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Protocol | China

Weibo is 'treating the incels like the royal family'

China's nationalist "Red Vs" are descending on feminist activists, who say the Nasdaq-listed company is helping the haters.

Weibo is 'treating the incels like the royal family'

Weibo is listed on Nasdaq at a market capitalization of about $11.2 billion.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Prominent feminist activist Xiao Meili had never expected to find herself in the center of a nationalist storm. For the past 10 years, she has focused on fighting for one thing: the rights of Chinese women. But over the past two weeks, she's become known nationwide as "a Han traitor," "a supporter of the independence of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang," "a member of Falun Gong" and "a CIA agent." None of the accusations are true, but that hasn't stopped Weibo, the social media platform she long used for her activism, from closing her account, along with those of 10 other feminist activists. The crackdown marks yet another setback for China's determined yet beleaguered online feminist movement.

It all apparently started with a viral Weibo post that had nothing to do with issues dear to China's nationalists. On March 29, Xiao posted a video of her confronting a man who refused to stop smoking at a restaurant. The next day, a prominent nationalist Weibo influencer with the handle @ziwuxiashi (子午侠士) — roughly translated as "Knight of the South and the North" — started a smear campaign against her. He called Xiao a "female boxer" (女拳), a derogatory term referring to feminists. And he posted a 2014 photo of Xiao holding a slogan that read, "Hold onto freedom in the storm. Pray for Hong Kong," suggesting support for Hong Kong independence, a cardinal sin on Chinese social media.

The user @ziwuxiashi, who has amassed a large following after years of instigating online bullying against "traitors," is an archetypal example of a "Red V," or key nationalist influencer (爱国营销号). The Shaanxi province Cyberspace Administration Office has publicly pledged to work with @ziwuxiashi in order to propagate the Party line. In a 2016 profile of him published by the Communist Youth League, the self-proclaimed former member of the military expressed the need to instill "a sense of urgency and mission around cyber ideological struggles" into China's youth.

Other prominent nationalist accounts, including @上帝之鹰, meaning "God's Eagle," quickly piled on. Their followers rushed to threaten Xiao through comments and private messages, while also (somewhat hypocritically) reporting her to Weibo in an effort to "kill" her account — a favored tactic among nationalist users. On the morning of March 31, just after Xiao had spent an hour deleting vicious comments, she learned that Weibo had closed her account of 10 years.

Nationalist influencers didn't stop there. In the week that followed, they doxxed and trolled 10 other prominent feminist activists in a similar fashion, cobbling together what they felt was evidence of the women's disloyalty to China and their intent to subvert the state. One activist's Twitter retweet about disappeared Uyghur scholars was taken as evidence of spreading "rumors that smear China." In short order, Weibo, which is listed on Nasdaq at a market capitalization of about $11.2 billion, deleted each woman's account; they say they were not given a reason. It was only after Liang Xiaowen sued Weibo for violating China's Civil Code and damaging her reputation that the company responded that her account had been shuttered for posting "illegal and harmful information." Meanwhile, the accounts of the Red Vs who attacked her remain online.

"The platform is the biggest enabler," Xiao told Protocol, referring to Weibo, which she said "treats the incels as if they are the royal family," given that most nationalist harassers are men. Meanwhile, Weibo "allows women to have a presence on the platform because we attract attacks and [therefore] contribute clicks." Weibo didn't respond to a Protocol request for comment.

The crackdown on feminists has since spread onto other platforms. Users of the popular social platform Douban reported that as of April 13, it had shut down the accounts of over a dozen feminist groups whose members had advocated for singlehood without children. (They are not connected with the Weibo activists.) One reason Douban gave: The content contained "extremism and radical political and ideological views." On April 14, China's central bank published a working paper that suggests Beijing "fully liberalize and encourage childbirth," assigning women the responsibility of solving a national economic problem as a demographics crisis looms. The confluence of these events has alarmed feminist organizers, who worry that they signal another crackdown on gender discourse.

Nationalism gets lucrative

Chinese social media has become a highly politicized public square that increasingly reduces dialogues to a single dichotomy: that which is "patriotic" versus that which is "anti-China." It's opened the way for a tremendous amount of cyberbullying in the name of patriotism, which top nationalist accounts can then spin into lucrative business opportunities.

It's also profitable for the platforms: Nationalism is one of the most traffic-generating topics on social media, engineered by increasingly pervasive censorship. The state helps in another way: Many of the Red Vs have been co-opted by cybersecurity authorities. For example, internet regulators will invite them to workshops to discuss propaganda strategies, or amplify their voices on government websites. Red Vs routinely fan nationalistic sentiment by effectively purging from social media individuals who they deem to have deviated from "patriotic" values. The attacks against selected targets, often women, virtually guarantee clicks, and thus ad revenue, for both the Red Vs and platforms like Weibo. The result is digital misogyny on steroids.

Liu Lipeng, a former Chinese internet censor and a content quality manager at a Chinese tech company, told Protocol that before 2013, voices critical of the Chinese government, or "public intellectuals," dominated Weibo discourse. But since ruler Xi Jinping came to power, Liu said, Red Vs have gradually replaced the intellectuals as the loudest voice. "Profitability is first and foremost priority for [Weibo], and whether and how it can make money is determined by the parameters set by cyberspace authorities," said Liu, who currently works at China Digital Times, an independent publication tracking censorship in China. "Censorship breeds and nurtures those nationalist influencers."

A shrinking space for gender discourse

Since 2015, when five feminist activists, known internationally as the Feminist Five, were detained for planning to hand out stickers about sexual harassment at transportation hubs in major cities, authorities in China have sought to quash a nimble and vibrant feminist movement. Social media remains a critical space for feminist activism, but it's shrinking. Feminist organizer and strategist Lü Pin told Protocol that over the past six years, Weibo has deleted at least 44 individual and group feminist accounts. After enduring repeated crackdowns, the movement is now decentralized, but not dead. Instead, over the past six years, feminism has gone from a fringe idea to a mainstream topic, with gender becoming one of the most discussed topics on social media.

The activists are concerned the current wave of attacks is part of a coordinated, possibly state-directed action to wipe out gender discourse on Weibo, although they can't be certain. Fear permeates the feminist community, and no one knows when the attacks will end. "Whether authorities are behind the campaign is no longer important," Lü said. "Spontaneous nationalism and state-stoked nationalism have seamlessly integrated." As China grapples with crises in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as a strained relationship with the U.S., if anyone is labeled as a separatist or pro-America, "You are sentenced to political death," Lü said.

'We won't be scared into silence'

After Xiao's Weibo account was deleted, web users flocked to her store on ecommerce platform Taobao, where she and Zheng Churan, another activist, sell feminist-themed merchandise to support themselves. Haters have sent incessant vitriol and threats through Taobao's messaging tool, including one that "wishes [her] entire family a violent death." Taobao subsequently delisted more than 20 products from the feminists' store, citing violations following "media exposure."

Xiao described herself as "living in fear and rage" since the incident. She said that whenever she sees a man looking at his phone on the street, she now wonders if he is busy hurling threats at her. But she said she's not ready to give up, and is instead preparing a tort lawsuit against Weibo.

"We won't be scared into silence," Xiao said. "Women have lived in terror throughout history. We've survived bloodier violence. Cyberviolence won't stop us from fighting for women's rights."

Protocol | China

China’s edtech crackdown isn’t what you think. Here’s why.

It's part of an attempt to fix education inequality and address a looming demographic crisis.

In the past decade, China's private tutoring market has expanded rapidly as it's been digitized and bolstered by capital.

Photo: Getty Images

Beijing's strike against the private tutoring and ed tech industry has rattled the market and led observers to try to answer one big question: What is Beijing trying to achieve?

Sweeping policy guidelines issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on July 24 and the State Council now mandate that existing private tutoring companies register as nonprofit organizations. Extracurricular tutoring companies will be banned from going public. Online tutoring agencies will be subject to regulatory approval.

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Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. She has spent six years covering China from inside and outside its borders. Previously, she was a fellow at Asia Society's ChinaFile and a Beijing-based producer for CNN. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. Shen Lu is a founding member of Chinese Storytellers, a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry.

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The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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It’s soul-destroying and it uses DRM, therefore Peloton is tech

"I mean, the pedals go around if you turn off all the tech, but Peloton isn't selling a pedaling product."

Is this tech? Or is it just a bike with a screen?

Image: Peloton and Protocol

One of the breakout hits from the pandemic, besides Taylor Swift's "Folklore," has been Peloton. With upwards of 5.4 million members as of March and nearly $1.3 billion in revenue that quarter, a lot of people are turning in their gym memberships for a bike or a treadmill and a slick-looking app.

But here at Protocol, it's that slick-looking app, plus all the tech that goes into it, that matters. And that's where things got really heated during our chat this week. Is Peloton tech? Or is it just a bike with a giant tablet on it? Can all bikes be tech with a little elbow grease?

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Karyne Levy ( @karynelevy) is the West Coast editor at Protocol. Before joining Protocol, Karyne was a senior producer at Scribd, helping to create the original content program. Prior to that she was an assigning editor at NerdWallet, a senior tech editor at Business Insider, and the assistant managing editor at CNET, where she also hosted Rumor Has It for CNET TV. She lives outside San Francisco with her wife, son and lots of pets.

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

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Allison Levitsky
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Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
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