WORLD
06/04/2018 5:19 AM AEST

How Coded Language And Emojis Are Helping China's Feminists Skirt Censorship

Ji-Sub Jeong and Jessica Prois/HuffPost

Women in China are covertly resisting government crackdowns on discussions over their Me Too movement with a clever workaround.

The phrase “rice bunny” (米兔), pronounced as “mi tu,” has popped up on social media networks after censors removed posts that mentioned sexual harassment or the hashtag #MeToo. While those phrases are heavily monitored, Rice Bunny isn’t.

In addition to the rice and bunny emojis, social media users also use the phrase in popular hashtags #米兔不能忘# (“Rice Bunny Never Forget”) and #米兔在中国# (“Rice Bunny In China”). Social media users have used them in campaigns, forums and various accounts on platforms like Weibo and WeChat to discuss topics such as opportunity inequality, domestic violence and sexual harassment. The new phrase is harder for censors to follow, as “rice” and “bunny” are both common enough words that banning them from a platform would be too difficult.

One recent post on Weibo that uses the hashtags calls on others to stand up to gender inequality, fight discrimination and violence, and criticizes the censoring of feminist messages, according to a HuffPost translation. Another post shows a woman holding a sign that reads, “The fight against sexual harassment is far more important than shopping.”

The feminist movement in China experienced a resurgence in the past few years, particularly among the younger generations, oftentimes drawing influence from Western countries. But the rise of feminism has amplified the country’s complicated relationship with gender equality. 

Women in China, particularly from urban areas, have seen considerable job mobility in recent decades in certain industries like tech. Almost 80 percent of companies have women in top positions, according to The Atlantic. To compare, about half of U.S. tech companies employ women in such spots. And in December 2015, the country passed its first legislation against domestic violence ― a landmark law for China.

But much like the slew of other social and political movements, like the 2014 Umbrella Revolution and the pro-democracy protests of 2011, feminism has been met with resistance from the government. In one of the most high-profile cases, Beijing police arrested and detained five gender equality activists, known as the “Feminist Five,” in 2015 for planning to stage protests against sexual harassment. 

WANG ZHAO via Getty Images
A woman walking at Beihang University in Beijing in January 2018. The university had recently stripped a professor of his position as vice director of the graduate school after an investigation established he had sexually harassed multiple students.

The #MeToo movement in China was largely inspired by Luo Xixi, a former student who shared an online essay describing being sexually assaulted by Chen Xiaowu, a professor at Beihang University. Chen was quickly fired after Luo’s piece went viral and an investigation found he’d had a history of sexual harassment. Her piece prompted lengthy debates about sexual harassment on Weibo and other online platforms.

Since then, however, popular Weibo accounts #MeToo and Feminist Voices have been suspended several times due to their criticism of gender inequality in Chinese society. Profiles and hashtags on Chinese social media continue to be monitored and frequently taken down. Yet with the shutdown of each profile, new ones under different monikers are launched. The creative Rice Bunny hashtags are just another example of the resilience inside China’s feminist movement. 

“Chinese women feel very unequal every day of their lives, and the government cannot make women oblivious to the deep injustice they feel,” Lu Pin, the founding editor of Feminist Voices, told NPR after the account was put on a 30-day ban. “The feminist movement is about building a community to address women’s everyday concerns.”

In the past, activists have used wordplay to both avoid China’s censorship and even criticize it. In 2009, social media users used “grass-mud horse” ― a phrase that’s pronounced similarly to the Chinese words for “fuck your mother” ― to convey opposition to internet censorship. “River crab,” which is pronounced similarly to the Chinese phrase for harmony, became a euphemism for censorship itself. Online users who’d been censored could tell others that their posts had been “harmonized.”

John Zhou helped with translations for this post.