Tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance after accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault, caused an international uproar. But in China, Peng is just one of several people who have disappeared from public life and been charged with crimes or silenced online for speaking out. Just like Peng, several other women’s rights activists have faced smear campaigns on social media and some have seen their accounts shuttered.
Huang Xueqin, who publicly supported a woman who accused a professor of sexual assault, was arrested in September. Huang helped a woman named Luo Xixi to publicly accuse her professor at Beihang University of trying to force her to have sex with him. Wang Jianbing, who helped report Luo’s sexual harassment, was detained along with Huang and neither has been heard from since.
The MeToo movement sparked by Huang in 2018 gained fairly wide visibility but was met with stiff resistance from Chinese authorities. Chinese authorities have been quick to counter any social movement with the help of the state media and tarnish the character of victims and activists.
Huang and Wang had a history of advocating for disadvantaged groups but have now been charged with subversion of state power. Luo’s account inspired dozens of other women to come forward to sign petitions and put pressure on their universities to address sexual violence. But in a short span of the spring, influencers with millions of followers launched a wave of attacks against women’s rights activists like Huang.
Zhou Xiaoxuan, who accused well-known state TV host Zhu Jun of groping her, has been banned from posting online.
The attacks have not been limited to the digital space as the victims have been accosted while attending court or speaking to the media. China experts say that online harassment of victims cannot happen without the blessings of the Communist Party leaders.