China’s feminist movement has come under fire, with dozens of social media accounts run by feminist activists abruptly shut down in recent weeks.
The censorship dragnet comes at a time when young Chinese people are shifting away from matrimony for a more independent lifestyle. This year marriage rates in China dropped to the lowest in two decades.
The accounts have reportedly been removed from the popular micro-blogging site called Weibo, as well as the online platform Douban—which claimed that the suspended content was taking part in “extreme and ideological content.”
The censorship campaign began with a post shared by prominent Chinese feminist activist Xiao Meili on Weibo back in March. In the post, Xiao recalled how she attempted to stop a customer from smoking inside a hotpot shop but the man, having become annoyed at the suggestion, threw a cup of hot liquid at her and her friends.
As a result, Meili uploaded the footage and wrote about the incident. Though she reached a private settlement with the customer, she received threatening messages on Weibo, with many of those including personal attacks.
The user @ziwuxiashi, who has amassed a large following after years of instigating online bullying against “traitors,” is an archetypal example of a “Red V,” or key nationalist influencer (爱国营销号). The Shaanxi province Cyberspace Administration Office has publicly pledged to work with @ziwuxiashi in order to propagate the Party line. In a 2016 profile of him published by the Communist Youth League, the self-proclaimed former member of the military expressed the need to instill “a sense of urgency and mission around cyber ideological struggles” into China’s youth.
There were several other nationalist accounts that quickly piled on Meili—manifesting as comments and private messages. These accounts made efforts to “kill” Meili’s account by reporting her to Weibo—a “favored tactic among nationalist users.” On the morning of March 31, just after Xiao spent about an hour deleting the nasty comments, she learned that Weibo had closed her account of 10 years.
She was even accused of being a supporter of “Hong Kong independence”—something she wholly denied. Weibo decided to move forward in removing her account and online channel anyway.
Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch tweeted: “Chinese authorities cracking down on feminist activists – dozens of social media accounts shut down in recent weeks. ‘Until very recently, you could still see vibrant discussion on women’s rights issues online in China… Now that’s gone.’ – @Yaqiu.”
Following the removal of Meili’s account, a number of Chinese feminists came to her defense on Weibo, and soon, their accounts were also removed from the social media platform, according to Egypt Independent.
Then, on April 13, activist Lian Xiaowen issued a public statement, drawing out how she has been the target of messages on Weibo that include “vicious and anti-women” attacks.
“While I didn’t post any content that violated Weibo’s community rules, my account was removed after other users harassed and reported my account,” Liang wrote in the public statement.
Liang revealed that she has since filed a civil lawsuit against Weibo, demanding that the company restore her account on the platform.
“More than 20 feminists’ Weibo accounts have been removed and the number keeps growing,” she wrote in an open letter.
“Douban has also shut down several feminist groups. The online space that Chinese women worked hard to create has been ruthlessly shut down.”
In a statement, Weibo claimed that the account of Liang Xiaowen and other Chinese feminists were removed after the platform received complaints from users concerning posts containing “illegal and harmful information.”
Weibo emphasized that it is an open platform which tolerates different opinions. However, it stressed that users should avoid antagonism between groups and refrain from promoting a boycott culture—elements that are fundamental to an authentic mode of free speech.
Lu Pin—another prominent Chinese feminist—has also been targeted by the latest crackdown. She stated that it was difficult to determine whether Beijing had ordered for the accounts to be suspended but that it is clear that there are no feminist-friendly social media platforms in China.
“Even though these social media platforms’ operations and revenues rely heavily on female users, they still keep cracking down on feminist perspectives and discussions,” Lu said.
“While feminists won’t simply disappear following the latest crackdown, I believe the goal of this campaign is to make it harder for feminists to gather online,” she added.
“This is one of the scary aspects of blocking feminist accounts on social media,” Lu said. “Even though most feminists know how to use the internet, the move will further weaken the feminist movement’s momentum in China.”
Wang Yaqiu—a Chinese researcher at Human Rights Watch—points out that the attack on feminism over the last few weeks reveals that “there are no enclaves of any kind of civil society activism” in China.
“Until very recently, you could still see vibrant discussion on women’s rights issues online in China,” Wang said.
“Now even that’s gone. I think it really shows there are no enclaves of any kind of civil society activism. It’s very sad.”
Lu Pin said that social media platforms in China are under the impression that the Chinese government believe it is necessary to remove Chinese feminists’ accounts.
“They are doing this out of their need to survive in China, and they don’t need to pay any price for doing so,” she told DW. “The social media platforms are siding with those in power, which is why they are willing to launch the crackdown.”