Reportage. Everything ends up in Beijing’s meat grinder, from the LGBT+ community to sex symbols with an excessively effeminate appearance, including the most radical forms of feminism, perceived as a danger for the survival of the conventional family.

The ups and downs of the Chinese #MeToo movement

A three-year legal battle ended on September 14 with an acquittal during the second phase of the trial brought by Zhou Xiaoxuan, the young woman who back in 2018 denounced a well-known television journalist for sexual harassment, becoming the face of the #MeToo movement in China. The prosecution asked for the anchorman to pay 50,000 yuan in damages, but the Haidian (Beijing) court deemed that the evidence provided by the young woman was not enough to support the charges.

Zhou’s story, initially celebrated as a victory for women’s rights, sums up the epilogue of the movement against sexual abuse in China, punctuated by ups and downs, signs of encouragement and abrupt setbacks.

Starting in 2018, in the wake of America’s #MeToo, beyond the Great Wall the debate on gender discrimination reached viral proportions. Translated into Mandarin as #woyeshi, the movement has shifted the debate to issues previously considered taboo, from domestic violence to postpartum depression and period poverty. The theme of the gender gap in all its many forms has made its way into pop culture, ending up in song lyrics and on the cabaret stage.

Its growing resonance at the grassroots level has prompted the Chinese government to take action. Sexual abuse has found its way into Communist China’s first civil code, and the State Council recently published a 10-year plan for the protection and empowerment of women and children, in which the prevention of “sexual harassment” at school and in the workplace is mentioned 13 times.

There has also been no shortage of arrests of famous figures: the well-known Sino-Canadian singer Kris Wu is still in the hands of the authorities after a complaint brought by a fan.

However, these successes are dwarfed by several factors. Another high-profile case involving two Alibaba employees in August ended a few weeks ago with the man’s acquittal and him filing a lawsuit against his female colleague for slander, false accusation and indecent exposure. This is not a rare phenomenon. According to the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, between 2010 and 2017, 19 of 39 sexual-assault-related lawsuits were filed by the accused, not by the alleged victims.

The issue is neither new nor limited to #MeToo: there are laws in China dealing with this issue, but the problem lies in the enforcement phase. When it comes to sexual abuse, the biggest obstacle is the demand for hard evidence to support the accusation, a requirement that is difficult to meet given the lack of diligence on the part of law enforcement agencies in case of reports. Added to this are political reasons.

The judiciary, which in China answers to the Communist Party, is inclined to intervene when scandals involve corrupt officials, show business figures with disreputable conduct and entrepreneurs dedicated to unbridled luxury. But not when the accusations involve social categories deemed functional to the longevity of the system: teachers and journalists of the state media—considered an emanation of the paternalistic role of the Party/State—often emerge from investigations unscathed. This posture is reflected more broadly in the lack of acceptance of diversity, perceived as deviant from the mainstream culture that has a Confucian framework. Therefore, it is essentially patriarchal.

Everything ends up in Beijing’s meat grinder, from the LGBT+ community to sex symbols with an excessively effeminate appearance, including the most radical forms of feminism, perceived as a danger for the survival of the conventional family, the “cell” of the social body. After an initial phase of tolerance, the movement was targeted by arrests and silenced on the web.

As Zhang Lijia, a former factory worker turned journalist, explains, “more women are becoming aware of gender issues, and more women are finding creative ways to express themselves. In this sense, #woyeshi has become very popular.” But also too bothersome. According to the expert, “the movement has caused some resentment among conservative and chauvinistic men. The social environment has become much less tolerant in recent years,” especially after Xi Jinping’s appointment as president.

The movement’s growing transversality does not make dialogue with the establishment any easier. Young and educated, the #MeToo supporters are daughters of the urban middle class. They use social media, embrace democratic values and increasingly speak out against the government on thorny issues that transcend women’s issues, such as the crackdown in Hong Kong and human rights violations in Xinjiang. This is exemplified by the case of Yue Xin, one of the main supporters of the movement against sexual harassment, who was arrested in 2018 for supporting, together with a group of young neo-Marxists, a campaign of strikes in factories in southern China. The anti-regime line is even more pronounced among female activists in the overseas diaspora. This is an alarming factor for the authorities.

The danger is not only that, by delving into divisive issues, the movement will lose popular support, but also that it will end up triggering an even more violent reaction from above. Like homosexuality, at the top levels of power feminism is now associated with an alien and destabilizing value system. Commenting on the case of Zhou Xiaoxuan, the nationalist tabloid Global Times stated that the long wave of #MeToo is being used by Western forces to “tear Chinese society apart.” Similar accusations were being shouted by bystanders outside the courthouse on the day of the trial.

As in other circumstances, spontaneous and uncontrolled grassroots mobilization is perceived as a threat to the coveted social stability. This is an axiom that is even less negotiable now that the issue of women has officially entered the national development plan: with the slowdown in birth rates, woman-focused policies recently introduced by the government officially aim to protect women—but they also aim to consolidate their role within the new demographic strategy to support economic growth. Caixin Weekly highlights that domestic violence is considered “a factor that significantly discourages married women from having children.”

The traditional view of women as wives and mothers is reappearing on the political agenda just as the emergence of “subversive” trends is pushing Chinese feminism toward antithetical positions. While once the defense of women’s rights was the prerogative of a narrow intellectual elite, today the chorus-like participation of a wider segment of the population, with different needs and levels of education, implies the inclusion of often populist, and sometimes radical, manifestations.

In the online debate, it is not uncommon to find extremist voices indiscriminately condemning both the male gender as a whole and women who “betray” feminist ideals by choosing marriage, considered the real cause of domestic violence as well as an obstacle to women’s professional success. Zhou Xiaoxuan herself, in a recent article published in English in the Made in China Journal, admits that the position of some strands of the #MeToo movement risks alienating public opinion. Spreading sensationalist—and often false—stories to keep attention on abuse undermines the credibility of the women’s cause as a whole.

The problem, according to Zhang Lijia, is that #Woyeshi “is not a compact force, directed by a single guiding principle.” As the community grows, the challenge is to keep together the different strands of the movement: human rights advocates, victims of violence, radical feminists and advocates of Western democracy. All united by a shared sentiment, although conveyed with different languages and in different tones. According to Zhang, they feel unheard and “just need to express what they feel deep in their hearts.”

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