The feminists’ social media accounts had been slowly disappearing in China for days. And when that wasn’t enough for their angry critics, a powerful voice on the internet stepped in to help.
In a discussion on the popular Chinese platform Weibo, one of the critics asked for better guidelines on how to file complaints against women who shared feminist views. The user suggested that the company add “inciting mass confrontation” to the list of violations that could have them removed. A Weibo account long affiliated with the company’s chief executive, Wang Gaofei, joined the conversation to offer tips.
“Here,” the person using the account said on April 14, posting a screenshot with easy instructions for filing complaints against the women. Under “type of complaint,” click “inciting hatred,” the screenshot showed. Under specific reason: “gender discrimination.”
Women who express feminist views on social media have long been subjected to torrents of hateful comments. In China, not only do those views attract the attention of trolls, they can also lead to getting kicked off the platforms by furious users empowered by unlikely allies: the internet companies themselves.
Several prominent Chinese feminists have had their accounts deleted from Weibo in the last two weeks following public complaints. According to the women, at least 15 accounts have been removed. The women say it is part of a growing online campaign to stamp out feminist voices in a country where the government controls the internet and social movements are swiftly cut down. Two of the women have filed lawsuits against Weibo.
“I was speechless,” Liang Xiaowen, an outspoken Chinese feminist, said of the screenshot. While Mr. Wang’s name is not officially attached to the account, he has been identified as its owner in half a dozen state media reports and a podcast. “He accused me of gender discrimination, which is the most laughable thing in the world,” she said.
Ms. Liang, a 28-year-old lawyer in New York, is one of the women whose accounts were removed by Weibo. She is suing the company for violating China’s civil code, saying it did not adequately explain its accusations against her.
The women’s accounts first started disappearing after March 31. Two days earlier, Xiao Meili, a well-known feminist in China, had left a hot pot restaurant in the southwestern city of Chengdu, angry that a man had ignored her repeated requests to stop smoking illegally indoors. The man was so furious that he hurled a cup of hot liquid at Ms. Xiao and her friends.
Ms. Xiao, 30, later uploaded a video about the incident, prompting a groundswell of support that soon unleashed a noxious backlash.
That afternoon, she was besieged by thousands of hateful messages. Users dug up a 2014 photograph of Ms. Xiao holding a poster that said “Pray for Hong Kong” and used it to accuse her of supporting Hong Kong independence. Hours after the photo surfaced, Ms. Xiao discovered her Weibo account had been frozen.
In a statement on April 13, Weibo said that four of the deleted accounts had posted “illegal and harmful” content, and it called on users to respect Weibo’s basic principles, which include “not inciting group confrontation and inciting a culture of boycott.” In addition to Weibo, Ms. Xiao has had her account removed by one other Chinese internet company. None of the companies responded to requests for comment.
“This has caused a lot of damage to my spirit,” Ms. Xiao said in an interview. “Since March 31, I have been very nervous, angry and depressed.”
Feminists in China say Weibo has applied a double standard when it comes to policing abuse against men and women. Weibo blocks the use of phrases such as “national male,” a derogatory term for Chinese men. But rape threats and words like “bitch” are permissible. Zheng Churan, a feminist whose account was also removed recently, said several of her female friends had tried to report offensive remarks to Weibo but had never succeeded.
“It’s really obvious where the platforms are aligned on such matters,” Ms. Zheng said.
China’s ruling Communist Party has long been wary of social activism that could challenge its rule and provoke instability. In 2015, the Chinese authorities detained Ms. Zheng and four other feminists on a charge of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” ahead of a campaign about sexual harassment on public transportation. The detentions led to an international outcry.
Feminist ideas have slowly entered the mainstream. Many women have been encouraged by the small gains in the country’s nascent #MeToo movement. And feminist thought appeals to Chinese women who feel that the government fails to address issues of gender discrimination, said Lu Pin, a veteran women’s rights activist based in New York whose account was also removed.
There are few outlets for women to vent in China. “That’s why they go online,” Ms. Lu said.
Weibo has played a central role in helping women find like-minded communities on the internet. It was on Weibo that women shared their thoughts on domestic violence, the difficulties of getting a divorce and gender discrimination in the workplace. Gender-related issues are often among the most talked-about subjects on the platform. But in a male-dominated culture, that has led to resentment.
Many of the most active opponents of China’s rising online feminist discourse have hundreds of thousands of followers. Some are celebrated in state media and allied with a broader nationalist movement that sees any form of criticism as an affront to Beijing. Women are easy targets, facing death threats and accusations of being “separatists.”
Douban, an internet forum and review website, has also recently removed at least eight groups dedicated to women’s issues, according to China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls. Douban declined to comment.
After the hot pot incident, Taobao, an e-commerce site in China, removed 23 items from Ms. Xiao’s online store, saying that they were “prohibited content,” according to a notice viewed by The New York Times. All of the items had the word “feminist” written on them. Ms. Xiao sued Weibo in a Beijing court on April 14, seeking access to her account and $1,500 in compensation.
After she posted her lawsuit on WeChat, China’s ubiquitous instant messaging platform, her public account was removed for “violating regulations.”
Ms. Liang, the lawyer, said she was one of the many women inundated by abuse after she posted supportive messages for Ms. Xiao. She was furious when her Weibo account was frozen, because it meant she could no longer defend herself, she said. “It’s the equivalent of sealing your mouth shut, hanging you up and leaving you to burn,” she said.
One of Ms. Liang’s supposed offenses was sharing a post on Twitter by the group “Chinese for Uyghurs.” Her critics used it to accuse her of being unpatriotic by spreading awareness of the plight of the oppressed Muslim minority.
Despite the risks, many women continue to share messages of support for those who have been kicked off Weibo, Ms. Liang said. She described the platform as “the only open space for me to speak out” and said she wanted her account back, even though she knew that the same angry users would be waiting for her when she returned.
“I think having this space is especially important for young women on the internet,” she said. “I refuse to give it up to those disgusting people.”
Elsie Chen contributed reporting. Lin Qiqing contributed research.