#WoYeShi is #MeToo with Chinese characteristics
January 15, 2018 11:33 AM   Subscribe

#MeToo has reached China, sparking a small but growing protest movement within elite universities, concern and censorship from the country’s authoritarian rulers - and self-reflection within the small foreign journalist community regarding its own culture and reporting.

[Note: All links in this post point to English-language sources.]

Contemporary China remains highly patriarchal, and traditional Confucian interpretations of the role of women in society have never really been forgotten. The increasing level of education available to Chinese women is a headache for the regime [1], as better economic prospects have diminished the attraction of marriage at a young age. China faces a self-inflicted surplus of unmarried men thanks to a gender imbalance of anywhere between five to 60 million males caused by selective abortions during the period of the one-child policy (1979 - 2015), and exacerbated by officially-encouraged sexism regarding so-called “leftover” women who remain unmarried beyond the age of 27 [2]. Feminism is therefore perceived as a threat to maintenance of “social stability”, and in 2015, five feminists were imprisoned for planning a sticker campaign against sexual harassment on public transport, as part of an ongoing and increasingly repressive crackdown on civil society in the country.

In this context, it takes considerable bravery for Chinese women to add their voices to the global #MeToo movement, but some have started to do so on Chinese social media networks, particularly regarding harassment at elite Chinese universities.


In September 2017, the state-run Global Times published a surprisingly balanced piece on sexual harassment, acknowledging a widely-covered survey from April of that year, which had found 69% of university graduates in China had experienced sexual harassment, but fewer than 4% had reported it. However, in October, the People’s Daily (also state-run) took advantage of the cascade of allegations in the West to post a now-deleted op-ed by a Canadian-Egyptian expat, which suggested that sexual harassment was a purely foreign problem.

Around the same time, several anonymous users on Q&A website Zhihu accused Beihang University professor Chen Xiaowu of sexual harassment, and other offenses, in a post that has since been censored. That post - along with encouragement and support from Chinese journalist Huang Xueqin, who has also experienced harassment at work - encouraged Luo Xixi, a former doctoral student of Chen’s now based in the US, to write on Weibo (a Chinese website similar to Twitter) about her experiences of harassment by Chen in 2004. The post was censored and Luo banned from the service, but not before the post had gone viral, resulting in Chen being suspended, stripped of his post as vice-president of the university’s graduate school, and losing his teaching credentials revoked as well as a scholarship from China’s Ministry of Education, before ultimately being fired. Since then, various allegations of misconduct at the Beijing Film Academy have been revisited; Xue Yuan, a professor at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics is under investigation; and an open letter has been signed by students of over 60 Chinese universities using their real names, requesting formal mechanisms for dealing with harassment on campus - although mention of the letter is being scrubbed from the Chinese internet, and Leta Hong Fincher [3] reports that signatories are being pressured by their universities not to be “used by hostile foreign forces”.

So far, the allegations have mostly been confined to the academic sector, but it’s easy to see why China’s ruling elite might be worried by the nascent movement. While adultery is a frequent charge against officials unlucky enough to be caught up in Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown on “tigers and flies”, many senior officials keep young mistresses, and far from being a grassroots initiative, the campaign, run by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, is carefully focused on internal political rivals.

[Note: most links from this point onwards are to Twitter. Tweets are intended to be representative of a wider, ongoing conversation between many China-based journalists. Note also that Twitter is not accessible from within China without VPN software.]

In parallel to these developments, Jon Kaiman, the LA Times' Beijing bureau chief [4] has resigned as president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China and apologized after allegations surfaced regarding his conduct towards another expat in 2013, and FCCC members – mostly female journalists - pressed him to respond. This has led to some soul-searching amongst correspondents (including authors of many of the articles linked earlier in this post) about newsroom culture and the preponderance of entitled, white, male journalists reporting on China, an issue made more pertinent by the resignation of Carrie Gracie as the BBC’s China editor over the organisation’s wildly unequal pay structure. James Palmer of Foreign Policy produced two threads on white male entitlement in China (the first regarding members of the foreign press and the status of young Chinese women in newsrooms), which led to a number of interesting conversations and observations among journalists and academics covering the China beat, most especially a thread by Rui Zhong of John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

For an article-length summary of the challenges faced by women journalists in Asia, Mei Fong has written an excellent piece for the NYT [5]:
More than a decade ago, I was coming off a successful summer stint as a Wall Street Journal reporting intern. Naturally, I vied with other interns for a full-time reporting job. A post came up in the Hong Kong bureau. Did I, a Cantonese speaker with prior Asian reporting experience, get it? I wasn’t even asked to apply. Instead, a fellow intern with no prior Asia experience was hired. He was white.
While it’s hard to predict what will happen to the #WoYeShi / #MeToo movement in 2018, it’s to be hoped that coverage of China in the Western press will at least be more representative. As well as long-overdue changes in newsrooms, journalists could do worse than to use the list of nearly 400 “female experts on Hong Kong, Macau, Mainland China and Taiwan”, created in early 2017 by Joanna Chiu of AFP and Lucy Hornby of the FT [6].


[1] This term used to refer to both the CCCP and the Government of the PRC, which are two separate, albeit closely interrelated entities.

[2] one possible remedy, alongside the “marriage markets” that parents establish in every major urban centre, is state-organized matchmaking. Previously on the phenomenon of leftover women.

[3] Leta Hong Fincher is the author of one of the above links and is quoted in almost of the others, because she is probably the foremost English-language expert on feminism in China. She is the author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China and Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China. In November 2017, she appeared on Kaiser Kuo’s Sinica podcast for a prescient discussion of the difficulties that would face any #MeToo campaign on the mainland. (Kuo himself has long criticized foreign media for lazy coverage of China from an overly Anglo-American perspective.)

[4] An article of his on Sexism in China.

[5] Louisa Lim shared a similar experience.

[6] Discussed on the April 2017 Sinica podcast.
posted by chappell, ambrose (13 comments total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
[My first ever post on the Blue!]
posted by chappell, ambrose at 11:41 AM on January 15, 2018 [38 favorites]

This is a fantastic post, many thanks.
posted by Aravis76 at 12:20 PM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yup, I add my thanks and congratulations. What gutsy women!
posted by languagehat at 2:33 PM on January 15, 2018

Excellent post, thank you. I wonder if there are similar movements in rest of Asia.
posted by Pantalaimon at 3:01 PM on January 15, 2018

I came close to saying "me too" on congratulating you on the post, but ehm... well, anyway, congrats!
posted by DreamerFi at 3:30 PM on January 15, 2018

Absolutely fantastic post.
posted by smoke at 3:55 PM on January 15, 2018

So, reading the linked article on “leftover women,” the government strategy is to shame, cajole and frighten women into getting married if they are of marrying age? But there are more men than women? There should be no “leftover” women. Wouldn’t a male improvement plan for all the “leftover men” be more effective? And let’s not forget that surely there is a population of women in China who are lesbian, asexual, transgender, not desiring a family (and may be less inclined to marry given the state’s hyper-focus on breeding). This is the Make China Great Again plan, isn’t it?

How can you be “leftover” when you have your pick?!
posted by amanda at 5:58 PM on January 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

This is great, thanks for posting!

Yes please please please let this spread throughout the sinosphere. Although I'm sure government plays a role, my impression is that culture is a much bigger problem; in places with less authoritarian governments (Taiwan and Hong Kong for example), sexism and chauvinism seems to be just as big a problem. I kind of wish this would spread to the media world as well, because Chinese media is incredibly sexist.
posted by destrius at 6:02 PM on January 15, 2018

How can you be “leftover” when you have your pick?!

Because the most important duty of a filial daughter is to get married, and if you don't do so despite there being so many choices for you, you're being incredibly selfish and must be shamed.
posted by destrius at 6:08 PM on January 15, 2018

I wonder if there are similar movements in rest of Asia.

To be honest, you could probably write a similar post about most of the countries in the world. I found China interesting because of the constraints on civil society, and because of how the #MeToo movement is taking off at the same moment as a scandal in the relatively insular Western media landscape. India would be particularly fascinating due to the intersection of #MeToo with the caste system, and with India's well-documented problem with brutal sexual assault.

How can you be “leftover” when you have your pick?!

It's a testament to the resilience of the patriarchy, I suppose. A Chinese economist became (in)famous in 2015 for suggesting polyandry as a solution, and personally I've never understood why male homosexuality is persecuted to such an extent in China (touched upon in the same article).

Because the most important duty of a filial daughter is to get married

That's it. The pressure on Chinese women in their mid- to late-twenties and early thirties really has to be witnessed firsthand to be believed.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 6:51 PM on January 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is a wonderful, well-researched post. Thanks very much for sharing your diligence and knowledge with us.
posted by zarq at 7:03 PM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sudden marriage really is a thing here. Visit a teacher who is totally single, two weeks later I get a box of bonbons from her marriage, and a month or two after that she's pregnant.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:03 PM on January 15, 2018

white male entitlement in China - [Palmer:] the sense of Asia as a 'playground' - as a space that isn't fully adult, especially for white male expats.

see also the China subreddit which is filled with white, male expats who exchange dating tips on how to get with 'sexy Asian women' and also complain about every single time they experience an speedbump to their expectation of privilege and / or inability to assume the mantle of privilege granted to other white male (s)expats

the most important duty of a filial daughter is to get married

rather it's to produce grandchildren to ensure that the lineage is unbroken along with becoming the default financial and domestic caretaker for your parents. marriage is just a means to that end and a method of securing funding for housing. even as a immigrant from China who's lived here for most of their life, the dual pressures of establishing financial output and offspring is a persistent, unending theme in my life, something that is inflected in nearly every conversation of I've had with my parents. that said, I have a few friends who have had a very different experience - like any other sociocultural norm, there are plenty of those who live in defiance of them

also missing in this discussion is class - the people who make up the sex workers in China are largely migrants and the historically lower SES residents of cities, people who have been and are denied hukous. oppression is largely SES-driven. additionally, dating and relationships are seen as and typically are one of the few ways to break these class barriers which just creates more space for socially 'allowable' abuse. there's a lot of motivation for women in China to 'marry upwards' - this is part and parcel to the financial caretaking role. every story the Pygmalion, as it were, invisibly enshrining male privilege and assuming subservience from the woman
posted by runt at 9:11 AM on January 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

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