How Feminists in China Are Using Emoji to Avoid Censorship

Shortly after the close of this year’s International Women’s Day, China’s Twitter-like service Sina Weibo shut down Feminist Voices. With 180,000 followers, the group’s social media account was one of the most important advocacy channels for spreading information about women’s issues in China, but in an instant, it was gone. A few hours later, the private messaging app WeChat also shuttered an account for the group. The official reasons for the closures were vague, simply that the accounts had posted content that violated regulations, but the subtext was clear: the country’s highly-monitored media was trying to silence women’s advocates.

It wasn’t the first time Feminist Voices had been censored. Last year, Weibo issued the group a one-month suspension for posting “inappropriate content”—a move that now appears to have been a warning shot. However, says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, "this time the removal is more sinister as there is no indication that the account will be restored.” Days after it went dark, images appeared online of a group of masked women holding a symbolic funeral for the death of Feminist Voices. Yet the group’s founder Lu Pin (now based in the US) wrote on Twitter that she viewed the ritual not as a funeral, but as a “fantastic carnival,” signifying a rebirth, and she pledged to “reclaim the account by every legal avenue.”

Masked women hold a symbolic funeral for the death of Feminist Voices.

Credit Intentionally Withheld

The ban of Feminist Voices, which was founded in 2009 and had operated on Weibo since 2010, is just the latest attempt by the Chinese government—and the media companies that operate under it—to curtail the growing women’s movement, which has flourished in urban areas and on university campuses thanks to social media and online organizing. "The movement has the potential to become large-scale, which is one of the reasons why the government sees this group of young feminists as a threat to Communist rule," Fincher says. But through its size and some symbological ingenuity, the young, active community has found a way to stay one step ahead of would-be censors.

Take, for example, Chinese feminists’ embracing of #MeToo. The movement, which sought to show the volume of sexual misconduct against women by sharing stories of harassment and assault accompanied by the hashtag, came to prominence in China after a former doctoral student named Luo Xixi shared a letter on Weibo about being sexually harassed by a former professor. The story quickly went viral, sparking a huge debate about sexual misconduct and leading Weibo to block the #MeToo hashtag. But Chinese feminists found a way around it—they began using #RiceBunny in its place along with the rice bowl and bunny face emoji. When spoken aloud the words for “rice bunny” are pronounced “mi tu,” a homophone that cleverly evades detection.

“Feminism has become a politically sensitive keyword,” Fincher says, “so activists have to keep coming up with new ways to get around censors. It's always this game of cat and mouse.”

The use of emoji and other images to send coded messages didn’t start with #RiceBunny. Chinese netizens have been using them for years, says Meg Jing Zeng, a postdoctoral fellow who researches information control and digital activism at Hans-Bredow-Institut in Hamburg, Germany. As another example, she points to the use of memes like the “Grass Mud Horse,” a fictional creature resembling an alpaca that has become a symbolic mascot of defiance against government censorship. China Digital Times, a bilingual news site run by the Counter-Power Lab at UC Berkeley explains that when Grass Mud horse is translated, “the name sounds nearly the same as ‘fuck your mother’ (cào nǐ mā 肏你妈). The Communist Party is often described as the ‘mother’ of the people, so saying ‘fuck your mother’ also suggests ‘fuck the Party.’” The meme has even spawned allegorical songs and music videos describing the victory of the Grass Mud Horse over the river crab, “a troublesome creature whose name echoes ‘harmony’ (héxié 和谐), a euphemism for censorship.”

The use of emoji and memes as political tools or rallying points for movements is nothing new. Twitter users have added the paper-clip emoji to their handles to signify unity with people harassed for how they identify; the so-called alt-right has found myriad ways to troll and organize using symbols and memes. But those actions are more a matter of groups or movements using an online shorthand to convey a message; the Chinese feminists are doing the same, but their methods also help them dodge government censorship—or at least avoid being silenced for as long as they can.

How long that is changes from one case to the next. Over the last few years internet users in China have been using Winnie the Pooh memes to criticize President Xi Jinping. After images appeared online comparing the leader’s portly figure to Pooh, references to the character were blocked on social media. The meme resurfaced after China’s legislature re-appointed Xi to power with no term limits. But instead of words, this time critics of Xi posted GIFs and images of the cartoon bear dressed in royal regalia on Weibo and WeChat. Soon, those were deleted too.

“People are always getting better at circumventing censorship but the technology for censorship has become more sophisticated as well,” Zeng says. “As a researcher I’m constantly watching this power struggle between authorities trying to contain public discourse and internet users who want to be heard and express their opinions.”

And internet censors aren’t the only thing quelling speech. Activists in China also have to contend with the nationalist trolls known collectively as the 50 Cent Army. The term originally referred to internet users who were paid a menial wage by the government to spread pro-government propaganda online, but today “50 Cent Army” is used to loosely describe anyone online who vehemently supports the government. Xiao Meili, a prominent women's rights activist says she’s seen an increase in anti-feminist harassment online from 50 Centers since the Feminist Voices account was deleted earlier this month.

“I feel like the environment on Weibo has become very extreme and is either black or white,” Xiao says. “So much of the trending news on Weibo is about celebrity scandals, so this, combined with the new 50 Center attacks, has muted many diverse voices online.”

While the growth of China's #MeToo movement online depends on its ability to navigate censorship, it faces challenges offline as well. "There are a lot of hurdles for it to expand on a large scale like what we’ve seen in America," Zeng says. “It’s important to consider the cultural context for #MeToo in China as gender relations are very different from the West and the regional disparity is huge.” The movement, she explains, currently remains an urban phenomenon and has yet to reach rural areas or receive vocal support from women working in industries like manufacturing.

Still, the momentum created across China’s universities seems to be too great for the government to completely contain. “There’s an extraordinary resilience to the feminist movement,” Fincher notes. “Keeping the movement going will be challenging, but these feminists are tenacious and extremely determined. The Chinese government can’t wipe out the women’s movement in this era of global connectivity.”

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