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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."
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.