In early 2017, a young woman’s experiences of violence went viral on Weibo. Her case demonstrates the paradox of social media in China.
On the surface, 2017 looked set to be a good year for gender equality in China. In early March, for example, Fu Ying, spokesperson for the People’s Congresscalled at a high-profile press conference for stronger protection of women’s rights.
She acknowledged issues including gender discrimination at work and told journalists: “It is important for people to change their mindset, and respect women’s employment rights. We need to be aware that women and children are the future of our country.”
This seemed like a significant step for the establishment, compared to previous gestures to award honorific titles to women of extraordinary achievements “on various fronts of socialist construction,” for example, while neglecting the struggles and demands of ordinary female workers.
All is certainly not well, however.
The Weibo account “Feminist Voice” 女权之声 has played a huge role in promoting women’s rights in China and has in doing so become well-known internationally as well, for example. But it was censored—blocked from posting updates for a month from 21 February, allegedly for reporting the Women’s March in the US.
Earlier this year a young woman who shared her experiences of violence on the Weibo social media platform was also allegedly put under surveillance as a result.
Born in a rural village in the Wushan area in 1988, Ma Panyan said on Weibo that she was sold by her relatives along with her sister, as a child bride. Then, she said she was raped and beaten, and gave birth to a girl at the age of 14.
In 2016 the Ministry of Civil Affairs acknowledged her forced marriage upon her request for a divorce, but has not even investigated those involved in her abuse.
Ma’s experiences went viral on Weibo, where she also recounted that there was no proper facility or care during her labour, and a simple blade, rather than a medical knife, was used to perform a c-section. She said she would have chosen to end her own life had her sister not been by her side.
Her story prompted nationwide sympathy and outrage in China, particularly from other women her age, including myself, who have had better luck and are living comfortable urban lives. The absence of anything close to sufficient institutional support or justice for Ma has further fuelled anger over her case.
However, a few days after her story first emerged, she stopped updating her Weibo account. Later, she posted to say four men seemingly sent by the authorities to watch over her 24/7.
On 31 March, Ma suggested on Wechat that it was because of the timing of her case, alongside the high-profile political Two Meetings, that local cadres were watching her.
A 2 April report in the Chinese Women’s Newspaper published by the All-China Women’s Federation criticised past police handling of Ma’s case. A 5 April report from the official party mouthpiece Global Times references police responsibility as well, but also exposes a relationship Ma had with another man after she ran away, in 2008, from her abusive home.
Ma gave birth to a girl with disability (cerebral palsy and autism) from that relationship, and is also seeking help online for her daughter to receive medical treatment.
Ma’s username on Weibo, Wushan June Snow, refers to a famous tale in classical Chinese drama written by Guan Hanqing 關漢卿 (c. 1241–1320) during the Yuan dynasty about a young woman, Dou E 竇娥, who was sold as a child bride and later wronged by her in-laws and sentenced to death by beheading by the governor.
As the tale is so well-known in China, Ma’s username vividly communicates the message of injustice and grievances to thousands of Chinese netizens who were touched by her story and her courage to speak out.
Her case also reflects a paradox of social media in China: that despite censorship, it remains a powerful means by which messages can be conveyed to millions of people. Despite the existence of the almighty “Great Firewall,” Chinese internet users are able to communicate with people across the country and even beyond, allowing voices to be heard and receive support from major international media, scholars, reporters, and even world leaders.
Two years ago, China’s “feminist five” pulled street stunts including Blood Brides (against domestic violence) and Occupy Men’s Toilets (to increase the size of women’s public toilets and equalise wait times for men and women). They also placed stickers to raise awareness of sexual harassment on public transport, catching the eye through social media of major international outlets like The Guardian and CNN, and received a personal endorsement from Hillary Clinton.
Some netizens have remarked that fan groups for celebrities, commercial online shops, and writers and public intellectuals’ Wechat accounts, for instance, can be seen as a successful examples of civil mobilisation and self-organisation.
But the threat of state surveillance remains omnipresent and those fighting for women’s rights and civil liberties are unlikely to forget this. Clear political demands that challenge ruling ideology will still be censored and silenced.
A few years ago on Weibo, there were a number of opinion leaders known as ‘Big Vs’ (short for Big VIPs) who provoked public debates on social issues. Today, none of them are still active or even visible on the internet.
Xue Manzi, a prominent commentator, disappeared from the online public eye in 2013 after he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute by Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau. (Some suspect that his real offense was sharing comments about corruption and political reform with his more than 12 million followers on Weibo).
Murong Xuecun, a writer with almost 4 million followers, also disappeared suddenly from the internet world in 2013. The official party newspaper, People’s Daily, meanwhile published a piece on how those Big Vs should spread “positive energies” on the Internet.
There is a popular idea among foreign policy and tech industry elites that laptops and smartphones can function as “liberation technology” in the hands of people challenging authoritarian regimes.
At the same time, as Edmund Fawcett writes in the New York Times, most of us are somewhat stunned by the scale and complexity of the forces in play, be they government surveillance, and China’s Great Firewall, or the violent cyber-propaganda of militant Islam.
How social media can be used and abused has become a pressing question globally. It has also become a framework for examining the nature of power in the circumstances in which powerless people operate. And in patriarchal societies, women are often the least powerful among the powerless.