They pointed to the fact that she followed Chinese overseas dissidents on Twitter and retweeted posts about the disappearance of Uyghur scholars in Xinjiang, the autonomous region in northwestern China where millions of Muslim Uyghurs have been forced into re-education camps, according to the U.S. government and international human rights organizations.
The Chinese government has denied mistreating the Uyghur population and has said the camps are necessary to combat terrorism.
A leading nationalist influencer who goes by the handle “@Ziwuxiashi” (“Knight at night”) and has 740,000 followers, initiated the attacks on Liang, labeling her a “traitor.” Others reported her account to Weibo for “spreading harmful information.”
In a video posted on Wuyou Daily, a “pro-socialism and pro-patriotism” news site, host Bai Ge said feminists were “infiltrating the country and provoking conflict between the people and the government.”
“These anti-China feminists used the ‘indoor-smoking incident’ to attack the government, because they are good at making social events to catch people’s eyes and push their anti-China agenda,” Bai said. “Would real feminists do that?”
In a statement, Weibo said it had removed the accounts of Liang, Xiao, and others because their posts contained “harmful information.” It reminded users not to “organize and incite other users to attack the Party, government, or state-affiliated enterprises and institutions.”
In a post on the site, Weibo CEO Wang Gaofei accused feminists of “inciting hatred and gender discrimination.”
Weibo is a privately run company, but social media companies in China must tread carefully or risk running afoul of the government’s censors.
Liu Lipeng, a former Weibo employee who worked on content moderation, said the company would sometimes receive orders from the Chinese government to shut down certain accounts, but other times the company would take preemptive action to remove content that risked offending the government.
“Censorship is a black box. No one knows how it works, at least in each individual event,” said Liu, who now works at China Digital Times, a California-based publication tracking censorship in China.
Weibo did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Even after her Weibo account was shut down April 8, Liang continued to receive insults and threats online. Some commenters talked about finding where her parents lived.
“They truly hated us, aiming to shut us up by threatening violence against our family,” she said.
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As attacks on feminists have mounted, a few of the women have issued statements expressing support for China’s control over Hong Kong. But Liang said nationalism is a trump card in online arguments in China, making it impossible for the women to defend themselves.
“If they say you’re anti-China, you’re anti-China. You’re already politically stigmatized and lose the argument without even getting into the gender debate,” she said.
The current controversy reflects the increasing challenges feminists face in China. In 1995, under President Jiang Zemin, Beijing hosted the U.N.’s fourth World Conference on Women, which inspired a generation of Chinese activists and facilitated a wave of women’s rights organizations in China.
Under Xi, however, feminists reflect a liberal and global outlook that is incompatible with China’s current worldview, Lü said, making them the “perfect enemy of nationalism.”
“Nationalism is consistent with misogyny,” Lü said. “They both require hierarchy and control, that people obey the nation and women obey men.”
The All-China Women’s Federation, the country’s largest state-affiliated women’s group, which aims to promote women’s rights in political and social life, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Social media influencers have played a prominent role in reinforcing nationalist views in China. In 2016, the Chinese Communist Youth League invited @Ziwuxiashi to discuss online ideological confrontation, and last year the Cyberspace Administration Office in Shaanxi province requested that he attend a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party and scrutinize “negative influencers.”
Liu Lipeng said that Weibo also has a vested interest in promoting posts that express nationalist viewpoints.
“Nationalism highly arouses users’ emotions, generating constant debate and bringing massive traffic and profits to Weibo,” Liu said.
Moreover, Liu said, by highlighting nationalist content, the social media company is able to maintain a good relationship with the Chinese government, which could help it secure financial and regulatory approvals.
In response to the controversy, Liang, Xiao and other feminists have filed lawsuits against Weibo, accusing the company of defamation and requesting that their accounts be restored.
Even if they do not prevail in court, however, Liang hopes the legal fight will put a spotlight on the challenges that feminists in China currently face.
“If we lose the trial, it doesn’t mean we are wrong, but shows the unfair legal system and the society suppressing women who speak out,” Liang said. “The legal judgment will be preserved, forever, on China’s internet and court system, documenting the hatred and violence against feminists. And I want this documentation.”
“Feminists don’t retreat,” Liang said. “Our accounts were bombed, but we will strive for any space to speak out.”