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Women are battling China’s angry trolls. The trolls are winning

BEIJING — The feminists’ social media accounts had been slowly disappearing in China for days. And when that wasn’t enough for their angry critics, a powerful voice on the internet stepped in to help.

Ms Liang Xiowen, a lawyer, in New York on April 23, 2021. As online attacks against Chinese feminists like Ms Xiowen intensify, popular social media companies are responding by removing the women — not the abusers — from their platforms.

Ms Liang Xiowen, a lawyer, in New York on April 23, 2021. As online attacks against Chinese feminists like Ms Xiowen intensify, popular social media companies are responding by removing the women — not the abusers — from their platforms.

BEIJING — The feminists’ social media accounts had been slowly disappearing in China for days. And when that wasn’t enough for their angry critics, a powerful voice on the internet stepped in to help.

In a discussion on the popular Chinese platform Weibo, one of the critics asked for better guidelines on how to file complaints against women who shared feminist views. The user suggested that the company add “inciting mass confrontation” to the list of violations that could have them removed.

A Weibo account long affiliated with the company’s chief executive officer, Mr Wang Gaofei, joined the conversation to offer tips.

“Here,” the person using the account said April 14, posting a screenshot with easy instructions for filing complaints against the women. Under “type of complaint,” click “inciting hatred,” the screenshot showed. Under specific reason: “gender discrimination”.

Women who express feminist views on social media have long been subjected to torrents of hateful comments. In China, not only do those views attract the attention of trolls, they can also lead to getting kicked off the platforms by furious users empowered by unlikely allies: The internet companies themselves.

Several prominent Chinese feminists have had their accounts deleted from Weibo in the last two weeks following public complaints. According to the women, at least 15 accounts have been removed. 

The women say it is part of a growing online campaign to stamp out feminist voices in a country where the government controls the internet and social movements are swiftly cut down. Two of the women have filed lawsuits against Weibo.

“I was speechless,” Ms Liang Xiaowen, an outspoken Chinese feminist, said of the screenshot. While Mr Wang’s name is not officially attached to the account, he has been identified as its owner in half a dozen state media reports and a podcast.

“He accused me of gender discrimination, which is the most laughable thing in the world,” she said.

Ms Liang, a 28-year-old lawyer in New York, is one of the women whose accounts were removed by Weibo. She is suing the company for violating China’s civil code, saying it did not adequately explain its accusations against her.

The women’s accounts first started disappearing after March 31. Two days earlier, Ms Xiao Meili, a well-known feminist in China, had left a hot pot restaurant in the southwestern city of Chengdu, angry that a man had ignored her repeated requests to stop smoking illegally indoors. The man was so furious that he hurled a cup of hot liquid at Ms Xiao and her friends.

Ms Xiao, 30, later uploaded a video about the incident, prompting a groundswell of support that soon unleashed a noxious backlash.

That afternoon, she was besieged by thousands of hateful messages. Users dug up a 2014 photograph of Ms Xiao holding a poster that said “Pray for Hong Kong” and used it to accuse her of supporting Hong Kong independence. Hours after the photo surfaced, Ms Xiao discovered her Weibo account had been frozen.

In a statement on April 13, Weibo said that four of the deleted accounts had posted “illegal and harmful” content, and it called on users to respect Weibo’s basic principles, which include “not inciting group confrontation and inciting a culture of boycott”.

In addition to Weibo, Ms Xiao has had her account removed by one other Chinese internet company. None of the companies responded to requests for comment.

“This has caused a lot of damage to my spirit,” Ms Xiao said in an interview. “Since March 31, I have been very nervous, angry and depressed.”

Feminists in China say Weibo has applied a double standard when it comes to policing abuse against men and women. Weibo blocks the use of phrases such as “national male,” a derogatory term for Chinese men. But rape threats and words like “bitch” are permissible.

Ms Zheng Churan, a feminist whose account was also removed recently, said several of her female friends had tried to report offensive remarks to Weibo but had never succeeded.

“It’s really obvious where the platforms are aligned on such matters,” Ms Zheng said.

Weibo has played a central role in helping women find like-minded communities on the internet. It was on Weibo that women shared their thoughts on domestic violence, the difficulties of getting a divorce and gender discrimination in the workplace. Gender-related issues are often among the most talked-about subjects on the platform.

But in a male-dominated culture, that has led to resentment.

After the hot pot incident, Taobao, an e-commerce site in China, removed 23 items from Ms Xiao’s online store, saying that they were “prohibited content,” according to a notice viewed by The New York Times. All of the items had the word “feminist” written on them. Ms Xiao sued Weibo in a Beijing court on April 14, seeking access to her account and US$1,500 (S$2,000) in compensation.

After she posted her lawsuit on WeChat, China’s ubiquitous instant messaging platform, her public account was removed for “violating regulations”.

Despite the risks, many women continue to share messages of support for those who have been kicked off Weibo, Ms Liang said. She described the platform as “the only open space for me to speak out” and said she wanted her account back, even though she knew that the same angry users would be waiting for her when she returned.

“I think having this space is especially important for young women on the internet,” she said. “I refuse to give it up to those disgusting people.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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China feminism gender discrimination

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