A hashtag alerting online users of accounts that used photos of allegedly drugged Chinese women to sell date-rape drugs has turned into a viral call for women’s safety and rights.

In late May, Russian-speaking users on Twitter began flagging accounts that posted such photos to advertise the drugs and pornographic videos, the South China Morning Post reported. They used the hashtag #ChinaWakeUp in an attempt to raise awareness among social media users in China.

Some of the women in the photos appeared to be unconscious and many accounts provided sellers’ contact information on platforms like WeChat, the hugely popular Chinese social media app that integrates tools including messaging and mobile payments. Other accounts posted photos of women in lingerie posing suggestively and of drug bottles.

Some Chinese social media users saw the hashtag on Twitter, which is blocked in China but can be accessed using a virtual private network, or VPN. They sent screenshots of the accounts to feminist activists on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, who alerted their followers and called on them to report the accounts. #ChinaWakeUp has since been viewed more than 25 million times on Weibo.

“We’ve been exposed to this type of thing before,” user Guozili wrote, referring to the online sale of the drugs. “Now we see solidarity and action from our fellow sisters abroad. Thank you, thank you, we are waking up.”

Online sales of date-rape drugs and pornographic videos are prevalent in China, with many transactions taking place on private groups on WeChat. Potential buyers can easily join groups to get pricing information and are sent videos of unconscious women as ads, according to a report by Beijing News last year. The drugs are often referred to with emojis or single Chinese characters so sellers can avoid being caught.

"Official action needs to be taken"

Due to censorship, social media users in China rarely see campaigns against these issues by users outside the country, a woman who helped circulate #ChinaWakeUp on Weibo told the FRANCE 24 Observers. The woman did not want to be named due to potential repercussions from speaking with foreign media.

Other Weibo users noticed the hashtag on Twitter, so I used a VPN to see it for myself. The women in the photos are in an unconscious state, and the accounts talked about date-rape drugs, drugging women and rape. I took a screenshot and shared it on Weibo.

I didn’t recognize the Twitter accounts, but these types of accounts are common in China. My friends and I have previously reported Chinese websites selling date-rape drugs and child pornography to the internet police. Some were deleted.

This was the first time I saw people talking about it in Russia, but I imagine it’s happened before, or in other countries. It’s good that we can talk about this issue globally. But official action needs to be taken at a broad scale, because if the accounts are just deleted, the sellers will just switch accounts and continue. The bigger problem won’t be fixed.

Twitter users using the hashtag #ChinaWakeUp reported the accounts to the social media giant. Several have been suspended.

A Twitter spokesperson told the FRANCE 24 Observers that the company was aware of the activity. “We are aggressively enforcing our policies against accounts engaging in this behavior,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Threats of violence, objectifying people in a sexually explicit manner, or otherwise engaging in sexual misconduct are in violation of the Twitter Rules.”

The female Weibo user said she had reported the Twitter accounts to the internet police in China but had not yet received a response.

On Weibo, users have been using #ChinaWakeUp to rally around feminist causes and call out harassment and abuse. Some reminded users of hidden cameras sometimes installed in bathrooms and hotels to spy on women in bathrooms. Others urged women to support one another and fight for gender equality in China.

"This world can't be saved." A Weibo user shared the hashtag #ChinaWakeUp to alert others about hidden cameras used to spy on women.

“This is about raising awareness of women’s rights and women’s safety, so I wanted to share what I had seen with other people online,” the female Weibo user said.

"They see it as a feminist issue that the government isn't taking seriously"

The popularity of #ChinaWakeUp on Weibo is the latest indication that women are demanding to be better protected by the government, Yik Chan Chin, a lecturer in media and communications studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, told the FRANCE 24 Observers.

The sale of these drugs has been happening for quite some time. Sellers use symbols to make it difficult for social media networks to identify them, or say the drugs are meant to boost your health. Social networks like Weibo have teams that monitor the content and they’re continuously taking off these ads, but they can’t take them all down.

Social media companies don’t have the power to track down criminals, but the government does, if they see it as a priority. That’s why people use these hashtags and frame the alleged crimes as part of women’s rights: they see it as a feminist issue that the government isn’t taking seriously.

It’s also ironic to me that this issue was first brought up by people outside China, but the alleged crimes happened in China. People inside China should have access and should have the right to know what is happening here, so that women could be better protected. This is not political, it’s about potential crimes. It raises questions about the kind of information that should be allowed in China.

This story was written by Jenny Che.