There’s more to these two emojis than it may seem.
There’s more to these two emojis than it may seem.

#RiceBunny is taking over China

A BOWL of rice and a bunny rabbit, side-by-side. On the surface, this pair of emojis looks ordinary enough.

But for millions of women in China, it now represents a defiant response to sexual harassment, gender inequality and the Chinese authorities.

Here's what it really means.

HOW #RICEBUNNY BECAME A TOOL FOR ACTIVISTS

The Me Too movement - which originated in Hollywood in October last year - was brought to China on January 1 by Luo Xixi.

Inspired by the hashtag's popularity in the United States, the Beihang University graduate wrote a 3000-word post on Chinese social media network Weibo, revealing she had been harassed by her former professor Chen Xiaowu while completing her PhD.

The post fast went viral, prompting the education authorities to sack Xiaowu.

This was a huge deal. As Meg Jing Zeng pointed out in The Conversation, China's tertiary education system is guilty of corruption and a power imbalance.

"From primary school through to university in China, gift giving and bribery are common practice among students and parents to secure opportunities. This culture is ripe for abuse," she wrote.

"As several victims of university sexual harassment have revealed, predatory teachers often used coursework scores, scholarships, and even the outcome of degrees to lure or blackmail students."

Chinese women are taking a stand against sexual harassment.
Chinese women are taking a stand against sexual harassment.

Xixi's success was thus a game-changer, prompting other women in China to come forward, sharing their own stories of harassment.

Professors from over 30 universities jumped on the cause, signing an open letter demanding a better system for handling sexual harassment claims.

But it was only a matter of time before the Chinese government intervened.

Less than three weeks after it started, posts featuring the hashtag in China began to disappear. Forums addressing the issue were removed as well.

Refusing to be silenced, protesters are now replacing the hashtag #MeToo with #RiceBunny, and using the rabbit and rice emojis side-by-side.

In Chinese, the word for "rice" is pronounced "mi", and the word for "rabbit" is "tu".

It was a clever way of keeping the conversation around gendered discrimination going in China, and the hashtag has collected almost five million hits.

FEMINISTS VS THE CHINESE AUTHORITIES

Women in China face a number of social challenges, including sexual harassment, and discrimination in university admissions and employment.

A 2016 online survey of university students found that nearly 70 per cent of respondents, aged 18 to 22, had experienced some form of sexual harassment on-campus.

Similarly, a 2013 survey by China Labour Bulletin found that 70 per cent of the surveyed factory workers reported being sexually harassed at the workplace.

But unlike in Western countries, where large-scale protests and campaigns can and do take place, women in China face additional battles with an authoritarian government in power.

In several cases of protest, the response of Chinese authorities has been simply to silence them.

With online movements, this is fairly easy. The Chinese government is known for its Great Firewall, which blocks most Western social media applications, and anything else it chooses to blacklist.

This sign explains the #RiceBunny hashtag. Source: Weibo
This sign explains the #RiceBunny hashtag. Source: Weibo

Last year, the main social media account of China's leading feminist organisation, Feminist Voices, was removed for 30 days.

The group received a notice from its host, Sina.com, informing the organisation that it had been banned for law violation.

"Hello, because content you recently posted violates national laws and regulations, your account will be banned for 30 days," the notice said, according to the organisation.

Just prior to the notification, the account had posted an article about the then-upcoming Women's March in the United States, which may have triggered the ban.

In other cases, authorities can be more direct in their mission to quell protest.

In 2015, Chinese authorities arrested five young women - known as China's "Feminist Five" - for handing out stickers about sexual harassment ahead of International Women's Day.

News of their arrest spread around the world and sparked a global outcry, with the hashtag #FreeTheFive going viral on social media.

Members of the group described the traumatic interrogation processes they were subjected to, with one of them, Zheng Churan, saying state security even continued to call her home while she was suffering from post-traumatic stress.

At the time, Chinese President Xi Jinping was getting ready to co-host a United Nations summit on women's rights in New York - a hypocrisy Hillary Clinton directly called out.

 

 

After 37 nights of intense interrogation, the women were finally freed on bail, but they remained "criminal suspects" charged with "gathering a crowd to disturb public order".

Overall, Zeng suggests it's "naive" to expect the movement in China to follow a similar trajectory to that of the Western world.

But it's a positive step forward for a country which faces so many barriers.



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