In the midst of a raging pandemic, three of the top five trending hashtags on China’s Weibo on Monday morning were unsurprisingly related to the coronavirus. But also among them was a hashtag that had nothing to do with the current contagion, but was instead related to a much older issue.

“#Trigger Warning# I can’t help but think of that time in junior high when my male class teacher used his sturdy hands to grab both of my arms and pull me against him… There was also the ‘very busy’ female teacher who saw everything but only raised her eyes once and hurriedly lowered her head,” wrote one of the many Weibo users blogging with the viral hashtag.

#Trigger Warning# is the latest vehicle used by men and women in China to share their stories of sexual harassment. The hashtag kicked off a fresh wave of online discussion, generating more than 94,000 posts that had been viewed 210 million times on Weibo by Monday afternoon, according to the microblogging platform’s counter.

At one point on April 13, “trigger warning” was among the top five trending searches on Weibo. (Picture: Weibo)

Since the #MeToo movement exploded globally in late 2017, activists in China have been fighting online censorship to amplify the voices of sexual assault victims. The latest effort stems from a recent report by Chinese news magazine South Reviews. In the lengthy article, the author interviewed a woman who accused lawyer Bao Yuming, said to be her adopted father, of raping her as a minor.

In a statement last Friday, telecom giant ZTE said Bao resigned as an independent non-executive director from the company board. Oil company Jereh said it “ended a labor contract” with Bao after negotiation, citing reports of the alleged sexual assault. Bao did not respond to our request for comment via a Weibo message.

The events have revived a heated conversation around sexual misconduct in China -- one that has repeatedly been suppressed online while leaving a more enduring mark in the real world. When doctoral student Luo Xixi came forward two years ago with accusations against her former professor, it resulted in the university sacking the alleged perpetrator. Yet hashtags and posts supporting the #MeToo movement were repeatedly subjected to heavy censorship on social media, according to a research project by the University of Hong Kong.

But this time around, #Trigger Warning# appears to have been left alone by censors.

As the hashtag gained momentum throughout the day, it continued to show up on Weibo’s official top search list. Alleged victims wrote about their encounter with sexual violence, prefacing their posts with #Trigger Warning# to alert readers of potentially distressing content. Others used the hashtag to call for China to improve its sex education. One local police department shared an education video on sexual assault, calling on victims to speak out.

Unlike the #MeToo movement, which primarily revolves around the experiences of adult women, #Trigger Warning# is centered on sexual violence against children.

One of the first people to kick off the latest discussion was a Weibo user who goes by the user name “Tie Zhe Chuang Ke Tie De Tai Shi Mao Qiu,” which roughly translates to “A Furball with a Band-Aid.” She said she was driven to share her story after reading a since-deleted report from Chinese media outlet Caixin that featured what was said to be Bao’s side of the story, as told by a middleman. According to the report, the middleman said that Bao and his adopted daughter were “lovers.”

“Everyone, please forward,” began a 1,600-word post by Furball on Sunday night. “After reading that Caixin report on Bao Yuming, I want to reveal a secret that’s been hidden for more than 20 years. I have no family members following me on Weibo, so I’ll just say it here.”

When she was 7 years old, her then-17-year-old cousin used to play “games” with her that were pretext for molestation, she wrote. By the time she realized what was happening some five years later, she felt conflicted. “My affection for my cousin was genuine. When the adults weren’t here, it was him who kept me company,” she wrote. “But I knew I was being violated, and I could vaguely feel a ‘demon’ living inside him.”

She said she never told her family about the assault because she feared that no one would believe her or that she would hurt the feelings of her cousin’s family. Still, it didn’t mean she wasn’t harmed.

“We didn’t do it voluntarily!” she wrote, on behalf of “all underage victims of sexual assault.”

A counselor in China teaches students how to protect their bodies on October 15, 2013. (Picture: South China Morning Post)

Her post reverberated through Weibo. Within 24 hours, it was shared more than 220,000 times. Furball, who did not respond to our request for an interview, wrote that she has since received hundreds of private messages from victims with similar experiences.

Sex education remains a controversial topic in China even as government officials and experts call for better ways to protect children.

A survey of some 16,000 parents in 2018 showed that fewer than 40% of respondents had educated their children about sexual abuse. Yet in 2017, some parents complained against a textbook series covering a range of subjects that included sexual abuse. One mother told Chinese media that one of the books made her “blush.”