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As China's "MeToo" movement gathers steam, individuals and media platforms are pushing at the boundaries of what is allowed on the country's tightly controlled internet by finding ways around censorship to allow activists to mobilize support.
Over the past two weeks, dozens of people have taken to China's Twitter-like platform, Weibo, to publish stories of sexual harassment by Beijing's top literati and leaders of non-government organizations. Although no prominent officials have yet been publicly accused, regulators have taken a cautious approach, as with all public incidents that can spark mass expressions of discontent.
Two monks published a 95-page document on July 1 accusing the president of China's Buddhist Association, Shi Xuecheng, who is also the abbot of the famous Longquan monastery near Beijing, of sexual abuse. Within days the case had gained so much attention that "sexual abuse" became an auto-correct phrase suggested by the dominant search engine Baidu for searches on "Longquan monastery" — even though searches on the topic were blocked.
The abbot issued an official denial through a statement from the monastery, which said the allegations contained forged evidence and were false and malicious.
"The authorities have known from the beginning that the movement has shades of anti-authoritarianism, and they are afraid the allegations will spread to officials," said Wu Qiang, a former Tsinghua University professor and commentator on social movements. "Private channels of communication can be explosive in spreading information quickly."
The intermittent censorship of the MeToo hashtag and its variants on Weibo have led to many alternatives — most prominently "rice bunny", which is pronounced "mi tu" in Mandarin. Users are now trying out the emoji for a bowl of rice and a rabbit, as well as various other homophones for "me too", along with its translations into other languages. "Do you think you can censor all of us? Minority-language speakers, step up!" reads one post.
Last month, an anonymous intern posted on Weibo her account of being sexually assaulted by a state-television personality. The alleged perpetrator did not respond to a request for comment.
Although the intern's post was quickly censored, many more accounts — including those with millions of followers — saved it through re-posting a screenshot of it.
While it is easy for computer algorithms to search text, it is slightly harder to search and identify what is being conveyed in images, especially if the re-posters add blemishes to the image or distort it by flipping it upside-down, for example.
"The government is allowing people to let off steam in a controlled way," said Lotus Ruan, a research fellow at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, who has been tracking the allegations. However, "there is a limit on how far and how high up public discussions can go," Ms. Ruan said, and any discussions of government officials were likely to be censored.
"It is issues like MeToo that make things difficult for the authorities," said Charlie Smith of GreatFire.org, a censorship-monitoring group. "Regardless of the subject matter, once a threshold [of social media activity] is crossed, automatic censorship kicks in . . . but they really run a risk of pissing people off," Mr. Smith added, pointing to past instances of censorship that "dumbfounded and angered" Chinese people.
In the past, authorities have also backtracked after seeing an upswell of anger at the censorship — but this is a difficult balance, Mr. Smith argued, adding: "At some point, the authorities are going to miscalculate and one of these issues will gain momentum."
Media platforms have also risked censorship to capture popular attention focused on China's sexual harassment allegations. Meiri Renwu — which translates as "People of the Day" — one of a crop of media start-ups whose investigations get over 100,000 reads each, used its public WeChat account to solicit stories of sexual harassment from readers. "In less than 24 hours, we have received over 1,700 stories of sexual harassment," read their headline. The article was censored not long after publication.
China's top blogging platform, Douban, pushed a notification to some users saying "MeToo: speak out your stories, oppose sexual harassment". Within a day, MeToo remained on the list of trending topics but was labelled "currently being investigated", and soon related posts could no longer be searched.
"The cost of being censored is not too high, and on the contrary, running a MeToo story, which is an issue that people care about deeply, is good for boosting viewership and branding for the account," said a media professional at a major Chinese internet platform who wished to remain anonymous. The person added that "self-published" media platforms such as Meiri Renwu can break sensitive stories more easily as they receive less scrutiny compared with state-owned or large private media groups.
Although one sensitive story might not hurt, there have been a wave of permanent closures of WeChat public accounts in recent months, including the well-known Feminist Voices account. In July, a local bureau of the Cyberspace Administration of China announced that 720,000 accounts had been closed down by internet platforms in the second quarter of the year.
Meanwhile, feminist groups have been organizing meetings and next steps via China's ubiquitous social-media app WeChat. In a group that was set up shortly after accusations of sexual harassment against professors emerged in January, more than 200 activists had joined within a few days.
"Don't forget to take screenshots," is one guideline in a WeChat messaging group of feminist activists, while members often remind others to "post the screenshots as well as the links" — censorship happens so quickly that an article is likely to be taken down in the course of a conversation about the article, stumping those who arrived late.
"WeChat is a double-edged sword," said prominent political dissident Hu Jia, explaining it allows people — and political movements — to organize quickly, but also lets officials keep track of them. WeChat conversation data passes through Tencent's servers in unencrypted form, allowing censorship algorithms to scour their content.
After a weekend filled with heated WeChat discussions, the organizer of one such group suggested participants download an encrypted messaging app instead.
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