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China Renews Crackdown on Online Feminist Groups

A phone shows a search page from Douban for Nomadland resulting in the message "the search results could not be displayed in accordance to relevant laws and regulations." in Beijing, China, April 26, 2021.
A phone shows a search page from Douban for Nomadland resulting in the message "the search results could not be displayed in accordance to relevant laws and regulations." in Beijing, China, April 26, 2021.

Beijing has shut down several feminist social media platforms, a sign that China is renewing its crackdown on what it considers radical women’s groups.

About 10 feminist forums were closed on Douban, China’s popular social networking platform that allows group discussions of books, music, movies and social topics such as feminism.

Douban said the now-banned forums promoted “extreme” and “radical” political views and ideology.

The blocked forums embrace the concept of 6B4T, an online movement that originated in South Korea. The concept “is driven by the idea of women becoming more empowered by shunning activities seen as centered upon or designed to benefit men,” according to Jane Li, a China tech reporter on Quartz.

The Douban ban earlier this month sparked heated debate among netizens in China, soon after the government released preliminary figures suggesting 2020 was, like 2019, a year with a declining birthrate.

On Weibo, the Chinese social media platform akin to Twitter, one post said, “Well done! The intention of these forums is to tear up Chinese society through extreme feminism.” Another said, “6B4T is not radical. It’s nothing more than a claim that women do not have to enter into a heterosexual relationship.”

The “6B” refers to not having sex with men; not having romantic relationships; not marrying; not having children; not buying products that show a prejudice against, aversion to or dislike of women; and offering to stand by other single women, according to Li. The “4T” stands for “ditching rigid beauty standards [literally 'taking off corsets']; rejecting the obsession with Japanese manga and anime (known as otaku culture) for their hypersexual depictions of women; breaking away from religion; and not partaking in fan culture around male or female celebrities.”

In Korean, each of the items begins with either “bi,” which means no or not, and “tal,” which means to escape from something.

The South Korean movement "advocates that women separate themselves from the influence of male-centered political culture, and then form a full range of female culture and female power," according to the website WhatsonWeibo.

In the past, China has allowed more online discussion of gender than other political topics. Yet, Lu Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist in New York, told VOA Mandarin that with the current crackdown, there are virtually no social media platforms that are friendly to feminist groups in China.

“These online platforms are aware of the government’s preference, so they tend to restrict feminist movements,” she told VOA.

This is not the first targeting of women’s groups. Online feminists attracted Beijing’s attention on March 7, the day before International Women’s Day, when five feminist activists were arrested for demonstrating against sexual harassment on public transit.

At the time, Feng Yuan, a women’s rights activist, told “What the activists want is exactly what state policy on women says: that women should be equal.”

Chinese netizens criticized the arrests, which drew international attention from the likes of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The women, who became known as the Feminist Five, were released after more than a month in detention.

The current crackdown came about because increasing numbers of women are embracing feminist ideas, according to Zhang, a student from prestigious Peking University, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of attracting official attention.

“I think China has always been a patriarchal society. So, there can be a feminist movement, but it needs to be within that framework of patriarchal society,” she said.

Lu Pin, the New York feminist, agreed, saying the feminist movement has spotlighted a structural problem in Chinese society that causes inequalities between men and women, and those who benefit from the current system are offended by that explanation.

Shuttering online feminist discussions meshes with Beijing’s interests, she said.

“Of course, the government does not want criticism on the structure of its society,” she told VOA. “So, from this standpoint of view, the government will inevitably stand against the feminist movement. They want women to maintain their traditional family roles because that benefits the stability of the CCP rule.”

The crackdown comes just two months after China’s Ministry of Public Security released preliminary population numbers revealing that the number of new birth registrations in 2020 was 10.035 million, compared with 11.8 million in 2019, a year that had the lowest recorded birthrate since 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded.

With a rapidly growing elderly population and a cohort of young couples who cannot afford the luxury of children, China is facing a demographic crisis with economic overtones.

FILE - A child wearing a mask rides on a skate scooter in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province, Jan. 29, 2021.
FILE - A child wearing a mask rides on a skate scooter in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province, Jan. 29, 2021.

The government has long undercut efforts by activists to create safe space for women and raise issues of gender discrimination and domestic violence.

Despite these pressures working against gender equality, Chinese American author and activist Leta Hong Fincher said a popular broad-based feminist movement poses the greatest challenge to China’s governing regime today.

In her new book Betraying Big Brother, The Feminist Awakening in China, she said the Feminist Five gave life to a grassroots mobilization not seen since the 1989 pro-democracy movement that culminated with the deadly quashing of protests in Tiananmen Square.

Shen Hsiu-hua, an associate professor of sociology at National Tsing-Hua University in Taiwan, told VOA Mandarin that popular movements are Beijing’s greatest fear.

“Being able to mobilize people is a taboo for the Chinese Communist Party. In China, only the government can mobilize people, so any cause that results in gathering is seen as a threat to its ruling,” she said. “That’s why the government wants to nip it in the bud.”

Lin Yang contributed to this story.