Deng Fei, Feng Yongfeng, Zhang Wen… Before this summer, they were, respectively, celebrated investigative journalist and philanthropist, respected environmental activist, veteran columnist. Now their names evoke other images: sexual predation and harassment.
On July 23, a 23-year-old woman with the pseudonym Zhao Xin pressed the send button on a web post about how she was raped while doing a multi-day trek from Inner Mongolia to Beijing to raise fund for a philanthropic cause in 2015. The alleged rapist, Lei Chuang, was the leader of her trekking group and the man behind the cause, widely known for his relentless advocacy for non-discrimination against hepatitis B carriers. Zhao accused Lei of tricking her into staying in a single room with him one night and forcing himself on her. She had no sexual experience before that night and suffered severe depression afterward.
Her post electrified the Internet, kicking off a wave of online allegations against other sexual assaults and harassments. The intensity of the outpouring exceeded previous #MeToo moments in Chinese social media, most notably the brief outburst on China’s college campuses earlier this year, when professors and teachers were exposed. While that round of #MeToo was pretty much contained inside the ivory tower, this time people believed that the movement had boiled over. Following Lei Chuang, victims named a string of aggressors, sending the advocacy, philanthropic and media communities into shock. In less than a week, reputations lay ruined, friendships broken, professional ties severed.
The resultant outcry did not just challenge the male dominant culture of many professional circles. It also, somewhat unexpectedly, pitched China’s liberal intellectual elites against a younger generation of thinkers and practitioners who are willing to call out their elders for being out of touch and hypocritical.
The first sign of that schism emerged as soon as Lei Chuang’s scandal went public. His response to the allegation was inconsistent at best, first owning up to it and offering to turn himself in to the police, then changing his story and claiming that he was “in relationship” with the victim. Most people reacted with disgust and shock. Funders moved swiftly to distance themselves from Lei Chuang. Oxfam China issued a strong-worded statement condemning the behavior of its previous grantee (it did not fund the trekking in question). In the same fashion, foundations immediately severed their relationship with Feng Yongfeng, the well-known environmentalist admitting to multiple accounts of sexual assaults.
However, things weren’t that straightforward behind the scene. Privately, Lei Chuang’s “buddies”, a group of fellow male activists and charity professionals, expressed support for him in their private WeChat group. “We don’t need to condemn Chuang’s morality,” one said. “He has already paid his price,” the other concurred. “Agree. He’s part of us. He can take whatever responsibility he owes. But we should still encourage him to face it bravely and start over.” “The last are the words of Deng Fei, the journalist-turned-activist widely seen as the hero who exposed cancer villages and raised money for malnourished school children.
The conversation was leaked online, fueling outrage not just at Lei, but at those fellow-travellers who appeared to relate more to the aggressor than to the victim. Those people, includingNGO directors and founders of charities,usually was represented the most progressive element in Chinese society. And yet, as Datu (大兔), one of the Feminist Five activists who were internationally recognized for their brave activism around sexual harassment, noted, they seemed to be bound not by some shared value of social justice, but a primitive brotherhood more often seen in fraternities and gangs.
It was a terrible revelation. And Deng Fei, the best known among the group, quickly began to draw scrutiny. Disgusted by the leaked conversation, other women stood up against him. In a popular WeChat post where he was called “the philanthropic leader”, he was accused of force-kissing a female volunteer during a 2015 event. And the allegations escalated. In a stunning turn of events, a former intern at Pheonix Weekly, where Deng used to work as a leading investigative journalist, wrote to the magazine’s former editor-in-chief Huang Zhangjin about an incident many years ago where Deng tried to rape her. The admired journalist, as the accusation goes, lured the intern into a hotel room to “discuss a story”, and suddenly jumped on her, pants off. She managed to escape, went back home and “washed herself for hours”. In his Weibo article about this alleged assault, Huang wrote: “I understand how devastating (releasing this letter) would be to my former colleague. But it’s nothing compared to what this girl has suffered. A victim’s trust can’t be taken lightly.”
Li Yaling, a screenwriter and donor to Deng’s charity, made an angry statement on Weibo declaring her friendship with Deng over. But the severance of personal relations isn’t always straightforward. Huang Zhangjin and Li Yaling are rather exceptions. The more common reaction is one of camaraderie, as Lei’s buddies demonstrated, or of conspicuous silence.
A case in point is that of Zhang Wen. The man, an editorial board member of News China, was accused by at least 6 women of raping, assaulting and groping them. Some of the accusers were well-known writers and journalists. Facing those charges, Zhang chose to slut shame the women confronting him, declaring,”she slept with many” or “she was a divorcee”. He also suggested that rubbing and touching were perfectly normal in Beijing’s cultural circle gatherings. It was a text-book how-to-shoot-yourself-in-the-foot response to a #MeToo allegation and rightly angered even more people. But former journalist Wentao wondered how come some of Zhang’s most renowned friends were silent about the matter. One of them was He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University and a symbol of the liberal intelligentsia of today’s China. In a private WeChat group, Wentao gently nudged the public intellectual to speak up about his friend’s conduct. Professor He, an outspoken defender of human rights and social justice, had made very strong statements on previous cases of sexual assaults where victims were unfairly treated. His response to Wentao was remarkably evasive, claiming that his friendship with Zhang left him only capable of standing aside “watching and sighing”.
The incident offered #MeToo’s Chinese critics an opening to express their uneasiness with the online movement. Does He Weifang have the right to be silent on the case? Is it justifiable to press him to take a stand? With memories of the Cultural Revolution looming in the background, the debate over #MeToo was inevitably colored by a sense of alarm that victims would be unfairly labeled and mass hysteria take over.
Zhang Wen’s loudest defender, Yan Lieshan, exemplified that sentiment. A veteran columnist for the famed Southern Weekly, a stronghold of progressive values in the Chinese press, Yan berated Zhang’s accusers for resorting to online shaming rather than legal channels. He referred to such accusations as “online terror” and “primitive vengeance”, completely at odds with the spirit of due process. Although he drew a fair amount of criticism by suggesting that the victims’ failure to protest on site equaled “playing along” with Zhang’s advances, his first point on due process did resonate with some of his peers.
One of them was Liu Yu, the Tsinghua University political scientist whose essays on the details of American democracy have inspired many Chinese readers. On July 28, as the Chinese social media was still rattled by an outpouring of new #MeToo revelations, Liu posted her 17-point comment on the movement. After briefly acknowledging the positive “educational” value of #MeToo, Liu delved into what she considered the shortcomings and flaws of the campaign. Not surprisingly, what troubled Liu the most was #MeToo’s lack of procedural justice. People name and shame alleged aggressors openly on the Internet, without processes that protect the accused. “By nature I don’t like daming dafang dazibao (loud shouting, venting and big-character posters).” Her choice of words did the trick of invoking Maoist era memories, as daming dafang dazibao was Mao’s way of mobilizing the mass against his political enemies, stirring up a frenzy of hysterical political tirades across the nation’s factories, campuses and government compounds. Similar to Yan Lieshan, Liu Yu insisted that online shaming should be a “last resort”, after all other grievance channels were exhausted, including face-to-face confrontation with the aggressor.
Liu’s concern is that too often #MeToo blurs the degree of terribleness of sexual offenses. Those who commit minor offenses (a stupid text message due to a misread signal) share the same undifferentiated online humiliation as those guilty of much worse conduct (rapes and violent assaults). She believes that the legal process is more rigorous in that it treats cases individually and specifically. And, most importantly, the judiciary follows the principle of presumed innocence and proportionality. “I always appreciate the level of caution and care embodied in due process,” Liu wrote. “Men also suffer devastating reputation damage if mislabeled as sex offenders.”
The words of Liu Yu, a measured, scholarly, cosmopolitan female voice on the Chinese Internet, carry weight at this moment. The post created a splash on Weibo and WeChat. Her message about the importance of due process won the approving repost of Yan Lieshan and He Weifang, the law professor. But criticism also came quickly.
The most obvious critique is Liu’s faith in the integrity of China’s legal system today. Her advice for sexual harassment victims to exhaust grievance channels before they go online sounds, to a Chinese ear, like the ancient Chinese emperor’s notorious question to his officials: “Why can’t those starving peasants just eat minced meat?” In a point-by-point rebuttal,Yale Law graduate Zhao Danmiaoreminded Liu Yu that the Chinese legal system is far from robust when it comes to sex-related offenses. It is also inappropriate to expect a grassroots social movement to follow principles of the (American) criminal justice system such as due process and proportionality.
In a more in-depth response to some Chinese intellectuals’ obsession with “presumption of innocence”, author Lin Santu clarified that the principle embodies a very peculiar set of burden-of-proof and weight-of-evidence requirements that almost only apply to a criminal case scenario. He explained why, in the context of civil disputes and sexual offenses, a different threshold for evidence is not only justifiable, but also desirable: “The disciplines of psychology and sociology have significantly expanded our understanding of the behavior pattern of sexual offense victims, which increases the default credence of their testimony.”
Beyond the application of legal principles, supporters of China’s nascent #MeToo movement found other problems with Liu Yu’s comments. Some of them saw condescension: “Practitioners painstakingly planted the seedlings of sexual equality into the paddy field of Chinese society. Liu Yu takes a look at those sweat and mud stained women, and lectures them about how not to launch an ‘agricultural Great Leap Forward.'”
Others saw something much deeper. “Liu Yu’s generation of Chinese intellectuals have a fundamental flaw in their intellectual upbringing,” asserted Beidafei(北大飞), an influential fact-checker on Weibo. Beidafei argued that Liu Yu, like other intellectuals of her age (between 40-50 years old), has internalized a problematic combination of a superficial hypersensitivity against the Cultural Revolution and a sparse set of Western conservative/libertarian ideas, mainly consisting of “slogans from the likes of The Road to Serfdom,” Friedrich Hayek’s classic defense of liberal economic theory against the threat of totalitarianism. The result is an almost knee-jerk, hysterical reaction to any social justice movements on the left, and an obsession with the “slippery slope”, as if they will all readily morph into a tyranny of the mob.
In a blog titled “Farewell to the era of public intellectuals”, blogger Hu Han concurred. He pointed out that the most terrorizing big-character posters during the Cultural Revolution weren’t really from “the people”, implying that “the proletariat’s Cultural Revolution” was merely a manipulated vehicle and tool for elite political struggles. Therefore, comparing a spontaneous grassroots social movement to Cultural Revolution is “logically flawed”. He went on to argue that Liu Yu embodies a paradox of China’s intellectual elites: they need public support for their advocacy of liberal/libertarian ideas, and yet, deep down, they spell “people” as “mob”. They “must now pay for their outdated intellectual outlook and lack of connection with today’s reality.” The reality, as Hu saw it, is a general “anxiety about power deprivation” in Chinese society. When big liberal ideas such as constitutionalism and rule of law are tossed out of the window by the top policy makers, people at the bottom turn to lex talionis (law of retaliation) and “sentence by social media” to get quick-and-dirty fairness. China’s #MeToo grows out of this soil of severe power imbalance and despair. Disconnected with the everyday reality of women in China, living under the structural violence of family, employer and government, Chinese intellectuals who still plead with #MeToo victims to have faith in due process and abide by rules of order are, in Hu’s words, “laughably cute”(知识分子的可爱想象).
There are commentators who are open to acknowledge that some of Liu Yu’s concerns are valid. For example, Popodeqiao (破破的桥), a Weibo user known for his insights about online public opinion, proposed that at least #MeToo allegations should be non-anonymous (“as a kind of credibility deposit”) and contain sufficient details, with witnesses if possible. He claimed that #MeToo’s Chinese supporters might be a bit too optimistic about the social media’s ability to cleanse itself of falsified, damaging information.
As the Chinese Internet went metaphorical about #MeToo’s embedded values and political message, new accusations continued to appear, pulling people’s attention back to solid ground. On July 26, an allegation against Zhu Jun, a CCTV host and a household name, emerged on social media as by far the most eye-catching revelation of the movement. In the post, victim “Xianzi” described how the celebrity TV host forcefully groped and kissed her, an intern at CCTV at that time, when only the two of them were in a room backstage. She escaped after a singer appeared on the scene, interrupting Zhu’s aggression.
Besides the massive reposts it triggered, the blog post also prompted Caixin to run a report that has set the standard for thorough-going journalism on sexual-related offenses in the Chinese media: it included third-party testimonies of a distressed Xianzi mentioning the encounter to teachers and classmates immediately after the incident. To some extent, the case was exemplary of the due process on which scholars like Liu Yu so eloquently insisted. The victim reported the case to the police right after it happened, asked for copies of surveillance camera records on site, and told her superiors at school of the violation. Yet none of those actions, which underlined the exceptional determination and clear-mindedness of the victim, rendered any result. Instead, policemen advised her to let it go. Her parents received pressure. And she had to wait for four years, until she got encouraged by #MeToo, to make the case public.
To many who watched the unfolding of #MeToo, the case was not just a confirmation of where Liu Yu got things wrong, it also ominously signaled the possible end of the movement in China. Beneath the brutal reality of everyday sexual abuse in the society lies an even harder layer of cold truth: no matter how impactful the movement may seem, it “just can’t kill the beast”. From the outset, observers realized that the #MeToo outburst in charity groups and media organizations was not an indication of the relative terribleness of gender situations in those sectors. It was rather a sign that they were not covered by the protective shield of the “system”. When the fire of the movement gets closer to the inner circle of power holders, brigades of firefighters will be dispatched to put it out. And Zhu Jun marks the boundary where the fire extinguishers hold the line.
A WeChat post captured this sentiment perfectly. Titled “Zhu Jun, the last bullet is reserved for you”, the post’s author Sangsangjie(桑桑姐) couldn’t help but notice the differentiated treatments received by the sexual aggressors exposed by #MeToo. “Men like Zhang Wen were humiliated on Weibo for days. But news about the accusation against Zhu Jun was censored within hours.” Some sexual offenders are more equal than others. And it is painfully clear to Sangsangjie that #MeToo in China may never get to the part of the gigantic iceberg below the surface. “It is within the guarded walls of the fortress that sexual exploitation is at its worst,” she noted. Behind the scene, women inside the fortress were sending her messages about their everyday experience: employees of state owned enterprises pressured to sleep with superiors to avoid being sidelined; journalists forced by their government sources to play drinking games with sexual connotations.
“The brutality of power is beyond our worst imagination,” as Sangsangjie reminded us. She sensed that the exposure of Zhu Jun, the face of one of China’s most powerful propaganda machines, would activate the system’s self-defense against #MeToo. With censorship, intimidation and outright threats targeted at Zhu’s accusers, the statement appeared to be prescient. However, up until this point, Xianzi and her friends have not given up their fight (they are actively preparing to confront Zhu on court. The latter sued them for libel). Criticized, belittled, underestimated, the nascent #MeToo movement nevertheless introduced a powerful free radical into the fatalist predictability of how power runs in China: the moral courage of commoners.