Last week, LGBTQ student groups in China woke up to find their social media accounts abruptly shut down. It came after several feminist activists had similar shutdowns back in April.
When Chinese activist Li Maizi saw another feminist being attacked online by nationalist trolls, she felt that she had to respond. After posting, she found her Weibo account shut down.
Li is used to these attempts to silencer her. Six years ago, she and four other women were detained for more than a month for planning a protest against sexual harassment. They became known around the world as the “Feminist Five.”
“What I can do is just watch a lot of people say you are trying to incite the state or trying to divide our country, which is really absurd,” she said. “So, I could still see what other people [posted insulting] me, but I couldn't make any comments.”
Feminist activist Liang Xiaowen is based in the US. After internet trolls complained to Weibo about her account, the company shut it down and accused her of posting "discriminatory" content.
“They just outright decided that what I was doing was illegal. I didn't even have an opportunity to speak for myself."
“They just outright decided that what I was doing was illegal,” she said. “I didn't even have an opportunity to speak for myself. It's not fair at all because I don't understand at all what [I posted] that is illegal. That is discriminatory.”
Liang is a lawyer, so she reacted as any lawyer might — she sued Weibo, China's second-largest social media platform. She said that under China’s new civil code, the courts should have seven business days to accept her case, but it’s now been three months and she hasn’t heard anything.
“I can accept if I lose a case or if I win a case,” she said. “But I don't think it's fair, that the court is not even dealing with my case.”
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Gender equality was seen as important in the early days of China, author Leta Hong Fincher said. Her book “Betraying Big Brother” documents the feminist movement in the country.
“The history of the Communist Party in China is actually very feminist,” she said. "So the People's Republic of China was founded on the principle of gender equality, which is enshrined in the constitution.”
Hong Fincher said that these days, the feminist and LGBTQ rights movements have broad appeal among young people in China for a different reason.
“It's fundamentally about young people's desire to live the kind of life they want to lead,” she said. "For most people, it's not about politics. It's about individual freedom. And so, that's a lot trickier for the Chinese government to handle.”
Young people want to choose their own relationships and whether or not to have children. Just last month, the government changed the birth policy to allow couples to have three children. But Chinese women’s response was less than lukewarm.
“Feminism is perceived as such a threat by the Chinese government, because it's not just an ideology, it actually is affecting their birth rates."
“Feminism is perceived as such a threat by the Chinese government,” she said, “because it's not just an ideology, it actually is affecting their birth rates. The government sees it as contributing to the larger problem of the aging of the population, and the shrinking of the workforce.”
Hong Fincher said the recent attacks on feminist and LGBTQ activist social media accounts are tied in with a fear of foreign influence. Li Maizi and the rest of the Feminist Five were accused of being controlled by “hostile foreign forces” in 2015.
Last month, Li Maizi said she attended a feminist cartooning workshop, but police interrogated the owner of the shop where it was held.
“Once we finished the workshop,” she said, “we destroyed all the posters and meeting materials. So, we tear them up and we drop them into different dustbins. That is a fact, if you want to do something [like this] it’s very risky. And you don’t know if the police will take those as evidence to try to convict someone.”
As for the LGBTQ student groups whose accounts have just been deleted, they are still figuring out what to do next. A woman who used to run activities for her university’s LGBTQ group text-messaged The World about their reaction. She asked not to use her name or her voice for fear of getting in trouble with her school:
“It’s a real shame, we don’t know if there’s any legal action we can take. We didn’t expect this to happen, so we didn’t have a backup of all our content. The most important thing we need to do right now is recover past articles and then post [them] on a new account."
“It’s a real shame, we don’t know if there’s any legal action we can take. We didn’t expect this to happen, so we didn’t have a backup of all our content. The most important thing we need to do right now is recover past articles and then post [them] on a new account," she wrote.
She said they will apply to their school administration to start their club again in the fall, but she worries it will be banned. All student clubs at public universities must be approved by the school administration and must get approval each year.
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Prominent feminist and founder of Feminist Voices Lu Pin says the situation is grim, but that activists are not giving up.
“As long as they are not treated equally by society,” she said, “feminists will help its followers who will never give up that determination, not because we ourselves are strong but because we have a very broad community.”
And she says she believes that will withstand the crackdown.