Laura Speyer

Online and Offline Worlds Collide As Women’s Rights Activist Returns Home

Ye Haiyan’s protest against child molesters quickly found many online supporters. (via Weibo/fair use)

Early this morning, according to the South China Morning Post, women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan was released after thirteen days of “administrative detention.” Ye had been accused of attacking several people with a cleaver, an accusation she called “ridiculous,” since she pulled out the cleaver as the alleged victims were trying to break into her apartment. The detention occurred fast on the heels of a viral online protest started by Ye, in which she and other supporters posted signs pleading with government officials to stop molesting schoolchildren, and offering themselves instead.

But after Ye finally got home from the detention center, hoping to celebrate the Dragon Boat festival with her daughter, her boyfriend, and several activist friends, a group of roughly 100 protesters formed around her apartment building. Ye live-blogged the protest on her Weibo and Twitter accounts, describing the protesters around her door, “being rowdy, cursing me, and hanging up banners” with insulting slogans. As the protest continued all morning, Ye’s posts grew more worried: “It looks like the Bobai [Ye’s county in Guangxi province] government isn’t able to protect our safety anymore… Who organized these people? What do they want to do? Will we be safe?”

Many of the more than 1,500 commenters on Ye’s initial tweet opposed the protesters. Several Web users were careful to support the protesters’ right to assemble, though, including  @宝乖大美妞, who wrote, “If Bobai takes this opportunity to loosen its control over the right to assemble, march and demonstrate, then that’s progress.” @宝乖大美妞 and several other commenters argued that even if the freedom of assembly and the right to protest were guaranteed, they should not be used to target an individual, as they were today.

Other Web users were vehemently opposed to Ye Haiyan’s work. @流浪的上帝in2062 wrote, “If I were in my hometown of Bobai I’d help them yell, you’re an old hen [slang for prostitute] who stinks up our town.” @流浪的上帝in2062 was likely referring to Ye’s day-long stint in a brothel last summer, which was her way of showing solidarity with the sex workers for whom she advocates, and their poverty-stricken customers. 

Perhaps the pithiest comment came from @笨笨和西西: ”The principal is laughing.” That post is a reference to Ye’s recent campaign to shame an elementary school principal who had been accused of molesting six of his female students.

Ye started her viral campaign outside the school in question, in Hainan province. Ye held a sign that read “Principal, if you want to get a room, come find me. Leave the school kids alone!” Ye then posted a photo of herself and the sign on Weibo, where it quickly went viral and inspired dozens of copycats, including artist-dissident Ai Weiwei, who wrote the same message on his stomach. The commenter was implying, then, that the principal was probably watching Ye, now also targeted by protesters, and thoroughly enjoying the turned tables.

Ye’s Weibo posts from this afternoon reassured her online fans that the crowd has dispersed and the banners have been taken down. Ye claims that the crowds faded away of their own accord, without police intervention. The government, for obvious reasons, is more tolerant of protesters who oppose social change than those, like Ye, who clamor for it. It remains to be seen whether socially conservative protesters will create a back door for a growing culture of political protest; today’s demonstration was a petty affair in a provincial backwater, but if Ye Haiyan’s observers are right, it might be progress. 

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Laura Speyer

Laura Speyer just completed her third year at Yale University. She studied abroad at Peking University last spring, and took language classes at Harbin Institute of Technology during the summer of 2011.