Although notionally the same, scrolling through WeChat Moments differs from scrolling through a Facebook newsfeed in a number of ways. Aside from slightly less Trump memes, there are other points of difference that can be hard to make sense of from a foreign perspective -- images posted upside down, contact aliases entirely different from real names and seemingly meaningless emoji paired beside each other. But when you dig a little deeper, you find that these are some examples of Chinese digital activism led by China’s self-proclaimed ‘international sluts’.
Most recently, a screenshot of a typed open letter by a senior student at Peking University was posted upside down. The letter said that the student had been repeatedly threatened by university staff for seeking information on a historical case of rape by a Peking University professor that resulted in an undergraduate student’s suicide.
On the morning it was posted, multiple friends of mine had shared WeChat articles about the student’s experience, which she said resulted in her being taken home and placed under house arrest by her parents, at the university's urging. However, each time I attempted to access an article, it was blocked – even if it had been posted less than 30 minutes earlier.
The upside down post was from a WeChat contact and feminist activist, who confirmed it was one of the strategies she uses when wanting to share content she doesn't want blocked by China’s internet censors. Sharing screenshots, sometimes manipulated, as opposed to text or articles, is done to avoid word filters. It's one of the easiest strategies utilised by those wishing to share their story in the heavily censored world of Chinese social media. While maybe not as extreme as preserving the above letter through the use of blockchain technology, other small digital actions allow Chinese feminists to leave their mark within online communities, even if often temporary.
Xiaotie, executive director of the Beijing LGBT centre and a long-term feminist activist, has her WeChat alias name written as ‘international slut’, a sign of protest against slut shaming.
"Space for activism is limited, so the Internet is vital for us to be able to speak out," says Xiaotie.
Similar to many social movements in China, these small signs of solidarity may flourish in certain communities, but their survival is entirely dependent on remaining small in scope and relatively obscure. Showing solidarity may be important, but so is escaping the notice of internet censors.
Xiaotie references the recent strategy employed by Chinese activists behind the domestic ‘Me Too’ movement, who used a rice and rabbit emoji (mi means rice and tu means rabbit in Chinese) to get around censorship of the direct translation of the hashtag. Once hashtags, posts or issues reach a critical mass, they often become victim to heavy censorship.
A recent panel discussion on censorship held by the EU delegation in Beijing on World Press Freedom day brought together a number of Chinese activists and writers who made clear that free speech had become increasingly stifled since Xi came to power.
Feng Yuan, previously a journalist for twenty years and now a seasoned campaigner against domestic violence stated, “online forums are so important to the success of feminist activism in China...they connect advocates and people beyond small circles and geographic distance, and are unavailable in conventional media”.
From the complete banning of the Feminist Voices Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) account to the restriction on changing profile pictures during periods of political sensitivity, to automatic deletion of certain words even in entirely private conversations, censorship in China is effected with the support of multiple actors who are set to retain power for a very long time.
Chloe Dempsey is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.