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    How Weibo Sold China on ‘Commercially Correct’ Feminism

    Feminists have fought hard to carve out a space on the popular microblogging platform. But now, they’re struggling to make themselves heard over a new generation of “radicals” raised on the algorithm.

    This May, Jiang Yilei, better known as the fiercely independent internet personality “Papi Jiang,” revealed her newborn child would take her husband’s surname. Then the internet exploded at the news, and she found herself at the center of a public opinion maelstrom. What might seem like a private choice soon became an occasion for yet another highly public feud between self-identified feminists, with one side arguing Jiang had sold out to the patriarchy and others defending her right as a woman to name her child whatever she pleased.

    The fact that much of this battle took place on microblogging platform Weibo is a sign of just how far discourse on the social network has shifted since its days as a boy’s club dominated by male “Key Opinion Leaders” (KOLs) and “Big Vs” — Weibo’s term for verified users. Although feminists continue to face numerous restrictions in speaking out in China, Weibo has been one of a few platforms where they’ve successfully grown their movement while establishing themselves as a voice to be reckoned with.

    But the fact there was a battle in the first place is a sign of a deep and growing divide within China’s online feminist circles. The split in this case was between self-anointed “radical” feminist bloggers and their bêtes noires: “academic” or “moderate” feminists who emphasize intersectionality and want to ensure gender equality doesn’t come at a cost to other disadvantaged groups, including sexual minorities, the disabled, and the rural poor.

    For their part, China’s “academic” feminists complain the “radicals” are overly concerned with the interests of urban middle-class women. They also argue the radicals take their antagonism too far by targeting disadvantaged men and even married women, including Papi Jiang, who don’t conform to their worldview. 

    There’s nothing particularly surprising about this: As China’s feminist movement grows and expands, it’s natural for new interests to emerge and splits to occur. But these divides tend to be exacerbated by how Weibo works: platforming polarizing clickbait and making it hard to bridge gaps in personal experience and ideology.

    When the tech company Sina launched the beta version of “Sina Weibo” in August 2009, it was trying to replicate Twitter’s business model in China. Signing up celebrities and prominent reporters, the app quickly amassed more than 100 million users while building a reputation as an elite-dominated discussion platform. Many early Weibo KOLs were already recognized as leading voices on contentious issues and events, and they came to possess significant agenda-setting power, as in the aftermath of the 2011 Wenzhou train crash.

    They were also overwhelmingly men. Women’s issues remained marginalized for years on the platform: Two prominent nongovernmental organizations, Feminist Voices (nüquan zhi sheng) and Women Awakening (xin meiti nüxing), joined the platform in 2010 and 2011, respectively, but had only tens of thousands of followers by 2016. Instead, the relationships between feminist bloggers largely developed offline, within academic or nonprofit networks.

    Indeed, early Weibo could be an actively hostile environment to feminism, in part because even many of its “liberal” KOLs were uninterested in or outright opposed to feminist activism. This made it difficult for feminist issues to garner the same mainstream attention they do now, even though the community was quite active.

    The turning point came in 2013, when the government tightened oversight of social media. The sudden silencing of so many high-profile KOLs dealt a blow to Weibo, which had depended on them to attract new users. Forced to adjust its politics, the app developed a new business model and began devoting more resources to “vertical content” sections dedicated to topics like cars, food, travel, and fashion. It also started dabbling in e-commerce, forming a partnership with e-commerce giant Alibaba in 2013.

    This transition greatly increased the importance of female users to Weibo’s future. Out of Weibo’s 60 vertical categories in 2018, two of the most popular, “cosmetics” and “fashion,” had a combined 420 million users. Of those, 75% were women; 56% were born after 1990; 79% were well-educated; and 73% were single. Likewise, over 70% of those following the popular “variety show” and “TV series” categories were women.

    These users weren’t just interested in buying things. As early as 2015, women made up 68% of users engaging in news discussions on the platform.

    The site’s changing demographics soon altered the bounds of acceptable discourse. Also in 2015, prominent Chinese scholar Zhou Guoping posted on Weibo advising women to “abide by their nature” and “fall in love, take care of the household, and have children.” It was an opinion that might have been popular with readers, including women readers, in the 1990s, but Weibo’s newly prominent female users weren’t having it. Zhou deleted the post after a flurry of criticism.

    But the rise of female-centric content can be seen most clearly in discussions of sexism and gender-based violence. After a female netizen was assaulted at a Beijing hotel in 2016, topics related to the incident were read over 2.8 billion times. And when the #MeToo movement started in China two years later, Weibo’s mature platform — plus the lack of realistic competition — made it the natural choice for women looking to share their stories. In turn, the movement’s growth boosted the profiles of a number of feminist bloggers, turning them into powerful mainstream voices.

    Yet offering a platform for feminist discussions is different from welcoming the feminist movement itself. After 2017, when feminist topics were growing in prominence on the site, the social media accounts of many feminist organizations and individuals came under attack, including by having their personal information published online or their accounts reported.

    Feminists and Weibo’s broader user base aren’t always at odds, such as when users got on board with a Women Awakening-organized protest of “Girl’s Day.” But where first-generation Weibo feminist activists saw untold numbers of young women beginning to call for greater gender equality, brands and content creators mostly just saw a business opportunity. After a series of scandals involving child abuse made headlines, Weibo-based beauty bloggers took the lead driving discussions on the platform — and growing their follower counts.

    Without a background in NGOs or academia, these “radical” bloggers draw primarily from their personal experiences and lives in formulating their feminism, resulting in a focus on practical issues like marriage and property. Their appeal is grounded more in anger at gender inequality than an understanding of feminist theory, and they argue women need to be independent, rational, opportunistic, and willing to look out for their own economic interests. Many go further, espousing extreme worldviews in which women are pitted against a range of imaginary enemies, from gay “frauds” who’ve tricked their way into marriage and diaosi loser men with no money, to pretty much anyone interested in marriage. As for domestic violence and other serious problems, the radicals offer a simple prescription: “Stay single; stay childless.”

    This embrace of “hostile” rhetoric is an inevitable consequence of women’s rights shifting from being an elite issue to one that resonates with, and is discussed by, a wider audience. The rationales for supporting feminism that served China’s elite don’t work for many grassroots female bloggers. Instead, this group prefers using plain, even crude language to explain their viewpoints, vent, and find empathy with others.

    And of course, sensationalist framing is also better for drawing clicks, even if it means discussions on gender issues have become more about taking sides than analyzing the country’s complex social context. Hence the emerging dichotomy between single feminists and “married donkeys,” or the omnipresent articles calling for the death of poor men, whom bloggers scapegoat for the problems of the patriarchy.

    Such arguments are not as radical as they may at first seem. By replacing the political with the personal and equating women’s economic and individual successes with feminist liberation, they embody the tenets of neoliberalism. Their fixation on poor men as oppressors, for example, removes the responsibility held by middle- or upper-middle class males, reinforcing the legitimacy of structural inequalities.

    Some first-generation “academic” feminist bloggers are unhappy with the ways Weibo has influenced feminist discourse, mainly because they don’t like the idea of a feminism that’s simplistic, brutal, and dogmatically obsessed with “career planning.” They want netizens to recognize the complex ways inequality intersects with class, gender, and disability, and to see both the systemic causes of gender inequality as well as the multiple possibilities that exist for cultural and lifestyle changes.

    These criticisms are unlikely to resonate with bloggers who do not have the relevant background knowledge or activist experiences, however. Besides, it’s rarely commercially wise to admit mistakes or revise a position.

    In short, the rise of feminism and feminist discourse on Weibo is less about the shifting boundaries of “political correctness” — which implies different theoretical interpretations and policy approaches to women’s issues — and more about what’s “commercially correct.” That is, it’s the outcome of a more diverse audience and subsequent commercial exploitation of it by the platform and its KOLs. As feminists, we need to be aware of this context and understand that our interactions with other people take place within a regulated, commercialized space. Only then can we start fighting information manipulation, including fabricated stories and sensationalized content, while still being open to, and understanding of, the dilemmas facing women from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

    China’s online feminist community is no longer a single centralized entity but a diverse network of women NGOs; feminist writers and scholars; activists and volunteers; content creators; and fan groups. Women across different classes, regions, and age groups all fight different battles and experience anger differently. Now, social media is bringing us all together. Conflict is normal, but we should listen to, respect, and learn from each other. And criticisms — when they have to be voiced — should be used to bring our worlds together, not drive us apart.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.

    (Header image: Visual elements from People Visual, re-edit by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)