#MeToo on the Chinese Blogosphere: Justice, Victimization and Intellectual Revolt

MeToo
Former CCTV journalist Wang Zhian retweeting sexual assault allegation against his CCTV colleague Zhu Jun

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.

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Your womb, my history

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Like a vehicle losing control, a recent debate about legalizing surrogacy suddenly swerved and crashed into the carefully guarded space of post-1949 Chinese history, creating an opening that competing camps of online commentary vied to control. 

Amid the festive atmosphere of the Chinese New Year in early Feb, People’s Daily carried a largely bland piece in one of its less important sections. As the third installment in a series reviewing the implementation of the two-children policy (China eased its decades old one-child policy in a historic move to address the pressing demographic challenge in 2016), the piece discussed the difficulties facing many aging Chinese couples seeking to have a second child. At the end of the article, the author entertained the possibility of legalizing surrogacy in China, which so far has been strictly banned.

Acknowledging the controversial nature of such a proposal, the author advocated caution in the hypothetical easing. Only non-commercial, voluntary surrogacy should be allowed to avoid  spawning a for-profit industry. 

But the mere fact that People’s Daily mused about such a possibility struck a nerve with many who feared the ethical and legal mess that such a move would cause. Global Times, the market-oriented offspring publication of People’s Daily Group, in a curious case of rebellion, openly objected to the idea by citing situations in India and the US, where surrogacy, legalized or not, led to consequences that harmed the surrogate mothers, who were often in a disadvantage in such deals, and the children they bore.

The feminist argument was prominent in this debate from the very beginning. In an impromptu poll on Weibo initiated by a feminist outlet, a majority of participants expressed concern about the violation of women’s rights if surrogacy were green-lighted in China. People feared that women would be forced into the business against their will. An apocalyptic picture emerged in the discussion of poor girls kidnapped and kept in captivity to serve as surrogacy machines in  a “reproduction sweatshop”, even though doing so would clearly violate China’s criminal code with or without legalized surrogacy.

China’s population policies have been dogged by increasingly strident criticism from feminists these days. Major policy moves such as the abandoning of the one-child policy, hailed elsewhere as an enlightened development, met with cynical response domestically as the state’s  attempt to manipulate women’s wombs to correct its own demographic blunders. The bizarre scenes on the local level, where certain local governments pressured employees to have a second child in order to fulfill policy goals, further embittered advocates who resented the perceived “instrumentalization” of women by the state to achieve social objectives.

This line of thinking apparently colored the online response to the People’s Daily article. What’s unexpected was how far it went to threaten the very legitimacy of the Party. When Weibo user Huangqingjiao, a playwright, posted her comment about legalizing surrogacy, she reached back all the way to the early history of the People’s Republic, trying to make the case that the regime had a history of treating women as reproductive machines. “Whether it’s forcing people to have a second child, or legalizing surrogacy, what’s more horrible than these decisions is the icy logic behind them, the logic that treats women as mere items.”  She brought up the campaign to recruit tens of thousands of young women to go to Xinjiang, in the far west of China, in the years immediately following the establishment of Communist China in 1949. The invincible People’s Liberation Army, directed by the Party’s top leadership to settle down permanently to consolidate control of this frontier region, had to confront an insurmountable problem: the daunting male-to-female ratio. Not surprisingly, most of the troops were men. Many of them had endured years of brutal battles, first with the Japanese and then with the Kuomintang in a devastating civil war. Having passed their prime time for forming families, those officers and soldiers were put off by the prospect of an extended single life in a barren land. Some of them formally applied to be dismissed, so that they could return home and get married. “The issue of wives”, as General Wang Zhen put in in his letter to a colleague, “has reached to a point that it affects morale of the troops and the stability of Xinjiang.”

A massive campaign rolled out across the country to recruit women to Xinjiang. Responding to the call to build New China and the opportunity to contribute as independent, empowered individuals, tens of thousands of female students, housewives and peasants flocked to recruitment stations, committing themselves to a noble cause.

Very few of them were aware that their roles as girlfriends, wives and mothers were probably more valued by the state at that time. Some of them started to feel the “heat” after settling down in work units freshly set up in the western province. “Match-makers” were dispatched to “work on their minds”, trying to convince the girls that marriage was for the greater good of a prosperous Xinjiang. In certain cases, attempts of persuasion bordered on coercion, causing a fair amount of stress among those women (some of them became mentally unstable). The situation alarmed the leadership, which in the end directed those “mind workers” to soften their approach and honor the freedom of marriage, a concept that had just been enshrined in the People’s Republic’s new marital law.

The history of this campaign is well-documented. Government files, news reports and academic papers exist to preserve an important part of the Party’s early efforts to govern a newly seized region. Huangqingjiao got a glimpse of the history in a TV documentary called “Eight thousand Hunan girls go to Tianshan”, zooming in on one leg of that campaign in Hunan province. Her interpretation of their fate as sheer tragedy shaped how many netizens viewed this history in particular and the Party’s treatment of women in general.

The more reserved version of such a view lamented the powerlessness of individuals before the iron wheel of state-building. The extreme version went as far as equating the females with “comfort women”, sexual slaves kept by the Japanese military during World War II.

Ironically, what was presented as being sympathetic was taken as an insult by the descendants of the very women to whom the sympathy was directed. “My grandparents dedicated their youth to the frontier. They fell in love and got married of their own free will. Those ignorant of the Xinjiang construction corps should quit denigrating our predecessors! ” snapped one Weibo user. The local police of Altay, a place in the north tip of Xinjiang, sent out an angry Weibo post accusing Huangqingjiao of spreading lies. “The first generation of Xinjiang’s constructors do not deserve such assault… Without their sacrifice, how could someone like Huangqingjiao enjoy her leisure and peace?”

If the anger was directed at the lack of appreciation for those women’s agency, they might have a point. The “comfort women” comment was particularly insensitive in this regard. Studies looking closely at that period depicted a nuanced picture of those females “negotiating” their existence in an environment at once liberating and suppressing. Many of them came from abject backgrounds that were even harsher to women of their generation. They escaped extreme poverty and the shackles of traditional Chinese society to seek education and work in a new environment. Most of them fulfilled such dreams by becoming nurses, teachers and office workers in the PLA-turned Xinjiang Construction Corps. And they used this newfound independence to push back at the “matchmaking” attempts that were seen as inconsistent with New China’s vision of women’s liberation. Some of them in the end accepted “Party arranged marriages” not because they passively bowed to fate, but rather reconciled their devotion to the country with personal life choices. 

Yet the indignation could also have  originated from a misplaced stigma about women with “impure” sexual experiences, even if coerced. Therefore, a woman’s misery of forced marriage could be taken as disgraceful on the side of the female. And people chose to defend her by insisting that they were “clean”(qingbai).

More is at stake than the women’s reputation. Modern Chinese history, particularly the part after 1949, has become a minefield. Barbed wires are being erected around the orthodox stories of liberation and progress. And trespassers will be punished. The Party’s online propaganda guards were quickly deployed to contain the rising tide of questioning. The Global Times editorial put this episode in the context of “rising historical nihilism” in recent years. Trying to be seen as fair, it declared Huangqingjiao’s Weibo post as an “inadvertent” offense, while warning that more sinister attacks of the sacred narrative are being propounded all over the Internet by those with ulterior “political motives”. “The history of New China is a history with capital H. The grandiose heroism of those involved cannot be judged by the petty bourgeois of today. However, even a great history will unavoidably involve personal misfortunes and miseries. Nevertheless, the mainstream sentiment among those females was one of pride and dignity, not of frustration and regret.”

But who represents “mainstream” and who are those individuals to be brushed aside as outliers? Anticipating questions like this, defenders of that history felt urged to protect “collectivism” against the assault of “individualism”, which they regarded as a luxury for those struggling in Xinjiang at that time. Their words can be vituperative at times, claiming that the “sacrifice of first generation Xinjiang constructors do not need the disgusting ‘sympathy’ from modern whores who only ask what the country can do for them.”

Those who defended the collectivist era maintained that personal sacrifices and devotion of that generation laid the foundation for the economic boom that followed the end of Mao’s reign over China. The buildup of basic industries and the accumulation of “demographic dividends”, the abundance of low cost labor, helped launch the Chinese economy into a sustained three-decade growth trajectory that became the envy of many other countries. And younger generations who enjoy the fruits of development should at least be grateful to their predecessors.

If gratitude is too much to ask for, an empathetic understanding is what many in the middle were suggesting. The ethics of a society, particularly those concerning personal rights, evolve over time, and it is probably unfair for today’s feminists to judge the 1950s using their value systems. The necessity of resettling hundreds of thousands of troops in the far west had the leaders’ hands tied at that time, who were more than aware of communist China’s promise of equality for women. Some argued that women going to Xinjiang in those years might have seen a “net improvement” of their situation by escaping their backward, poverty-stricken rural homes, and that the campaign should be more properly seen as a massive “blind dating event“, where the suppressed women of “old China” met a relatively well-regarded and well-paid group of young males, PLA officers.

More experienced observers noted the fact that this was not the first time that the history of “eight thousand Hunanese women” caused a stir in Chinese society. In the 1980s and 1990s, when materials about the buried memory resurfaced, there was a healthy discussion about the human dimension of the “grand history”. The experience was demystifying and even liberating for some: the “minority” who did feel hurt by that campaign were finally able to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, the “honest and pragmatic” approach to that history has been replaced by a much more ideologically rigid one of today, remarked commentator Song Zhibiao. The now familiar frame of “anti-historical nihilism” immediately trumped any attempt to reopen the history for critical review, and the otherwise debate-savvy feminists quickly retreated from their confrontational stance. “A debate about history has itself become part of Chinese history,” observed Song.

RELATED READING ON THIS BLOG: Down with the Nihilists!

Sex, lies and Wang Baoqiang

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For a particular subset of Chinese showbiz stars, the defining feature of the celebrity experience is the dizzying rocket ride up the steep ladder of social stratification. To be sure, most Chinese people went through quite impressive upward movement in terms of wealth and relative social standing in the past three decades of rapid economic growth. But stardom has applied a mind-blowing extra acceleration to that rise, propelling a poor peasant’s son to the stratosphere of a multi-millionaire in a matter of years.

Wang Baoqiang is one of those lucky few. Raised in a poor family from a small city in Hebei province, he spent six years of his early youth in the Shaolin Temple, the mecca of Chinese kung-fu, as a resident pupil, practicing martial arts hundreds of miles away from home while other kids of his age were at primary schools. Sending kids to the temple was for cash-strapped families a makeshift solution to formal education. After that he migrated east, to the prosperous coastal part of the country, to look for opportunities. In the city of Beijing he tried to find luck in the booming show business, from the very bottom of the industry, as an extra. He landed a life changing role in the 2004 blockbuster by celebrated director Feng Xiaogang, playing, not surprisingly, a dumb, naive, trusting son of a peasant. That role’s name was shagen (or “dumb root”).

Ever since then his public image has been pretty consistent with his life story. The roles he played tend to be earthy, sincere, unsophisticated. And people affectionately associate him with that kind of personality, calling him “dumb root” or “baobao”, which is the same pronunciation as baby.

So when this beloved son of China exposed his wound in front of the whole nation, the cyberspace burst into tear. On Aug 14, Wang posted on his Weibo a statement declaring that he was to divorce his wife of seven years, Ma Rong, who, according to Wang, was having “extramarital sexual relationship” with Wang’s agent, Song Zhe. In the brief but poignant statement, Wang elaborates on how he has worked hard to fulfill his responsibilities to the family. He pleads the public to leave some privacy for his two little kids.

Amid overwhelming public sympathy for Wang, which involves massive, abusive trolling of the adulterous couple, a distinctive voice appears on the Internet. In some way it represents a “modern” response to the affair. Its core message is about the sanctity of the private sphere. Marriage, according to this view, is a voluntary bond between two individuals. No third party, let alone the collective gaze of the mass, should be allowed to project its moral judgment onto this bilateral relationship. Wang’s statement amounts to a “shame parade” of his wife. By subjecting her to the verbal abuse of hundreds of thousands of strange netizens, Wang was acting “like an uneducated villager inviting his neighbors to openly reprimand his infidel wife.”

Critics even claim that the extramarital affair should be the “privacy” of Ma Rong. Wang has no right to broadcast it to the world, even if he is her husband. The high-volume online criticism of Ma and her lover is “the pageant of the legally ignorant,” and represents a backward set of values that treats women as the property of men.

Among those who accuse Wang of harboring “agrarian-age values”, one view distinguishes itself as particularly eye-catching. The author maintains that Wang’s behavior betrays his uncultured upbringing, which makes him undeserving for his well-educated beautiful wife. He even cites sociologists to suggest that marriage is supposed to be between individuals on more equal footing, materially and intellectually.

Some of those “intellectual” response to Wang’s divorce statement and the ensuing public outcry is illustrative of why, as a group, liberal-leaning intellectuals are disliked by a large part of the Chinese Internet. In recent years, “public intellectuals”, which refers to liberal commentators who opine on a wide range of social issues not limited to their own expertise or profession, are considerably stigmatized and despised by many netizens. Not all of this contempt can be explained away by government-led smear campaigns, though they certainly play a key role. The Wang Baoqiang affair shows how at least partially it is also self-inflicted.

As veteran commentator Cao Lin puts it, the elitist aloofness embodied in such response seems to be but a cheap and deliberate posture to agitate the public and gain web traffic. The “privacy” argument is particularly far-fetched and pretentious: Wang only mentioned, in a matter-of-fact manner, his wife’s affair in his statement, as the cause of their break-up. He did not release any information about that affair beyond the simple statement, no hidden camera pictures, no sex tapes. Cao argues that the use of the over-extended concept of privacy to blame Wang Baoqiang is a blatant disregard of his misfortune as a husband and the moral obligations of married adults.

The backlash is fierce against the detached, learned online intellectuals who lecture people about private sphere and a marriage deprived of moral values. “Urban elites wields the language of modernity to defend the betrayal of trust and basic ethics. The logic behind that language is confusing, arrogant and shameless,” says one media operative on Weibo.

Interestingly, those who are able to articulate a counter argument against the liberal, intellectual stance is no less intellectual. For them, the overwhelming public sentiment is a society’s defense of basic decency in family and professional life. “Being faithful to a partner, being honest to an employer, is a morally honorable way of life, compared to which the moral cynicism of the intellectuals is despicable.” Some even venture that the society’s ability to apply public pressure to immoral behaviors is a desirable quality. It glues basic social units such as family together. According to this view, in many other societies this precious moral force is being suppressed by the “liberal intelligentsia”, a mistake that China should not repeat.

But this sudden uphold for “moral conservatism” in the Chinese society is not without its skeptics. To those ears, it sounds too much like handing the society’s moral baton to the nosy, judging and meddling “auntie Wangs” who have no sense of boundary and privacy. Feminists go one step further. They see the highly public debate of the dissolution of one marriage as reinforcement of the “tyranny of monogamy” that bounds women to a social institution with a force that does not apply equally to men.

Inadvertently, by displaying his flawed marriage to millions of viewers, “dumb root” poses a not so dumb ethical conundrum that proves challenging for a society constantly renegotiating the borderline between private autonomy and the collective purpose as a community.

Woman Power

Liu Yan

Even if one only takes a casual interest in what’s going on in China’s cyberspace, one can’t help but notice the high volume of women’s voice in the past few weeks. In April alone, the internet has been rattled by successive controversies surrounding women and their experience. First there was the episode from a celebrity wedding, where one bridesmaid’s embarrassing experience triggered a debate about sexual harassment. Then netizens were deeply troubled by the case where a woman was beaten up by thugs at a downtown Beijing hotel, a horrific incident that brought about nationwide discussion about systemic violence against women.

There is no indication that this wave of highly publicized incidents is in any way a coordinated push to advance certain agenda. But a common thread is nevertheless discernible: public events are being actively used to reshape social values when it comes to women. Through actively “critiquing” the behavior and utterance of public figures, especially show business celebrities, gender-minded opinion leaders on the internet are essentially enforcing a kind of “political correctness” that is almost entirely grassroots-generated. In a country where there are more political taboos, enforced top-down by the state through an extensive bureaucracy, than “political correctness”, a society’s own check against cultural abuses of disadvantaged communities, the appearance of cultural vigilantes policing values is remarkable.

The bridesmaid episode is illustrative of the phenomenon. By itself, the incident might seem trivial. Liu Yan, a TV star who usually does not shy away from accentuating her sexiness publicly, found herself in a slightly uncomfortable environment at her friend Bao Wenjing’s all-star wedding in Bali, where a bunch of the groom’s best men, all of them celebrity actors and singers, tried to throw her into a swimming pool. Liu resisted the mischief, while another bridesmaid came to her rescue and saved her from the embarrassment. From the video clip that circulated widely on the Internet, the occasion was not particularly unpleasant. People were shrieking with excitement while watching a bunch of men lifting Liu up grabbing her arms and legs.

That’s probably why a few of those best men acted clueless when they suddenly went under fire in the cyberspace. Influential social media accounts that command a large female followership cried foul at those men’s behavior as borderline sexual harassment. They read Liu’s body language (huddling the waist of another bridesmaid, pulling up her dress, etc.) as a clear sign of her discomfort with the “prank” or whatever the males would call it. The awkward moment of her rearranging her strapless dress after she stood up was seen as a testament to her being violated.

Female commentators went out to educate netizens why it was wrong. Some of them provided insightful, sophisticated interpretation of what went on at that scene. “Slut shaming“, as one of them put it, was at the center of the controversy. Since being sexy has always been part of Liu Yan’s brand image as a star, society holds an assumption that she somehow accepts, or even welcomes, such physical contact from males, despite the above signs of her resistance. It is the society’s prejudice against female sexuality that puts her in a situation where violation is seen as justifiable or “self-inflicted”.

Those commentators did not stop at education. They went on to name and shame high profile online figures for expressing problematic views. Liu Chun, a former chief editor of a major portal website and a guest at the wedding, was criticized for his view that people overreacted to the “joke” and that he “would be more than happy to be thrown into the pool.” Criticizers maintained that his own preference was not equivalent to Liu Yan’s consent. More unforgiving criticism was thrown at others who express opinions that were outright offensive. Liuyishou, a Weibo figure, was labeled a “straight male cancer” (zhinan’ai), a popular term coined to describe a Chinese male with typical male-centric values. He openly mused about whether Liu secretly “wanted it”, despite her objection to the game. It is exactly this kind of thinking, argued his critics, that leads men into sexual aggressions.

Naturally, those directly involved in the prank were under the heaviest pressure to admit their wrongdoing. By this point, the outcry on behalf of Liu Yan had become all but irrepressible. But for reasons inexplicable to her defenders, it was Liu Yan who came out first to apologize through a prerecorded video, expressing her regret for disrupting a “happy occasion”. The gesture, rather than putting the controversy to rest, directed more fury against the best men, who so far had kept their silence. Public pressure was mounting on Korea-trained superstar Han Geng, who had cultivated an image of upbeat wholesomeness. After ignoring the call for apology for a few days, Han finally succumbed to the sentiment. Earlier, the groom had already offered a grudging sorry containing a veiled complaint about online trolls unfairly putting his wedding under spotlight.

Barely had the wedding drama subsided in the cyberspace when another one took its place. This time the woman involved was not subject to subtle harassment but violent assault. On Apr 5, a Weibo account called Wanwan uploaded footage from a surveillance camera showing a gruesome experience she had at a hotel in a busy business district of Beijing. As she was searching for her key card in front of her room, a stranger appeared behind her and attempted to drag her away into the emergency exit. While she struggled on the ground, hotel staff on the scene tried to intervene but did not act forcefully, a response that drew fierce criticism after the story broke. While the man was making phone call to what appeared to be his fellow thugs, the young woman tried to escape to the elevator, which only agitated him. This time he violently pulled her by hair. And just when the poor girl was about to disappear into the exit, a female customer who happened to be in the corridor offered her help. The noise brought more people to the corridor, after which the perpetrator left the scene.

A traumatized Wanwan described the incident in a string of fragmented pieces of Weibo posts. Her account of the arrogant hotel management and the indifferent police infuriated netizens, especially women, and touched off a sense of profound insecurity. (It turns out that the thug mistook her for a prostitute who unknowingly strayed into his turf.)

But besides triggering the usual outrage, the episode also brought about something that can only be described as “meta-response”, i.e. a response to other responses. So instead of commenting on the incident in itself, opinion leaders took a particular interest in how others had been responding, and passed value-based judgments on their merit.

Once again, celebrities became vehicles for value dissemination. Certain responses, particularly those from male stars, were criticized for being opportunistic and misguided. For instance, actor Yuan Hong advised female fans to learn self-defense techniques that can be applied in similar situations, only to receive ridicule from female opinion leaders. Many of them believe that women can hardly benefit from unnecessarily agitating male aggressors who are often physically much stronger. So when official outlets such as the People’s Daily also advocates for self-protection, they couldn’t contain their contempt. On the other hand, female stars were praised for their call for more mutual support that creates safer environment for women. Materials from overseas, such as advertisements and TV drama clips, are also used to exemplify the “right” kind of response.

Observers, at once amazed and perplexed, have offered a few plausible explanations for the prominence of women’s voice in recent public debates. Some see this as a natural result of more “white-collar, middle-class” females gaining access to cyberspace podiums, especially positions in the country’s media establishment. “When female editors and journalists grow in their numbers, their dominance in the industry manifests itself in the prominence of a female discourse in the society.” There is no statistical corroboration for such a statement, even though it is said that Wanwan, the victim of the hotel episode, is herself a media professional and has used her communications savviness to mobilize support.

Another thesis, though not directly linked to recent incidents, is worth noting for its political insight. More than one commentators have remarked on the women’s voice online of late as a flank of the burgeoning, organized feminist movement in China. They argue that besides the real world advocacy and campaigning on issues such as domestic violence and workplace equality, a branch of the movement takes on online discourses as a cultural battleground. They use social criticism as a deliberate strategy to advance a feminist agenda. A signature of their online campaigns is their dogged attack on the cultural manifestation of “male supremacy”, which also draws criticism for omitting more structural suppression of women by the state.

No evidence shows that major feminist advocacy outlets such as nusheng (women’s voice), which are usually very active in gender-related public debates, ignited the fuse of public rage over the above two incidents. Number of clicks for its WeChat commentary on the hotel case are dwarfed by better known outlets that do not openly identify themselves as “feminist”. But a scrutiny of their message reveals a commonality in their underlying message that makes people wonder how the organized movement is connected to the seemingly spontaneous general discourse, and vice versa. As it turns out, the feminists’ major critique of the discussion about the hotel incident is precisely what major social network outlets have been saying: the misleading nature of so-called self-defense tips that are being doled out to women. “This is passing the responsibility from the state to women themselves.” On Apr 6, a few activists protested in front of the hotel where Wanwan was assaulted. The movement took the online debate offline.

How did China’s Spring Festival Gala turn into a feminist’s nightmare?

It’s the Chinese New Year again. Besides lunar new year mainstays such as fire crackers and Jiaozi, watching the CCTV’s (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala has been “a force of habit”(CNN) since its debut in 1983. “Combine the viewers of the Oscars, Emmys, American Idol finales and MTV Video Music Awards — then throw in the Super Bowl ratings for good measure — you are not even close,” CNN provides a reference to understand the magnitude of the annual variety show. This was proudly broadcasted by CCTV as a somewhat envious compliment. (Yes, we in general hate the biased “Western media”, but never hesitate to quote them verbatim when they compliment.)

To many viewers this year’s show was nothing special. Ever since the diversification of entertainment became possible in the late 90s, the appeal of the show has started its gradual decline. Long gone are the days when a catch phrase in the show becomes a permanent establishment in the Chinese language almost over-night. Today, comedians have to borrow heavily instead from the vibrant internet world for puns and jokes that to some viewers are already too outdated to be relevant. For a person like me, the show has become a kind of background noise of which the only function is to remind people that it’s the New Year’s Eve.

But this year, in addition to the regular ridicules and parodies of the stupid show (which have become more fun than the show itself with the emergence of social network sites), a very serious conversation started to develop as soon as the show was over. It turned out that many female viewers were deeply offended and disturbed by the values expressed in the show. More specifically, they were aghast to see how a 4-and-half-hour show could squeeze in so much content demeaning to women in each and every way.

Imagine if NBC aired a comedy sketch that features a punch line comparing women with sexual experience to “second-hand products” and genuinely expected it to be funny (not as a ridicule of such references), or if the theme of a 10-minute sketch on the Academy Award show was about two men telling a “female loser” (30-year-old, single and overweighted) how to pick herself up by having an attractive super model as her role-model, with all sincerity. (This is of course not to say that Hollywood does not have its own problems with the portrayal of women.)

This was what ACTUALLY happened in front of 700 million pairs of eyes on the night of Feb 18, if CNN’s viewership figure is correct.

Many female viewers were fuming with anger. The hashtag #spring-festival-gala-discriminates-against-women (#春晚歧视女性) on Weibo accumulated over 5 million clicks in only 24 hours after the show.  A popular post (with close to 20,000 re-posts) describes the show as a complete collection of discrimination against women, “from appearance discrimination, to job discrimination, to marriage discrimination, to the objectification of women as a whole.” Serious critiques of the show quickly appeared on sites such as zhihu.com (a Q&A site similar to Quora). In one of the most viewed posts, the author cited the objectives set by the 1995 World Women’s Conference (held in Beijing) for “women’s representation in the media,” one of which was to “promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.” The author then asked pointedly if China’s national television station was promoting or actually impeding the achievement of this objective set 20 years ago.

What those female viewers find even more disconcerting is that neither CCTV nor those participating in the show (including many actresses) seem to consider this a problem. Indifference proves to be a bigger challenge for advocates of women’s right. Therefore, many of the commentators voluntarily took up the educational and enlightening role, disseminating arguments about why women should speak up and openly resist such treatments that they considered repulsive. Some of them started to spread images that they claimed to represent women’s deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, implying that it was largely due to women’s quiet acquiescence of injustice (even though such simplistic depiction of the Afghan situation met with strong skepticism).  Petitions were quickly put in place to call for CCTV’s open apology.

Such sentiments do not resonate with everyone. Accusations that such criticism is unfair and over-reacting have dogged the debate from the very beginning. There are also self-professed “feminists” offering counter-arguments that women should not feel entitled to treatments not proportional to their own capabilities, calling criticizers of the Gala a “feminist cancer.” From this mixture of rebuttals emerged a more comical “school” of thinking that the criticism represents “a blind adoption of Western values.” (Not surprisingly many upholders of such views are men).

Yet again, in the discussion of the world’s most watched variety show, two unconnected parallel universes appeared in China. When the heated debate about women’s representation by the Spring Festival Gala was still far from over on social network sites, China’s mainstream media outlets, CCTV included, were busy selling a different story about the show: “Anti-corruption themed sketches considered the most ‘edgy’ in the show’s history.”

The country acts as if it has watched two different Spring Festival Galas.