When Xiao Meili entered her freshman year at the Communication University of China in 2008, she was inundated with sexist messages that made her feel bad about herself.
"In high school, we were never allowed to wear makeup, then when we started university, all of a sudden, becoming a 'pretty woman' became a very important responsibility," said Xiao. "I tried hard but it was just impossible for me to live up to all these ridiculous standards placed on women."
Ten years later, Xiao has become a prominent feminist activist and one of many Chinese women who have seized on the momentum of the global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment to call for change at home.
As the #MeToo campaign spreads from one university to another in China, it is demonstrating the extraordinary resilience of a feminist movement that has posed a unique challenge to China's male-dominated, authoritarian regime. For the first time since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, organized feminist activists, independent of the ruling Communist Party, have tapped into a broad discontent among Chinese women and developed a level of influence over public opinion that is unusual for any social movement in China.
Ever since authorities arrested five young women — known as China's "Feminist Five" — in 2015 for planning to commemorate International Women's Day by handing out stickers about sexual harassment, the Communist Party has tried to stamp out the feminist movement. Almost a year ago, censors temporarily banned Feminist Voices, the most influential feminist website and social media account in China, ostensibly because it had posted an article about a planned women's strike in the United States protesting President Trump on International Women's Day.
The founding editor of Feminist Voices, Lu Pin, believed the 30-day ban was meant to send a warning to the growing number of vocal Chinese feminists online.
"Chinese women feel very unequal every day of their lives, and the government cannot make women oblivious to the deep injustice they feel," says Lu. "The feminist movement is about building a community to address women's everyday concerns."
Despite the authorities' sustained persecution of women's rights activists in recent years, the feminist resistance may yet have the potential to become China's most transformative movement in the long run — provided that any social movement is allowed to exist in the repressive political environment. Feminist activists have cultivated a closely networked community of supporters numbering in the thousands, revolving around university students and graduates in different cities across China. Some of them have become effective organizers, capable of mobilizing citizens around issues that resonate deeply with ordinary Chinese women, such as pervasive gender discrimination and sexual harassment on public transportation, in the workplace and in schools. Even as authorities harass the most prominent feminists, local governments sometimes respond to the activists' demands, for example, by displaying anti-sexual harassment ads on subways in cities like Shenzhen and Beijing.
As record numbers of Chinese women attend university, both in China and abroad, they are beginning to challenge widespread sexism and unequal treatment. Since the government abolished its one-child policy at the beginning of 2016, it has aggressively promoted a new two-child policy, urging women to marry and have children as soon as possible, to address its demographic crises of a severely aging population, falling birth rates and a shrinking workforce.
But women in China's rapidly expanding middle class are increasingly recoiling from the intense pressure of heterosexual marriage and child-rearing pushed by sexist Chinese state propaganda, as gender inequality in wealth and status has widened along with breakneck economic growth.
More and more young Chinese women are identifying as feminists. And, in recent weeks, thousands of female — and also some male — students and alumni in China have defied heavy Internet censorship to sign #MeToo petitions at dozens of universities, demanding action against sexual harassment.
Feminist activist Xiao launched a #MeToo petition addressed to her alma mater: "Given the severity of sexual harassment at institutions, we feel obliged to be vocal. It's imperative that Chinese colleges construct a mechanism to prevent sexual harassment on campus," said her petition to Beijing's Communication University of China.
It was deleted by censors soon after she posted it on the social media platform Weibo and the group messaging app WeChat. A week later, several women who signed Xiao's petition said that a professor had questioned them about why they were taking part in the #MeToo movement and whether they were influenced by "hostile foreign forces."
This line of questioning is not new. Last May, the website of the People's Daily — the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party — published an announcement warning that "Western hostile forces" were using "Western feminism" to interfere in China's handling of women's affairs. The vice president of the All-China Women's Federation, Song Xiuyan, was quoted as saying that Party officials working on women's issues were in the midst of a "serious political struggle" and urgently needed to follow President Xi Jinping's instruction to guard against Western ideological infiltration.
As International Women's Day (and the anniversary of the arrest of the Feminist Five) on March 8 approaches this year, feminist activists may face another crackdown in an attempt to prevent the #MeToo movement from spreading any further. Already, calls for an end to sexual harassment have begun to expand beyond China's university-educated women to factory women.
An anonymous female assembly-line worker who suffered routine sexual harassment at Foxconn, Apple's main supplier for Asia, published an essay last month on a Chinese women's labor rights website demanding that her employer set up proper channels of recourse for victims like herself. "We call for more men to pay attention to the situation of their sisters," she wrote in the essay, translated by SupChina.
Some students in Beijing had planned a march against sexual harassment on university campuses, but canceled it after receiving warnings from their school, according to Reuters. Still, feminist activist Lu says it will be extremely hard to silence all the women who want to speak out.
"Once women experience a feminist awakening and stop believing Communist Party propaganda," she says, "they can never go back."
Leta Hong Fincher (@LetaHong) is the author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (Verso 2018).