#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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In search of Tang Lanlan

Tang Lanlan

Almost ten years ago, in a remote part of northeast China bordering Russia in Heilongjiang province, something like an earthquake shook a small village of only 280 residents. On Oct 28, 2008, police raided the village and arrested 16 villagers. The charges were stunning and deeply disturbing. The arrested, most of them related to each other, were accused of sexually abusing, raping and gang raping a little girl called Tang Lanlan (pseudonym) for 8 years beginning when she was only 6. These people included her own father, grandfather, uncles and mother (for openly pimping her to other males in the village). Someone who read the court’s verdict on the case later told a reporter that the whole thing “read like porno fiction”.

By January 2018, a few of the convicts had served their jail sentences. The girl’s grandfather had died after being placed in custody. Now some of them, including her mother, are seeking redress for a crime they say they did not commit.

On Jan 30, the Shanghai-based online news outlet, the Paper, published a story titled “Finding Tang Lanlan“. The report followed Tang’s mother, Wan Xiuling, as she embarked on a journey to try to locate her daughter and “seek justice” for herself and her fellow family members. It highlighted the incongruities in the case, including two conflicting abortion records from the same hospital issued on the same day and the mutually contradictory testimonies of Tang and her “step-mother”, the owner of a private student dormitory and the girl’s de-facto custodian while she was at a junior high school far from home. The latter had helped her report the case to the local police but offered various versions of when she actually learned of Tang’s story. The Paper‘s report at the end focused on the supposed “mystery” of Tang’s disappearance. Official records showed that she had moved out of her parents’ household, to a different city.

But should Ms. Wan be able to find her daughter Tang Lanlan?

Many people reading the Paper‘s report were at once appalled and confused. By leaning heavily on Wan’s side of the story, the journalist did not address readers’ understandable puzzlement about why so many villagers were locked up by the police if, as Wan claimed, the whole thing was either a fabrication or a horrible misunderstanding. On what basis would the local police, the prosecution and the court trust the words of a poor 14-year-old girl if without any evidence? The report posed the question, but failed to point to alternative explanations for the shocking allegations.

Most observers of the Chinese media would admit that the report was flawed. It readily adopted the point of view of a convicted criminal without balancing it with other perspectives from the victim or the prosecution. Some critics pointed out that editors at the Paper might have been too excited about the sensationalism of the story to uphold basic journalistic standards. They bought too much into Wan’s narrative without considering the general “humanitarian environment of social media” today: netizens tend to sympathize with victims, especially in cases of sexual assaults.

More sympathetic voices probably would argue that in the current media environment of China, insisting on having the other side of the story, especially if the other side was the authorities, would be asking too much of a news organization. The investigation could easily get stonewalled, or worse, censored before it hit newsstands (or phone screens) if “the other side” felt questioned and threatened by potential media exposure. As if to prove the validity of this argument, a Southern Weekly report on the same case played out in this way (report was deleted). Unlike his peers at the Paper, the Southern Weekly reporter did a thorough job of interviewing Tang’s step-parents and sources inside local law enforcement. The article depicted a more rounded picture of the case, including new details such as torturing allegations against the police and what looked like Tang’s attempt to extort money from her aunt. But the piece was killed before the newspaper went to print, probably for shining an unfavorable spotlight on the local prosecution. The journalist had to post it on his own WeChat channel (which was censored again). Ironically, the flawed Paper piece, probably because of its “personal story” structure, got a green light.

Experienced observers were able to spot the mismatch between the form of the Paper‘s reporting and its substance. “The gravity and magnitude of the case warrants an in-depth investigative piece. Yet the paper opted for a format more befitting a hotline scoop about a regular family dispute.” And The poor reporting could be blamed on the drain of investigative talents that many Chinese media outlets experienced in recent years, due to a mixture of tough censorship and market forces, or it could be a conscious sacrifice of quality to be on the safe side.

If the debate had been restricted to the realm of journalistic professionalism, the case wouldn’t have sucked up so much oxygen on the Chinese Internet for an extended period of time before the Chinese New Year. As soon as the paper’s report was out, an accusation much more serious than “editorial quality control” was laid upon the publication and the journalist who wrote the report. In the story, Wang Le, the reporter, included a piece of hukou information (China’s residential registration) about Tang, with a few items partially crossed out to hide her exact identity. But certain critics were alarmed by the possibility that the girl might be tracked down with that partial information and be exposed to the risk of revenge by those newly released from jail. A storm quickly formed online that would devour Wang Le, the Paper, and the entire media circle.

The “privacy violation” argument had so much traction on line that many social media heavyweights quickly joined the chorus to condemn the Paper. Soon the accusation was blown to weird proportions. There were calls to manhunt the journalist (exposing HER personal information in the process), to punish the publication by making complaints to the authorities, or outright to lock up Wang Le.

The ferocity of the attack was distilled in the much-used slur “prosti-journalist“(as in “prostitute-journalist”, jizhe), playing with the similar pronunciations of the two professions in Chinese. All of a sudden, a large part of China’s online community was asking for the banning of the very media outlets whose existence was supposed to protect their interests.

As a genre, legal reporting is often considered one of the areas where the Chinese idea of “public opinion supervision”(yulun jiandu) is best manifested. It is also an area where the most experienced and capable journalistic talents are employed to document, scrutinize and question judicial proceedings and their consequences, creating a rare channel of interaction between the state and general society on matters of justice. Some of the historic reforms of China’s legal system in recent years, such as the abolishment of “shelter and repatriation”(a form of extrajudicial detainment), were also celebrated as landmarks in journalism. That dynamic was still playing out less than 3 years ago, when the retrial of the Nie Shubin case was received with dramatically different public sentiments. In that gruesome 1994 rape and murder case, the young Nie Shubin was quickly arrested, convicted and executed. 20 years later, the young man’s death sentence was questioned and revisited by the Supreme Court, after relentless pleading by Nie’s family and a journalistic marathon (lasting for more than a decade) by the country’s media. The forensic and procedural flaws of the original police investigation were the subject of great social media outrage. And yet in the Tang Lanlan case, netizens were surprisingly livid about journalists “daring” to ask questions about a “concluded case”.

Some saw this stiffening of attitude against critical media reports of sexual abuse cases as a kind of “over-compensation” for the chronic absence of justice for victims of similar aggressions. Netizens just wanted to believe that the convicted had been duly punished for their crime and felt offended when that belief was challenged. The intense emotional attachment can be attributed to a string of recent incidents that shaped public perception of the experience of rural victims of sexual abuse. Roughly a year ago, the jaw-dropping revelation about the Ma Panyan sisters in Chongqing rattled Chinese social media. When very young, the three girls were sold by their step father to villagers as “child-wives”, and were raped, abused and gave birth before reaching adulthood. The local authorities not only certified the “marriages”, but also dodged calls to hold the step-father and “husbands” accountable for human trafficking and rape after one of the sisters made their tragedy public on Weibo. Earlier, the Hebei government’s unwise move to publicly honor a rural school teacher for her “dedication” drew fierce net-wide criticism and ridicule. The school teacher had been abducted, raped and forced to marry a local villager. She chose to accept her fate and stayed. But the fact that her nightmarish life story was made into a beautifying movie (A Women Married to the Mountain) and later endorsed by the local government was a source of great disgust and became a permanent point of reference on the Internet.

Other cultural factors may have also played into the online perception about the case. China’s Northeast, the country’s rust belt, has seen its reputation plummet in recent years as its state-owned economy suffered. With the region’s economic decline, the public sphere is increasingly filled with tales of a morality collapse, of the people there losing their grip on the ethical codes that hold communities together. In early 2016, a Caijing journalist’s sensational account of the disturbing moral conditions of his hometown in the countryside of Northeast (e.g. married women seeking casual sex online) got him stripped of his journalistic credentials for fabricating facts and denigrating the region. This time, many netizens found the bizarre case entirely plausible in the Northeastern context and even used foreign movies such as Nicole Kidman’s Dogville to spark their imagination.

Women’s right advocates online, whose efforts helped make the Ma Panyan case more visible, were split over how to respond. Some readily joined with others to condemn and curse the media. Others were more nuanced in their criticism, maintaining that a “due process and a professional, just judicial system are preconditions of women’s rights protection”, cautioning that the critique should not undermine the Chinese media’s (dwindling) ability to run critical reports that hold the judiciary accountable. But both positions were challenged by the view that these feminists were merely reinforcing the social stigma attached to rape victims. Instead of contesting the idea that suffering sexual assault was a kind of shame on the part of the victim, they inherited the cultural bias and insisted that the victim be permanently buried as fugitives from society.

In a world where media organizations are under attack from all corners, “Fake News” allegations from the US President being a prominent example, it is not entirely surprising that Chinese publications like the Paper enjoy their share of disparagement. What’s remarkable is that in China, supposedly benevolent forces in society have now joined the censors in squeezing the already curtailed space for media operations. In the name of privacy for a rape victim, netizens unload their fury on the media, leaving long time observers to marvel at the new reality that Chinese journalism has to inhabit.

The new reality means that in addition to being censored and destroyed, reports can also be deconstructed faster than a legitimate line of journalistic pursuit can be established. The Paper‘s piece was not so much blocked and deleted as it was thoroughly disabled and deactivated by seemingly sophisticated critiques. The feminist argument undermined not just the Paper‘s legitimacy in going along the “wrongful judgment” route, but the entire line of questioning by the media as a whole. So when other newspapers, such as Beijing News, followed up and tried to bring more facts to the table (it managed to get multiple law enforcement officers to comment on the case on record), they were also immediately hamstrung by a very hostile online environment that saw such inquiries as a form of violence against the victim. Critiques from journalistic perspectives did not make things any better. Beyond criticisms of quality control, commentators knowledgeable about media practices drilled into how the report came about in the first place and the “hidden motives” in the media’s agenda-setting attempt, claiming it was a collusion between the convicts’ defense lawyer and the newspapers to upend well-deserved verdicts.

Defenders of the media were left scrambling to adapt and find their footing. Some of them, including very prominent ones such as Rose Luqiu, felt the need to concede to the journalist’s wrongdoing before they could offer a defense of the media’s broader role of challenging problematic legal cases. The environment was tough enough for the Chinese media. They should be allowed the space to err on the side of the greater good. But the readiness to throw fellow journalists under the bus raised eyebrows. Defenders were seen to kowtow to the tyranny of online trolling and to offer cliched, one-thing-fits-all support of the press without addressing the specific dilemmas it faced in this particular case.

The Paper withdrew the report from its website amid mounting criticism. Beijing News defiantly continued to publish new materials on the case, but its Weibo account was muted by the platform for a few days. And representatives of the Supreme Procuratorate reportedly met with two of the newly released and their lawyer. The High Court of Heilongjiang province, on the other hand, denied reports that it had initiated processes for a retrial. No one, at least for now, managed to get hold of Tang Lanlan. If the girl has been watching all this from somewhere, she might feel vindicated that so many total strangers have spoken up on her behalf. Or, she might be appalled by the magnitude of the online storm that left behind a massive field of weird debris upon which the rest of her life needs to be built.

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.

No country for Phoenix man

dinner

Food occupies a sacred place in the celebration of the Spring Festival. The whole Chinese experience during these few days each year is built around eating: the careful preparation before, the sophisticated rituals during, and the extended wrap-up after the feast.

This year, one such dinner party went terribly awry and became a national spectacle. Not only did the extended wrap-up not happen, it actually involves a guest running away from it. And she did not just run from it, she ran hundreds of kilometers from where the dinner was to her home in Shanghai, in a borrowed car.

So how horrible can a table full of food be? The young woman posted a picture on a Shanghai-based web forum. For eyes not spoiled by the aesthetics of the Chinese cuisine, it might not be immediately obvious why it is that bad. It looks like there are plenty of meat on the table, all put in large steel containers that can hardly contain them. If relocated to another context, this might as well be a symbol of abundance. But for a Chinese, it is at once clear that this is an unrefined dinner from the countryside. The color is unsightly; materials are illegible at best; and the containers, steel rather than china, are simply indecent, particularly for a dinner on the New Year’s Eve.

Even though the authenticity of this dinner party is heavily contested, it is understandable that a white collar from Shanghai can feel frustrated with such quality of food. It was supposed to be her first dinner at the home of her boyfriend, a colleague from rural Jiangxi province, one of China’s most poverty stricken landlocked provinces. Before making up her mind to embark on that over-dramatic cross-country escape the next day, she sought support from fellow forum goers in Shanghai. The underlying message was not just about the dinner, it was about whether she should give up that relationship.

The post almost touched off a referendum on the issues of marriage, etiquette, and women’s right, among others. Compared to that, the suspicion that the whole thing was fabricated by the online forum to salvage its dwindling traffic is beside the point. The bizarre incident once again thrusts the issue of rural China into the national conversation. Only this time, the collective gaze turns unambiguously harsh.

The intellectual tradition that sympathizes with the peasantry runs deep in the Chinese culture. The canon of Chinese classics is stocked by beautifully written passages that bemoan the abject lives of its men and women in the countryside. That tradition paves the foundation for the egalitarian aspirations in much of China’s dominant political thinking throughout its quest for modernization. More recently, the precarious situations of “farmer”,”agriculture” and “countryside” capture the imagination of not only the country’s intellectsia, but also its leadership, making rural issue the nominal “number one” issue for the past decade.

That warmth toward the dirt roads, the paddy fields and the hunched figures laboring in them is dissipating. And strangely, the forces tearing that emotional attachment apart are supposedly “progressive” trends: the advocacy for women’s right, the belief in equal status of husband and wife, the care for children’s well being…

All that newfound hostility is concentrated in a term originated on the Internet: “the Phoenix man”. Its precise origin is untraceable but it is safe to say that it emerged out of the pages upon pages of online sharing of family tensions and dramas, at forums that excel at such topics, such as Tianya or Liba.

Even though the Phoenix, a mythological bird that regenerates itself through blazing nirvana, is often associated with luck and blessing in the Chinese culture, the “Phoenix man” is actually a satirical play of that cultural heritage. It refers to a category of Chinese male, who invariably comes from poor, rural roots and have received higher education in the cities. Through that education they manage to join the ranks of the urban middle class or even higher, get married to an urbanite, and settle down in one of the concrete jungles of the east coast. It sounds like an inspiring story of the China Dream but it’s not. The narrative of the “Phoenix man” is actually a wake-up call of the China nightmare.

The rural roots of the Phoenix man carry much “baggage”, both material and emotional, as the story goes. He feels infinitely indebted to his family, his relatives, his kinsmen, who are left behind in his hometown. Their sacrifice has propelled his rise in social ranks. So he needs to pay them back (and they feel entitled to that payment), often by squeezing his own modest resources. The urge to reciprocate starts to shape his personality: he becomes paranoid, petty and ultra-sensitive to his status. It takes a toll on his relationship, as his girlfriend/wife is often reluctantly drawn into his orbit of incessant repayment. There is a strong patriarch element to the legend. Despite coming from more modest background than his female partner, a Phoenix man is yet adamant in insisting that they play by HIS set of values. She can’t reject that ancient obligation to his village folks. She has to embrace it lest she loses his love.

The fact that in early 21st century a kind of prototypical personality can be so precisely and vividly pinned down through anonymous “crowd-posting” on the Internet is in itself something spectacular. To some extent, it can be read as a quiet, unobtrusive resistance to a suppressive relationship imposed upon a large number of Chinese women. Instead of an open revolt against their men through nasty fights, splits, divorces, they take to online forums to share, recount, and mock. Their collective work is no less powerful. In no time, there are novels personifying that character and television dramas visualizing that label.

But a supposed correction of one set of imbalance (men vs. women) has exacerbated another (city vs. countryside). And that other set of imbalance has been in a state of disrepair for a long time. The Chinese peasants have endured the fate of being an “afterthought” for millennia. They have been the subject of heavy taxation, brutal conscription and devastating collectivization. Even with political movements ostensibly run in their names, they end up becoming the loser, being locked up in their backwardness by a system that restricts their upward mobility in the society.

The “folk education movement” (pingmin jiaoyun) tradition, albeit marginalized in the upheavals of 20th century Chinese history, is probably the only serious attempt from China’s educated elites to “payback” to a class perpetually betrayed. That tradition manifests itself in recent years in the form of sympathetic accounts of the sorry state of the Chinese countryside by liberal intellectuals, journalists and artists.

Almost around this same time last year, a wave of nostalgic sentiments swept through the Chinese Internet. The annual reverse migration back to the countryside during the Spring Festival by the hundreds of millions who work in the cities creates first-hand accounts of the country’s struggling rural communities. In the most popular ones, authors lament about the dissolution of traditional rural values, demoralization of those remaining in the countryside and the disintegration of once strong bonds among people. The eruption of such sentiments became a national post-Spring-Festival topic that drew in the country’s most powerful media institutions.

This year almost saw that same mood unfold as the Lunar New Year approached. Weeks before the national celebration, a piece written by a female scholar who spent some time in her husband’s hometown in the underdeveloped part of Hubei province started to circulate on the web. It is a troubling account of a family and a community disintegrating under the pressure of poverty and sheer whims of life. Their social safety net is so thin that one construction contract going awry sent a relatively prosperous family deep into the abyss of debt. The stress spreads across the family and starts to eat into the life of the author and her husband, who is the only son in his family with a higher education and an academic job in the city. He is a “Phoenix man”. But the author, a deeply compassionate social scientist, was sophisticated enough to reject that label and to relate to the tremendous ethical burden her husband shoulders. She is also sorely aware of how stigmatization like this could close the only remaining channels of upward mobility for people from China’s poor rural regions. The article again raises concerns over the precarious state of the country’s rural communities.

But that concern was completely drowned out by the dubious dinner in Jiangxi province. In its place, a very genuine distaste descends on the farmers and the “lifestyle” they embody. In its most extreme form, a self-claimed “petty bourgeois” female writer goes all the way to explain, with a seriousness that borders on being scary, why social classes are not supposed to mingle, and why it is a good thing to have social stratums separate themselves naturally “like mud from water”. A girl who grows up knowing that steel plates are indecent does not deserve to marry into a family that prepares a dinner like this. The unabashedness and self-righteousness in her message are already glaring. What’s even more troubling is the unexpected surfacing of another line of assault, which, strangely, springs out of a concern for women’s fate in the province of Jiangxi. By highlighting the legitimately disconcerting data that shows Jiangxi as among the provinces with the highest fatality rate for baby girls, posters make a far-fetched case for the escape of our heroine, claiming that she has the right to leave behind a place that treats women in such hideously evil ways (The suspicion goes that peasants in Jiangxi province kill baby girls intentionally as a way of sex selection).

The problem with that argument is that it casts the systematic practice of sex selection of newborn baby simplistically as a moral failing of individual farmers, and from that reading women’s right advocates derives a kind of punitive indignation completely directed at the rural community. No question is raised about the role of the state in causing this problem: the issues of one-child policy or rural education never surface during such discussions. People seem to be complacent about stopping the questioning at the individual level of the poor farmers. They finally have someone to blame for the misery of Chinese women in the countryside.

The feminist backlash against the peasant class is the most intriguing turn of events in this saga about one silly dinner. It is hard to tell how much of that can be attributed to the systematic removal of the “root cause critique” from public discourse. As observer Song Zhibiao puts it: “Prejudice is often de-politicized. From the very beginning there is no mention of the government, as if the Chinese countryside is an isolated utopia, a self-contained sin that has nothing to do with the cities. It only deserves to die by itself, silently.”

In 21st century China, its aging, sick and disenfranchised countryside is faced with another menace: urban public opinion turning unforgiving.

 

* It has just been confirmed that the story of the dinner is completely fabricated.

Further reading on this blog: Poor Man’s Violence