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#MeToo in China, with Maura Cunningham and Jeffrey Wasserstrom

March 28, 2018

Shanghai. CREDIT: Trey Ratcliff (CC)

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Maura Cunningham from the University of Michigan and Jeff Wasserstrom from the University of California, Irvine, about China and #MeToo and a lot of other things.

Jeff and Maura, thanks for coming by.

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: Thanks so much. It's great to be here.

JEFF WASSERSTROM: Yes. It's great to be back.

DEVIN STEWART: We actually just had a #MeToo event here at Carnegie Council. It was in partnership with UN Women. I think it's a movement that has a lot of staying power and is changing people's attitudes and educating a lot of people.

You see in the news that it is spreading all around the world. I have seen articles about #MeToo in Korea, #MeToo in Japan. This morning I saw one about #MeToo in Mexico on National Public Radio (NPR).

Obviously, China is on many people's minds. What is the state of #MeToo and women's rights in China today?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: I think one of the things that is important to know about the difference between #MeToo in the United States and #MeToo in China is that in the United States there has been a great deal of attention paid to sexual harassment by figures in the media and figures in politics. In China that has not really been the case. Certainly going after figures in politics is very difficult in a one-party state, and the Chinese Communist Party has really stifled any sort of discussion of government officials or politicians who might have had such incidents in their pasts.

What we have seen instead is that the #MeToo campaign is fairly small in China. It is not necessarily a topic of national discussion in the way that it is in the United States, where of course there have been New Yorker magazine covers about it. There was a great deal of attention paid to #MeToo at the Oscar ceremony this year.

In China it is mostly an online campaign, and it is also most active on university campuses. So you have students talking about experiences that they have had with faculty members who have sexually harassed them or pressured them into having relationships, and that is where most of the focus of the organization has been.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there an actual hashtag used in China?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: There have been several hashtags because of course in China there is a great deal of Internet censorship, so if something becomes too popular on the Internet, if there is too much discussion of it, then the censors will often clamp down on it. We have seen several iterations of the #MeToo hashtag from the English version of it to a Chinese version to Internet users looking for homophones because in Chinese there are a lot of things that sound alike. So instead of saying "me too," it's also possible to use the character or the emoji for a bowl of rice and a rabbit because that will sound like "me too."

DEVIN STEWART: It's delicious.

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: Yes. Quite a dish. For a few days a few weeks ago there was a lot of discussion of so-called "rice bunnies" on the Chinese Internet, which were women coming out and speaking about their experiences of sexual harassment using the emojis of a bowl of rice and a bunny head. But then the censors figured that one out, too.

DEVIN STEWART: Emojis?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: Yes, the emojis, and they figured out what the allusion was being made to. People were also using the actual characters for rice and rabbit.

DEVIN STEWART: In which platforms?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: Mostly on Weixin, which is sort of a closed social networking site that people use for basically everything. It's Twitter, it's Facebook, it's Instagram. It's also the way that people pay their bills and order shared rides and things like that. It rolls a lot of things into each other. But that's the biggest social networking platform in China these days.

DEVIN STEWART: What about WhatsApp or Twitter or anything like that?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: Those are both blocked.

DEVIN STEWART: Both blocked, and nobody is using them?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: Well, people who have virtual private networks (VPNs) that can connect to blocked websites will use it. For the most they are reaching overseas communities, so you would often see people who are writing in English or had a lot of connections with overseas journalists or the foreign media, things like that, they go onto those platforms. But if it's a discussion that is mostly in China, it's probably on Weixin.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a sense of how it got to China in the first place? Was there a pivotal moment like there was in the United States where there was one person who actually coined it?

JEFF WASSERSTROM: One of the things, stepping back even further, is that even though there is blocking discussion of anything related to this with people in government or people in power there have been incidents that have drawn a lot of attention involving abuses of power for sex with Chinese officials in the past, and there have been a couple of cases that did blow up on the Internet with the case of local officials. So there is a background notion of that. I think it is important to realize that there are people who assume this is going on at higher levels of power, but that is just completely taboo.

If you think about it, the case of the Hong Kong booksellers who were nabbedone of them has been back in the news because of being treated incredibly brutally, even though he is a Swedish citizen. The Chinese government pulled him out of Thailand; there have been forced confessions, all of these things going after these Hong Kong booksellers. What they will sometimes say is that they publish books that the government didn't like because they referred to top leaders. Some of what they referred to was the sexual dalliances of top leaders, and this is kind of a sign, the fact that they went after them as hard as they did.

It just shows one of the differences. There are lots of parallels starting to show up between authoritarian settings around the world and authoritarian proclivities and a kind of machismo of certain leaders, including Trump, but one of the differences is the methods that certain authoritarian leaders can use to make people making these accusations disappear.

Some of the journalists who Putin has gone after have been particularly about private life things. That is the kind of background thing for that, but you know about the specifics of #MeToo coming to China, Maura.

DEVIN STEWART: Is it part of the corruption campaign, though? On what grounds are they going after these officials? Is it part of a clean government?

JEFF WASSERSTROM: If you think of it this way, that the anti-corruption campaign is trying to in part jump ahead of and control the kinds of malfeasance that officials are being targeted with, so before the anti-corruption campaign ramped up so much there were a variety of things that were more bottom-up attacks on a particularly egregious abuse of power, and some of these were about accusations of rape against local officials with young women.

I was thinking when Maura was talking about the homophone thing. In the past there were a variety of homophones and images that were used to make fun of officials who claimed to be just ordinary people but had incredibly fancy watches, and there would be things that would show up on the Internet of pictures of them with watches. There was this term, "harmonious society." "Harmonious" was a watchword of a previous leader before Xi Jinping, and a homophone for harmonious means "river crab," so there started to be pictures of river crabs with each of their arms having watches on them, which was a way of saying this government that claims to just care about harmony and care about the people is actually all about enrichment.

Then, with Xi Jinping particularly, ramping up this anti-corruption campaign is a way to take control of this popular outrage about knowing there are these officials who are abusing power in all kinds of ways—economic, sexual, and that—but taking control of it and centralizing and trying to let off steam that way. The attitudes of a lot of people in China may be, "Yes, this is targeted and not everybody is going down, but at least some of the bastards are suffering." So it has been to some extent popular.

DEVIN STEWART: Maura, is the vector of, I guess you could call it, American influence in China helping to spark this particular campaign? How do you understand that?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: My understanding of it is that right now there are over 300,000 Chinese students studying in the United States, and pretty much all of them are still in communication with people back in China, mostly through social networking platforms like Weixin. I think it is mostly about the circulation of knowledge and especially the circulation on the Internet that students and young people are seeing what is going on in the United States. There is a lot of discussion about this phenomenon, and they are talking about it with their friends and relatives back home and their former classmates. My understanding of it is that it is mostly about discussions happening on social media.

I think what is really interesting is that—you used the term "American influence"—there is a tendency when there is a social campaign or a social movement here in the United States to then look for parallels in other places or look for it spreading in other places. For example, a few years ago when Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, there were several articles about: "Oh, now, Lean In is a thing in China. Women are forming Lean In circles; they are reading the book." That did happen, but it wasn't all over the country. It was fairly elite, educated young women, mostly in Beijing and Shanghai.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you saying Americans are narcissists? Well, that's true.

JEFF WASSERSTROM: I think if you go back—because often people want to try to say when something from the East flows to the West or the from the West flows to the East, and often they are much more complicated than that. People will act as though Martin Luther King owns certain kinds of tactics, but Martin Luther King himself would say he was borrowing from Gandhi. But then Gandhi at some point would invoke people like Thoreau.

So you actually have lots of flows back and forth among both activists for bottom-up kinds of things, and authoritarian figures are watching each other, so there is this moment, it is speeded up, and I think it is new right now that activists in different parts of the world, as we saw with Occupy, were much more aware of what people like them were doing in other places. But this kind of pattern, you can go back a hundred years or more, anti-imperialist protestors were looking at other anti-imperialist protestors, and heads of empires were looking at other heads of empires, but now we have authoritarian strongmen watching what the other authoritarian strongmen are doing and people agitating.

One of the cases that is interesting right now with the end of term limits for Xi Jinping, who can now rule pretty much as long as he wants or until things change—

DEVIN STEWART: Does that mean he is now a dictator now? How would you describe Xi Jinping?

JEFF WASSERSTROM: It's hard to get away from that kind of topic. I think "muscular nationalist strongman," if you think about what he has in common with certain other kinds of figures who are saying, for lack of a better way of putting it, "I'm going to make this country great again by clamping down on dissent, liking a situation with few checks and balances, appealing to ideas of modernity but also tradition." I think there are homologies there.

It's not that I don't think "dictator" fits, but I think sometimes the term goes back to just comparing him to other Communist Party leaders, for example, or fascists.

DEVIN STEWART: Like Mao, maybe, on a par with Mao. Mao was known as a bit of a scoundrel, but he was also often said to be an advocate of gender equality. Is that image correct? What is the state of gender equality today in Chinese society?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: I'm not sure I would say that Mao specifically was a promoter of gender equality, but certainly the early Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s had that as one of the core components of its campaign, and drawing on the support of women, especially peasant women, was a very important part of its rise to power and victory over Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party.

So in the early 1950s there was a lot of movement on the issues of gender rights, and so you had many more women coming into government as local officials and playing roles in the development of the early People's Republic of China (PRC) state. You also had lots of women going out to work for the first time in factories and on communes and things like that.

DEVIN STEWART: What was their thinking? Was it just a pragmatic way to get more people involved and to buy into their vision, or was it an ethical question?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: I certainly think that getting the support of women was a crucial component of drawing more numbers into the Communist Party and rising to power and building the early Chinese state. In the early 1950s China had been through decades of war and destruction, and there was a lot of rebuilding that needed to be done and a lot of economic building that needed to be done.

JEFF WASSERSTROM: If I could jump in here just for a second, in terms of ethics and thought it also went along with this critique of Confucianism as having been a cluster of, in Mao's view, feudal thoughts that were holding China back. Mao was part of a generation who came of age in the 1910s, and some of the very earliest things Mao wrote were about the terrible injustices of the marriage system that trapped women into a position of subordination very early, and he associated that with Confucianism. There were these moves to critique Confucianism.

Part of the story now is that there is a reversal and a celebration of Confucian values, which really makes Xi Jinping different from Mao. It actually makes him more like Chiang Kai-shek, the anti-communist leader before Mao, who said that you can combine modernization and Confucian values.

There were Women's Day celebrations by the Nationalist Party, the anti-communists of Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party of Mao. Back in the 1940s the Communist Party Women's Day celebrations would be all about equality between the sexes and getting women into different kinds of jobs. The Nationalist Party's Women's Day things were about women embracing the traditional feminine virtues of being good wives and mothers in the Confucian tradition.

Flash forward to the present, and Women's Day can be again about those sorts of traditional feminine values. So it is a very weird reversal.

DEVIN STEWART: It is a sort of historical dialogue. What is the state today?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: To pick up on that, we are also seeing a sort of general regression of gender equality and women's status within business and politics in Chinese society. For all that Mao and the early communists said that they promoted gender equality and talked about women holding up half the sky, that was never really true. There were moves toward more equal gender roles in certain aspects, but it wasn't really true gender equality. There has never been a woman on the Politburo Standing Committee of China, and the percentage of women who are Chinese government officials, who are Party officials, has been declining over the years. So right now the top leadership of China is very male, and that has been the case increasingly since the 1980s.

We are also seeing the Communist Party promoting more traditional gender roles for men and women, and there has been this big push to get women to marry younger. Right now the one-child policy that was in place for about 30 years has been ended. They are now trying to get young couples to have two children, but that requires the government to make this big propaganda push, to tell women: "Pay less attention to education and your careers. Go back to the home. Have a second child. We need the population to increase." So I think there has been a big step backward.

DEVIN STEWART: Is this because they are anticipating a labor shortage?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: Yes. China's population is aging, and so within the next 30 years I think we are going to see a big bubble of older people without the big population of younger people needed to support that.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm curious as we wrap up here on this fascinating conversation how an Internet phenomenon like #MeToo, can actually make a difference in a fairly rigid, controlled society in which civil society seems to be controlled and under attack and seems to be going more so in that direction. How do you see the transfer of change from society to the broader nation itself?

JEFF WASSERSTROM: One of the things is that from the Chinese Communist Party's point of view what matters most is what's happening that affects the largest spectrum of people. For example, they are much more careful about constraining what can be seen on television than what can be seen even on the Internet. But then within the Internet they are much more worried when something is going on behind the firewall than when something is going on outside that only a small number of people that Ian Johnson has taken to calling the "VPN Chinese," the people who have the wherewithal—they are the people who are more likely to travel abroad, and then they are doing a kind of virtual travel abroad occasionally through things like that.

The government wishes, of course, that everybody got behind their program in general, but they are not as concerned when these small sectors of things become confined to certain places. What we're seeing I think is the places where certain kinds of spaces for dissent are possible are getting more and more constrained. The zones are getting smaller and smaller.

In some cases—and there have been cases in the past—the zones are almost completely outside of China. So another kind of meme that went around was when the term limits were done away with for Xi Jinping allowing him to rule on and on, and people would say like an emperor, they would censor that. They would say, like Mao, and that would be controlled.

Outside of China but nowhere inside China, people put up "Not My President" posters on a few campuses with Xi Jinping's face blacked out, clearly inspired in that case by the "Not My President" protest that happened after Trump. But the key difference here is none of those posters that we know of have gone up inside the territory that Xi Jinping actually governs. It would be as though there were a "Not my president" criticism of Trump, but it was only over the borders in Europe or Mexico or Canada.

For the Communist Party, of course they would prefer that people didn't feel that way, but if it's only happening outside of the country, that's less concerning. If it's only happening with a very narrow spectrum of the population, that's less concerning. The fear is always of things that can spread across social groups and across geography within the People's Republic of China.

DEVIN STEWART: I would love to hear some final thoughts, Maura. As a scorned liberal, I am very reluctant to impose my liberal brain, especially my American liberal brain, on China's future, so I am very humble about trying to understand where China is going. It would seem to be risky to have an emperor for life, and then you're squeezing and tamping down all the resistance and expression of grievance or whatever it is all around the country. It seems to be a recipe for possibly an explosion of some sort. Is that just how an American would think about things? What do you see for the future of China?

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: Oh, it's so hard to predict the future of China, and we've been wrong so many times. When we were talking earlier about American influence on China and the circulation of American ideas like #MeToo, my argument for the past couple of years has been that we shouldn't expect to see any sort of big explosion in the sense of a reprise of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, and I certainly don't think—to circle back to questions of gender equality—we're going to see a women's march in China because public security authorities would shut that down before it became anything too big.

My conviction is that the social changes that we are going to see are going to be small, incremental, and local ones that gain traction and coalesce into greater social changes. So I think women fighting on an individual campus-by-campus basis against sexual harassment, who are speaking out against inequalities in hiring practices, and things like that, I think those are the things that will shift Chinese society maybe one day at a time, one month at a time, without their being a really big social movement in the sense that I think a lot of Americans have been hoping/expecting to see in China since 1989.

DEVIN STEWART: Given the polarization of America today, which is almost a cliché, thinking about American influence and Chinese influence, is there something that Americans can learn from the way Chinese produce social change that we could maybe take into account?

JEFF WASSERSTROM: When I think about this, I will spin it a different way, of watching the ways in which some convergence is of authoritarian trends and nationalism in different places. I think I have become more and more appreciative—and I am not alone in this—of the separation of powers within the United States.

I think we realize that as important as elections are, what is incredibly important is the fact that you have different parts of the government that have at least partial separate agendas. It is something that can sometimes make for tremendous inefficiency. One of the arguments of authoritarian figures is always, "We can get more done, we can build faster, we can do this if we don't have to mess with guidelines and having to second-guess what another organization is going to do." But we've realized in the United States lately just how precious those kinds of countervailing things are.

Within the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong was integrated into it and was supposed to be able to go its own way from 1997 onward, and there have been protests there, and the protests are framed as pushing toward further democracy, and they focus on elections. But one of the things that is most crucial about them so far but that now seems endangered is that what would happen during those protests—and it never happened on the mainland—some protestor would be arrested by the police, and then the court would say, "The police shouldn't have done that." You had in Hong Kong the separation of the courts, the police, and the government, and on the mainland you just don't have that. When there is a tightening mode, that is partly what squeezes out the space.

In Hong Kong, that's why while watching for elections is very important, watching whether the press can still call officials to account, which they increasingly can't do at all on the mainland, and whether courts can operate with any degree of independence, which for a while they definitely could, and now they are under incredible pressure. Those are the pressure points to watch. Even if what Maura was saying is we should be looking for hope in small places and things other than massive movements, we should look for decline of hope in whatever seems to be gathering power in just a single person or even a single institution.

DEVIN STEWART: Maura Cunningham from the University of Michigan and Jeff Wasserstrom from UC Irvine, great to speak with you today about #MeToo in China.

MAURA CUNNINGHAM: Thanks so much.

JEFF WASSERSTROM: It's been a pleasure.

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