In the spring of 2015, five feminist activists in China handed out stickers on the Beijing subway to call attention to sexual harassment. According to one of the activists, the police knocked on her door one night in March and whisked her to the station, where they questioned her for 24 hours straight. She was held in a detention center for 37 days. The others were also arrested, and another activist received a 10-year ban from leaving the country. Cut short by government action, a feminist campaign burned brightly but briefly that year.
Today, it has rekindled under the moniker of #MeToo. In early January, Luo Xixi, a Beihang University alumna, wrote an open letter on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo that detailed the sexual harassment she experienced from her former faculty adviser, Chen Xiaowu. Over a decade ago, Chen had her accompany him to his sister’s apartment, where he then forced himself onto her, balking only when she told him tearfully that she was a virgin. Inspired by the #MeToo movement that had begun in the United States and spread around the world last year, she published her story and ended it with a call to action: “If we’ve been sexually harassed, we need to bravely stand up and say, ‘No!’”
Following her letter, students across China wrote letters detailing sexual harassment they suffered not only from Chen at Beihang University, but also from others at different campuses. The #MeToo hashtag on Weibo collected over 4.5 million hits, and the nascent movement won its first victory when Beihang University fired Chen from his posts and the Chinese Ministry of Education revoked Chen’s qualification as a Yangtze River Scholar, a prestigious award given to academics. So far, there have been more than 70 open letters with hundreds of signatures on social media calling for campus sexual-harassment prevention—and there haven’t been any reports of knocks on the door in the night.
#MeToo in China is notable for how it’s lived almost entirely on social media. The movement is carried through open letters and petitions, most written by female university students or alumnae. #MeToo has enjoyed progress in China both because of and in spite of the internet. Social media has enabled its wide reach and community, but it has also restricted the movement by making it visible to censors, who have deleted posts and even the hashtag. A petition urging Fudan University to tackle campus sexual harassment gained more than 300 signatures in a day before being deleted. In late January, Xu Kaibin, a male professor at Wuhan University, published a landmark anti-sexual harassment petition that over 50 professors from more than 30 Chinese colleges signed. While state media reported on the petition, other media acknowledgments, such as an interview with Xu by Beijing News, have been scrubbed from the internet.
But feminists have worked to counter censors: As the hashtag #MeToo came under fire, women started using homonym hashtags. An anonymous activist explained the strategy behind hashtags on the popular WeChat blog Feminist Voices: “I hope [the hashtag] can ... contagiously spread positive public opinion. Speaking up isn’t to vent but to promote.” There have been no Women’s March–style protests for #MeToo in China, but the internet has allowed this generation of Chinese feminists to mobilize online.
China doesn’t have a legal system prepared to handle sexual-assault crimes, and sexual harassment is even more difficult to prevent and punish due to the ambiguity of laws against it. Citing lack of evidence, a Xi’an court dismissed China’s first sexual-harassment case in 2001. Though in 2005 sexual harassment became expressly forbidden in law, that law lacks a definition of sexual harassment or guidelines for how to prosecute its crimes. Meanwhile, a study by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center showed that 70 percent of college students and graduates claim to have experienced sexual harassment, with 75 percent of them being women.
In such a legal environment, virality has become the path to justice. After her professor denied her story, Luo Xixi’s open letter was supported by her sharing online the sexual WeChat messages he had written her. Open letters themselves have precedent: In 2014, 256 professors and students signed open letters urging the Ministry of Education to create anti–sexual harassment policies for university campuses. The letter was motivated by a viral blog post written by a former student of Wu Chunming, a professor at Xiamen University, that accused him of molesting her and multiple classmates. In response, the university suspended Wu and the ministry issued a document prohibiting professors from sexually harassing students, though, similar to the 2005 law, it remained vague on terms.
#MeToo’s use of social media has also aided feminism in China by spurring on a burgeoning collective consciousness of what “feminism” even is, as more and more people in China are grasping the movement’s language, concepts, and energy. “#MeToo was an alarm bell for all of us,” said Huang Xueqin, a journalist, to The New York Times. “There is more and more openness on the topic than there used to be, more news than before, and more and more people are daring to tell their experiences on the internet,” Lu Manman, the editor of Feminist Voices, told the news site SupChina.
Despite its participants’ hopes, some observers remain cynical. Lokman Tsui, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication, does not see a long future for the movement: “If you hear disagreements in media in China, it’s because [there is permission]. It’s very hard to get stories out in media now unless they have permission.” For social movements online, there’s always a period in the beginning, he said, when the government attempts to figure out how to respond. During that time, the movement has space to grow. The #MeToo movement “just hasn’t hit the radar yet,” Tsui says. “These stories are allowed because [no one] in power [is] feeling threatened right now, is my guess.” Last week, a state news story finally addressed #MeToo as a trend, but drew attention to how “the quick response and strong stance of the Chinese authorities won applause from the public.”
The day before, Feminist Voices published an optimistic, rallying post on #MeToo that said, “It’s time for us to fight in solidarity ... 2018 is full of opportunities for people to put words into action and take to the streets.” Some #MeToo activists have been planning to go offline with their messages. Last month, Zheng Xi, a student at Zhejiang University, launched one such campaign. “I can be sure that if more people notice this, then the government will have to notice, too,” she told SupChina. But the campaign sounds familiar: She has designed anti–sexual harassment signs with logos and plans to adhere them to public spaces—such as subway trains.