Xiao Meili, March 27, 2018
January 2018 was a special month for the Chinese feminist movement. On January 1, Luo Xixi (罗茜茜) released an open letter –– using her real name –– in which she accused her former PhD advisor, Chen Xiaowu (陈小武), of sexually harassing female students. It was as if she had lit a spark that ignited a powerful and dynamic wave of anti-sexual harassment on Chinese social media, and its impact far exceeded the expectations of many, including Luo herself. Students from nearly 80 universities sent joint letters to their university presidents, urging their alma maters to establish a sexual harassment prevention mechanism. More than 9,000 people took part. It’s said that this is the largest student movement in China since the June 4th pro-democracy movement. The campaign directly led to the dismissal of Chen Xiaowu, and within half a month the Ministry of Education promised, “we will work with relevant departments to earnestly research the establishment of a sound and long-term mechanism to prevent sexual harassment in universities.” In today’s China, where all kinds of citizen movements have been suppressed, and public space has shrunk, and everyone speaks and acts cautiously, how is it that #MeTooInChina was successful?
As someone who has been deeply involved in the campaign, I would like to explain how this action was operationalized, what kind of people participated, and the activists’ ideas and thinking.
On January 3, a person named Xiao Qiqi (肖七七) contacted me on WeChat, saying that she wanted to apply for on Weibo a hashtag called #打破沉默反对性侵暴力性别歧视# (#breaking silence against sexual violence and gender discrimination), and asked me how to do it. I was puzzled; I didn’t know who she was, or what she wanted to do, or how to do it. After some discussion, she changed the long hashtag to #MeToo在中国#, which subsequently became the name of this anti-sexual harassment campaign.
Xiao Qiqi is a university senior in Vancouver. After seeing Luo Xixi’s open letter, she excitedly said to her WeChat circle of friends: “MeToo has started in China.” She received comments such as: “It’s too difficult.” “This is not possible in China.” “Too sensitive.” And there were many people who didn’t know what #MeToo was. Xiao Qiqi observed on Weibo that the #MeToo hashtag was getting only a small amount of attention, and most of the content was related to pursuing celebrities. Occasionally, some people also commented: Foreign countries are really awesome. It seems that the anti-sexual harassment movement can happen throughout the entire world, but there is no way it can happen in China.
Spurred on by these pessimistic emotions, Xiao Qiqi, who previously was not adept at using social media, began to invest a lot of energy in learning how to manage a Weibo hashtag. She looked for various people –– people she didn’t know well–– seeking their advice and help. On the first day that she decided to take this on, she barely slept, and later simply followed China time to arrange her own life, work, and rest. She searched all the Weibo posts related to MeToo, and “likes” all positive comments, and gave encouragement to all those who left pessimistic comments.
At the same time, a 25-year-old feminist activist Zhang Leilei (张累累)and her friends living in Guangzhou were discussing how to make this issue more popular, and prevent it from being suppressed and then fizzle out like similar events in the past. Inspired by the January 2 letter from graduates of Xi’an International Studies University to their alma mater asking for the establishment of a sexual harassment prevention mechanism, Zhang Leilei decided to contact students from different universities to send joint letters to their alma maters. She reckoned that this was a mild action that would allow more people to participate.
Zhang Leilei previously had launched a crowdfunding campaign for anti-sexual harassment advertisements in the subway, and after working hard on it for a year, the advertisements still were unable to launch. She then called on 100 people to wear the billboards on their bodies as a human-flesh advertisement. This activity garnered an enthusiastic reaction, but it was quickly stopped by the police. The police also repeatedly forced Zhang to move out of Guangzhou.
On January 4, Zhang began to organize people to write to their alma maters. She provided a sample letter on the internet that became a template. The letter included five recommendations:
- Give every staff member of the school training in prevention and control of sexual harassment;
- Give every student a class on anti-sexual harassment;
- Carry out a sexual harassment survey online once every semester to enable students to anonymously respond to questions regarding sexual harassment, depression, anxiety, etc. online.
- Set up a channel for accepting sexual harassment reports and complaints, including a mailbox, an email address, and a telephone line, etc.
- Identify a department and a responsible person that accepts and handles complaints about sexual harassment conduct.
Beginning on January 5, Zhang Leilei chatted with dozens of people every day and added them to a WeChat group. Some participants already had a support networks; others were doing it alone. Getting launched was difficult. A lot of people don’t know how to do it, others just wanted to talk to her about feminism. Over the next few days, she communicated with more than 300 participants. In Zhang Leilei’s words, it was more arduous than being a customer service agent at Taobao.
A day later, the activists delivered a joint letter on sexual harassment prevention to 16 universities. Members of the WeChat group constantly pulled interested friends into the group. Many people found fellow alumnae in the large group, and then formed their own small groups. Everyone was in action. If there were new ideas, members would find people in the WeChat group who wanted to take action together and then separately went do it. After two or three days, the participants were very autonomous; they didn’t even know that someone had initiated and coordinated this campaign.
In the early stage, information was mainly published on WeChat. Since WeChat is a relatively closed circle of friends, each college initiator was like a signal tower, radiating out to where he or she could reach. Subsequently, more open publicity unfolded on Weibo. The members of the WeChat group for sending letters to alma maters decided to use two hashtags. One was “#10,000 people sent anti-sexual harassment letters to their alma maters” and the other was “#MeToo in China.” When the first hashtag was deleted, “#MeToo in China” became the primary one. Around January 10, this hashtag started to be ranked in first place on Weibo’s public interest list, with more than 3 million readers. It stayed in the first place until January 17, when the hashtag was deleted by Weibo.
Gu Huaying (顾华盈)graduated from Peking University, and is a graduate student specializing in gender studies at Cambridge University. She has also been an active participant in the feminist movement. When she saw that the open letter sent to a group of universities on January 6 did not include Peking University, she initiated a joint letter to PKU. She found her classmates, friends, and alumnae and formed a launch group. Based on the letters sent to other schools, the PKU letter integrated the school’s unique characteristics. The letter was published in a PKU student e-media “North Gate” (“北门”). Although the letter was deleted in less than a day, the number of viewers exceeded 10,000. It generated debate on PKU’s other websites and led to more anonymous revelations about sexual harassment.
The students involved in the launch of the PKU letter were prepared for it to be deleted. After the letter was indeed deleted, PKU students immediately began to make other links that were less likely to be deleted; they rendered the content of the text of the letter into images and disseminated the images, and they went on Weibo to look for relatively famous PKU alumnae to help re-post.
Chai Xiaoyang (柴小阳)is a university senior and one of the 9,000 signatories. Speaking of sexual harassment on campus, she could never forget an incident involving a classmate of hers in junior high school molested by a male teacher, who to this day still teaches in the same school. This letter campaign was an opportunity for Xiaoyang to take some action. In addition to participating in the joint letter, she also checked the e-mail addresses of the faculty members on her university’s official website and sent it to over 50 of them. She sent e-mails to the Hubei Provincial Bureau of Education, the Office of Letters and Visits, and the provincial People’s Congress, and other government departments. She also wrote and called the bus company in her hometown, and even went to the bus company in person to try to discuss the issue of sexual harassment. Xiaoyang did not receive a single reply.
She returned to her junior high school and found the teachers and principal. The teachers were all very cautious. They asked her what her goal was and on whose behalf she was acting — or told her to go find someone else to talk to. A teacher said to Xiaoyang: “Don’t follow the examples of college students here in a junior high school. It’s not necessary here.”
Xiaoyang said: The longer she received no replies from anyone, the more she wanted to talk with more people about the problem of sexual harassment. The fact that no one paid attention to her made her more upset than people attacking what she was doing. In a third-tier city like her hometown, people lived comfortably, but the problem was even worse.
Since the launch of the “10,000-Person Letters to Alma Maters to Establish Sexual Harassment Prevention Mechanisms” campaign, officials have been suppressing it. In addition to deleting posts and Weibo hashtags, students who initiated joint letters have been “talked to” by their schools. There were also reports that this campaign was characterized by the government as “being manipulated by forces with ulterior motives” and that the Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs was looking for the “black hand behind the scenes.”
The phrase “black hand behind the scenes” is ridiculous, but Zhang Leilei also understood that she faced great risks as an organizer. Because she previously experienced police harassment, she was somewhat prepared, but also at the same time a bit panicked. Even so, Zhang Leilei thought this was a rare opportunity: even if she was in danger, it was worth it. She really hoped that this action would create change.
Zhang Leilei saw that the participants were not scared; they were more rational and calm than she had imagined. Everyone was clear about why they were doing it, because they wanted to change the situation at the universities. After hearing the allegation of “black hand behind the scenes,” they began to discuss how to deal with the school’s roundabout, phishing-type questioning and how to communicate with the school to make them directly face the problem.
Gu Huaying, the initiator of the PKU joint letter, said that the deletion of posts enabled more people to see just how far the censorship system would go. For example, there was one member who was careful and cautious in participating in the drafting of the joint letter, and was as moderate as possible, so as not to lead to a misunderstanding by the school about any other purpose, and she also urged everyone not to accept media interviews. After the PKU joint letter was deleted, her attitude changed; she was disappointed with the behavior of the school –– the school didn’t understand at all the pains of the students had gone through to send this letter.
Along with the deletion of posts, there was also the “concern” of the school leaders. They cautioned Gu Huaying “not to be used by others.” Huaying angrily wrote in the WeChat friends’ circle: “Saying that young people are ‘immature’ is just like parents always trying to control their children.”
Facing the deletion of the Weibo hashtag she worked hard managing, Xiao Qiqi also worried about whether she would face political risks. But her worries dissipated after she realized that she was unsettled by conspiracy theories and the excessive self-censorship of people around her. She believed that the more people who know about this action, the safer she would be. Soon she created a new Weibo hashtag “#米兔在中国” [rice-rabbit in China], and commented on each post expressing sadness about the deletion of “#MeToo in China” posts: “Now you can use “#米兔在中国”.
Because she lived overseas, Xiao Qiqi observed changes in the attitude of foreign media and netizens before and after the #MeToo hashtag was deleted in China. In the beginning of the campaign, there were not many people following it on Facebook, but after the media reported the news that “#MeToo in China” was politically suppressed in China, some of her netizen friends began to repost the news and commented: “it is not at all surprising that such an action was stopped by the Chinese Communist Party.” Or, “in China it doesn’t work to sigh those anti-sexual harassment letters.” Xiao Qiqi believes that if she’s only concerned about political pressure, it will not help the action itself at all; on the contrary it will just give activists an additional burden. Is this not another kind of cynicism? The onlookers only want to see the result they envisioned –– “nothing of this sort can be done in China.” They are not interested in an action that is a thoroughly creative, active struggle in a difficult environment, and they can do nothing with a clear conscience.
She said that the pressure we face is real, but this is only one part of the story.
After Luo Xixi’s real-name reporting, exposures of sexual harassment in universities have appeared one after another. Some of them have been dealt with, others have been buried with no outcome. Now the next stage of the campaign is brewing. Students who participated in the joint letters established groups, and quite a few schools started to conduct surveys relating to the sexual harassment. The journalist Huang Xueqin (黄雪琴), who had disclosed Chen Xiaowu’s harassment incident with Luo Xixi, completed a sexual harassment survey of female reporters before the March 8 International Women’s Day this year. The surveys revealed that over 80% of female reporters had been sexually harassed.
That “#MeToo in China,” in a short period of time, created such a big response is a result of activists debating and learning during public incidents one after another over a long period of time. As feminist commentator Lü Pin (吕频) said, “it proves that there is no way for people to become apathetic to their rights. People are always waiting for opportunities to act.”
Lu Xun said, “May the young people of China cast off the cold air, just go upwards, don’t listen to the words of those who have given up and abandoned themselves to despair. If you can do something, then do it; if you have a voice, then make a sound. If you have heat, then send out a beam of light. Like a firefly, you can emit a little light into the darkness, without having to wait for the torch.”
The authoritarian environment has caused many people to exhale the cold air of nihilism and cynicism. What I’ve seen in “#MeToo in China” is that there are still many warm youth, who care for society, and are action takers. They are cool-headed, pragmatic, and very persistent. I am very happy to be a part of such a seemingly naïve but radiant group.
Xiao Meili (肖美丽) is a Guangzhou-based feminist activist.
China’s Feminist Awakening, the New York Times, Xiao Meili, May 13, 2015.