HONG KONG — Dozens of outspoken feminists and women’s rights groups who are facing an onslaught of harassment and abuse now accuse the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo of shutting down their accounts in recent weeks.
While the internet has long been a fraught space for women, the efforts to silence feminists have taken on a new political dimension in China, with critics accusing the women of expressing anti-China sentiment.
That is a damning accusation in a country that, under President Xi Jinping, has embraced an increasingly nationalistic stance. Since Weibo’s policies prohibit content attacking the government, flagging posts as anti-China has been an effective way for critics to prevent women from speaking out about sexual harassment, the need to prevent violence against women and workplace discrimination, and other issues.
“For them, feminism becomes a crime,” said Lü Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist whose Weibo account was among those shut down.
The current controversy began at the end of March, after a group of men physically assaulted Xiao Meili, a leading feminist activist, at a restaurant, after she asked them to stop smoking. That evening, Xiao posted a video of the incident on Weibo, where it quickly started trending.
The next day, prominent nationalists posted an old photo of Xiao holding a banner stating “Hold onto freedom in the storm,” the lyrics of a rock song that protesters in Hong Kong adopted as a slogan during the pro-democracy movement in 2014. The photo, Xiao’s critics said, was evidence that she supported Hong Kong’s independence — something the Chinese government opposes. Critics also pointed to a speech on feminism that Xiao gave at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and suggested it was evidence that she was “sponsored” by the CIA.
Xiao did not respond to an interview request, but in a statement posted on her blog, she denied that she was a CIA spy or a supporter of Hong Kong’s independence.
“We didn’t do anything wrong, but they thought we were wrong simply because we were women,” she wrote. “They organized a witch-hunt in an effort to express their masculinity…. . ‘Patriotism’ is merely a cover for violence and hatred.”
Other feminists who defended Xiao have been similarly targeted.
Liang Xiaowen, 28, an attorney living in New York, told NBC News that online commenters accused her of colluding with anti-China foreign powers and supporting Xinjiang independence.
They pointed to the fact that she followed Chinese overseas dissidents on Twitter and retweeted posts about the disappearance of Uyghur scholars in Xinjiang, the autonomous region in northwestern China where millions of Muslim Uyghurs have been forced into re-education camps, according to the U.S. government and international human rights organizations.
The Chinese government has denied mistreating the Uyghur population and has said the camps are necessary to combat terrorism.
A leading nationalist influencer who goes by the handle “@Ziwuxiashi” (“Knight at night”) and has 740,000 followers, initiated the attacks on Liang, labeling her a “traitor.” Others reported her account to Weibo for “spreading harmful information.”
In a video posted on Wuyou Daily, a “pro-socialism and pro-patriotism” news site, host Bai Ge said feminists were “infiltrating the country and provoking conflict between the people and the government.”
“These anti-China feminists used the ‘indoor-smoking incident’ to attack the government, because they are good at making social events to catch people’s eyes and push their anti-China agenda,” Bai said. “Would real feminists do that?”
In a statement, Weibo said it had removed the accounts of Liang, Xiao, and others because their posts contained “harmful information.” It reminded users not to “organize and incite other users to attack the Party, government, or state-affiliated enterprises and institutions.”
In a post on the site, Weibo CEO Wang Gaofei accused feminists of “inciting hatred and gender discrimination.”
Weibo is a privately run company, but social media companies in China must tread carefully or risk running afoul of the government’s censors.
Liu Lipeng, a former Weibo employee who worked on content moderation, said the company would sometimes receive orders from the Chinese government to shut down certain accounts, but other times the company would take preemptive action to remove content that risked offending the government.
“Censorship is a black box. No one knows how it works, at least in each individual event,” said Liu, who now works at China Digital Times, a California-based publication tracking censorship in China.
Weibo did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Even after her Weibo account was shut down April 8, Liang continued to receive insults and threats online. Some commenters talked about finding where her parents lived.
“They truly hated us, aiming to shut us up by threatening violence against our family,” she said.
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As attacks on feminists have mounted, a few of the women have issued statements expressing support for China’s control over Hong Kong. But Liang said nationalism is a trump card in online arguments in China, making it impossible for the women to defend themselves.
“If they say you’re anti-China, you’re anti-China. You’re already politically stigmatized and lose the argument without even getting into the gender debate,” she said.
The current controversy reflects the increasing challenges feminists face in China. In 1995, under President Jiang Zemin, Beijing hosted the U.N.’s fourth World Conference on Women, which inspired a generation of Chinese activists and facilitated a wave of women’s rights organizations in China.
Under Xi, however, feminists reflect a liberal and global outlook that is incompatible with China’s current worldview, Lü said, making them the “perfect enemy of nationalism.”
“Nationalism is consistent with misogyny,” Lü said. “They both require hierarchy and control, that people obey the nation and women obey men.”
The All-China Women’s Federation, the country’s largest state-affiliated women’s group, which aims to promote women’s rights in political and social life, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Social media influencers have played a prominent role in reinforcing nationalist views in China. In 2016, the Chinese Communist Youth League invited @Ziwuxiashi to discuss online ideological confrontation, and last year the Cyberspace Administration Office in Shaanxi province requested that he attend a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party and scrutinize “negative influencers.”
Liu Lipeng said that Weibo also has a vested interest in promoting posts that express nationalist viewpoints.
“Nationalism highly arouses users’ emotions, generating constant debate and bringing massive traffic and profits to Weibo,” Liu said.
Moreover, Liu said, by highlighting nationalist content, the social media company is able to maintain a good relationship with the Chinese government, which could help it secure financial and regulatory approvals.
In response to the controversy, Liang, Xiao and other feminists have filed lawsuits against Weibo, accusing the company of defamation and requesting that their accounts be restored.
Even if they do not prevail in court, however, Liang hopes the legal fight will put a spotlight on the challenges that feminists in China currently face.
“If we lose the trial, it doesn’t mean we are wrong, but shows the unfair legal system and the society suppressing women who speak out,” Liang said. “The legal judgment will be preserved, forever, on China’s internet and court system, documenting the hatred and violence against feminists. And I want this documentation.”
“Feminists don’t retreat,” Liang said. “Our accounts were bombed, but we will strive for any space to speak out.”