The torrent of hate messages filling Liang Xiaowen’s inbox stopped as suddenly as it had started.
For a week, the 29-year-old Chinese feminist was subject to incessant chauvinist and misogynist attacks on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media sites. She was called a “traitor” and a “xenocentric bitch.” Some users discussed how to find her parents’ home address.
Then, without any warning, Liang’s account was removed by Weibo.
“At first, I could not believe it,” she said. “The slander against me continued online, but I can’t even defend myself anymore.”
Liang, an attorney living in New York, is among more than 20 Chinese feminists and women’s rights groups whose presence has been wiped from social media over the past two weeks.
The disappearance of their accounts followed a similar pattern: Each was first accused by influential nationalist bloggers of being a “separatist” or “traitor.” Then, a barrage of vicious messages and comments descended, with trolls reporting their accounts to Weibo moderators for supposedly “illegal” or “harmful” content. In a matter of days, they found their accounts shuttered – with all posts and followers erased.
“(We) were collectively silenced by an internet-wide crackdown that hit like a tsunami. The online public sphere that we have overcome all difficulties to build was relentlessly smothered,” Liang said.
Liang became a feminist at a university in Guangzhou, a southern Chinese city once known for its vibrant civil society. She continued engaging in China’s online feminist movement after moving to the US in 2016 to study for a master’s degree.
In recent years, an army of nationalistic influencers and their followers have become powerful aides to the government-employed censors policing China’s internet, swarming on those who speak out and intimidating them into silence.
China’s feminist movement – already subject to a harsh crackdown under President Xi Jinping – is the latest target of a sweeping online crusade against voices deemed “unpatriotic.” Trolls sift through years of posts on feminist social media accounts, searching for the slightest suggestion of alleged “anti-China” opinion.
Sometimes, as in Liang’s case, even supporting victims of harassment is enough to prompt an onslaught of personal attacks.
Unable to find fault with Liang’s Weibo posts, trolls descended on her account on Twitter, which is blocked in mainland China. Her retweets of posts by overseas Chinese dissidents and articles about the crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang were paraded as “evidence” of her betrayal of China. And a photo of Liang sharing a meal with an American feminist scholar was used to prove her “collusion” with US anti-China forces.
But Liang refuses to be silenced. In a rare step, she filed a civil lawsuit this week against Weibo, demanding to have her account back.
“I want to show everyone that there are still efforts we can make to try and preserve the space we’ve created together. I don’t want to give up,” she said.
Weibo said in a statement that Liang’s accounts and others were removed after complaints from users over posts containing “illegal and harmful information.” It stressed that Weibo users must not “incite antagonism between groups or promote boycott culture” or “organize or incite other users to attack state and Party organs and public enterprises and institutions.”
How did the attack start?
Liang was attacked for defending Xiao Meili, a leading voice in China’s feminist movement and the first to face the nationalist storm.
It started when Xiao spoke out on a subject that could not be more apolitical in nature: indoor smoking.
On March 29, Xiao went out for hot-pot dinner with a few friends, during which she became entangled in a dispute with a customer at the next table who refused to stop smoking despite her repeated requests. China banned smoking in indoor public places in 2011 but did not specify penalties. In many cities, the practice is still prevalent due to weak enforcement and a lack of local legislation.
As the argument heated up, the man became more agitated and threw a cup of hot liquid at Xiao and her friends. Police were called but no charges were laid. Later that evening, Xiao uploaded a video of the encounter on Weibo, expressing frustration at the difficulty of banning indoor smoking in Chengdu, her home city in southwestern China.
To her surprise, the post sparked such intense discussion that it became a top trending topic on Weibo the next day. Xiao received overwhelming support from commentators – and even the endorsement of a number of state-affiliated accounts.
But outside the spotlight, an ugly smear campaign was brewing against Xiao. On March 30, a prominent nationalist account on Weibo posted a photo of Xiao from 2014 and accused her of supporting Hong Kong independence.
In that photo, Xiao held up a sign with a famous line from Hong Kong rock band Beyond: “Holding fast to freedom in the wind and rain!” Originally a homage to Nelson Mandela, the song was frequently sung by protesters during the Umbrella Movement in 2014. Beneath it, Xiao wrote another line: “Pray for Hong Kong.”
What the Umbrella Movement demanded was universal suffrage, not Hong Kong independence – which was an extremely fringe idea that few took seriously at the time. But to China’s fervent nationalists, any show of support for Hong Kong’s quest for democracy is equated to an endorsement of Hong Kong independence.
Before long, Xiao’s account was flooded with savage attacks.
“Hong Kong independence (supporter), your whole family deserves to die,” one message said. Others accused her of being a “CIA spy.” Another wished her to be doused with sulfuric acid.
The next morning, her Weibo account was shuttered. “I was confused and terrified,” Xiao said. “The political accusations are too big and too frightening.”
The trolls followed her to Taobao, a Chinese online shopping site where Xiao owns a store selling clothes with feminist designs. Insults kept pouring into her inbox, and more than 20 items at her store were banned from the site due to incessant reporting from “customers.”
“I’m still nervous now,” Xiao said. “I’ve been crying a lot recently. I’m most afraid that the (online harassment) would affect my real life. But it has – my business has been attacked, and I have to take a break to take care of myself, to digest and deal with all of this.”
“Political death sentence”
Back on Weibo, Xiao’s attackers celebrated the disappearance of her account – and Zheng Churan, Xiao’s feminist friend who was at the hot-pot dinner last month, became the next target.
Trolls found a photo Zheng posted of herself on Twitter in 2014. It showed her holding a sign similar to Xiao’s, and wearing a yellow ribbon, a symbol of Hong Kong’s democracy protests.
She too was assailed for being a Hong Kong independence supporter, in addition to being a Taiwan independence supporter and a practitioner of Falun Gong, a religious movement banned and brutally suppressed by the Chinese government. Zheng denies all three accusations.
“My first reaction was anger,” Zheng said. “Then a sense of terror set in … what kind of education and promotion of hatred have these young people been receiving that allowed them to behave like this online?”
Accusations of separatism have long been used by the Chinese government to clamp down on activism and dissent in Tibet, Xinjiang and more recently Hong Kong. Increasingly, it has been deployed to target other Chinese who sympathize with their cause.
Such political labeling is a powerful and effective weapon because the accused can’t argue back or engage in meaningful debates. Honest and free discussions on the issues of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan are not tolerated on Chinese social media, and any deviance from official narratives can be perceived as “anti-China.”
“It’s a political death sentence, and misogynist and nationalist trolls can easily deploy it to attack us,” said Lv Pin, a New York-based activist whose Weibo account was also removed last week. “The government not only endorses it – it has made the weapon and set the rules of the game.”
The attack campaigns thus almost invariably end in victory for online nationalists. For “patriotic” influencers, the witch-hunting, doxing and online bullying of “traitors” is also a tried-and-true method to quickly generate traffic and amass followers.