SAN FRANCISCO — Feminism in China is a polarizing issue, with the debate over the extent of women’s rights and empowerment often fraught with controversy. Chinese feminists. who are most vocal about women’s rights online, are often attacked by trolls, and discourse on feminism has created a digital war between those pushing China in a more progressive direction and those hostile to the movement.
In fact, it is not uncommon for Chinese feminists to be accused of being traitors to their country and beyond Internet trolls, the Chinese government also plays a role in this hostility. Multiple reports have confirmed that activists’ social media accounts and activity have been scrubbed.
Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, writes in POLITICO that such domestic challenges — particularly the lack of press freedom — make it difficult for the Chinese feminist movement to gain the traction that it needs to succeed. This is especially true in a country where fighting for women’s rights is often conflated with other political issues, such as the Hong Kong independence movement. As a result of assumed connections to dissidence against the Chinese government, women who advocate for feminist reform and voice concerns are still largely censored.
However, recent global media coverage of the movement has significantly increased attention on the #MeToo movement in China. With media coverage comes a growing amount of media activism that is allowing the fight for women’s rights to reach global audiences. Essentially, Chinese feminists are taking their voices abroad.
A revival of awareness for the Chinese feminist movement began last year with increased attention around a landmark #MeToo case in China, one that led to massive demonstrations and protests outside a Chinese courtroom. In China, where protests and other means of social assembly are often restricted by the governmental, this was a rare, noteworthy and public show of support.
Zhou Xiaoxun (nicknamed “Xianzi” online) was an intern at China Central Television (CCTV) in 2014. According to the BBC, Zhou was inspired to speak about her own experiences as an intern after she heard about the wave of legal cases against American film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2018. She wrote a 3,000-word essay on the Chinese messaging platform WeChat where she alleged that she was sexually harassed by popular Chinese television host Zhu Jun.
The essay quickly became viral online, although Zhu denied the allegations. Though there was an intense wave of digital backlash, with Zhou even being sued for defamation, there was an even greater outpouring of solidarity. Zhou told the BBC that after her statement was shared, thousands of survivors reached out to her to express their support. The case was featured prominently throughout the world in media outlets like ABC News Australia, The New York Times and the South China Morning Post. Many lauded the case as a gamechanger for China’s feminist movement.
Yet, unlike the success of the #MeToo movement in the United States, China’s #MeToo movement is still unable to attain similar amounts of success and thrive domestically. Fincher writes that this is primarily due to China’s heavy suppression of social media access, which the #MeToo movement has often relied on for its audience. With that primary obstacle, global media has led the way, indirectly spearheading the #MeToo movement to greater lengths. Essentially, a lack of Internet freedom and social media access in China has increased the importance of global media and reporting.
Hasan Minhaj’s television show Patriot Act, for example, featured a 2019 episode on Chinese feminists braving political challenges such as imprisonment in order to have their voices heard. Lucas Niewenhuis of SupChina praised Minhaj’s work for being “smart” and “well-researched,” particularly for Patriot Act’s target audience of “liberal American millennials.” Such positive reception illustrates the extent to which media narratives about the issue can shape public opinion and raise awareness of China’s #MeToo movement.
Greater awareness online and among the public could have social and cultural implications for Chinese feminists abroad, who may find the backing they need to pursue their mission of promoting global awareness for China’s feminist cause. Most importantly, however, China’s #MeToo movement reaching international audiences spotlights the work Chinese feminists are doing. Instead of isolating the Chinese feminist movement to a domestic cry, media activism and awareness elevates the movement to one of global relevance.
Media coverage of China’s #MeToo movement emphasizes how Chinese feminists are persevering despite speaking out in an environment wholly different from that of the United States, where the movement first began. It provides a comparative perspective on feminism. This international lens on a pressing social issue is important in a world where China is often conceived of as a futuristic authoritarian state and Chinese people are portrayed as without agency of their own. With its global reach, the media can spotlight the universality of the #MeToo movement.
As media coverage leans towards this cross-cultural education, perhaps Chinese feminists abroad may obtain the leverage they need to change the narrative around sexual assault and harassment. Importantly, some progress has already been made.
Despite its history of cracking down on similar movements, the Chinese government has slowly started to respond to some of these calls amid public outcry for Zhou’s case. In 2020, the government enacted a civil code officially naming and recognizing sexual harassment as a legal misdemeanor. While there is still much to be done, this reform signifies a step for wider social recognition of gender inequalities within China’s legal system.
Media across the world has the potential to educate audiences against dehumanizing discourse around China, showing how like many of the #MeToo changemakers across the globe, Chinese feminists are fighting similar issues and have agency of their own. China’s #MeToo movement is not solely a domestic issue. The world, too, has a stake in it.