Efforts to activate a Chinese #MeToo movement reportedly met much official and cultural resistance, with censors apparently restricting usage of the #我也是# hashtag online, cultural barriers preventing previously assaulted Chinese women from joining in on the campaign, and an ongoing state crackdown limiting political collective action. Despite such official and cultural opposition, activists and intellectuals have stood in solidarity, circulating petitions and open letters that have forced change in academic institutions, and resulted in the firing of a professor who has serially sexually harassed students. Last week, AFP’s Joanna Chiu reported on a petition that elicited a “zero tolerance” policy and a promise to enact a system for preventing harassment from China’s Ministry of Education, noting censors’ efforts to guide related online discussion and quoting CDT Chinese editor Sandra Fu on this exercise of “soft censorship”:
Amid the uproar, the education ministry said it had a “zero tolerance” policy and will establish a new mechanism to prevent sexual harassment.
“The ministry’s response was really a surprise, because it’s a commitment from our country. I’m very glad my country is finally making this move,” Luo [Qianqian, whose assault story went viral in China] told AFP.
[…] As the #MeToo movement gains momentum, authorities have begun to censor online posts to ensure they don’t move in the “wrong” direction, observers say.
In the past week, censors deleted hundreds of social media posts with the tag “Me too in China” and closed related topic forums.
“Determined users can still have discussions in new channels. That is what I call ‘soft censorship’,” said Sandra Fu, who tracks Chinese internet trends at the US-based China Digital Times. [Source]
SupChina last week posted a full translation of the “anti-sexual harassment manifesto” mentioned above, and earlier in the month translated and reported on a censored open letter from feminist activist Xiao Meili to her alma mater, the Communication University of China in Beijing.
Reporting on efforts to initiate dialogue and movement to combat campus harassment, The Diplomat’s Charlotte Gao earlier this month noted another heavily censored open petition calling for anti-harassment mechanisms at Peking University:
Gu Huaying, a former college student of Peking University (one of the most prominent universities in China), drafted a public petition letter to the current president of Peking University, calling for establishing an anti-sexual assault mechanism on campus.
[…] “A single spark can start a prairie fire. Even as a student, I should try my best to bring light and warmth to my surroundings,” she said in the letter.
Her single spark did start a fire on China’s social media. Some social media outlets claim that this petition letter has been spread to students in more than 30 universities across the country and thousands of students have signed the letter.
However, this national campaign has obviously put the Chinese authorities on edge.
Even though the petition letter doesn’t involve any “bad information” that can lead to so-called social instability, China’s censors still decided to delete it completely from social media, since any movement in itself is suspicious from the authorities’ perspective. Many netizens thus found that their posts about the petition letter on Weibo were deleted instantly without any explanation. So far, the original petition letter has been cleanly wiped out from the internet. […] [Source]
Following the harmonization of the Peking University letter, a response was posted on WeChat. Both the response and the account that posted it were promptly censored, but CDT Chinese editors have archived the essay. Editors believe it was likely written by Gu Huaying, but the account’s removal has prevented confirmation of this. The response is translated in full below:
After the petition was sent out, the feedback I received, other than on BBS, was extremely bureaucratic in tone and did not allow for replies (it didn’t contain much specific or useful information). There was also some fragmented news about how the relevant departments would consider the matter and institutionalize procedures surrounding sexual harassment on campus (similarly lacking specific and useful information), and then nothing more. It was my college leadership, and not just one person, who suddenly emerged and contacted me online. On one hand, they expressed concern for my recent situation. On the other, they probed my intentions and hinted that I “shouldn’t allow myself to be taken advantage of by anyone”.
Hearing about the school’s stance over and over these last few days was probably what lit the fuse that made me decide to write this essay. To summarize, the school’s stance essentially contains the following points: first, the school will not offer any additional response to the petition, because they feel that the issue has already been completely covered at the relevant institutional levels, and because the teachers’ code of conduct and the school’s regulations already mention it; second, the school believes that students who support the petition are all being used as pawns, because many institutes of higher education are also experiencing this, and therefore, the school thinks that it is an organized effort; additionally, one other point was made that in the letter to the Ministry of Education opposing sexual harassment on campus, Beijing University is listed first, and the school believes that this is intentionally taking advantage of Beijing University’s name to make something happen.
When I heard the official stance, this is what I thought: first, if the school covered the relevant points on an institutional level, why is it that there is still news of all kinds of sexual harassment coming out? It’s that saying – you can block a person’s mouth, but you cannot block their mind. The vast majority of people have a tacit understanding of how common sexual assault and sexual harassment is in China’s institutions of higher education. Otherwise phrases like “bao yan lu” [literally “guaranteed graduate path,” when an assault victim is admitted to graduate studies without taking relevant exams as a method to keep them from reporting their assault] would not be so widely used. The institution is full of loopholes and blind spots, and that is why it is imperative for the institution to have people constantly providing supervision and constraint. This is the reason several hundred people are jointly hoping that the petition will receive attention from the school, with teachers and students both propelling the institution toward progress.
If the school does have the relevant institutions, that’s great, now unabashedly publicize them, inviting everyone to supervise them together and improve their construction. What’s so wrong with that? As for the second point, even if the act of writing the petition was an organized effort, is everything that is organized necessarily wrong? For a university’s institutions to continue progressing, isn’t an organized effort needed? Even if you were conducting a springtime nature activity, it would still need to be organized. Can nothing be organized? If nothing was organized, and everything relied solely on the voice of one person or a handful of people, would the school officials take any notice? It’s just like migrant workers demanding the salary due to them–if many migrant workers didn’t team up to make their voices heard, and instead relied solely on the strength of a single person, what justice could they possibly negotiate? If that were the case, “migrant workers demanding salary” would not have become a hot topic in society. So who is manipulating the migrant workers? When they organized to negotiate a just wage, were they expressly scheming to overthrow some official system?
Similarly, when people send out a petition against sexual harassment, are they being manipulated expressly to overthrow an official system? Could it not be that they had heard from someone close to them? Or, witnessed, or themselves experienced these sorts of injustices? If they spoke up individually, they would also have to confront many challenges plus the secondary damage of public opinion, and maybe even then would still be unable to successfully obtain justice. That is why everyone came together, hoping that their voices would be taken seriously. As for why the letter to the Ministry of Education opposing sexual harassment on campus had Beijing University at the top of the list, it definitely wasn’t because the Beijing University students were hoisting banners and wanting some kind of revolution from the leadership, but rather that all the schools were listed in order according to Chinese pinyin. Beijing University just happened to be in the first position. To what extreme has this sensitivity gone, if even the pinyin order went undetected? I would like to ask the school officials, what exactly are you so anxious about or afraid of?
Additionally, regarding the official terminology of “being used as a pawn,” “being manipulated,” and “using mature approaches,” I am also quite perplexed, because it seems like the moment students bring up any hot topic, this tired rhetoric inevitably comes back out for another spin. Is this just the official “one size fits all” message? I also want to criticize the inadequacies in the school’s official response. If you hear the same tired rhetoric over and over, it inevitably becomes difficult to convince anyone of it. It should not be only the school unilaterally telling students to be reasonable. The school should do the same.
Every time something happens, no matter what, the rhetoric of “being manipulated” always rises to the top, regardless of the actors, and they just wash their hands of the situation and refuse to take further steps to communicate with students. That is not an attitude that should exist in a place intended to impart knowledge and it’s also not a logical or appropriate choice for an official system that is truly concerned for the public. The argument that they’re “being used as pawns” is terribly stale. Are university students all impulsive and immature? No matter how you look at it, they have received higher education and formed values and worldviews. At the end of the day, students are living, breathing people, and if students are being used as pawns, then there is a possibility that other people can similarly be used as pawns.
How can you confirm that those who want to seal shut the mouths of students aren’t the ones being treated as pawns? Because people who seal mouths possess the ultimate correctness? Ha, that’s a saying that would have only existed in the era of the divine right of kings. Could it be that the students have not yet been thoroughly contaminated by the dark side of society and have not yet been assimilated into it? Could it be, because they have no tolerance for the world’s impurities, that the voices of students as a group will be dismissed and despised? Could it be because they are students that they’re looked down upon and their speech deemed unworthy? Then what value does the December 9th Movement, which Beijing University has reverently lauded every year, actually have? Saying young people are immature is like a parent always attempting to control a child, saying to the child, “I’ve eaten more salt than what you’ve sweated”, trying to prove that their experience is richer, and therefore their analysis of a situation is more correct. However, if children everywhere obeyed 100% of what their parents told them, then their generation would not make any progress and society would never move forward, because everything would be according to the previous generation’s old mindset, and everything would be completely stagnant.
Of course, I also understand that each side has its own goals—the official side has official goals, the media has media goals, and the foreign news media has foreign news media goals. But I have not seen the slightest benevolence in the official response, so why would I unwaveringly put my trust in the official side, allowing the official side to delete posts, seal mouths, and silence our voices and our freedom of speech?
To be frank, the attitude of the school officials makes me bitterly disappointed. It even makes me feel like it would be better for me to stand with the media than to stand with the school. It’s not that I have never trusted the school, or that I have not considered the situation from the school’s perspective, it’s just that I am deeply disappointed in today’s institutes of higher education. I very much understand that the official system is an extremely complex and huge operating mechanism, just like that teacher from my college who was “concerned” for me said, things on the inside are very complicated, and I couldn’t possibly comprehend them.
But what I want to say is, even if it’s the people protecting the system, those are people with flesh and blood and feelings, too! They are ordinary people who are fathers, mothers, wives, and husbands. To these teachers who are seeking out students to warn them not to rock the boat—imagine if you had to endure the unjust treatment of your sons and daughters, and the oppression of those you love most. You certainly wouldn’t want your next generation to live in a horrible environment like this where they have no one to turn to. If you long ago grew accustomed to being thoroughly regulated by the powers that be, we won’t impose upon you to do anything, but please give those of us who are striving to climb toward the light just a little bit of space. Despite this frustration and the difficulty of speaking up, we haven’t given up. We are still doing campus research and hoping to help make real improvements to the institution, and to make the school staff see our earnestness. If even this little flame is extinguished, I cannot even imagine what the future will be like.
Can you see what the world of today is like? You surrounded yourselves with walls, and you’re talking only to yourselves within them. If our stories are told for the world to hear, the majority of people will feel that it’s absolutely absurd that you did not allow us to speak. Why are you bending over backwards to delete posts and stop the spread of information? Because some people fear that after the walls come crashing down, this absurdity will be seen by people, because it’s too awful, and therefore we must be suppressed, or even persecuted. What is it like in your so-called heart of hearts, and what do you see in others? Please set aside your anxiety and fear. We are certainly not scheming to cause harm; we want only to communicate with you and build something with you. And please do not think that with a bit of power comes omnipotence. After all, history cannot be determined from within your walls.
My language is a bit harsh, but I hope that the so-called “huge and complicated” system won’t actually quibble with us over these points. [Chinese]
Translation by Heidi.
For more on China’s #MeToo movement, see a detailed report from Li Jun and Cecilia Milwertz at the China Policy Institute: Analysis online journal. See also prior coverage of feminism and sexual harassment, via CDT.