'I never expected to start a movement': Chinese journalist Sophia Huang

Feminist journalist Sophia Huang talks about her part in the making of China's #MeToo movement.
By Shih Yu, La Tsu, Chiu Yuen, Yu Mao and Li Hsue-li
2021.12.09
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Sophia Huang, a journalist and #MeToo activist, is shown in an undated photo.
Photo: Sophia Huang

Detained feminist journalist Sophia Huang first made headlines in 2018 when she carried out a survey of sexual harassment among female colleagues in Chinese media organizations, making her a founding participant in China's #MeToo movement. She was detained on Sept. 19, 2021 in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou alongside her friend Wang Jianbing, as she was about to travel to the United Kingdom to start a master's degree, and charged with "incitement to subvert state power."

Now 33, Huang began working in the media in 2010, with experience spanning the China News Service, the New Express and the Southern Metropolis Weekly. She decided in 2015 to become an independent investigative journalist, despite the fact that many were already finding alternatives to that profession. Huang paid no heed to the warning signs, and kept on churning out one heavyweight piece after another. She was the first to report on the sexual assault of female students at Beihang University by professor Chen Xiaowu.

In June 2019, Huang published an article on the website Matters about her experience of taking part in the Hong Kong protest movement, which began in opposition to plans to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China. She was later detained by the Guangzhou police on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and placed under residential surveillance for three months.

By the time we caught up with Huang in Febuary 2021, she had been out on bail for more than a year. She was still being followed everywhere by the Guangzhou municipal state security police, even though she was visiting friends elsewhere in China at the time. Forced to keep her writings off the mainland Chinese internet, Huang wrote anonymously and published them overseas instead to evade government censorship. However, she still kept a diary detailing her surveillance by the state security police, who had prevented her from working, and shared it with a small number of close friends.

Huang was no stranger to The Reporter, having visited the magazine's offices in 2019, during a trip to democratic Taiwan. When she spoke to us by video call in July 2021, Huang said she had won a scholarship to study at the University of Sussex in the U.K., starting on Sept. 20, 2021, but that she was still being called in from time to time to "drink tea" [answer questions] with the state security police. She seemed worried at the time, telling us: "I'm not sure if I'm going to be allowed to leave or not."

On Sept. 19, the eve of her departure, Guangzhou police arrested Huang and Wang Jianbing, an independent charity worker for the rights of workers with occupational health problems. The police fabricated a statement claiming Huang and Wang had organized a "political gathering" and forced their friends to sign it. They are now being held on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power."

Their lawyers have repeatedly been denied permission to meet with their clients, and nobody knows exactly where they are being held, nor anything about their current state of mental and physical health. The Guangzhou police department has issued a notice of arrest to family members, but Huang and Wang's loved ones have been unable to deposit money for their use in detention, despite making several attempts, at the location listed in the notice. The Chinese government has yet to respond publicly to expressions of concerns from inside or outside China.

What follows are edited highlights of our team's four-hour interview with Sophia Huang in 2021.

RFA/The Reporter: It has been quite a journey from that #MeToo expose to your article on the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Do you have any regrets about any of your writing, particularly on Hong Kong?

Sophia Huang: None at all. I wouldn't have wanted to respond inadequately, to be found wanting. I think that when it comes to putting up resistance, we need to start with the smaller things. Resistance isn't a huge big deal. I was just doing my job as a journalist, serving my conscience, and telling the truth. Doctors speak out about a contagious virus, then they treat it. 

Why do so many people fail to act on their conscience? I think that's a huge collective failure on all of our parts, to fail to stand up for ourselves.I have no idea how things will turn out; they could get way worse for me. But at least I'll be able to say that I stood up for myself at the time.

RFA/The Reporter: Did you expect to start China's #MeToo movement?

Sophia Huang: No, I never expected that. At that time, I was participating in a scholarship project for Asian journalists in Singapore, and the person in charge of the project told me about #MeToo. So I went and read about it, and started to think about possibly doing something myself, to get people to speak out. 

I asked women journalists I knew had suffered sexual assault if they would hold up slogans in protest, but they thought that was too humiliating. However, they were willing to share their stories anonymously. So I thought if I'm going to doing it like that, I could make it a national questionnaire, and get even more people to contribute.

Back then I did wonder how many people would pay attention, but my main focus was to get the industry to take a look at itself, and I thought it would just be a few journalists who spoke out about the industry. I never thought the whole thing would spread to universities as well.

RFA/The Reporter: Can you tell us a bit about how you pick which stories to work on?

I pick investigations that are representative and typical [of large groups of people or social phenomena], and ones in which I can actually help people. I need to get the facts of the story straight, so I could spend a week talking to someone, then checking and verifying her story, including her identity and professional background. I also need to figure out how best to publicize it. Some people want a sense of moral justice, or a report in the media, and others are looking for judicial redress or financial compensation. I respect their wishes. Some cases go straight to judicial processes with no media reporting. Some cases require me to find a lawyer for them, or a gender-conscious psychological counselor, and so on.

RFA/The Reporter: One of the main demands at the start of the movement was for universities to set up a mechanism to handles sexual harassment complaints. Has there been any progress there?

Sophia Huang: Some colleges and universities are doing it. Professors from Beihang University, Peking University, Beijing Normal University, Nanjing University, and Tsinghua University have all contacted me to say they have set up anti-sexual harassment processes and asking me for information about how to do that. I sent out material I had gathered from about 30 different countries. But when I contacted them for an update a couple of months later, it hadn't worked out.

For example, the Peking University group made a plan, but the college principal wasn't happy and thought it was too feminist, and too biased towards students, so he disbanded the group. They set up their own research group, mainly composed of university management, with no student participation, and no academic staff with gender or media expertise. They came up with a greatly watered down version of the plan, but never announced it, fearing it would focus too much attention on the college, and other universities would follow suit, then they would be criticized by the ministry of education. They still haven't had a clear answer from the ministry, so they haven't dared to publish the plan.

RFA/The Reporter: Has anything improved?

Sophia Huang: I think the environment has improved a bit, and we are seeing more awareness and willingness to report now. When we started out, not everyone even knew what sexual harassment was, but at least they are all aware of it now. They are less likely to feel shame, or feel that it's their fault. This is a pretty big change. There have been some pretty big cases, which, while they haven't achieved legal justice, have at least achieved a kind of moral justice, because many people are very sympathetic to them. I think if you tell the truth, you will be heard.

RFA/The Reporter: We actually saw street protests in support of former CCTV intern Zhou Xiaoxuan (Xianzi) in her sexual harassment lawsuit against former TV host Zhu Jun, which was eventually unsuccessful. How did you feel about that?

Sophia Huang: Actually, I found that very moving. On that same day in Hong Kong, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow were sentenced, and there were a lot of "car chasers," groups of their supporters running alongside the prison vans by the court gates, and yelling encouragement to them. Hundreds of people showed up. That happened on the same day as the Xianzi case, and it was as if they were meeting across time and space.

A lot of people are saying that civil society is dead in China now, and that there is nothing left to hope for. But when I saw those ... feminists turning out in Beijing for a sexual assault case, I felt that there wasn't such a huge gap between Hongkongers and mainland Chinese people. I saw groups of young people in both places turning out in the cold weather, facing up to verbal harassment from the police, waiting for a case outcome, and supporting justice. It was really very touching.

So don't be afraid if you think you're the only one; maybe there are others scattered around who are still willing to stand together. Moments like that are beautiful, and they inspire people. 

I don't like to talk about overthrowing anything or anyone. I think about these moments of beauty, of how to build something, how to pursue something. It's not hate; it's like falling in love with something different; a sense that a person needs my help and the sense of satisfaction, value, and fulfillment I get from helping them. 

If you stare into the abyss, you will become the abyss.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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