China’s Silenced Feminist: a BBC Eye investigation
PHOTO: Sophia Huang Xueqin. Image Credit: SCMP
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In June 2021, Sophia Huang Xueqin was awarded a prestigious Chevening scholarship and was meant to be starting her master’s degree on Gender Violence And Conflict at the University of Sussex in September that same year. However, on the way to the airport to catch her flight to the UK, Sophia and fellow labour activist Wang Jianbing 'vanished'.
Seven months after Sophia’s disappearance, in the documentary, China’s Silenced Feminist, BBC Eye investigates what happened to Sophia, how her story is being erased by Chinese state censors, and how a disinformation campaign is being played out online against her. The BBC also asks why, in the UK where Sophia should be studying on a British government scholarship, there’s been silence.
In China, tens of thousands of individuals are being rounded up and questioned in a wider state crackdown on activists. Feminists who continue to speak out are forced to remain anonymous. Many like Sophia and Jianbing, who are advocating for gender rights and other social causes, have been framed as agents of “hostile western forces” and received attacks online by nationalist trolls.
The BBC gained exclusive access to other former female detainees who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “There’s no offline campaigns anymore… the political atmosphere has become very nervous.”
Former Weibo censor, Liu Lipeng, gave the BBC a rare interview where he breaks down the state’s censorship apparatus and reveals Beijing’s disinformation campaign against Sophia: “On the Chinese internet, it’s difficult to differentiate between a state internet commentator and an ordinary user,” Liu said. “It’s a scary phenomenon.” Weibo did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.
The BBC also talks to Li Maizi, a prominent Chinese feminist, who was detained ahead of International Women’s Day in 2015 for attempting to hand out stickers protesting sexual harassment on public transport: “In the past [sexual harassment and violence] was covered. The #MeToo movement provided a venue for people to speak out.”
When Huang’s disappearance was first reported, the University of Sussex and Chevening released the following statement: “We are concerned about the safety and whereabouts of our student. Our staff are liaising with Chevening to seek further details.” But since then, neither have published further statements.
In an email leaked to the BBC, following the BBC’s requests for comment, students and staff at the University of Sussex were warned not to discuss Sophia’s situation. The university told the BBC that because this was a sensitive matter, media requests should be dealt with by the press office, citing data protection concerns. Supporters of Sophia and Jianbing accuse the university and Chevening of not speaking out for fear of antagonising the Chinese government. Students from China make up a fifth of international enrolment at the university, and their tuition fees - along with partnerships with Chinese institutions - provide an important revenue stream.
Responding to the BBC, a spokesperson said the university “remains deeply concerned about the safety and whereabouts of its prospective student” and has been in “regular contact” with Chevening and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
The spokesperson added that the university has followed the advice of the FCDO - which told the BBC it was “following the matter closely”. Chevening did not respond to the BBC’s requests for comment.
The BBC reveals that Sophia and Jianbing were detained in secret locations known as 'black jails' where they were held in solitary confinement without access to lawyers and outside world. At least 70 of their supporters were questioned and interrogated by the Guangzhou National Police. Now, Sophia and Jianbing are being held on charges of 'inciting subversion of state power' - a serious charge which could see them facing years behind bars. Their cases have been handed over to prosecutors in China, and both are expected to face trial soon.
The documentary, China’s Silenced Feminist, is now available via BBC platforms: BBC iPlayer (available only in the UK), BBC News YouTube (worldwide, except the UK), the websites bbc.co.uk and bbc.com/news, and on BBC News Chinese. The documentary will air on the BBC’s international news channel, BBC World News, on 28 May.
Reporter: Jessie Lau
Producers: Riddhi Jha, Jessie Lau, and Manisha Ganguly
Executive producers: Daisy Ayliffe and Mustafa Khalili
Editor: Marc Perkins
Source BBC iPlayer
May 19, 2022 4:00am ET by BBC iPlayer