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 filing 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 accounts long affiliated with the company’s CEO, Wang Gaofei, joined the conversation to offer tips.
“Here,” the person using the account said on 14 April, 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, but 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 deleted their accounts from Weibo in the last two weeks following public complaints. According to the women, at least 15 bills 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,” 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 31 March. Two days earlier, 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’s independence. Hours after the photo surfaced, Ms. Xiao discovered her Weibo account had been frozen.
On 13 April, Weibo said that four of the deleted accounts had posted “illegal and harmful” content. It called on users to respect Weibo’s basic principles, including “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.”