BEIJING – After spending two months late last year nudging university officials to punish her former adviser for trying to pressure her and others into sex, Luo Xixi found unlikely help on China’s heavily censored internet.
She published a post on Weibo, a popular microblog site similar to Twitter, to detail her own experiences and those of four others with the professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In a few hours, her post – initially targeting her less than 10 followers – garnered 3 million views.
It had swift consequences in the conservative country, too: The professor was fired.
“I don’t think the officials forgot to block me,” Luo told USA TODAY by phone from her California home, where she moved after graduation to work in software programming. “I can tell the government is trying to open the door to the #MeToo movement, little by little.”
Sexual abuse scandals aren’t new in China, but they rarely have caused a stir in the past. In this deeply patriarchal society, women who spoke out before were often seen as airing dirty laundry in public and bringing shame upon their family.
But with Luo's post – the first by a Chinese to use her real name – the tide has turned and the floodgates to sexual misconduct allegations in China burst open.
Other Chinese nationals living overseas began posting on various Chinese-language social media sites alleging sexual misconduct by academics. Since late July, every few days new victims and witnesses inside China have aired their accusations on chat groups or personal blogs against such prominent figures in philanthropy, the media, entertainment – including a national variety show host and a monk who heads the country’s Buddhist association.
State censors have deleted some of the posts, though not before they percolated on cyberspace through re-posts and were amplified by local media reports.
Much as the so-called Great Firewall has kept sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and most recently Reddit off-limits to China’s netizens, there is a plethora of popular homegrown sites.
Also, as China’s censorship apparatus is known to employ AI, or artificial intelligence, to automatically block sensitive terms from posts and group chats, some netizens find a way around referring to #MeToo by using homophonic Chinese words that mean “rice rabbit.”
“China has a contentious internet culture – people in China are used to taking their grievances online,” said Yang Guobin, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in online activism in China. “(Censorship) hasn’t really stopped the determined protesters.”
For example, in April, five Chinese living abroad, including one on the faculty at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and another teaching at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, posted open letters online demanding that Peking University release specifics of a 1998 investigation into a former professor following their undergraduate classmate’s suicide: They believe he repeatedly raped her. Even as she took her own life, the professor held on to his position for more than a decade and won national recognition.
They distanced themselves from the #MeToo movement knowing that Chinese officials often are quick to crack down on organized actions.
“Before I came forward, I told our classmates we shouldn’t hitch ourselves to any movement or political demand,” the Wesleyan professor Wang Ao wrote on one of his blogs. "I tend to think I’m just an outsider and volunteer."
Following the recent wave of allegations, however, a few of the accused ended up apologizing online. After well-known environmentalist Feng Yongfeng was accused of harassing several women, he posted his mea culpa on WeChat, a social media-cum-messaging app.
And the fallout has been particularly swift for professors identified as perpetrators – all were let go or resigned from their jobs.
The latest to face consequences is Xu Gang, associate professor of East Asian studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. On at least two Chinese-language social media sites, Wang publicized his female colleagues’ accusations against Xu’s sexual harassment dating back two decades. He left his tenured position earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Luo says she now embraces #MeToo, as she’s since realized the term is a rallying cry that resonates with the Chinese.
“So more people can come forward,” she said. “So they know they’re not alone.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Yang Guobin. She is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in online activism in China.