For two months, from September 2019, a master’s student at a Shanghai university was bombarded with texts from her professor. At first, he asked about her daily life, reminded her to exercise and take good care of herself, to find a boyfriend. Often, he would text her to bid her goodnight.
Over time, the texts grew more explicit. He often said he liked her, called her “babe”, sent hugging and kissing emojis and invited her to join him for meals. The student, who later took the pseudonym “Xiaowen”, said she felt uncomfortable but did not dare to directly turn him down.
Once, Qian Fengsheng, an accounting professor from the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, may have experienced no immediate repercussions. But that was before the #MeToo storm broke over China in 2018. As the movement matured in its second year, women like Xiaowen have been taking action.
Last month, after their final lecture, Xiaowen said Qian drove her back to her dormitory, turned the car into a deserted lane and sexually assaulted her. It was 9.40pm. Xiaowen reported the incident to the police, as well as posting about it online. Three days later, Qian was sacked.
A few days later, a graduate from Peking University in Beijing also posted about a professor’s inappropriate relationships with multiple women. PKU reacted immediately and suspended him.
In the beginning, the #MeToo movement was largely related to historical allegations of sexual harassment and abuse but, over the past 12 months, women have been speaking out against inappropriate behaviour more quickly, and making official complaints where once they may have remained silent.
There have also been more discussion and awareness about women’s rights in general.
Beijing-based feminist blogger Shaoxi said she had found the public more open to discussing women’s issues online as a result of #MeToo which, she said, had brought a stronger, female voice to the conversation.
Shaoxi’s life and career path were completely altered by the movement when a student from her bachelor’s university exposed harassment by a professor and also reported him to the police. The revelation uncovered an experience of her own which she had spent more than 10 years trying to forget.
As a freshman at the same university, Shaoxi had been taken to a hot spring by a professor who tried to force himself on her. She refused, but there were other acts of sexual harassment which marred her student days.
Like so many of the trailblazing women who found their voices through #MeToo, Shaoxi never reported the professor, nor did she tell her family. “But the moment I read that post, I totally broke down, I found that trauma was still there,” she said.
Shaoxi shared her memories of that experience on Weibo, and found a few hundred new followers. She started commenting on feminism-related issues and, over the next 12 months, her following grew to more than 30,000. Women began writing to her, sharing their own stories of domestic abuse, discrimination, their attempts to get help from professional organisations, or their thoughts on the hot button feminist issues of the day.
“The most popular topics are domestic abuse, sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, divorce and inheritance,” Shaoxi said. Women had also begun speaking out against gender discrimination and stereotypes, fighting back against derogatory comments.
Shaoxi has helped women set up Weibo accounts which specialise in a particular issue, such as workplace discrimination, child-bearing, and sex.
“We do not want women to passively accept our preaching, we want to encourage them to express themselves,” she said. “In the past, sometimes these topics were only discussed within a small circle, they may not have received support and sometimes they were oppressed by society.”
Attempts to silence China’s new generation of outspoken women can take many forms. For Shaoxi, it was a manga comic series which portrayed her as fat and ugly, abandoned by her father and her boyfriend. In one scene, she was depicted sitting in a box outside a public bathroom. Another showed her funeral, where people discussed the cause of her death before she was dissected and finally cremated.
“I felt devastated at the beginning, but I have been speaking up for a long time and I cannot stop. I can only get used to the shaming and draw up power to strike back,” she said.
Xiao Meili, a feminist activist based in the southern city of Guangzhou, said that, while it was encouraging to see women taking more initiative and finding a stronger voice online, #MeToo had also highlighted the lack of other available channels in Chinese society to address their issues.
“Women who expose sexual harassment online need to be able to write well, film well, and be able to find resources to support them. That is not something all victims are able to do,” Xiao said.
Turning to the internet and using public opinion to pressure the authorities was their last resort, she said, because the legal and social support systems were inadequate in helping them to reach a satisfactory solution.
Xiao gave an example of a woman she has been helping this year who has been trying to sue a man she claims sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious under the influence of sleeping pills.
Although the accuser had medical records confirming the presence of the medication, and the man had admitted there had been a sexual encounter, the court needed evidence that she had indeed been unconscious and had not given consent, which was hard to prove.
The #MeToo phenomenon has also led to a broader discussion about women’s rights and other feminist issues in a society which traditionally has been silent on these matters. A podcast launched by Xiao in 2019 to discuss feminist news and issues has generated heated discussions and opposing views among its audience. Many were learning new perspectives or a deeper understanding of feminism, Xiao observed.
More women were inspired in 2019 to write about issues that previously were considered taboo online.
US-based consultant “Huakai” wrote on Weibo about the effects on her body of giving birth after a discussion about gym routines with a friend. What began as a support network among friends soon snowballed, with women sending her hundreds of messages each day to talk about their afterbirth trauma.
The response led to a long article which Huakai published on Weibo in May, recording in detail what more than 10,000 women had told her online. “The dignity and price women pay for giving birth is worth recording and telling,” she wrote in the post, titled “Why has nobody ever told you about the excrement, pee effect of after-birth”.
Besides leaking pee, women reported experiencing lumbar strain from holding their babies for too long, swollen or inflamed nipples which made them feel they were being stabbed with needles every time they breast fed, and the embarrassment of developing haemorrhoids and being unable to go to the bathroom unassisted.
Many women responded by questioning why this topic had never come up in public discourse. “Why has nobody ever told this? Why has my mother never mentioned it?” ran a typical comment on Weibo.
China’s culture traditionally restricts discussions of the birthing process, typically viewing the pain and trauma associated with childbirth as something that “has always been this way”, Huakai said, and regarding the suffering of pain or sacrifice in silence as a sign of greatness. It is an attitude which has also been reinforced in official rhetoric, especially in relation to China’s birth control policies.
Nevertheless, Huakai was surprised with the attention the story received. “I think women do frequently complain about this, but it was unusual to write about it in such a long form and in a positive way,” she said.
“Women should not be ashamed and silently tolerate the pains of giving birth and other should not pretend not to see it. They have no right to stifle such discussion.”
But there are repercussions for those who speak up. Like Shaoxi in Beijing, and the victims of sexual harassment who are regularly slut-shamed and attacked online, Huakai has experienced her share of abuse. Some have accused her of creating panic among women, or of having ulterior motives.
“In the past, women suffered silently, so now when you speak up they think you must have some other motive. They cannot believe you are just stating facts, just narrating,” she said.
Lü Pin, a columnist and founding editor-in-chief of Feminist Voices, said the demand for women’s rights in China had expanded in 2019 from a few voices to a larger section of the general public.
“[#MeToo] has established a consensus that was never there among young women, or a feminist awakening, and has made feminism a topic of public discussion that society has to face," she said. "Even though many still don’t agree with it, especially those in power and men, but they are forced to have the discussion with feminists.”
But, she said, the issues they raised were difficult to solve, as they were systemic, and could not be appeased by a few policies.
For others, such as Xiao, they compare their progress to what is happening overseas and find it lacking.
in Japan, journalist Shiori Ito was awarded 3.3 million yen (US$30,000) in damages by a Tokyo court in response to a rape accusation she levelled at Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a former TV reporter with close links to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Ito has become the face of Japan’s #MeToo movement, written a book, had a documentary made about her and gone on world tours to motivate other women. To many in China, Ito’s win has served to remind them of how far they still have to go.
“It would be better if we had more ways to spread our voices and solve our problems, instead of relying only on changing public opinion,” Xiao said.
“This last is important. Even in corporate environments, it is very difficult to remove an underling for incompetence if that underling has seniority and a long history of good performance reviews. As in government bureaucracies, the easiest way to deal with such people is often to “kick them upstairs”: promote them to a higher post, where they become somebody else’s problem.”