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Can China Have a #MeToo?: Limitations of the Movement Under China’s Authoritarian Patriarchy

Can China Have a #MeToo?: Limitations of the Movement Under China’s Authoritarian Patriarchy

My decision to publish this piece under a pseudonym does not come from the fact that I wish to remain anonymous within the AUP community. In fact, I’d love to take credit for my work— and some of you can probably put two and two together. Though I do not live in China any longer, I still love the country dearly and respect the life and people I left behind. It is my home and I intend to live there again. I do not know what chords my words may strike, and perhaps being so careful is even a little dramatic. But given the atmosphere of censorship and control over small criticisms in past and recent events, I can’t help but err on the side of caution…

Since the #MeToo movement first went viral in the United States, numerous countries have adopted different strategies as a way to identify injustices within their own systems and industries. #MeToo continues to expose the ways and the extent to which male dominance in society has allowed sexual harassment to remain silent and go unpunished. Having grown up in China during the time the movement gained prominence, I watched the impact of #MeToo from a strange online distance. I could talk about it with my circle of friends and maybe even at my international school if it came up, but it certainly wasn’t going to make the news like it did elsewhere in the world. When one does not see a social problem being commented on in the context of their home country, it becomes easy to turn a blind eye and assume the problem doesn’t exist there. But of course this was not, and still is not, the case.

Despite the efforts of #MeToo to thrive in China, its ability to gain momentum is troubled by a government which exercises authoritarian and patriarchal values, values which are inherently opposed to this movement. It’s an issue of transposing the social movement to another cultural-political context where structures of power, specifically patriarchal power, are defined in different terms and require a different means to achieve change. In order to confront this issue there must be an examination of what configurations of society justify dominance and inequality in the first place. In Micheal S. Kimmel’s 2007 article, Masculinity as Homophobia, he connects the social subordination of women and other marginalized groups to the production of a “hegemonic masculinity”. The article provides a fascinating lens to view how patriarchal power comes from a socially exalted dominant masculinity, but in a western and specifically American context. To understand how this affects #MeToo or any other feminist social movements in China, it is then crucial to look at the forging of a hegemonic masculinity within a Chinese narrative.

Kimmel describes hegemonic masculinity as “a man in power, a man with power, and a man of power”. In the western American context, he argues that this man rises from the capitalist arena as “marketplace man”. Think of Christian Bale in American Psycho as a caricature of this type of masculinity. In China, however, the fact remains that any notion of hegemony is deeply entwined in a political power complex, rather than aligning with the image of economic success alone. Powerful Chinese men acquire political and social leverage through connections and loyalty to the state’s values. This result is inextricably bound into the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the central government, operating by authoritarian means. Thus, Chinese hegemonic masculinity is primarily exercised through single party political alignment. The consequence of a hegemonic masculinity which takes shape as an authoritarian patriarchy is that any opposition is an attack upon the state, and the state delegitimizes any movement which threatens their power monopoly. After the #MeToo movement first gained momentum in China in early 2018, the government was quick to ban and censor the use of the hashtag on social media (Ngo, 2018). Consequently, the power of social media circulation which was the impetus for the movement in western countries could not thrive under such conditions in China. Women have since reverted to creative ways around the banned terminology, circulating the homophone Chinese term “#RiceBunny” or “Mi Tu” which sounds phonetically like the English phrase.

Bureaucracy thus dismantles any oppositions against the powerful which is historically and presently represented by men, with only 9% of the central committee represented by women, and less than 8% on the Politburo (BBC, 2017). This poses an enormous problem for a feminist-driven movement attempting to challenge the inequality of an authoritarian patriarchy. Sexual harassment accusations against politically high ranking members of the CCP have proved to be extremely dangerous in their repercussions. In 2009, a woman named Deng Yujiao was placed in a psychiatric ward after being arrested for intentional murder of a local party official. The official had allegedly forced himself onto her at a KTV Bathhouse where she was a pedicure worker, resulting in her stabbing the man as a means of self- defense (Richburg, 2018). Moreover, the public was outraged by the controversy surrounding the evidence police used to place Deng in a state psychiatric ward. Accounts of what she used against her attacker, as well as her mental state, had changed from initial reports in a way that criminalized her, such as changing her weapon from a nail clipper (which would have been on her due to her job), to a fruit knife. An outcry from a local blogger wrote: “they allege that medications for a mental condition were found in the girl's bag. How vicious a trick to protect the officials’ reputation! They can even put the girl into a mental asylum. Everyone knows it is far worse to be in a State madhouse than being given a death sentence” (Chen, 2009). Such extreme reactions to self defense has fostered a culture of fear and reluctance to stand up against one’s perpetrators, and though Deng’s story sparked criticism and backlash from the public, it also serves as a reminder of the repercussions of rejecting politically-powerful men. Though #MeToo in China has achieved some change in elite circles, for example the firing of esteemed university professors or NGO heads who have faced sexual harassment allegations, its inability to effect top level officials renders the movement powerless against state control and censorship.

Current patriarchal power in China must be understood as separate from any individual type of masculine figure. Rather, it is a collective and male-dominated government which controls what is legitimate and what is not. It is interesting, then, to consider just some of the cultural differences between China and the West. The Chinese identity views the individual in terms of its place in a collective or a community, whereas western schools of thought are deeply centered in the ego and individual “self.” These differences must be considered in order to unmask how hegemonic masculinities operate uniquely across the globe, and how this interacts with the ways subordinate groups challenge it. In the US for example, naming one’s aggressor has in many cases been a first step towards taking back power in exposing the individual, but in China taking down individual perpetrators will have little impact upon the larger problem of government suppression which affects all social tiers of the population. The extent to which this hegemonic masculinity is represented by China’s government can be seen in its literal likening of president Xi Jinping as a father figure for the entire country. Xi is commonly referred to as “Xi Dada” or “Big Daddy Xi” within the personality cult he has acquired throughout his presidency (Fincher, 2017). Under such conditions, the government acts as a righteous authority who determines the country’s national wellbeing— a wellbeing which protects powerful men from publicized trouble. This is seen in the ways that authoritative figures handle harassment claims in their efforts to minimize the effects of social unrest. In September 2018, a woman was sued by a prominent Chinese television host, Zhu Jun, after she came forward with an extensive account of an incident in which he sexually harassed her several years prior. Police had allegedly told her to drop the accusations in her initial attempts to report him, on the basis that Zhu had an "enormous 'positive influence' on society”, as reported by CNN. Encouraging silence amongst sexual assault and harassment victims is not uncommon in China, as well as other East Asian countries such as Japan, where many report that the fear of disrupting the community or family name is a serious risk. It is almost as though maintaining an image of a positive, functioning society at the expense of an individual’s experience must be sustained. This concern for social control in China would then treat the #MeToo movement as a threat to order.

Chinese patriarchy is perhaps also crippled by a different sort of anxiety— the fear of outside values being the emasculating threat to their power. In the last two centuries, China has faced significant historical defeats both against the West, starting with the Opium Wars, and then with Japanese aggression and superiority in the 20th century. A wound was left on the national identity. Consequently, hegemonic masculinity in China, which emerged as the authoritarian CCP after years or political unrest, sees itself as the protector of the nation against outside forces threatening their national pride. This idea is illustrated in a 2003 article by Kam Louie on “Chinese, Japanese and Global Masculine Identities”:

“[Masculine] attractiveness is also clothed in patriotic terms, and the scholar’s masculinity is closely integrated with nationalist concerns in modern and contemporary China. Chinese men have seen themselves for the last two centuries as guardians not just of traditional morals, but also of their women against the onslaught of Western values.” (Louie, 6).

This entanglement of patriotism and masculinity rejects movements which are rooted outside of its own source of power. In response to the #MeToo movement in the US, an article published by the state-run China Daily suggest that allegations against American Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, were merely an issue of western values. Though the piece has now been removed, it claimed: “Chinese traditional values and conservative attitudes tend to safeguard women against inappropriate behavior from members of the opposite gender”. Such an effort to deny the prevalence of sexual harassment against women in China reveals the anxieties which outside movements cause for the government. These anxieties are even echoed in the CCP’s policy-making and prioritization of the social issues which challenge their hegemony. In 2013, a memorandum titled “Document No.9” was circulated within the CCP, outlining “Western-inspired ideas of media independence and civic participation” as a one of seven major threats to party control. Such insecurity and fragility of hegemonic masculinity is something which Kimmel presents as the detrimental paradox that “men are in power as a group and the psychological fact that they do not feel powerful as individuals”. Taking in these social, cultural historical contexts which define the Chinese masculine identity becomes crucial, as Kimmel explains that “Manhood is neither static nor timeless; it is historical… Our definitions of manhood are constantly changing, being played out on the political and social terrain.”

Another interesting point from Kimmel’s article that emerges differently in China is that hegemonic masculinity is described as a “homosocial enactment”. This explains how the relationship of men with other men defines their power. China’s hegemonic masculinity thrives on homosocial relationships in order to keep power circulated within the political elite. This is, again, a manifestation of the collective versus individual concept of hegemonic masculinity and might be explained through China’s concentrated culture of Guanxi. The Oxford dictionary describes Guanxi as one’s “social networks and influential relationships which facilitate business and other dealings”. Guanxi may also understood as a way in which people align themselves with the powerful; it is the currency for power and access in Chinese social interactions. However this currency is tainted with gender inequality, and unequal access to power between men and women. In her doctoral thesis on Gender Discrimination and Inequality in China (2001), Linda Y. Yueh reveals:

“Notions of propriety restrict women's extra-household activities so that even though women have guanxi, they are prevented from consolidating the types of relationships that could produce returns… [T]he exclusion of women from guanxi-enhancing activities, such as drinking and banquets, decreases their ability to develop contacts with men who tend to hold positions of influence” (Yueh, 94).

By keeping the currency of power in terms of Guanxi restricted from women, transactions of power and dominance become a man’s homosocial engagement. Under these conditions, #MeToo operates as an antagonistic force against the homosocial relationships which China’s hegemonic masculinity depends on. In political and social levels of power, it explains why China’s government is numerically and ideologically dictated by men— and why the hegemonic masculinity is also the authoritarian patriarchy. Through the lens of Michael S. Kimmel’s hegemonic masculinity, the juggernaut of China’s authoritarian patriarchy proves to be detrimental to a successful transposition of the #MeToo movement. Social, and specifically feminist movements of its nature struggle to overcome the specific conditions of Chinese society, culture and politics compared to the west, where a distinct Chinese hegemonic masculinity exits. Without the ability to publically challenge the government in China, it is extremely difficult to say if #MeToo can become something more than a clever hashtag which can circumvent censors. What matters is the recognition that the problem is systemic, present and will not disappear without examining the troubled dynamics of power. Now at distant view of China but still deeply connected to its social issues, pointing out these limitations and breaking down the reasons for them is the first step I can make from turning a blind eye.

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