Women Are Using Social Media: Bridging Personal and Public Through Sharing Chinese Women’s First-Hand Experiences of Abuse Against Them and Women’s Rights

The fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 held in Beijing is considered to be not only a huge step in bringing awareness to women’s issues and recognizing women’s rights as human rights on international scene[1][2]; the conference has created a strong inscentive for women rights and gender equality activist in China. A number of new NGOs were newly founded in China focussing on women’s issues. One of such was the first NGO which evaluated and monitored representations of women, men and gender in media. Moreover, this conference was unique due to its proposal that all participating governments commit to working closely with NGOs to indeed implement the Platform for Action to give women rights to make their own decisions abot childbearing and sexuality without fear of abuse, harrasment and any kind of violence. Besides the entitled NGOs which were supposed to keep the track of the government’s commitment to plans, there were other NGOs which worked without a legal status and though helped to keep the sustain the discussions adressing women’s issues in China.

However, similarly like Cai Yiping (Executive Committee member of the international feminist network DAWN who has attended the 1995 conference in Beijing) remarked that perhaps the public, except those who were in the NGO Forum, Government meetings or conference planning processes, hardly knew about the conference at all, I would ask whether those, actually experiencing the hashest dispositions of gender inequality, know such conference existed even 20 years later. On the one hand, government attached NGOs work in a completely different level of societal structures. Although they emphasize societal issues, aim at equality and piece and advocate those who are not able to do it by themselves, I wonder how fast the societal change can happen if those whose rights are represented at the upper levels are not aware of such advocacy, neither of such rights. On the other hand, the not registered NGOs or blogs on gender equality might not have had the resources to spread their ideas into the deeper levels of society – not only were tools such as posters or adverts on TV costly, but the governmental restrictions on media were tight as well. 20 and even 10 years ago technology was not so widespread and easily accessible to people of almost all social backgrounds as it is nowadays. New forms of media (e.g. social networks, micro blogging) allow  development messages penetrate into those levels of society that have been silenced for so long.

In my previous blog post, I have discussed how conventional media forms – although for long watched and controlled by the authorities, but lately given more independence and becoming more industry driven – actually become reproducers of discourses that are convenient for those same authorities. Many NGOs are being neglected by them despite the fact that it was agreed in the 1995 Beijing’s conference that Women rights’ NGOs will collaborate closely with governments to prepare programmes fighting gender inequality in China. It appears that such NGOs in practice are tolerated only as long as they perform a symbolic role when representing China’s interest in womens’ issues in international arena, and as soon as they start expressing unfavourable judgement about actuall changes in society, they become unwanted by those whose policies thrive in current state of how things are.

Therefore, it becomes clear that NGOs as agencies representing mistreated women in China’s society are very limited in regrads to how intensely they are watched by the autorities. Industrialized media forms only help to maintain dominant discourses. Another aspect of penetrating the ideas about womens’ rights into deeper levels of society is that probbably NGOs and bloggers who care deeply about women’s treatment in the society are actually retelling the stories and fail to communicate it through more personal, emotionally charded, directly appealing communication to women. In his exploration of what social media is[3], Meikle Graham describes his own experience of using Facebook, and emphasizes the difference between those media companies which are related to sharing products created by the companies themselves and those social media networks that allow users to create and share various types of media by themselves. Graham also emphasized how this social network draws together members of users’s social network as well as brings the aspects of public and the personal together. Thus, in the context of women’s issues in China, I see a potential of two-way ideas communication through social networks – something that is a public or societal issue is revealed in a deeper level of society, then some very personal stories told through social networks firstly reach instant circles of personal networks and later are spread into upper levels of society that have the power to spread the message across independent news publishers in the country and internationally.

An example of such embodiment of a real life story could be a picture containing sensitive graphics posted by a young Chinese family on a Chinese social network following a forced abortion 7 months into the pregnancy[4]. The photograph pictured a body of an aborted 7 months old baby. A 33-year-old Chinese woman was reported to be pregnant with her second child, which was against the law under the One-Child Policy of China. Since the family did not have the funds to pay the fine for the second child, local auhorities decided to force an abortion upon the family. Although forced abortion is officially illegal in China, the offcials in more remote areas apply their own methods to meet the requitements for the births quota imposed by central governments. The photograph was shared widely througout the social media, it ignited fierce discussions in the Chinese society, challenged existing policies and drew enormous attention from international press.

In 2015, a woman who was 8 months pregnant took screenshots of her texts on the phone as a proof of being threatened by the local authorities[5]. She was told that her husband will lose his job as a public servant if she refuses to receive an abortion. The concerns of the women were uploaded on an online newspaper and soon received enormous attention on Weibo, Twitter‘s equivalent in China. Soon, the Telegraph, one of the UK‘s principal broadsheet newsletters was writing on the issue.

An increasing number of women who faced domestic and sexual abuse become active on social platforms to share what they experienced to attract more attention to this social issue and helplessnes of the legal system against it. In 2011, Kim Lee, an american woman who at that time was married to a prosperous Chinese businessman, posted a picture of herself on Chinese Weibo after being abused and beaten by him[6]. In a few hours tens of thousands of people viewed her post and shared it further with their social circles. Since then (but not necessarily because of it) more and more women use social media to talk about their personal experiences encountering domestic and sexual abuse. Hashtags such as #BeatenBecauseBoyfriendSuspectedCheating , #FreeTheFive or #OnlineFeverThatJournalistRapedFemaleIntern[7] are three examples of how women’s harrassment, mistreatment of women’s right activists and online communication of women issues in general become prominent in Chinese social media.

It must be the advances in social media and its impact on various aspect of China’s society that made communication about women’s issues in China much more open and progressive. Women put their stories forward because they receive an empowering response from society. This empowerment is through knowing that society does not approve the actions of the abuser, that there are other victims that talk about their experiences too, and that one is a member of a wider society which is connected through instant, timeless and supporting communication.

Retrieved from www.bbc.com

Chinese women protesting against domestic violence. Retrieved from: www.bbc.co.uk

Chinese women protesting against verbal abuse at Shanghai’s metro. Retrieved from www.telegraph.co.uk

In last couple of years the number of protests regarding women’s unsfafety were organized in China. For instance, one of such protest was a protest against doemstic violence – women wearing bloody wedding dresses marched in the streets of Beijing to express their disatisfaction with the fact that law does not defend women[8]. Another exampe is a protest in Shanghai’s metro against sexual harrasment against women on the subway[9]. An interesting aspect about these protests is that they become accelarated on the social network websites. Pictures capturing these protesting women and their ideas were spread across the country and abroad in hours. Following the term “critical mass”, Pablo Barberá and colleagues discuss such support of protests through media using the term “critical peripethy”[10]. The protest is centralized around the protest event happening in an exact time and at an exact place. However, this is just the initiation of the protest. When the protest begins being shared through social networks it grows out of being a peripethy of the protest and the protest continues on a digital level reaching the depths of the society who otherwise would not be reached from that initial time and space perspective.

China's Weibo

China’s Weibo

In conclusion, this whole conventional media space which is serving the needs of the industrial and consumerist society and which is sustaining discourse adavantageous for current policies is confronted by the networked media space allowing citizens to bring up their dissatisfaction with status quo in the society. Extremely personal stories brought to the public space via social media becomes a territory where citizens listen to each other and rethink their social roles. This merge of personal and public through social media becomes a division of citizenship domain where individuals care for their society not due to imposed rules from authoritative bodies but due to solidarity about very disturbing experiences of their kinfolk.



[1] http://www.aauw.org/2014/08/20/1995-beijing/ .

[2] https://europa.eu/eyd2015/en/austria/posts/chinese-perspective-feminist-challenges .

[3] Meikle, G. 2016: Social Media: Communication, Sharing and Visibility. Abingdon: Routledge.

[4] Read more at https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/7-month-old-baby-forcibly-aborted-on-march-22-in-china-graphic-photo-circul .

[5] Read more at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11858723/China-Forced-abortion-late-term-to-avoid-one-child-policy.html .

[6] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2133340/American-woman-Kim-Lee-unlikely-hero-millions-battered-wives-China.html .

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-36674120 .

[8] https://annebonnypirate.wordpress.com/2015/04/09/the-five-chinese-feminists/ .

[9] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/9355978/Shanghai-women-protest-on-underground-after-being-told-to-cover-up.html .

[10] Barberá P., Wang N., Bonneau R., Jost J.T., Nagler J., Tucker J., et al. 2015: The Critical Periphery in the Growth of Social Protests. PLoS ONE 10(11). Retrieved from: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0143611 .

One Comment:

  1. Very interesting read that sheds some light on a subject I knew little of in China. While reading this blog post, it reminded me of a viral video “Creepers on The Bridge” from 2014 where two women produced a video of them walking along a bridge in Cairo. It was a short video that went viral and encourage women around the world to produce their own videos – demonstrating the power of social media in facilitating those who are vulnerable with limited access, to be able to tell their stories. Here is a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocgvnHo6_OU.

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