In the fallout from Xiao Meili’s encounter with a male restaurant patron who refused to put out his cigarette, she and other prominent feminist activists across China are being attacked on all digital fronts, from misogynist, ultra-nationalist trolls to the tech giants shutting down their social media accounts and online shops, including the typically uncontroversial Douban. The attacks come at a darkening time for women’s rights, soon after the divorce “cooling off” period went into effect, and following several murders committed by women’s abusive husbands and families.
Zheng Churan, a.k.a. “Da Tu” (Big Rabbit), is fighting back: she is suing Weibo for blocking her account. On Matters (a blockchain publishing platform), she explains how she arrived at this moment, starting from her earliest awakening to the injustices of the world: from spirited child who challenged her school administrators, to teenager entranced by the chivalrous triads of Hong Kong’s “Young and Dangerous” film franchise, to prominent activist and internationally renowned member of the Feminist Five, five women who were criminally detained ahead of International Women’s Day in 2015. Zheng’s love of humanity shines through her story: she knows firsthand that men can be feminists, too, and strives to help the downtrodden of all genders. CDT has translated her post in full below:
You Only Live Once: We’re Scared, We’re Brave, We’ll Keep On Trying
I am Da Tu, Zheng Churan, the one whose Weibo account was bombed and became a target of political defamation. Today, I finally decided to file a lawsuit against Sina Weibo.
Why did it take so much effort to make this decision? Because the process of obtaining evidence is like having my dead body dug up and lashed with a shit-stained whip. I have been asking myself this entire time: How come I, a lovable woman with a sense of justice, have had to endure such pain? Since when did my life become an incessant struggle?
The first scene that came to my mind was from when I was 14 years old.
I was in the eighth grade. I had a good friend in my class named Brother Fei. The teachers all said he was “up to no good.” One day, he came out of the teachers’ office, eyes puffy. I was stunned. Brother Fei wasn’t afraid of anybody, not even the police. How come he had cried in the teachers’ office?
I ran to him, grabbed his sleeve and asked: What happened?
Turns out that our homeroom teacher, Teacher Chen, didn’t like Brother Fei. Fei had bad grades. He was rebellious. He didn’t listen when the teachers scolded him. Finally, Teacher Chen figured out a way to get under his skin: by talking about his mother.
Teacher Chen made fun of Fei’s mom for divorcing his dad and remarrying another man, saying that she had failed to fulfill her duty to raise her son properly. No wonder Fei’s clothes were dirty all the time. No wonder Fei was no good.
How can an adult attack a kid being raised by a single mother? Teacher Chen wasn’t trying to help Fei, only to bully him into submission. How can a grown-up bully a child? How can the strong bully the weak? I was furious. I couldn’t accept that Teacher Chen, an educator of the people, could get away with this. I wanted to rush into the office and question Teacher Chen in front of everyone. But I was afraid to speak up to an adult face-to-face. After all, I thought, isn’t it true that adults are always right?
For the next two nights, I thought about it over and over. Finally, shaking with fear, I wrote a letter to the principal demanding that he make Teacher Chen apologize, signed it with my real name, and dropped it in the principal’s mailbox.
To my surprise, the principal followed through, and Teacher Chen apologized to Fei. As for myself, for a year I had to endure Teacher Chen’s threats and bullying. But I was happy, because Fei got his apology.
Fei asked me, “Hey, didn’t you worry about getting yourself in trouble?”
I shrugged it off, answering in Cantonese: “Well, you only live once. Why not give it a try?”
My First Taste of “Justice”
I grew up of modest means in Old Town Guangzhou. Most of my memories were made in our old nine-meter-square apartment. Although we didn’t have much, my parents spent “lavishly” on my education, providing me with a square meter of space for a bookshelf and another two meters square for my desk. From children’s books, I learned that “good always overcomes evil.” From scar literature, I got my first taste of the complexity of history. Through foreign literature, I imagined a big, colorful, limitless world.
These books were like experienced friends, telling me that although there were bad people in the world, through study and exercise you can become strong and resilient, and turn those bad people into good ones. Then the world would become a peaceful and wonderful place.
My mom enlightened me about “justice and reason.” When I was eight, my elementary school provided lunch boxes for a fee. The food was inedible: the rice was often not fully cooked, the fried bean curd was oily, the fatty pork was tinged green, the bean sprouts had absolutely no flavor. What’s worse was that I once saw a classmate’s lunch box contained a pale, raw chicken wing. I often had a lot of leftovers. I simply couldn’t eat them.
One day, the headmaster saw me throwing out my leftovers. She shot towards me like a bullet, grabbed me by the arm, and took me to her office. I was petrified. I once saw her holding a student by the ear and pushing them to the ground. She was so mean. The headmaster summoned my mom and scolded her for not raising me right and allowing me to be petulant and wasteful of food. I tried to explain, but the headmaster’s face was red with rage, her arms and legs were swinging around like those air dancers in front of the supermarket. I was too scared to say anything. My mom, not knowing what had happened, took the headmaster’s rage with grace.
Afterwards, my mom found out why I dumped the leftovers and understood that I was too scared to complain about the food. She didn’t blame me for being timid. Instead, she told me that if I was faulted by an adult for doing nothing wrong, I should speak up for myself, regardless of my fear. Because if I didn’t, someone else could be hurt by my silence.
I was too young to fully understand what my mom meant. But the headmaster’s unnecessarily fierce voice and body language, and my mom’s polite, backward-leaning posture, made me realize that if I didn’t speak up the next time, someone else really could get hurt.
Maybe that’s why I was willing to write that letter for Fei. Later, “people shouldn’t be bullied” became my creed. I believe that people should have a sense of righteousness. When something is not right, even though you might be weak and fearful, you should still find a way to change it, or at least alert others to the problem.
I used to think my creed was simply common sense. To my surprise, I learned that the world is not necessarily fair and just, that the strong will not reason with the weak. When I exposed campus bullying on BBS, I was asked to delete my post by the school administration. When I asked people not to cut in line at the bus stop, I was nearly beaten to a pulp… Looking back at my formative years, every time I resisted, I was rewarded with treatment worse than I had imagined. I became confused. I had this rage inside me that I could neither exhale nor swallow. Is the simple, uncomplicated truth that “people shouldn’t be bullied” just a child’s stubborn fantasy? In the adult world, is justice the most reviled value?
So, for a time, I was a “fly girl” who worshiped strength. I thought you had to be a boss like in “Young and Dangerous,” capable of crushing people with your brute strength and hard cash, in order to stop bullies. Facing all those bullies and cheats, I had only the Young and Dangerous to embolden myself; faced with this black hole of a world, I am so overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness that I still can’t shake my chivalrous streak.
Around the same time, I realized that women were being treated even more unfairly by society than men. A woman may be beaten over and over by her husband, and everyone will say it’s a family matter and that they can’t intervene; but when a woman rises up to kill her husband, it is a felony deserving of heavy punishment. If a male teacher “falls in love” with a female student, the internet calls the student a “hooker”; many girls who are very good in science are told by their teachers and parents that “your brain won’t be good enough in two years” and are pushed to study the arts instead… These injustices happening all around me left me breathless. I knew all too well that women shouldn’t be treated this way, but I didn’t know how to make things better in my own life and in the lives of other women.
It wasn’t until the day I was introduced to feminism that I understood for the first time why people experienced these injustices. Fei’s mother’s divorce and remarriage were beyond the imagination of other adults. In their minds, a woman had to be faithful to one man, and since she didn’t conform to their vision, she and her son deserved to be deliberately ridiculed. The headmaster often picked targets to scold in order to maintain her authority, but she only picked on mothers and never lost her temper in front of the fathers. Often a woman is bullied not because she has done something wrong, but simply because she is a woman.
When We Came to the Rescue
I no longer felt that the only way to help the underprivileged was to make money and become a gangster. Instead, I had to talk about how the social structure screwed everyone over. I also no longer believed that the world would instantly become a peaceful place once the “bad guys” were eliminated. Changing hearts and minds is a long, hard fight — though it is also a worthy fight.
I’m especially grateful that I met a group of activist-minded feminists — otherwise, I would probably have become a fascist. We believe that despite imperfect circumstances, we can still effect change through incremental efforts.
At the age of 24, I heard the story of a woman whose husband had abused her for years and threatened her life. She eventually killed him, and for this had been sentenced to death. Legal experts across the country were trying to get her a retrial. But as a group of young women without a voice in the system, what could we possibly do? Female college students and I did performance art outside the courthouses in several cities across the country, dressed up as women who had been subjected to domestic violence.
This action, with its powerful visual effect, touched many decision-makers. Thanks to our collective effort, the woman’s sentence was rejected by the Supreme People’s Court, sparing her life from an unjust end. I couldn’t stop my tears when I heard the news. I had always wanted to help others but just got myself in trouble. I hadn’t thought that I could be a part of something this big, saving someone’s life.
It turns out that with one small step, we really could arrive at justice.
We spoke out about the imbalance in the ratio of men’s to women’s toilets, agitating for four years before finally receiving a nod from the government. I sent letters to major companies that discriminated against women in their hiring practices and urged labor bureaus to do something about these discriminatory practices, leading to laws and regulations on gender equality in hiring. For a long time, almost no company dared to blatantly limit their hiring to men. My friends and I once worked overnight to help a Filipino woman who had been tricked into forced labor in southern China to escape her employer and return home…
It was an uplifting and youthful time, full of our fighting spirit. Almost every action we took led to small victories that made bystanders start to think a little about gender inequality. It also made me feel for the first time that my anger could be translated into tangible change.
The Long and Brutal Backlash
These small victories were bound to provoke the vested interests. At first, the misogynists body shamed us and gossiped about us. But when they realized that their taunts only emboldened us, they began to say that our “approaches were wrong” and “too radical.” In fact, they were not talking about the feminist approach at all. They just didn’t want to see women standing up and making demands.
Then they started defaming us with labels like “feminist whores” to try to stop us from speaking out. At the time, though, the political environment was not as hostile as it is today, and we could still hold the government accountable for practical issues of women’s livelihood. In addition, the feminist community grew so large that instead of fearing slander, we began to embrace it. We’d say “I’m a ‘femi-fist,’ so what?” Our attackers hated that, but they couldn’t do anything about us
So they resorted to the dirtiest tricks: they used social media to erase the demands and achievements of feminists, banning our accounts, censoring our speech, and “sentencing” feminists to the most indefensible of crimes: “splitting and selling out the country.”
First, in 2018, the content farm Coollabs attacked Feminist Voices and myself for committing “transnational prostitution and splitting the country.” When Feminist Voices was bombed, all attempts at explanation were blocked. As an individual, I filed a lawsuit against Coollabs for defamation, but lost twice. I had clear evidence, but the court was obviously biased. “Justice” had been tied up and thrown in the trash.
Now, in 2021, some “patriotic” click baiters have been throwing dirty water on us. Because they know that as long as they claim to be saving the country from harm, they can get the government’s support without having to pay any price. So they’ve been going around declaring that feminists, including myself, support Hong Kong independence, Taiwan independence, Xinjiang independence, Tibet independence, religious cults, foreign forces, secession, American running dogs, and British spies. They left messages at my online shops saying that someone would come shoot me and throw acid on me, that my parents would be raped, and my property would go to them… They’re like every internet troll, bullying women with a smirk.
Every day they choose a target: today, Xiao Meili; tomorrow, Zheng Churan; the day after tomorrow, Liang Xiaomen; the day after that, Mimiyana, Li Maizi, Lü Pin, Zhu Xixi… Our crimes are just patchwork that anyone with average intelligence will see right through. But China’s online world can no longer hold up the space for rational and free discussion. Instead of dealing with the slander and intimidation of feminists by online trolls, Weibo has been banning feminist accounts one by one. In addition, platforms dominated by patriarchal forces such as Taobao, Douban, and Jianshu are riding this wave of political persecution, steadily chipping away at the online space for feminists.
In their absurd reasoning, our advocacy on college campuses for employment equality is “Western infiltration.” College students pushing against gender-based violence are “ making a fuss.” NGOs are “anti-government organizations.” Any demands for women’s living space, safety, and basic rights are characterized as “attacks on the government and the Party.” No one but these patriotic bloggers is qualified to point out illegal or unreasonable government decisions, and no one else can speak their mind on public affairs. To do so is to betray the state, and anyone who raises questions or objections or who makes proposals becomes the target of cyberbullying.
I am very scared. Amid these waves of defamation by real people as well as bots, I don’t know if I will be arrested, I don’t know if someone will actually come to my door and throw acid on me, I don’t know if I and my feminist partners, who are being smeared simply for associating with us, will be branded enemies of the state. As long as we are alive, as soon as we open our mouths, no matter how justified we are, we will get punched with an iron fist, blood staining our mouths and teeth.
I’m afraid that if we don’t survive this attack, if we silence ourselves, the gains in women’s rights, hard-won from the 1995 World Conference on Women to the action of young students today, will be gradually erased. Companies will start to overtly hire men only; men who beat their wives and children will face no serious consequences; repeat sexual harassers will have no need to keep themselves in check; anyone with power and authority will consider it their right to pick on the weak.
This attack tells abusers the world over that as long as you’ve waving a red flag, violence is not a crime and misogyny is justified.
Take a look, Bao Yuming is talking about women’s rights, saying that he wants #MENTOO; female students at Tsinghua dancing to retro jazz are ridiculed as “bathhouse sex workers;” we are not allowed to celebrate a female director from our own country for winning an Oscar because internet users dug up her so-called “anti-China remarks”… As the world loses its sense of justice, who reading this right now wants to make things a little bit better?
Scared Together, Brave Together
At this moment, the 14-year-old me whose teacher retaliated against her for standing up for a male classmate, the nine-year-old me who vowed to stop letting others get hurt because of her silence, the young woman who wanted to become a gangster in order to protect those around her — they are all watching us as we stand in the epicenter of cyberbullying. They are asking us: Is this always how the just-minded are repaid? Can we keep up the fight if we are so afraid?
But we are all survivors of an unjust society. If justice comes easily to you, then you haven’t experienced injustice. If the path to equal rights was filled with roses, men would have walked down it long time ago.
We who have “failed” so often continue to speak out so that others don’t get hurt. At the moment, what my mother said makes so much sense. When my Weibo account was bombed and I had a hard time getting my voice out there, it was countless feminist bloggers who brought my words to different platforms. For this, they suffered the same fate as me. They didn’t stop telling the truth for fear of retaliation. They just wanted to protect their sisters.
Together we are scared, but brave.
The feminist path is certainly a rocky and treacherous one. Every blow forces us to stop a little to catch our breath, but we always keep going. And as long as we don’t get scared into silence, we may see the next small victory. We were in despair in 2018 when Feminist Voices was shut down, but then didn’t the Rice Bunny rise up all of a sudden?
So today, I sued Weibo. I know it’s probably just another lawsuit I’m bound to lose, just like everyone else, despite all my effort and pain. But every time the people in charge of Weibo are faced with a lawsuit, the part of their hearts that still have a conscience will ache a little, right? This may also be considered a gesture of defiance and civic education for our tyrannical opponents.
I believe that the only time we truly lose is when we throw in the towel. Until then, all the trials, failures, grievances, and despair will contribute to the collapse of this powerful yet hollow male power structure that looms over the entire planet.
If you too have had your account bombed because you have spread feminist ideals, I implore you to try a lawsuit. If you witness violence against women in your daily life, I implore you to speak out. I implore you not to avoid the word “feminism” because of cyberbullying, and I implore you to continue to challenge the villains who demean women’s power and violate our rights.
Fifteen years after graduating from middle school, Fei asked me out of the blue to meet up with him. He said that a female friend of his had been abused by her husband for a long time and wanted to get a divorce. He was eager to help her and wanted my suggestions on some ways to preserve evidence and draft legally binding documents. After studying the case, I said, Fei, the state no longer likes divorce, so even with this evidence, things may not go smoothly.
Fei said, Well, you only live once, why not give it a try! [Chinese]
Translation by Yakexi.