Tennis star Peng Shuai recently accused a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault, leading to global outrage and then international fear for her safety and wellbeing as Peng vanished from public view.
Peng is not the only one in China taking a stance against sexual assault and rape culture. Huang Xueqin publicly supported a woman when she came forward to accuse a professor of sexual assault. Wang Jianbing helped women report harassment and assault. Both were detained in September, and no one has heard from either one since.
Peng, Huang, and Wang are examples of how the Chinese state has silenced or smeared activists for speaking out about sexual assault. Tactics to silence accusers and activists have included pushing them out of public view, arresting them, charging them with crimes, trolling them online to the point of needing to leave platforms, shutting down their accounts, and more.
Huang helped bring the #MeToo movement to China, sparking the global campaign within the country in 2018 when she helped a student, Luo Xixi, accuse her professor at Beijing University of attempting to force her to have sex with him. Huang helped spread the efforts to bring accountability and justice, and the university opened an investigation that resulted in the termination of the professor’s position.
More women began to come forward online. #MeToo gained wide visibility and saw some success, the biggest of which was the civil code adding a definition of sexual harassment for the very first time. Petitions signed by thousands of students began pressuring academic institutions to address sexual harassment and assault.
From academia, the #MeToo discussion spread to other industries, and a public discussion began about workplace harassment and assault that soon transitioned into a broader discussion of gender-based violence and inequality, and how gender ultimately determines how you are treated within society. A national conversation had begun.
The Chinese authorities were not on board. The Chinese government tends to be immediately resistant to social movements in fear that they could take away their power. A crackdown against social movements has only intensified in 2021. Experts say that this is part of an effort to restrict what is acceptable to speak about in public.
Lu Pin, a Chinese activist who now lives in the U.S., said that the government crackdowns specifically exclude those fighting for women’s rights from public space.
Activists fighting for women’s rights and against sexual assault are being dismissed by the state as “tools of foreign interference.” It’s a label that is reserved for discrediting the authorities’ perceived enemies. The crackdown has been focused on activists who tend not to be massively famous, and who work with marginalized organizations.
When #MeToo took off, influencers were encouraged seemingly by the state to launch attacks against activists on the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo, accusing them of being “anti-China” and of being foreign agents. By April of that year, many accounts had been restricted, suspended, or deleted.
Activists received messages from other users telling them to leave China. Physical attacks also followed some of the more vocal activists.
Despite the government’s attempts to silence them or push them out of sight, activists in China remain hopeful that the conversation cannot be silenced, and say they will continue to push for change.