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Why is China targeting #MeToo activists?

Yuchen Li in Taipei
June 17, 2024

After a court in China handed prison terms to two activists, DW looks at the motivations behind Beijing's crackdown on social justice campaigners and rights activists' struggle for accountability.

A combined photo showing Huang Xueqin holding up a sign reading #MeToo on the left and Wang Jianbing looking up on the right
Both Huang and Wang faced charges of sedition following gatherings they held for Chinese youth where they exchanged views on social issuesImage: FreeXueBing/Wang Jianbing/AP

Leading Chinese women's rights advocate Huang Xueqin was sentenced to five years in prison on Friday for "inciting subversion of state power," according to a group campaigning for her release and a copy of the verdict issued by a court in Guangdong.

The#MeToo activist was sentenced alongside labor rights activist Wang Jianbing, who was given three years and six months in prison on the same charge. Wang has spoken out in support of women reporting sexual harassment. 

The two have already been detained for over 1,000 days after being arrested in September 2021. They have maintained their innocence throughout their detention and trial.

'Zero tolerance for independent thinking'

Huang and Wang often held gatherings for Chinese youth during which they discussed social issues. It is widely believed that Chinese authorities viewed their meetings as a threat to national security.

"It reflects the zero tolerance the [Chinese] government has over people who show any kind of independent thinking," Wang Yaqiu, Research Director for China at Freedom House, a US-based human rights organization, told DW.

Huang Xueqin poses with a #MeToo sign at her home
In 2022, the International Women's Media Foundation honored Huang Xueqin with its Wallis Annenberg Justice for Women Journalists AwardImage: Thomas Yau/newscom/picture alliance

Beijing's crackdown on social movements

Wang Yaqiu warned that the convictions of the two activists, affectionately nicknamed "XueBing" by their friends and supporters, would further narrow "the almost non-existent civil society space."

The decline of China's civil society landscape has been a long and challenging process for local activists.

In 2015, over 300 lawyers and human rights defenders were arrested in a nationwide sweep called the "709 crackdown." The name derives from the date it began: July 9. The arrests targeted legal professionals and activists advocating for human rights and the rule of law.

Over the past decade, Beijing has also restricted overseas NGOs from operating in the country and suppressed feminist and LGBTQ+ movements by arresting leading advocates.

China's #MeToo campaign

Huang emerged as a key voice for women's rights in China during the 2018 #MeToo movement, which originated in the United States — but unlike its Western counterpart, the Chinese campaign was initially introduced and promoted by university students who accused professors of sexual abuse and harassment.

Huang helped spark China's first #MeToo case in 2018 when she publicized allegations of sexual harassment made by a graduate student against her PhD supervisor at one of China's most prestigious universities.

Later, Huang collaborated with Wang to organize social gatherings for activists at his apartment in the southeastern Chinese city of Guanzhong.

China has #MeToo moment

Efforts to rebuild civil society

Wang wanted to rebuild the civil society community and provide support to young NGO workers and activists because many of them faced obstacles working in a highly censored environment.

Rio, a friend of the two activists who regularly attended the gatherings in Wang's apartment, told DW they never thought such informal events would be a problem to the Chinese government until a police raid.

Rio described how the attendees supported each other by sharing their work challenges, learning from guest speakers — and simply unwinding by playing board games together.

"It was not meant to criticize the government privately … it's a very constructive conversation," Rio said,  speaking under a pseudonym due to safety concerns.

Why does Beijing seem 'insecure' about social events?

It was not the first time Chinese authorities targeted people involved in social gatherings.

In 2019, dozens of lawyers and activists who attended a private meeting in Xiamen, a port city on the southeast coast of China, were also summoned and questioned by the police. Some of them were arrested and have remained incarcerated ever since.

Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist currently living in the United States, said this was a "preemptive measure" against dissidents or activists building connections with one another — which could form the foundation of social resistance in the future.

This kind of preventative suppression, Lü emphasized, has no legal basis since specific actions have not yet occurred. Unfortunately, in China, "such unlawful acts continue to happen."

Wang Yaqiu, the Freedom House researcher, also told DW that Chinese authorities found social connections "very threatening" as they usually led to solidarity and empowerment.

The "XueBing" case once again "speaks of how insecure Xi Jinping and the CCP are," she said, referring to the Chinese president and the country's ruling Communist Party.

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A huge setback for Chinese civil society

Rio is one of the core members of the online support group Free Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing, which was formed after the duo's arrest to provide information on the case. So far, Chinese authorities have only made a few details public.

Most of the group's members were frequent participants in the gatherings, and according to Rio, more than 70 of them have been interrogated by the police.

At least 10 people have been forced to move to other cities, and some were reportedly coerced into signing documents with false statements during their interrogations. These documents may have been used as evidence to charge Huang and Wang, some group members told Rio.

"This is a big attack for many young activists in Guangzhou," Rio said. "We have cultivated the community for many years, but the government cracked down on everything very easily."

Lü told DW that the case had had "a huge impact" on feminist communities as well. They feel "an overwhelming sense of anger… and fear" whenever they think about it.

She said that the authorities intended to demonstrate that "its arbitrary actions essentially have no boundaries" by suppressing activists.

'You never know when the next peak will come'

Following the sentencing on Friday, Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman, Lin Jian, said that China "guarantees the legitimate rights of every citizen in accordance with the law."

He added: "At the same time, anyone who breaks the law will receive legal punishment." 

But the momentum of activism in some areas, such as calling for women's rights and addressing sexual harassment, will not be easy to quench.

"You never know when the next peak will come," Lü said, referring to the #MeToo movement, "because this system continuously produces victims, and the victims will resist and prompt those around them to speak out."

"This will not stop." 

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Edited by: Keith Walker

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