Image source: Weibo via ABC News Australia
The #MeToo movement empowered women all across the globe to speak out against sexual harassment, including in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yet progress in China has stifled, as social media censorship reframed the public conversation online and those in power wielded their influence to penalize victims for speaking out. Desperate to control the narrative around gender equality, Chinese authorities have censored viral videos portraying abuse of women and comments condemning such behavior that stray from Party lines. Meanwhile, employees who speak up have been fired for damaging their companies’ reputations, even if there was ample evidence of assault and the assailant was arrested. Behind the scenes lies another reason for the Party’s rejection of the global feminist movement: it appears to frame #MeToo as a source of malign Western influence.
After the hashtag #MeToo went viral in the United States in late 2017, the online movement quickly spread to China and Chinese media platforms, where #我也是# (#WoYeShi) and #RiceBunny (a literal transliteration of “me” and “too” in Mandarin used to avoid censorship) took the Internet by storm. Slowly, women began sharing their stories and achieved initial success at drawing attention. In 2018, Zhou Xiaoxuan, an intern at China’s state television channel CCTV, accused a host of forcibly kissing her in a dressing room, becoming the face of China’s movement. Prominent Chinese universities began dismissing professors accused of sexual misconduct, and the Ministry of Education directed universities to improve their policies for handling harassment cases, among other changes. In 2019, the PRC’s Supreme Court deemed “sexual harrassment” grounds for civil lawsuit.
However, the momentum for change has not sustained. After years of battling in court, Zhou lost her appeal against the dismissal of her case against her accuser. Student activists have been censored online. Women who began suing for sexual harrassment could not clear the tremendous burden of proof. Most recently, in February 2022, Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai accused a goverment official for sexual assault and abruptly disappeared for days before walking back her accusations. Her claims are now completely wiped from the Internet.
Underlying the resistance to change in China is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In a December 2021 piece for the Global Times, the Party’s English-language newspaper, reporters accused the U.S. government of backing “anti-China groups” to destabilize Chinese society through feminist rhetoric.
“[T]here’s growing evidence that some Western media outlets and anti-China forces have taken advantage of [the #MeToo movement] as a tool to incite gender antagonism and even divide and subvert rule of law in China,” the article reads, citing the National Endowment for Democracy and Ford Foundation as perpetrators. It emphasizes that the police found no evidence of rape in the case that ended in the firing of an Alibaba employee, and that a court rejected separate harassment claims by the TV anchor’s intern, condemning Western news headlines for focusing on “words that made their blood boil.” Criticism of “anti-China” U.S. influence in other issues sensitive to the PRC, such as the political status of Taiwan, follows.
Of course, since the CCP closely supervises China’s alleged rule of law, there is reason to speculate upon the rulings of PRC authorities, including the country’s police and courts. There is no free press in China, either, and outlets such as the Global Times are notorious for circulating Party propaganda.
One identifying element of such propaganda is the article’s persistent reference to authority decisions, also a common element in Chinese reporting about #MeToo cases. Last week, when a four-year-long case involving Chinese tech billionaire Richard Liu and University of Minnesota student Liu Jingyao settled in a Minneapolis court, the Global Times announced the settlement by highlighting prosecutors’ initial finding of “serious evidentiary problems” regarding the case, as well as a statement by Richard’s company JD.com that said he “faces false allegations.” There was no mention of how the case had affected Jingyao, just a statement about the amount for which she sued.
Though this linkage of a social movement and U.S. government interests may appear surprising at first glance, it is not the first time the Chinese government has pushed back against social progress by evoking accusations of “Western influence.” As far back as the Tiananmen square protests of 1989, Chinese authorities blamed Western media for spreading rumors to undermine domestic stability and divide the country. The pro-democracy demonstrations that led millions to march in the streets of Hong Kong likewise received condemnation for “Western interference.” And each time the United States and likeminded countries call attention to the human rights abuses happening in Xinjiang, the Muslim-majority province in northwestern China, the Party accuses Western countries of instrumentalizing human rights (insisting instead that the regime’s actions in Xinjiang are meant to counter terrorism, radicalization, and separatism). This rejection of legitimate social and political concerns within China aligns with the Party’s nationalistic narrative to end the “century of humiliation” and achieve the “national rejuvination” of the Chinese nation.
The problems raised through #MeToo, as well as other movements within China, are real. But the CCP’s characterization–and dismissal–of these issues as tools of malign Western influence ultimately harms Chinese citizens the most, silencing those who receive unequal and oftentimes unjust treatment in their home country, and preventing measures to protect women and other marginalized communities. In order to enact real change, activists will have to be more creative with the ways in which they raise awareness to social and political issues, despite the government’s harsher crackdown on citizens during COVID. Regardless of whether or not the slogans supporting reform originate in “Western” countries, Chinese leaders should take a second look at how blaming others for domestic qualms undermines stability in China, an utmost priority of the Chinese Communist Party.