The Chinese Government’s Reactions to #MeToo

On October 24th, Sophie Xueqin Huang (黃 雪琴) was detained by Chinese police and accused of “provoking trouble”. Huang is a Chinese #MeToo activist and independent investigative journalist who has been committed to investigating and exposing sexual abuse and harassment in China. Since last year, Huang has spent significant time traveling in Hong Kong and Taiwan, especially in this June, when the anti-extradition bill protest broke out, she was on the scene and wrote an article about what happened in HK. That online article was widely spread in mainland China despite strong cyberspace censorship rules. Huang received admission to the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law, but she was banned from leaving mainland China since August this year.

Feminism, activism, Hong Kong, political disobedience, these labels mixed together to make this case a complex as well as sensitive one. This is not the first instance of Huang attracting the public’s attention. Huang played an extremely important role in the 2018 #MeToo movement in China by engaging with several famous #MeToo cases. These cases involved intellectuals, religious elites, and TV hosts. Huang’s detainment recalls our memory of MeToo in China 2018. It is hard to say what the Chinese government’s true attitude towards #MeToo is since depending on the situation, the government’s reaction has been quite different.

Leta Hong Fincher pointed out one reason feminists face difficulties in China is that feminism conflicts with the Chinese authoritarian regime’s patriarchal ideology. This point is from the ideological aspect. But from my observation, #MeToo in China has experienced a “decreasing curve like” process: the government reaction to #MeToo in China started with (albeit limited) encouragement, then shifted to silent approval, then turned to suppression. What really concerns the Chinese government is social stability, and what the Chinese government dislikes most is mobilization and collective action.

Individual, apolitical #MeToo movements towards non-privileged people are more easily tolerated and even encouraged by the Chinese government. That means, if the #MeToo case only works in the frame of “accusing criminal offense” through the public sector, such activity tends to receive more positive feedback from the government in China. For example, in early 2018, a #Metoo related case in China broke out in Beihang University. A former PhD student at Beihang University accused a faculty member of committing sexual abuse in the 2000s and the case was reported by Sophie Huang. Beihang University administration immediately launched an investigation into this case. Several days later, that faculty was removed from his position. The Chinese government showed a positive attitude towards such #MeToo action. The Ministry of Education announced having “zero tolerance on committing sexual abuse”, and the People’s Daily praised that student, saying, “bravery is your most beautiful sight”. 

When #MeToo action involves potential political features (e.g.: mentioning civil rights), but the action still is at individual level and targets non-privileged people, government’s attitude tends to be a dualistic one. This entails limiting public discussion on the case, while at the same time, dealing with  the reported case under an administrative or judicial frame. I call such attitude as “acquiescence”. In July 2018, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University was accused by 5 students of sexually harassing multiple students over several years. This case shocked the public. Several media outlets reported it and an online petition was launched to urge Sun Yat-sen University to investigate the case. The petition collected thousands of signatures. Immediately, Sun Yat-sen University dismissed the professor while simultaneously, all the online protests and petitions were deleted by the Chinese cyberspace censorship system.

The government’s attitude will often shift to a harsher one if the accused target belongs to privileged elite groups. After July 2018, #MeToo in China rushed out beyond the walls of the campus. Before this point, most (if not all) #MeToo cases in China happened on campuses by accusing faculty members and/or administration members of committing sexual abuse and/or harassment. But now more #MeToo cases have been reported in China involving a variety of reputed people including a prominent activist, famous TV host, elite Buddhist monk, and even e-commerce industry leader Richard Liu (劉 强東). For these cases, what occurred was firstly, tightened cyberspace censorship was applied to the discussion. In some cases, pro-#MeToo articles/posts were immediately deleted while anti-#MeToo ones were allowed. Secondly, none of these elites were investigated and/or punished.

When #MeToo activity contains political disobedience and/or political collective actions (such as a gathering, parade, or demonstration), no matter whether the reported committing sexual abuse/harassment is true or not, the Chinese government will use its authoritarian apparatus to suppress it without hesitation. Most of the suppressed Chinese #MeToo cases we discuss belong to this category. 

A typical example for this situation is the Peking University Yue Xin (岳 昕) incident in late April. Yue was a senior student at PKU and she publicly requested PKU to reveal information about the investigation into a former PKU faculty member’s committing sexual abuse case. That person was believed to have raped his student 20 years ago and finally caused the victim’s suicide. This incident happened in late April, which is close to May 4th, the youth day in China as well as the 120th anniversary of PKU. This time period made the case especially politically sensitive. 

After Yue’s actions, PKU used various methods—including contacting Yue’s family—to force Yue to “shut up”. Yue posted 2 public articles to announce the disobedience, which made her incident become a hotter and hotter topic in public, especially among university students. Bunches of articles written by different authors were published to support Yue and her #MeToo activism. The result is all online articles in China discussing this case (no matter what kind of views) were deleted and Yue herself was strictly monitored and not allowed to use any public platform (including her blog) to spread any views.

When the #MeToo movement combines with political disobedience, the suppression will be even harsher. Since August 2018, some #MeToo participants (most of them students in university including Yue Xin) started to engage in another social movement: the Jasic labor movement in Shenzhen. On August 24, the Jasic labor movement was suppressed by police forces and almost all core members in this movement including Yue Xin and other student activists were detained. Afterwards the Chinese government used strong propaganda to criticize the movement as “politically motivated” and “supported by overseas NGOs”.

In fall 2018, many student associations distributed in different universities which focus on civil rights, especially labor rights and feminism, were forced by public administration to close. Most of the closed student associations had the same feature: they used fundamental Marxist theory as the guiding ideology, used revolutionary words to criticize Chinese government as “State Capitalism” and employed radical actions to support both #MeToo and labor movements.

Overall, the Chinese government’s reaction to a #MeToo case depends upon the sphere of the individual case. If the case involves appealing for civil rights, collective action, or those in elite groups, then the government’s reaction will be more harsh. In these cases, It will tend to use stability-maintenance tools to rapidly suppress the movement. The logic behind this is that the Chinese government operates under the principle of “stability first”. When a case threatens their perceived stability of society, they will act to suppress it, otherwise they are more likely to allow it or even offer limited support. 

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Henry Cheng

Henry Cheng is an alumnus of the School of Global Policy and Strategy, UC San Diego. He obtained his MA degree in International Politics at UC San Diego in 2020. Now Henry is pursuing his second MA degree in history at the University of Chicago. His research interests mainly focus on the political and social history of the Greater China Region in the 20th century.

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