(CNN)The torrent of hate messages filling Liang Xiaowen’s inbox stopped as suddenly as it had started.
For a week, the 29-year-old Chinese feminist was subject to incessant chauvinist and misogynist attacks on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media sites. She was called a “traitor” and a “xenocentric bitch.” Some users discussed how to find her parents’ home address.
Then, without any warning, Liang’s account was removed by Weibo.
“At first, I could not believe it,” she said. “The slander against me continued online, but I can’t even defend myself anymore.”
Liang, an attorney living in New York, is among more than 20 Chinese feminists and women’s rights groups whose presence has been wiped from social media over the past two weeks.
The disappearance of their accounts followed a similar pattern: Each was first accused by influential nationalist bloggers of being a “separatist” or “traitor.” Then, a barrage of vicious messages and comments descended, with trolls reporting their accounts to Weibo moderators for supposedly “illegal” or “harmful” content. In a matter of days, they found their accounts shuttered — with all posts and followers erased.
“(We) were collectively silenced by an internet-wide crackdown that hit like a tsunami. The online public sphere that we have overcome all difficulties to build was relentlessly smothered,” Liang said.
Liang became a feminist at a university in Guangzhou, a southern Chinese city once known for its vibrant civil society. She continued engaging in China’s online feminist movement after moving to the US in 2016 to study for a master’s degree.
In recent years, an army of nationalistic influencers and their followers have become powerful aides to the government-employed censors policing China’s internet, swarming on those who speak out and intimidating them into silence.
China’s feminist movement — already subject to a harsh crackdown under President Xi Jinping — is the latest target of a sweeping online crusade against voices deemed “unpatriotic.” Trolls sift through years of posts on feminist social media accounts, searching for the slightest suggestion of alleged “anti-China” opinion.
Sometimes, as in Liang’s case, even supporting victims of harassment is enough to prompt an onslaught of personal attacks.
Unable to find fault with Liang’s Weibo posts, trolls descended on her account on Twitter, which is blocked in mainland China. Her retweets of posts by overseas Chinese dissidents and articles about the crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang were paraded as “evidence” of her betrayal of China. And a photo of Liang sharing a meal with an American feminist scholar was used to prove her “collusion” with US anti-China forces.
But Liang refuses to be silenced. In a rare step, she filed a civil lawsuit this week against Weibo, demanding to have her account back.
“I want to show everyone that there are still efforts we can make to try and preserve the space we’ve created together. I don’t want to give up,” she said.
Weibo said in a statement that Liang’s accounts and others were removed after complaints from users over posts containing “illegal and harmful information.” It stressed that Weibo users must not “incite antagonism between groups or promote boycott culture” or “organize or incite other users to attack state and Party organs and public enterprises and institutions.”
How did the attack start?
Liang was attacked for defending Xiao Meili, a leading voice in China’s feminist movement and the first to face the nationalist storm.
It started when Xiao spoke out on a subject that could not be more apolitical in nature: indoor smoking.
On March 29, Xiao went out for hot-pot dinner with a few friends, during which she became entangled in a dispute with a customer at the next table who refused to stop smoking despite her repeated requests. China banned smoking in indoor public places in 2011 but did not specify penalties. In many cities, the practice is still prevalent due to weak enforcement and a lack of local legislation.
As the argument heated up, the man became more agitated and threw a cup of hot liquid at Xiao and her friends. Police were called but no charges were laid. Later that evening, Xiao uploaded a video of the encounter on Weibo, expressing frustration at the difficulty of banning indoor smoking in Chengdu, her home city in southwestern China.
To her surprise, the post sparked such intense discussion that it became a top trending topic on Weibo the next day. Xiao received overwhelming support from commentators — and even the endorsement of a number of state-affiliated accounts.
But outside the spotlight, an ugly smear campaign was brewing against Xiao. On March 30, a prominent nationalist account on Weibo posted a photo of Xiao from 2014 and accused her of supporting Hong Kong independence.
In that photo, Xiao held up a sign with a famous line from Hong Kong rock band Beyond: “Holding fast to freedom in the wind and rain!” Originally a homage to Nelson Mandela, the song was frequently sung by protesters during the Umbrella Movement in 2014. Beneath it, Xiao wrote another line: “Pray for Hong Kong.”
What the Umbrella Movement demanded was universal suffrage, not Hong Kong independence — which was an extremely fringe idea that few took seriously at the time. But to China’s fervent nationalists, any show of support for Hong Kong’s quest for democracy is equated to an endorsement of Hong Kong independence.
Before long, Xiao’s account was flooded with savage attacks.
“Hong Kong independence (supporter), your whole family deserves to die,” one message said. Others accused her of being a “CIA spy.” Another wished her to be doused with sulfuric acid.
The next morning, her Weibo account was shuttered. “I was confused and terrified,” Xiao said. “The political accusations are too big and too frightening.”
The trolls followed her to Taobao, a Chinese online shopping site where Xiao owns a store selling clothes with feminist designs. Insults kept pouring into her inbox, and more than 20 items at her store were banned from the site due to incessant reporting from “customers.”
“I’m still nervous now,” Xiao said. “I’ve been crying a lot recently. I’m most afraid that the (online harassment) would affect my real life. But it has — my business has been attacked, and I have to take a break to take care of myself, to digest and deal with all of this.”
“Political death sentence”
Back on Weibo, Xiao’s attackers celebrated the disappearance of her account — and Zheng Churan, Xiao’s feminist friend who was at the hot-pot dinner last month, became the next target.
Trolls found a photo Zheng posted of herself on Twitter in 2014. It showed her holding a sign similar to Xiao’s, and wearing a yellow ribbon, a symbol of Hong Kong’s democracy protests.
She too was assailed for being a Hong Kong independence supporter, in addition to being a Taiwan independence supporter and a practitioner of Falun Gong, a religious movement banned and brutally suppressed by the Chinese government. Zheng denies all three accusations.
“My first reaction was anger,” Zheng said. “Then a sense of terror set in … what kind of education and promotion of hatred have these young people been receiving that allowed them to behave like this online?”
Accusations of separatism have long been used by the Chinese government to clamp down on activism and dissent in Tibet, Xinjiang and more recently Hong Kong. Increasingly, it has been deployed to target other Chinese who sympathize with their cause.
Such political labeling is a powerful and effective weapon because the accused can’t argue back or engage in meaningful debates. Honest and free discussions on the issues of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan are not tolerated on Chinese social media, and any deviance from official narratives can be perceived as “anti-China.”
“It’s a political death sentence, and misogynist and nationalist trolls can easily deploy it to attack us,” said Lv Pin, a New York-based activist whose Weibo account was also removed last week. “The government not only endorses it — it has made the weapon and set the rules of the game.”
The attack campaigns thus almost invariably end in victory for online nationalists. For “patriotic” influencers, the witch-hunting, doxing and online bullying of “traitors” is also a tried-and-true method to quickly generate traffic and amass followers.
The blogger “Ziwuxiashi,” a Chinese army veteran who unleashed a series of smear campaigns against Xiao, Zheng and Liang, has more than 700,000 followers. Another nationalist blogger who played a central role in the attack, “Eagle of God,” boasts a massive following of 2 million.
Many of these prominent accounts have been endorsed by the government. “Ziwuxiashi,” for instance, was among the three vocal microbloggers invited in 2016 by the Communist Youth League to share their stories of “promoting positive energy” on the internet.
“I want to remind young internet users that when we look at the internet, we can’t only see things from the surface. For so many years, behind every public incident that has fomented public opinion and become a hot topic online, there is nearly always the trace of anti-establishment forces,” he said at the forum.
Often, the personal attacks unleashed by these nationalist bloggers appear to be directed or amplified by the state. Other times, they seem to happen spontaneously. But it is increasingly difficult to tell them apart.
Ryan Fedasiuk, a researcher at Georgetown University who studies China’s efforts to control online public opinion, has found that in addition to 2 million paid internet commentators, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also “draws on a network of more than 20 million part-time volunteers to engage in internet trolling, many of whom are university students and members of the Communist Youth League.”
It might be tempting to dismiss all Chinese online nationalists as CCP-backed trolls. In reality, however, plenty of Chinese internet users are genuinely patriotic and eager to defend their country.
“Many Chinese young people want to participate in public life and have their voices heard. And the patriotic movement is probably the only safe avenue for that,” Liang said. “In front of patriotism, many issues are rendered no longer important.”
As the feminist accounts disappeared one after another, a user who was previously removed by Weibo revealed how she won back her account by taking the platform to court.
The user’s account was removed last year after she published a viral post teaching people how to file a complaint against Weibo to the government. She then posted the same content on her second account, only to have it shuttered too. Angered by the encounter, she sued Weibo in the Beijing Internet Court, a low-cost e-justice system that livestreams cases.
Weibo eventually agreed to reinstate both accounts under the mediation of the court.
The precedent gave Liang a sense of hope. In the days after her account was removed, she also contemplated suing Weibo.
Losing the account she had been using since university was painful, Liang said. Whenever she saw discussions about feminism on Chinese social media, she still had the habitual urge to share it on Weibo.
“It’s like a phantom limb, I always feel as if the removed part is still there. Only when I urgently need to let my voice heard by the public, do I realize in desperation that the account I had used for nearly 11 years is really gone,” she said.
Last week, news emerged that more than 10 feminist groups were removed from Douban, another popular social platform. The widening crackdown spurred Liang into action.
On Tuesday, the lawyer filed a case with the Beijing Internet Court from the US, accusing Weibo of violating China’s newly enacted Civil Code, damaging her reputation and violating its user service agreement.
Liang is unsure about her chances of winning. First, the court has to accept her case, then the judicial process could take months.
“I want to give it a try, even if there is only a slightest chance,” she said. “Even if I don’t win, the court’s verdict will become a written record for the onslaught against so many feminist accounts this April.”
Xiao, the feminist activist in Chengdu, is also preparing a lawsuit against Weibo.
“I don’t think I’ll have a big chance of winning. Going to court is a very exhausting process and it might not pay off in the end,” Xiao said. “But I have to do it, so at least I won’t have regrets for not trying.”