Chinese members of the #MeToo movement battle censorship to show support for tennis star Peng Shuai

Chinese censors are clamping down on social media users who voice support for Peng Shuai, a famed tennis player who accused former the former Chinese vice prime minister, Zhang Gaoli, of rape. Unable to express their support for Peng, who has since gone missing, on social media, many Chinese feminists feel silenced. Our Observer, “Krystal”, a figure in China’s #MeToo movement, says that censorship is a real issue for her and her fellow activists. 

Screenshot of an anonymous site in support of tennis start Peng Shuai. "Courage Peng Shuai" is written on the tennis balls in Mandarin.
Screenshot of an anonymous site in support of tennis start Peng Shuai. "Courage Peng Shuai" is written on the tennis balls in Mandarin. © Observers

On November 2, international tennis player Peng Shuai posted a long message on Weibo, the equivalent of Twitter in China, accusing former vice prime minister Zhang Gaoli of rape. Twenty minutes later, her publication had vanished. Since then, the player hasn’t made a single public appearance. This has sparked concerns for her safety, despite an email she allegedly wrote, saying she is safe and sound. 

Posts mentioning Peng Shuai’s accusations have been wiped from Chinese social media, a major loss for the country’s iteration of the #MeToo movement. #MeToo, which was launched in the United States in 2017, is a movement encouraging women to speak up about their experiences with sexual violence. 

The movement really began in China in 2018 when the screenwriter Xianzi accused Zhu Jun, the star presenter of public television station CCTV, of sexual harassment. In the end, the case was dismissed

Krystal (not her real name), a Chinese woman in her 30s, is a leading figure in the Chinese #MeToo movement. She has been organizing from her base in the United States, where she has been living for the past five years. She says that censorship has made it impossible to show support for Peng Shuai online. 

Peng Shuai posted on her social media that she was sexually assaulted by a retired Chinese leader, not just any leader, but one of the most powerful leaders in the country. Twenty minutes after she posted, the post was censored. I was not able to read it myself because it was deleted so fast.

We communicate using WeChat [Editor’s note: the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp]. If your social media post includes her first or last name, it will be deleted. If you don’t really dig for information, it is impossible for people to know what happened. 

'There is nowhere for feminists to show their support for Peng Shuai'

Some Chinese feminists have been showing their support for Peng Shuai by using anonymous initiatives hosted outside of the Chinese internet. One website, for example, allows women to leave anonymous messages of support. Krystal applauds this movement.

We need this space. It’s very difficult to access from China, but Chinese feminists can show their support for Peng Shuai there and talk about this case. We don’t want her to feel isolated. 

The government is trying to erase Peng Shuai’s existence, to act as if these accusations never existed. The aim of the website is to make sure that people keep talking about this so her story isn’t forgotten. 

This screengrab shows a website and blog in support of Peng Shuai, created using the platform “Padlet”.
This screengrab shows a website and blog in support of Peng Shuai, created using the platform “Padlet”. © Padlet
Messages of support have also been circulating on Twitter. Most of the people who post these messages don’t provide information about their location.

'Lots of Chinese feminist accounts have been censored'

Censorship has been an issue for participants in China’s MeToo movement since the beginning. However, some women began using a creative hashtag “米兔" ("rice", pronounced "me" and "rabbit", pronounced like "too") to get around Weibo’s algorithms, which often censor posts with hashtags in English.

Most mainstream media outlets in China have barely mentioned this issue. Weibo often suspends accounts run by feminists, claiming that they spread “illegal and dangerous” information.  

Krystal continued: 

Weibo deleted my account and I was not allowed to have another account. The only thing I was doing was showing my support for other MeToo activists. 

It’s happening even more these days. This year, it’s getting worse. A lot of Chinese feminist accounts have been censored or been victim to cyber bullying because they highlighted the government’s failure to act or problems within the system.  

petit rassemblement pro-féministes devant l’université de Wuhan en soutien d'étudiantes au compte Weibo supprimé

Women’s rights activists have been threatened by both anti-feminists and the authorities, who sometimes accuse them of spreading foreign ideas or supporting independence movements in Hong Kong or Taiwan.  The journalist Huang Xueqin, known for having covered MeToo cases in China, was arrested for "inciting subversion of state power".

Krystal also said that police have threatened some women who had written private messages voicing support for Xianzi in her court case against the CCTV presenter.

The government is very alert to the [#MeToo] movement and they don't know how to stop it. They are trying to identify who is behind it, but what they don't understand is that there is genuinely no one behind it. It's literally a movement of women who are coming forward because the system is crooked. It's not treating women fairly.

The 'organisers' are women who show support to other women.

Krystal says that not everyone has faced intimidation. She – and her family who are still in China, for example – haven’t had any issues for the time being. She hopes that the movement will continue to progress, despite censorship. 

Despite all these difficulties and obstacles, the movement isn’t dying. It’s even growing bigger and bigger. The fact that Peng Shuai spoke out is evidence that the #Metoo movement is still growing and powerful. Even if the government and other people are trying to discredit it, they can’t because too many women have been mistreated for too long.