibo account was suspended a month after his hashtag #Iwillbeyourvoice went viral. In March 2018, Feminist Voices, an independent and highly influential feminist media, had their Weibo account shut down. Both their Weibo and WeChat accounts, a total of 250,000 followers combined, were blocked on the platforms due to “violating the related state’s policy and laws”. Weibo in particular has strict rules over what netizens are allowed to express online. They can “censor, monitor, and tackle users’ behavior and information, including personal account information, tweeting content, and communicating with other users”. The site’s moderators also have the ability to limit account activity, ban accounts, and report to authorities about user content they deem harmful. Xianzi’s account was later banned in May 2021 due to violating the rules of Weibo. The ability for users to report other users’ content also led to concerns over mass reporting victims online, resulting in the victim’s subsequent banning over these platforms. Additionally, censorship algorithms have become more sophisticated in detecting modified images and text to better block material they deem inappropriate.
To get around China's monitoring of internet communication technologies, activists have created new ways in order to circumvent government detection online.. This includes the use of camouflaging, where content is modified in order to evade censors looking for explicit mentions of a particular word or phrase. An example includes the use of the hashtag #ricebunny (pronounced "me too"), or emoticons of a bowl of rice and a rabbit in order to circumvent online censorship. Text can also be embedded and disguised in images as it is more difficult for algorithms to detect. In other instances, netizens have rotated images to trick and avoid detection algorithms. Another strategy is hiding and deleting content, then restoring it. The restoration of deleted information is done through caching, and later put onto websites that do not attract as much traffic so that information can still be accessed and spread amongst online participants.
Detainment and State Surveillance
There have existed cases in which feminist activism has led to the detainment of said activists. In March of 2015, a group of five women were detained for a total of 37 days after planning to hand out stickers against sexual harassment in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou. The arrest of the five women in question, which comprised of Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, and Wang Man, had catapulted them into the media spotlight, in which they were later dubbed the "Feminist Five". Hashtags of #FreetheFive began spreading on social media internationally through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, leading to public outcry. Li, one of the Feminist Five, says that during her detainment, she was called a lesbian and whore by interrogators, forced to scrub floors at night, and received threats of longer jail sentences. On one occasion, Li states that a bright spotlight was shone onto her face which made it difficult to see and made her tear up. Although the women were later released on bail, Chinese authorities labeled them as criminal suspects for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”, a sentence which carries up to five years in jail. Additionally, the group was under state surveillance. Li has also stated that she is limited in what she can do in China.
Concerns Over the Accused
The ease of use of social media sparked hesitation and doubt amongst many netizens. For those who used their real identities when speaking about their experiences, netizens questioned them of their motives against those they accused with speculations of wanting to be famous or for revenge fueled by the rise of Internet celebrity culture and fan consumption. With Xianzi’s case against Zhu Jun, many questioned why she did not report the accusations at the time of the alleged assault. Sympathy and worry for those accused began growing online. One Chinese netizen wrote:
“Xianzi said winning or losing is not important. She has won history and set an example. Even if Zhu Jun finally wins the lawsuit, he will probably not be able to back to the stage of CCTV, indeed regrettable”.
“I did not like Zhu’s hosting style in the past, but it is unfair to let him leave his job without trial of sexual harassment. His work hard to become a host of CCTV is counted as the experience of grassroots counterattack”.
Many of those accused of crimes sexual in nature sued their accusers for the infringement of reputation rights. This includes Zhu Jun, who sued Xianzi for $95,000 for defamation and emotional distress, as well as her friend Xu Chao, who had reposted her essay on Weibo where it spread.
Accessibility of Communication Technologies
Criticisms against the use of communication technologies to disseminate feminist ideas are largely driven by the notion that elite, middle-class people are the only ones with access to them. There are concerns that those who are underprivileged, such as working-class or rural women, will be left out of online feminist discourse. Despite the growing prevalence of digital technology, such as the widespread use of phones and/or computers, socioeconomic obstacles are seen as barriers for marginalized women to participate in online discussions. Constraints like heavy workloads are also seen as discouraging online participation for rural women, who must devote their time to working. There are concerns that this will undermine and alienate groups of women who do not have access to digital technologies, and thus cannot advocate for themselves online.
Other Barriers Limiting Online Feminist Activism
Implicit barriers, such as linguistic and cultural obstacles, are said to also have an effect in limiting the spread and visibility of feminist discourse online. Khun Eng Kuah, a professor of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong, states that “micro-power politics in the cyberspace often mirror and [reinforce] offline gender relations and the patriarchal social structure”. To Kuah, China’s historic patriarchal structure and gender inequality reflects in the digisphere as netizens accuse victims of man-hating and dismiss feminist ideals. Online bullying towards victims and supporters has also become a concern. Although anonymity allowed users to tell their stories without offline ramifications, the anonymity of social platforms does not prevent victim blaming or shaming amongst those who talk about their experiences. Xianzi’s reveal of her identity led to attacks against her looks, while those who remain anonymous were met with comments about their true motivations. Female netizens have stated they have experienced being flamed and abused by anti-feminists online, which some have stated led to deteriorating mental health. Others have argued that the prominence of feminist discourse over cyberspace has caused and amplified gender hostility as opposed to rectifying it. One study found that the rise of feminist activity on the internet “brought about the increasing problem of misogyny online rather than social change”.
In November of 2018, the Ministry of Education put down regulations over teachers’ behaviors, prohibiting any type of inappropriate relationship with students. On August 27, 2018, the National People’s Congress submitted a proposal that would allow victims to bear civil liability and pressure employers into reporting and stopping any type of sexual harassment in the workplace. A study done by Jin Zeng found that there was a large number of positive reports amongst student activists towards government response to the allegations against professors. Although the state's reaction seemed to have supported anti-harassment, some believe they were hindered by Chinese censors online.
There exists extensive coverage about the MeToo movement in China from international news and journalism platforms such as The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Times, Al-Jazeerea, and BBC. Peng Shuai's accusations in particular have generated international backlash and concern as the tennis star allegedly disappeared from the public for weeks back in November 2021. This resulted in a series of videos that showed Peng eating at a restaurant and attending a tennis event, although the Women’s Tennis Association states that their concerns of Peng remain. This was echoed with the United State’s and United Nations human rights office calling for proof of the safety of Peng.
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