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Protocol | China

China's culture wars, now playing on Bilibili

The streaming site was once a quirky place for young men. Now it's nationalistic and misogynist, and women have had enough.

China's culture wars, now playing on Bilibili

A cosplayer performs at Bilibili stand during the 2020 China Digital Entertainment Expo & Conference (ChinaJoy).

Photo: VCG/Getty Images

At first glance, Nasdaq-listed Bilibili is going gangbusters. The Shanghai-based site is set for a $2 billion secondary listing in Hong Kong, it's become one of China's most popular video-sharing platforms, and it's making big moves into other areas like gaming. But it's in trouble back home: Tens of thousands of women are boycotting and sanctioning the service over what they say is out-of-control misogyny. Bilibili is becoming a case study in what can go wrong when a platform moves from the fringes to the mainstream.

The backlash started in late January. Once a hub for China's Gen Z and a safe haven for ACG (Anime, Comic and Games) fans, Bilibili made the fateful decision to promote "Jobless Reincarnation," an anime series, on its site. Female users quickly noted the show objectified women, and even featured pedophilic elements; at one point, the main character, a 34-year-old man, molests a 9-year-old girl.

The incident brought to a boil long-simmering anger toward Bilibili for hosting increasingly misogynic content and user comments — and doing little to curb it. Bilibili removed the series on Feb. 7 for what it said were "technical reasons," but for fed-up female users, it was too late.

In early February, online activists, many themselves Bilibili users, organized on other social media sites to punish the company. The activists primarily belonged to a female-dominated Douban forum with nearly 700,000 members called Goose Group. It started as a place to trade entertainment industry gossip, but has become more political, with a particular focus on gender.

After "Jobless Reincarnation" was yanked, the feminists successfully pressured several Bilibili advertisers to end partnerships with the company. The women urged one another to report Bilibili's male CEO Chen Rui to the Yangpu District People's Congress in Shanghai, a participatory body of which Chen is a member, for tolerating and even promoting misogynic content. Activists noted the controversial anime series had been on Chen's watch list.

The Chinese women also attempted to short Bilibili's stock, although the effort flopped; on Feb. 10, the company's share price surged more than 10%.

Bilibi was never a gender-equal space, but it began as something edgier and more lovable than what it's become. It came online in 2009 as a haven for mostly male, diehard anime fans, with a heavy reliance on user-generated content.

Grace Gu, a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign who researches Chinese social media, told Protocol that different subcultures whose voices are normally marginalized on mainstream platforms widely embraced Bilibili. "These users and communities contributed greatly to Bilibili's early-on popularity and basically nurtured the opportunity for it to become commercialized," Gu said.

Things started to change in 2014, when Chen, now 43, became CEO with ambitions to turn Bilibili into a popular video-sharing platform, a kind of YouTube for China. The "little raggedy site" (小破站), as Bilibili was known among its diehards, realized it needed to go big and get on the government's good side.

Bilibili has since diversified its content, hosting lifestyle vlogs, food and fashion videos, documentaries and movies. It's gotten decidedly more mainstream and frankly, less cool: The Communist Youth League started a channel on the site in 2017, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened a Bilibili account on Feb. 22.

It's also gotten more sexist, even as it's gotten more gender balanced. In 2013, only 25% of Bilibili users were women. Today, it's 43%. Yet according to half a dozen Bilibili users and two Chinese social media researchers Protocol spoke to, Bilibili has become visibly more conservative, sexist and nationalistic.

For one thing, nastily gendered commentary is increasingly rife, in many cases triggered by videos that aim to prevent just such behavior. After one woman posted a video in which she discusses stigmatization of the word "feminism," swarms of men attacked her appearance. Often, when female users post slightly feminist content or discuss male celebrities, male users will curse at them in the comments section, which on Bililbili are called "bullets" and move quickly across the surface of the video (making them hard to avoid). A Bilibili employee who agreed to speak to Protocol on the condition of anonymity said that the company is aware of sexist content on the site. But the Bilibili employee also said the company had generally turned a blind eye to it, wary of offending its predominantly male users.

Bilibili is not only letting hateful content stand; it's also allegedly censoring content pitched at women and other minority groups. Ashley Jiang, a content producer at OutChina, a public-interest video program promoting LGBTQ-related content, told Protocol that when she worked with editors from Bilibili in the past two years, pitches about feminism or religion would be ruthlessly rejected. (Bilibili assigns editors to work with public accounts with big followings.) Six of 20 videos she produced about the lives of queer Chinese people were removed by the site over the past two years. By comparison, the more mainstream Weibo only removed one video. Bilibili "boasts of its subculture roots," Jiang told Protocol, "but then it censors the heck out of the content that minority users upload."

Bilibili insists it's committed to diversity. In a public response to the anime fiasco issued on Feb. 10, Bilibili said it would launch a month-long campaign to "resolutely resolve content issues" and pledged to "handle troubling accounts and content in strict compliance with laws and regulations." Last year, CEO Chen said on the company's 11th anniversary that the two most important values of the Bilibili community were "first, fairness and second, inclusiveness." Bilibili didn't respond to a Protocol request for comment.

Bilibili also has a robust content-moderation apparatus. But female users continue to complain that it's hard to get sexist and misogynistic content removed. Beset by angry users, Bilibili is approaching a decision point.

The Goose Group versus Bilibili clash highlights a broader gender tension that has been percolating in China. Over the past five years, Beijing has promoted a return to traditional gender norms and labor divisions that threatens to push women further back into the home. But during this same time period, many young women have experienced a gender awakening, particularly after the global #MeToo movement swept into China in 2018, against the government's wishes. Bilibili's relentless pursuit of a larger, more diverse audience has coincided with this shift. It's brought in new voices who don't accept Bilibili's male status quo. In response, men have often responded in ways that highlight exactly why other users don't feel welcome.

"The tension between Bilibili's minority users and its existing subculture users has risen to a point where it likely will put pressure on the company's business," Simon Luo, a Ph.D. candidate in political philosophy at Indiana University Bloomington who researches social media activism, told Protocol. "Even in China, no tech company can afford to wear the label of misogyny. The audience has split," he said. "Tech companies inevitably will have to choose which audience they want to secure going forward."

Correction: This story was updated on Feb. 26 to reflect the location of Bilibili's headquarters. An earlier version of this article contained an editorial error.

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