February 6, 2018
Photo: This image circulating on Chinese social media explains the origin of the movement’s adapted hashtag.
#MeToo has been one of the most profound developments in the modern feminist movement. Far more than a hashtag, it has been a conduit for unity among women, enabling many for the first time to openly share the abuses committed against them without fear of being silenced or of retribution from the powers that be. It has realized overdue consequences to a tremendous number of men in high positions – men who have so long abused their power over female colleagues in completely unacceptable ways. #MeToo is powerful. Celebration of its victories, however, should not completely overshadow the movement’s ongoing struggles.
China is a male-dominated, highly censored culture. Needless to say, it is absolutely not conducive to social media campaigns, especially those that challenge men in positions of power. When the Weinstein story first broke in the US, launching the #MeToo movement, Chinese state-run media ran articles affirming that, “Chinese traditional values and conservative attitudes tend to safeguard women against inappropriate behavior from members of the opposite gender.” Statements like these met immediate backlash, however, from women whose personal experiences told a very different story. Nevertheless, the Chinese government’s longstanding policy of writing off feminist groups as ‘Agents of Western Interference’ seemed to again stifle any effectual change from taking off at that time.
The #MeToo movement first breached Chinese media when Luo Qianqian, a citizen of China living in the US, decided to share her story. Luo had been sexually assaulted by a professor at her university. She recalls that he pounced on her while she cried and pleaded with him to stop. Although he did withdraw from the advance, the encounter ended with him begging for her silence on the incident, and her realizing that she had no choice but to comply. That silence finally broke when she shared her story on China’s primary social media platform Weibo. In her post, she told her story and urged others to do the same with the hashtag #WoYeShi (directly translated: #MeToo).
The campaign manifested quickly in universities, where the power imbalance between students and their professors generally ranges from concerningly stark to unacceptably extreme. This systematic struggle facing university students, the most emboldened and socially active part of the population, should have created the perfect storm for #MeToo to explode. But the Chinese face an obstacle that the West generally didn’t: the government.
It is always a danger when people power movements adapt the tactics of other, successful movements and expect them to work the same way. In this case, Chinese students took the hashtag #WoYeShi (#MeToo) and began to share their stories, just like women in the rest of the world were doing. Something different happened, though, once their posts were published – they disappeared. Even though the Chinese government had seemed initially supportive of the movement, publicly firing the professor that assaulted Luo Qianqian, it quickly reversed course and worked to shut the momentum down.
In the face of such adversity, a new iteration of #MeToo was born in China. There was no other feasible way for the movement to proceed. With government sensors cleansing the internet of all expressly related content, women have begun to use alternate hashtags to continue to share their stories. That’s how #RiceBunny emerged, which in Chinese is pronounced “mi tu”. It serves the same function, but with a renewed and resilient fervor for the cause that a mere ‘copy-paste’ of the international movement could not quite achieve. In effect, the rise of #RiceBunny is much more than a clever circumvention of the censors. It is a powerful message from this generation of Chinese women, telling their government and the world that will not so easily let themselves be silenced.