How Social Media reshaped Feminism: Assessing the #MeToo Movement in China

Updated: Apr 29


#MeToo sign © Surdumihail / Public domain/ Pixabay



Introduction

In China, since the advent of the first gender claims at the beginning of the last century, feminism has always been state-led, i.e., promoted by the government with policies and initiatives whose primary aim was not to achieve gender equality, but improve the status of women in order to influence the country’s economic growth. However, since the late 1990s, a type of feminism known as grassroots feminism began to spread, opposing the classic government-led feminism (Yin & Yu 2020).


There is a common idea, speculated and explained by researchers to date, that the digital revolution and the adoption of new social platforms have led to social changes that influenced this new kind of feminism. For example, in the PRC, the advent of the internet was one of the main factors contributing to the emergence of a type of bottom-up feminism, which moved hand in hand with – and in the opposite direction of - top-down feminism (Yin & Yu 2020).


In recent years, a gender claim movement has come to the fore gaining great resonance in mainland China: the #MeToo movement. Since its inception, the movement has achieved many goals, influencing the implementation of new policies and creating a sense of solidarity and awareness among the participants (Powell 2017).


Given the great relevance of the #MeToo movement in the PRC and its strong online presence, it is natural to ask: how has social media been essential in shaping and advancing feminism with “Chinese characteristics”? This paper investigates how feminists used social media for mobilization throughout China’s #MeToo movement while also evaluating potential frameworks for measuring the effectiveness of digital platforms in creating a more conducive environment for #MeToo in China.


The unique opportunities of digital platforms

Since the beginning of the 21st-century, societies have witnessed the so-called “digital feminism” spread -based on social networks as means of propaganda, dissemination, and social organization (Baer 2015). The advantage of using new media technologies is to facilitate the creation of a level playing field and, above all, to increase public awareness of the spread of sexual harassment (Powell 2017).


Unlike “offline” participation, i.e., collective actions that require physical mobilization and a challenge to cultural and social norms, digital platforms are instead based on values such as openness and networking -which has given activists the opportunity to take a position while starting from the bottom and leading the revolutions through mobile phones (Weiner 2015).


Indeed, while previous waves of feminism were based on public demonstrations, 21st-century feminism is founded mainly on the power of hashtags: Chittal (2015) talks about the “democratization” of feminism brought about by social platforms, which favoured public dialogue and created an online space for change in awareness. Social networks are a means to connect women worldwide, make visible the scale of oppression of the female gender, and connect protest movements. This idea of creating connections between local and personal experiences is also advanced by Yin and Yu (2020): social platforms can create links between individual experiences and collective actions, facilitating new modes of expression, networking and practices among feminist activism and movements. Despite all that has been said so far, on one hand, we tend to consider social media as a facilitator tothe role of digital feminism; on the other hand, it is important not to fall into a deterministic view that limits society to a passive position. Social media can influence the population, but people also have a say based on their use of social media platformsand strategies (Trott 2018).


It is clear that feminism has embarked on a new, predominantly digital mode in the 21st century, which has facilitated the emergence and spread of gender claim movements in the Chinese social environment. Feminism – and social movement more broadly - do not encounter a conducive environment in China, as the state is particularly critical of the movements that arise in civil society that could act as poles of attraction and destabilize social harmony (Yin & Yu 2020). Therefore, it is necessary to evaluate the characteristics of the #MeToo movement in China and the strategies that have allowed the subsequent movement to proliferate, despite the tight controls.


The Chinese #MeToo

The term “MeToo” was coined in 2006, long before hashtags even existed, by the American activist Tarana Burke to support survivors of sexual violence. However, it was only in 2017 that it began to gain more and more attention in the United States, after being spread on Twitter to denounce the sex scandals that have seen many names in the Hollywood film industry as protagonists (Yin & Yu 2020). When we talk about the #MeToo movement, we are referring to a digital feminist movement, i.e., an activism that is born and spreads thanks to the power of social networks and digital platforms to counter unequal power structures (Yin & Yu 2020).


The #MeToo movement in China began to spread from January 2018 on Chinese social networks by the activist Luo Xixi. After her, many other women participated in the online complaints. Several scholars have discussed the impact of the movement on Chinese society: the shared idea is that there has never been a movement of such magnitude and intensity in China (Parkin & Feng 2019; Yin & Yu 2020). Lü Pin, a Chinese activist, further stated that the movement’s most tremendous success is that “it puts the issues of the feminist rights movement in the public view [...] made them a topic of public discussion [...] and raising public awareness of feminist issues. In 2012 our influence was very small, but in 2019, we’re talking about a reach of over a million people. Overall, the discussion is happening on a much greater scale” (Parkin & Feng 2019).


The #MeToo movement in China has been profoundly shaped by the state pressure and supervision that characterizes the Chinese context. It has not manifested itself as public dissent or collective protest, as this would have been counterproductive in its success, but has taken on different forms. Digital media has undoubtedly played a key role in facilitating the spread of the #MeToo movement in China. In its development, the two platforms most used by Chinese women were Weibo and WeChat - both social platforms that originated in the PRC (Yin & Yu 2020).


With the growth in social platforms, new theories have also been developed to explain the change brought about by digital activism. Among all, Bennett and Segerberg (2012) and Fu (2017) outlined very interesting theoretical frameworks to investigate how the growing awareness of gender; the role of social media as platforms vocal in claiming women’s rights; and the historical legacy of the struggle for gender equality, have paved the way for the development of the #MeToo movement with Chinese characteristics.


Connective Actions and Disguised Collective Actions inside the #MeToo movement in China

To understand the vital link between social media and social movements in China, we rely on the work conducted by Diana Fu (2017) and Bennett and Segerberg (2012). Disguised collective action is an innovative tactic that reduces the costs of the contention organization in an authoritarian state. So instead of forming organizations to protest and conduct mobilizations – which in authoritarian environments are discouraged or otherwise, prevented by governments – citizens coordinate to act better as atoms. Therefore, in this context, the confrontation with the authorities takes the form of individual actions to induce the officials to respond to the complaint put forward.


In their research, Bennett and Segerberg (2012) define connective action as activism developing in the digitized ecosystem. Since collective action is often more expensive - in terms of mobilization and organization - social networks act as platforms for political organization and organizing agents through connective action.


As protests in China are often discouraged or punished, Chinese activists make collective action move from organization to individual, rather than vice versa. By resorting to the use of social networks to express their participation and solidarity in the #MeToo movement (using the hashtag #我也是 or #MeToo在中国), Chinese activists were able to facilitate the spread of the movement in China, through their participation in the online discussion (Yin & Yu 2020).


One of the most significant aspects of the #MeToo with Chinese characteristics is its resilience and adaptability: to avoid a government squeeze and survive in a repressive environment, activists do not organize public protests but resort to social networks, conducting continuous negotiations with central power and without challenging state authority (Mistreanu 2019). After a few months of the explosion of the hashtag #MeToo on Chinese social media, the movement has been stormed by state censorship and canceled (Yin & Yu 2020). In a context like the Chinese one, censorship must be studied and analyzed with feminist activism. The result is a process of constant alternation between regulating the space for online expression and finding new ways to convey the same messages. As the algorithms for censoring references to the movement have evolved, so have the techniques used by activists to avoid running into censorship - or to circumvent it -:

(1) the use of homophones such as 米兔, whose pronunciation “Mi Tu” resounds as #MeToo (Kuo 2019);

(2) the use of cautious and constructive tones and a search for compromise. Activists are calling for more laws to protect against sexual violence rather than criticizing the executive class or proposing a leader’s resignation (Mistreanu 2019).

(3) the use of emojis such as the bowl of rice and the rabbit, which, as previously illustrated, recall the homophone “mitu” (Andersen 2018).


These tactics resulted in a more appropriate mobilization because they encourage (online)social communication at an individual level. Contents are spread in the form of seemingly apolitical symbols (i.e., homophones, emojis), which are then impregnated with political meaning to those trying to socialize with the information that way. Social media and hashtags are a vital resource for activism in China: while they may not be highly rewarding, they encourage the creation of new pathways for activism, which would otherwise be silenced. Without openly discussing #MeToo, activists can spread awareness, which ultimately fosters the movement's sustainability.


Conclusion

There have been many articles and published research raising doubts about the sustainability and duration of the Chinese #MeToo movement; despite this, since its spread in 2018, the movement mentioned above has managed to evolve and adapt to the Chinese context, organizing itself by exploiting the power of social networks as vocal platforms for political organization and demonstrating great resilience in the face of attempts at limitations operated by the state. (Yin & Yu 2020; Mistreanu 2019).


Although the use of individual and atomistic actions could hinder the view of the #MeToo as a proper movement, nevertheless, it allows for discussion and public awareness (Parkin & Feng 2019).


Some of the milestones achieved by the movement - which include the involvement of the court in the case of Zhou Xiaoxuan or the amendment of the civil code with the addition of a provision on sexual harassment (Mistreanu 2019) - undoubtedly mark an encouraging evolution for the #MeToo movement, given by the Party’s desire to ensure a change in social norms. However, the condescending tones of the state towards the #MeToo movement do not automatically translate into the support and creation of an environment conducive to feminist movements in China. The repercussions suffered by the #MeToo movement are in fact indicators of this: the attitude hold by the government creates an environment that is not very favourable to feminist instances. Although social media can be a means to ensure that discussions continue, as underlined by Yin and Yu (2020) “these limitations and backlashes are neither brought about or by digital media nor can they be solved by technologies per se”. Social networks undoubtedly represent one of the characteristics of Chinese feminism in the 21st century: they enable the spread and greater visibility of the cause and greater access to mobilization (Yin & Yu 2020). Although the movement has appeared more fragmented and individualized in China, these characteristics have been vital to its survival and proliferation, contributing to its resilience and sustainability (Fu 2017).


The fact that the fourth generation of Chinese feminists were born and raised during the internet revolution has undoubtedly played an essential role in driving the movement’s spread. #MeToo’s use of social media has also helped feminism in China by stimulating a burgeoning collective consciousness of what feminism is, as more and more people in China are grasping the movement’s language, concepts, and energy. While social networks are often used to supplement offline demonstrations in the West, in China, there is a greater reliance on these means to promote and disseminate causes (Jing 2018).


The current environment, with the interplay between digital media and feminist movements, has undoubtedly made the work of Chinese feminists easier than in the past: the right of expression is no longer firmly concentrated in the hands of a few journalistic or television elites. Narrative power has spread to everyone’s mobile phone and tablet. This shows how much society is improving and how the Chinese people are becoming more aware - and protective - of their rights.



Martina Albini just completed a double master’s degree in International studies - curriculum China and Global Studies - among the University of Turin and the and Zhejiang University. Previously, she studied Linguistic Sciences for International Relationships, spending a semester at the Beijing Language and Culture University in Peking. She completed an internship at the Special Diplomatic Delegation in Taipei for the Italian Foreign Ministry. She is deeply passionate about China; her interests include Chinese feminism and EU-China relationships. You can find her on Instagram and LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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