Over the last few months, the #MeToo movement has swept over the United States, bringing forward brave women from all walks of life to share their stories and demand attention to the issue of sexual assault. From Hollywood to the Silicon Valley, this movement has built a safe space online for women to speak up for themselves and find support through others that have had to endure the same experiences. With the sweeping popularity of the movement, it has spread to different parts of the world—including China.
Gao Yan was just another hardworking college student, studying Chinese literature at one of the country’s most prestigious universities. She had promising grades and plans for a successful future. However, all her plans came to an abrupt end in 1998 when she killed herself. According to Gao Yan’s close friends and relatives, she was raped by a professor, Shen Yang.
On the twentieth anniversary of her death, her former classmates posted #MeToo posts on social media in her remembrance. They exposed Yang as a coercive professor who forced her to have sex with him. Afterwards, he spread rumors that she had a mental illness. Yang currently teaches at Nanjing University in eastern China. After the #MeToo posts for Gao Yun, Xu Hongyun, a student at Nanjing University, also came forward and accused Yang of sexual harassment on the prominent Chinese news site Caixin. Shortly after the article was posted, it was removed.
The #MeToo movement is being largely suppressed by the governing Communist Party . Since 2012, when President Xi Jinping rose to power, his discouragement of Western influence within universities was clear . But that hasn’t stopped students from speaking up about the injustices they are witnessing. #MeToo posts are often heavily monitored and eventually removed by the Chinese government, so their citizens got a little creative.
Instead of using the hashtag #MeToo, women have been using the rice and bunny emojis. The phrase “rice bunny” is pronounced as “mi tu” in Chinese. This new phrase is harder for censors to follow because the words “rice” and “bunny” are both so common that banning them from social media platforms would be too difficult. Disguised in the form “rice bunny,” women in China have been able to utilize this opportunity to speak about censored subjects, such as domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, across social media .
“We were ignorant of sexual harassment,” Zhang Yiqu, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Peking university said in a New York Times article. “Now we know this issue better. We are learning from the Americans” .
Surveys suggest that sexual assault and harassment is prevalent in China, but the number of actual prosecutions is still small. Only 43,000 people were prosecuted for “crimes of violating women’s personal rights” — anything from rape to sex trafficking— between 2013 and 2017, according to a report by CNN . In a country of 1.4 billion people, the number of people being indicted is miniscule. Why aren’t there more prosecutions? Are women coming forward?
In a survey conducted by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, 70 percent of college students and graduates reported that they have been sexually harassed . With the growing influence of the #MeToo movement in China, more women have started to come forward with their stories. Recently, Gao Yan’s parents have spoken out. Her mother read aloud a letter her father had written, “Your mother and I were too careless and didn’t take good care of you,” the letter said. “My daughter, please forgive us in heaven” .
Social awareness about sexual assault is increasing in China, and all over the world. With small tricks like the “rice bunny” emojis, China’s empowering female activists cannot and will not be stopped.