A new wave of feminism: China’s #MeToo

First in the West, now in the East

Zhongli Yu

Government and governance, Education, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

17 January 2019

Despite heavy online censorship from the government, China’s new wave of tech-savvy feminists are bringing #MeToo to their own shores, Zhongli Yu writes.

The #MeToo movement is no longer only representative of the countless women who have been sexually abused in America – those in China have been voicing their experiences too.

On 1 January 2018, Luo Xixi – a former PhD student at Beihang University and currently a US-based software engineer – took to the Internet to accuse her ex-supervisor of attempting to rape her 12 years ago. She also urged others to speak out using the hashtag #我也是 (#woyeshi, meaning #MeToo).

Luo originally posted her story anonymously in October 2017, but eventually revealed her identity in a post made on New Year’s Day. With the quick spread of her name and story on social media, many other victims were encouraged to break the silence and fight for their rights too. This led to the emergence of #MeToo in China.

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China’s #MeToo peaked in July 2018 with dozens of women coming out with allegations against former bosses, acquaintances, and colleagues, but has slowed due to the government’s intolerance of activism. Allegations against male university professors and prominent figures from non-profit organisations and media circles have been trending on social media. Some of the accused have either lost their jobs or been subject to sanctions of sorts (or both), while others have publicly apologised.

China’s #MeToo movement underpins the future of a new wave of feminism in the 21st century. From its birth at the turn of the 20th century, Chinese feminism has experienced three stages and seems to be evolving into its fourth.

Beginning with the May Fourth Movement from 1915 until 1921 – a political, social, and cultural revolution – the first wave was part of the anti-imperial and anti-feudal revolution led by male Chinese intellectuals at the time. It sought equality in women’s rights concerning education and employment opportunities, freedom of marriage and divorce, and political participation.

The second wave, which lasted from 1949 to the late 1970s, was government-led, with state policies mobilising rural and urban women in the public sphere as important builders of society. The third wave, beginning in the 1980s and ending in the 1990s, was led by female academics, and was characterised by an enthusiastic return to the ‘female essence’ and a concern for achieving harmony between women and men.

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The fourth wave, which seems to have come with the turn of the century, is led by young feminist activists and focuses on gender equality and sexual misconduct. Students of Fudan University in Shanghai have organised activities on V-Day – a day established as part of a movement to stop violence against women and young girls – since 2004 with an annual production of The Vagina Monologues included.

The years between 2012 and 2015 can be deemed ‘the era for young feminists’ who organised campaigns to raise awareness around domestic violence, sexual harassment, and gender equality.

Activism against sexual misconduct is not new in China, and the government has in fact supported some efforts in fighting sexual harassment.

In 2014, the Ministry of Education called for more efforts to strengthen teacher morality and forbade sexual harassment or improper relations with students. During the early days of Chinas’s #MeToo movement, the Ministry itself announced its absolute intolerance for sexual harassment on school campuses, and has since declared its plans to eradicate sexual misconduct from educational institutions.

Unfortunately, #MeToo came at a time when the government was tightening its control on civic activism. Early in 2015, five young feminists around China – who had planned on handing out stickers on sexual harassment on International Women’s Days – were arrested and accused of ‘disturbing public order’. They were released one month later following considerable international attention and support.

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It is not surprising that #MeToo prompted a backlash from the authorities. Student activists have encountered heavy pressure from university officials. Universities, employers, and the police are often indifferent towards sexual harassment cases. Posts discussing #MeToo have been subject to heavy censorship, with strict online mechanisms deleting discussions and comments deemed sensitive or provocative. This is especially the case for posts that call for collective action and that spur social mobilisation.

Nevertheless, young social-media-savvy activists have made tactical use of media to circumvent censorship – with flipped screenshots, blockchain technology, and the hashtag #米兔 (#mitu, meaning ‘rice bunny’) instead of #MeToo. These online and mobile platforms have provided a platform for feminist activism, helping #MeToo to gain traction in China.

Although China’s #MeToo movement seems to have slowed for the time being, the courage, perseverance, and resourcefulness shown by feminist activists promise that the fight continues. This digital feminist activism is likely to be one of the greatest forces to propel the fourth wave of Chinese feminism forward.

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