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.