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Xiao Meili asked a man to stop smoking -- China's right wing went berserk

How a feminist activist incited a mob of misogynist netizens

Feminist activist Xiao Meili, 32, incurred the wrath of right-wing Chinese nationalists "just because I didn't want to inhale secondhand smoke."   © Reuters

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- It began as a night out with friends, and a polite request to stop smoking. It ended with death threats, lawsuits, and a life upended by China's social media rage machine.

On March 29, feminist and online retailer Xiao Meili took some friends visiting from out of town to a popular Chengdu restaurant known for "hot pot," the spicy soup in which diners cook a variety of meat and vegetables.

As the group sat down to enjoy their meal, Xiao felt bothered by a man smoking at the next table and asked whether he would mind putting out his cigarette as they were sharing a public space.

The man not only refused, he unleashed a barrage of vitriol so caustic that Xiao pulled out her phone and started filming in case the situation escalated.

"You infertile woman," the man can be seen shouting in the video recording, a common insult in China where a woman's value is often tied to her ability to have children.

Not satisfied with verbal abuse, the man then got up from his table and poured an oily liquid all over Xiao and her friends leaving them in such a state of shock that Xiao called the police.

Taken to the nearest police station, the man refused Xiao's demands for an apology. The officer in charge that night refused to take sides, saying both parties must share the blame, despite Xiao and her friends feeling shaken as well as having their outfits smeared with oil.

Feeling frustrated and aggrieved, Xiao posted the video of the incident on her Weibo account -- the Chinese microblogging site that has over 500 million active users -- after first consulting with her lawyer friends who advised her that as the incident took place in public she would not be violating his rights in any way.

That was just the beginning of Xiao's troubles.

"I just don't get it," says Xiao. "I am the one getting oil poured on me, I am the one getting being cyberbullied and attacked, but why I am the one being banned by Weibo?" (Source: Xiao Meili)

Instantly, the video went viral. At first, most comments were sympathetic to Xiao, with other Weibo users sharing their own unpleasant secondhand smoke experiences and condemning the man in the video. Many others, however, were unmoved. What's the big deal, they asked, "all men smoke."

Within a few hours, the comments took a far more sinister turn after some Weibo users latched onto Xiao's forthright social media positions on women's rights.

"Your whole family should die, you feminist bitch," said one Weibo user, among thousands of comments attacking her appearance, health, family, friends, even issuing death threats.

After pushing women's rights for more than a decade -- ranked 58th on the World Economic Forum's annual gender equality index in 2008, China fell to 107 out of 156 surveyed countries this year -- Xiao, 32, is no stranger to cyberbullies. What Xiao had never experienced was the wrath of an online mob of such a scale.

Things only got worse after one hyper-nationalist influencer ZiWu XiaShi with around 750,000 Weibo followers, whose mostly far-right comments focus on current affairs, branded Xiao and other Chinese feminists as "Western spies."

In a post titled "expose Xiao Meili, the feminist extremist," ZiWu attached a photo of Xiao holding a poster with the words "Pray for Hong Kong" -- which she had posted during the 2014 Occupy Central movement -- as evidence that Xiao has ties to foreign governments and is a supporter of Hong Kong independence.

"Let me tell you who they really are. Xiao and her friends are funded by foreign enemies," he fumed. "They are traitors and would like to incite conflicts between men and women in China so Western countries can benefit."

Online mobs not only flooded Xiao's Weibo account, but her retail one on Taobao -- the Chinese online shopping website owned by Alibaba Group Holding -- that she relies on to earn a living.

After some Weibo users filed claims alleging that Xiao's account contained "anti-government and gender-discriminatory content," Weibo banned her account. Taobao banned 20 feminism-themed products listed in Xiao's online store claiming they violated "platform guidelines."

"It is ridiculous to think that the whole thing started just because I didn't want to inhale secondhand smoke," Xiao, who was diagnosed with lung problems earlier this year and whose father is a lung cancer survivor, told Nikkei Asia.

Despite the abuse she had suffered, including being described as a "CIA agent," Xiao had no regrets posting the photo of "pray for Hong Kong," which she said did not reveal her political belief regarding the self-governing territory.

"They do not need any evidence. As long as someone claimed a feminist is a spy, they'd eat it up and attack away," said Xiao.

"Nationalism is such a good card you can play on everyone. It has not only been used against the women's rights movement but everyone and everything. As long as someone does something you don't like or don't understand, call them a Western spy," she added.

When it comes to Chinese feminists targeted by patriotic social media mobs, Xiao is not alone.

According to Lu Pin, another activist who had her Weibo account taken down, said she was accused of being a foreign agent and that patriotism has become a "superweapon" for China's misogynists.

A photo of Xiao holding a poster with the words "Pray for Hong Kong" -- which she posted on Weibo during the 2014 Occupy Central movement -- has been cited as evidence by right-wing social media influencers that Xiao has ties to foreign governments and is a supporter of Hong Kong independence.   © Reuters

"They could use it to silence the feminists and give the platforms a reason to ban us. They're mobilizing a lot of people who don't like feminism to vent their anger and discontent with their own lives in the name of nationalism," said Lu.

"I think [their discontent] with women comes from women not dating them, women becoming bolder and more independent," Lu added. "Patriotism gave them a platform to vent their anger and it also gave them a sense of superiority, that they could attack anyone as long as they do it in the name of loving the nation. It is a huge reward to their life where they don't feel seen."

In April, more than two dozen accounts used by women's rights groups were deleted by Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms.

Among them was Liang Xiaowen's Weibo account, which was deleted earlier this month. Liang, a women's rights activist and an attorney based in New York, has filed a lawsuit against Weibo's owner Sina Corp at the Beijing Internet Court, claiming the social media giant violated her rights as a user.

According to China's Civil Code, social media platforms need to alert users if their accounts are being reported and provide the account owner opportunities to respond. Liang said Weibo did not communicate with her before deleting the account, which would put the company in violation of the law.

"They banned my account after some people claiming I posted hate speech against men. How crazy is that?" said Liang. "I never attacked anyone on Weibo. Unless Sina believes my posts about gender equality and LGBTQ rights are illegal and incite hate."

While cyberbullies must share the blame, Weibo needs to be held accountable because the platform intentionally promotes misogynistic content to drive traffic, Liang said. "Even if we cannot win the case, I need there to be a record to show: shame on Weibo."

Xiao Meili told Nikkei that she was preparing her own lawsuit against Weibo. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

"I just don't get it, I am the one getting oil poured on me, I am the one getting being cyberbullied and attacked, but why I am the one being banned by Weibo?"

Additional reporting by Marrian Zhou in New York and Grace Li in Tokyo.

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