The Censorship Machine Erasing China’s Feminist Movement
In June, a thirty-one-year-old woman named Wang was eating with three female friends at a barbecue restaurant in Tangshan, about a hundred miles east of Beijing. It was late at night. At around 2:40 A.M., a man came up and put his hand on Wang’s back. She pushed it away and protested, loudly: “What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?” He reached for her face and she pushed him away again. “Get lost,” she said. Then the man slapped her. A struggle ensued. Wang was about to fall off her chair when one of her friends picked up a beer bottle and hit the attacker. Several men rushed over to the table. One of them held Wang by her hair and dragged her into the street. The group stomped on and struck her repeatedly. Wang, whose white short-sleeved shirt was covered in blood, begged for them to stop. One of her friends tried to rescue her, and was pushed to the ground. Her head hit the pavement, making a heavy noise. Other patrons at the restaurant looked on, stunned. Some were crying and one started to vomit. In a corner, a woman tried to intervene but was held back by her companion.
By early that afternoon, a five-minute-long surveillance video of the attack had gone viral on Chinese social media, sparking a renewed reckoning about the state of women’s rights in the country. Over the past few years, a series of scandals involving sexual violence has captured national attention. On the heels of the #MeToo movement in America, and despite broad censorship, women in China have spoken out against harassers and assaulters, including Zhu Jun, a prominent state-television host, who was accused of groping and forcibly kissing a former intern, and Liu Qiangdong, the founder of one of China’s largest e-commerce platforms, who allegedly raped a twenty-one-year-old college student after a dinner party. (Zhu was exonerated by a Beijing court. Liu, who was not charged with a crime, faces a jury trial in Minnesota next month in a civil suit. He has denied wrongdoing.) Especially raw is the memory of “tieliannu,” or the “iron-chained woman”; she was filmed by an influencer earlier this year, provoking widespread condemnation. A man in Xuzhou, a poor area in Jiangsu Province, had kept her chained by the neck in a shed. (She allegedly gave birth to eight of his children.)
A crackdown on civic discourse and activism has trapped the storm in a box. Though individual cases like the one in Tangshan create fleeting moments for people to express their anger, feminists’ voices are increasingly marginalized. “The Tangshan incident indirectly reflects the conundrum of MeToo,” Lu Pin, a longtime advocate for Chinese women’s rights, told me. “MeToo was empowering. Women wanted to speak up and to change the way things were. They achieved a bit. But, four years later, Tangshan made people realize that there is not much you can do, even when you make some very loud noise.”
After the initial outrage, responses to the attack had a tone of resignation. “It is impossible for ordinary people to change the big picture—we can only pray,” one blogger wrote on Zhihu, a Quora-like platform. “No matter how viral a news event is, it will become the past; no matter how loud a slogan is, it will die down,” He Siyun, a former elementary-school teacher who lost her job after reporting that a colleague had sexually abused several students, wrote. (The colleague was sentenced to four years in prison for child molestation.) Bystanders at the restaurant felt a more immediate sense of hopelessness. “In the last few days, I have reflected on and replayed what happened that night nonstop,” one witness, a twenty-nine-year-old man, told an online news outlet. “I want to know what I could have done differently and if a better result was possible.”
Two days after the incident, Weibo announced a zero-tolerance policy toward users who spread “harmful speech,” including comments that “attacked state policy and the political system” or that “incited gender conflict.” In forty-eight hours, the platform removed more than fourteen thousand posts, suspended eight thousand users, and permanently banned another thousand. On Weibo and other platforms, like WeChat, where hundreds of millions of people in China get their news, feminists are often called “women’s fists,” which sounds like the Chinese phrase for “women’s rights.” Popular words that refer to gender discrimination, such as “hunlu,” which means “marriage mules”—a sarcastic term about the thankless labor of married women—have been banned. Even the phrase “MeToo” is heavily censored, making it impossible to make new public complaints with the signature hashtag.
Eric Liu, who used to work as a Weibo censor, and now monitors state censorship for the Berkeley-based Web site China Digital Times, told me that the goal is to flatten discussion without appearing to stop it outright. “The voice of the real feminists are removed, because they are bound to use a bunch of ‘sensitive terms’ that insure their post will be deleted,” Liu said. All that’s left are anodyne expressions of sympathy from the public, and the state’s version, known as the “official narrative.”
With Tangshan, it was soon clear what shape the “official narrative” would take. Early coverage on state media downplayed the incident. A video outlet called Feidian reported that “conflict erupted from both sides”; a Beijing-based news app said that the man had “struck up a conversation” with Wang, and that they started to “push each other, leading to physical conflict,” which prompted the man’s friends to join him to “counter the women.” Soon, coverage focussed almost entirely on whether the men were gangsters. A buzzword in almost every news report was “saoheichu’e,” which means, roughly, “sweeping the black forces and removing the evil elements.” “First, they try to water down the conflict,” Liu told me. “Then they direct the discussion to narratives that they are familiar with, such as law and order of society.”
The authorities apprehended seven men and two women involved in the attack. (At first, police said that they had arrived on the scene five minutes after the beating began; the official account, published days later, said that police didn’t arrive for half an hour—after the assailants had already left.) The district public-security bureau fired the local police station’s deputy chief, and announced that the case involved crimes including violent assault and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”—a controversial count which carries up to five years in prison and is often used to criminalize peaceful activists. In the past, there’s been little substantial punishment in such cases. In 2020, a twenty-five-year-old woman in Zhejiang Province was beaten until she passed out after a man tried to touch her body and face while she was having a late-night snack. The man and three of his friends were detained for about ten days, and then set free.
In response to Tangshan, the police launched a program called Thunderstorm Action, aimed at improving public safety. The program quietly ended in late June without announcing any concrete results. “What we see from Tangshan is the malfunctioning of every aspect of society,” He Yuan, a lecturer at University College London, whose research focusses on prosperity and human development in China, told me. “If one tries to find a solution using the existing process, one will find that it doesn’t work—from the police, the prosecution, and the media.” Following the incident, journalists trying to get into Tangshan were detained or met with obstruction. For weeks, no one heard from the four women or their families. When rumors began to circulate that one of them had died, a local branch of the Women’s Federation, a Communist Party-led organization, told a journalist that all four were alive. The lack of information was disturbing even to Hu Xijin, an influential nationalist columnist at the Global Times, a Party-affiliated tabloid, who wrote, “Tangshan should provide some help for certain media to get in touch with the four women. First, the city shouldn’t guide them to be ‘low key.’ . . . This way, we can reduce the suspicion that the government is doing ‘information control.’ ”
On Monday, in a statement, officials in Hebei announced that Wang and one of her friends had been hospitalized and subsequently discharged, on July 1st, and that a number of people involved in the restaurant beating have been criminally charged. According to WeChat Index, a tool that tracks key terms used on the platform, the popularity of “Tangshan” peaked in mid-June, and has since plummeted to levels before the incident. In the meantime, at least one surveillance video of attempted assault and a personal account of sexual assault have circulated, but none has reached a national audience. Lu Pin noted that public discussion of women’s rights in the country rarely expands beyond specific cases that make the news. “The discussions only spike up when there is a trending news item,” she told me. “Then you’ll realize that the public space doesn’t exist, and the public can no longer continue a conversation or participate in activities.” He Yuan, of University College London, has found that young students in China who are exposed to sexual inequality and violence now have an understanding that their rights have been violated, but have trouble figuring out how to address it. (Last summer, at least a dozen university-based queer and sex-education groups across the country found their WeChat accounts deleted. Overnight, they became “unnamed public accounts.”) “There aren’t a lot of resources to guide them to think about the subjects more deeply,” He said.
On August 10th, Zhou Xiaoxuan, the intern who accused the state-television host of workplace sexual harassment, had her final appeal rejected. “What I lived through happens all the time, and is a universal conundrum for women,” Zhou said at the hearing. “I hope the next person who comes to court will be treated with more understanding.” As these incidents live out their news cycles, people who seek to revive interest or pursue meaningful accountability become targets of the authorities. Lu knows several feminist activists in China who have been warned by local police not to say or do anything in the aftermath of Tangshan. One woman who went to Xuzhou to look into the tieliannu case is still missing. “I used to have a hard time imagining how the government could possibly suppress feminism,” Lu told me. “Now I’m watching the country erase this movement.” ♦
This article has been updated to reflect news developments.