Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to suppress it, the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement refuses to be silenced.
In just the past week, more than a dozen Chinese women have come forward on social media with accusations of sexual assault and harassment against prominent activists and television personalities.
The #MeToo movement erupted across the US last year, leading to dozens of men being fired and publicly shamed for their sexual misconduct. In January, the movement hit Chinese college campuses, with several women coming forward with sexual misconduct allegations against university officials.
Almost immediately, Chinese government censors stepped in to quash the movement.
“In the second half of January,” the South China Morning Post reports, “censors deleted hundreds of social media posts and petitions in support of the #MeToo campaign, which included the primary hashtag of China’s campaign #MeTooInChina or related phrases such as ‘anti-sexual harassment,’ and closed related topic forums.”
But it looks like the censors have failed to silence everyone. According to Reuters, the phrase “sexual assault evidence collection” was the second-ranked topic on Friday on Sina Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms.
The new wave of accusations started Monday when an anonymous woman posted an open letter on WeChat, another popular Chinese social media platform, accusing a prominent anti-discrimination activist of sexually assaulting her three years ago.
The woman said that Lei Chuang, the founder and director of a charity dedicated to promoting the rights of people with hepatitis B, raped her while they were both on a charity trip in 2015. She was 20 years old at the time.
Her letter went viral — and before the day was over, Lei announced he would resign from his leadership position at the charity in a statement posted on his public WeChat account.
The open letter — and how quickly Lei had resigned — encouraged dozens of other women to pen their own letters detailing what they say were nonconsensual encounters with charity leaders, broadcast TV personalities, and intellectuals. The letters have spread across social media, and several other heads of nonprofits have stepped down.
“It’s only the beginning of ‘Me Too’ in China,” Li Tingting, a gender equality activist, told the New York Times. “The men-dominant structure is everywhere. The rape culture is still powerful.”
China has a long history of restricting free speech.
The state is known for blocking a lengthy list of phrases to manipulate social media and internet searches. Amid US-China trade war tensions, the state reportedly told media outlets earlier this month not to “over-report” the trade war.
And last month, the state banned posts mentioning British comedian John Oliver and his show from Weibo because of scathing jokes he made about Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Yet as the New York Times’s Javier Hernández and Zoe Mou noted back in January, “[China’s] Communist Party often embraces gender equality as a propaganda theme.” So why wouldn’t it support — or at least allow — a #MeToo movement in China?
One activist says it’s partly because of the persistence of “traditional” Chinese values. “There is still a belief in China, deeply ingrained in traditional culture, that it is a virtue of women to be submissive to the wishes of others,” women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan told the Washington Post in January.
It also probably doesn’t help that men often hold more power. As Hernández and Mou pointed out, “Men dominate the party’s upper ranks, and government officials and powerful business executives are often protected from allegations of wrongdoing.”
Whatever the reason, Party leaders will likely have their hands full trying to contain the movement after this week.
“I hope the #MeToo campaign in China keeps on burning,” the well-known Chinese writer Chun Sue wrote on social media Wednesday.