TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – Huang Xueqin, who publicly supported a woman when she accused a teacher of sexual assault, was arrested in September. Wang Jianbing, who helped women report sexual harassment, was detained with her. Neither has been heard since. Meanwhile, several other women’s rights activists have faced smear campaigns on social media and some have had their accounts closed.
When tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public view this month after accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault, he caused an international outcry. But back in China, Peng is just one of many people – activists and accusers – who have been taken out of sight, accused of crimes or trolled and silenced online for speaking out about harassment, violence and violence. discrimination women face every day.
When Huang helped spark a popular #MeToo movement in China in 2018, he gained fairly wide visibility and achieved some success, including obtaining the civil code to define sexual harassment for the first time. But he has also encountered stiff resistance from the Chinese authorities, who are rushing to counter any social movement that they believe could challenge their hold on power. This crackdown has intensified this year, as part of broader efforts to limit what is acceptable in public discourse.
“They are publicly excluding us from legitimacy, from legitimate public space,” said Lu Pin, an activist who now lives in the United States but is still active on women’s rights issues in China. “The happy medium of this society is disappearing.
As a sign of how threatening the #MeToo movement and women’s rights activism is to Chinese authorities, many activists have been dismissed as tools of foreign interference – a label used to discredit their concerns as fabrications by the enemies of China aimed at destabilizing it.
The ongoing crackdown has mainly targeted activists who are little known or influential and who often work with marginalized groups.
Huang and Wang have both stood up for disadvantaged groups and have been accused of subverting state power, according to a friend of the two activists who saw a notice sent to Wang’s family. He requested anonymity for fear of police reprisals. Police in Guangzhou, southern China, where the two men were arrested, did not respond to a request for comment sent by fax.
The accusation is vague and often used against political dissidents. Huang and Wang’s families have not heard from them since their detention and are unable to contact them – another tactic often used in political affairs.
The #MeToo movement burst into China, when Huang helped a woman named Luo Xixi publicly accuse her professor at Beihang University of trying to force her to have sex with him. University conducted an investigation and fired the academic, who she said violated professional ethics.
Luo’s account inspired dozens of other women to come forward, all online. Thousands of students have signed petitions and pressured their universities to tackle sexual violence. Women from other industries have spoken, leading to public discussions about gender power imbalances in many workplaces, the lack of justice for survivors of sexual violence and how gender can determine how which a person is treated in Chinese society.
While this national conversation was unsettling for authorities from the start, efforts to counter activism on women’s issues have intensified this year, including by nationalist and pro-government influencers, some of whom appear to have the blessing of women. authorities and were praised by state media. .
In the space of a few weeks in the spring, influencers with millions of followers launched a wave of attacks on women’s rights activists on Weibo, one of the main social media platforms in China. They accused them of being anti-China and of being supported by foreign forces, without proof. Such allegations have often been made against protest movements, including the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong that Beijing has relentlessly tried to eradicate.
At the end of April, around a dozen activists and nonprofits had their accounts temporarily or permanently suspended. It is not known why either way, but an activist who lost her account, Liang Xiaowen, shared a notice from Weibo that her account had “shared illegal and harmful information.”
Even Zhou Xiaoxuan, who accused famous state television host Zhu Jun of groping her when she was an intern and who has already been praised for her courage in speaking out, has faced a campaign of harassment and can no longer publish on its public accounts.
On Weibo, users send him private messages like, “Get out of China, I feel disgusting living with a type of person like you, on the same ground. Another called it a piece of “toilet paper” that “foreigners would use and then throw away.”
The effect is such that any discussion of harassment, violence or inequalities that women face is increasingly hidden from public view.
“Now the situation on social media is such that you have been completely sealed off, you have no way of speaking,” Zhou said.
The attacks weren’t limited to the digital space. In September, when Zhou went to a court hearing in the civil case where she was suing Zhu for damages and apologies, a group of aggressive passers-by shouted at her and tried to prevent her from speaking to reporters. The police on the spot did not arrest them.
Late at night, when Zhou left the courthouse and headed for the house, she said she was followed by men in two cars. The men waited outside his residential complex for half an hour before leaving.
The lobbying campaign also forced a low-profile group called Hot Pepper Tribe, which worked with female migrant workers, to shut down in August. The group had tried to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by women working in factories, construction and other fields of manual labor. He had come under pressure from the authorities, although it is not known why he was honored.
Still, activists hope the #MeToo movement has opened a door that cannot be closed.
“It’s not that easy to find a few feminist bloggers and shut down their accounts,” Zhou said. “To become a feminist is to find out what kind of problems you are facing. And once you become a feminist, then it is very difficult to give it up. And the very important meaning of #MeToo is that it has inspired a large feminist community. “
Associated Press Press Assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this report.
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