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The Creepy Men Who Film Women On China's Subways — And The Case That Sparked A Backlash

A woman in China who falsely accused a man of filming her on the subway has sparked an avalanche of vitriol against her. There are now fears that the case will stop the many real victims of secret filming from coming forward and fighting back.

Image showing people taking a subway train in Guangzhou​

June 21, 2023, Guangzhou, China: People take a subway train in Guangzhou

Michael Ho Wai Lee/ZUMA
Ma Biyu

CHENGDU — On June 7, a master's student at Sichuan University, Zhang Wei, saw a man in the subway squatting down using his phone and staring at her. The woman thought that he was secretly filming her, a common phenomenon on Chinese public transportation. Zhang Wei asked to check the man’s photo album on his phone and found that he had not taken any pictures of her. After the incident, Zhang Wei posted an article online detailing the event, along with a video of her confronting the man.

On June 9, the Guangzhou police said that the dispute had been dealt with, with both parties reconciling. Social media users still, however, condemned Zhang Wei’s posting of the event.

A few days later, Zhang Wei posted an apology on the Chinese social media network Weibo, stating: “I shouldn’t have confirmed that there was [no wrongdoing] with you on the subway and still spread the video freely on the internet.” She also said that she would take action to correct her mistake. People on social media pointed out that as a journalism student, Zhang Wei should have known the law and claimed that her apology was insincere.

After this backlash on Weibo, Zhang Wei tried to appeal to users, saying that she has been taught a lesson and that both parties have forgiven one another. Users still attacked her and commented that she should have known the consequences of her actions.

The attack on Zhang Wei

From this incident, some social media users have unearthed parts of Zhang Wei’s history, with claims that she used her authority as president of the student union to get extra points in university. Some users also claimed that she bullied a classmate in high school, which led him to depression. The alleged classmate responded by saying that he wished that no one would point fingers at the school, but did not confirm nor deny the allegations of bullying.

With her background and history being exposed, users have posted calls on the internet for the cancellation of Zhang Wei’s qualifications. Some have even gone as far as to report her to the Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission, claiming that Zhang Wei’s actions are illegal in terms of online violence.

Many are questioning the role of journalists, with one person stating: “Many people in the media are like this. It is a serious problem that we let such people control the country’s public opinion."

Turn your back to women.

On June 12, the media reported that Sichuan University was treating the incident seriously and would deal with it according to procedures and regulations. Users from within the education community commented that "the Internet is not a place outside the law" and "this kind of person should never be allowed to work in the news media."

Due to the attacks on Zhang Wei on the internet, on June 13, the media confirmed that Tencent, a Chinese multimedia company, had terminated its internship contract with Zhang Wei.

Photo showing people taking a subway train in Guangzhou.

June 21, 2023, Guangzhou, China: People take a subway train in Guangzhou.

Michael Ho Wai Lee/ZUMA

Feminist critics

Feminism has been brought up, with some social media users believing that “the biggest victims of the incident are the innocent girls who are secretly filmed in the subway,” and that “it will be more difficult to defend the rights of girls who are secretly filmed in the future.”

Other users commented that Zhang Wei has blocked the road of women's rights in this issue.

Some have even gone as far as to victimize men, saying things like, “tips for men to stay alive in public; don’t look at any women, look at the ground, don't get too close to a woman wearing a skirt, turn your back to women”. These were just a few of the many comments against feminism on the internet.

Exposing the secret filming industry

The incident also brought public attention to a recent undercover BBC report on secret filming on subways. On June 7, they revealed that a Chinese man living in Japan was operating a pornographic website consisting mainly of secretly filmed videos on the subway and streets. The men secretly filming these women often grope and harass the women they are filming as well. The website has over 10,000 members.

She is an 'object of the gaze'.

Users brought up that there was much more social media attention on Zhang Wei’s incident than the BBC report, which should have received more attention.

On Weibo, a woman wrote and published an article about women's security after this incident. She pointed out that “although what she [Zhang Wei] did was indeed inappropriate, it was also for a valid reason of fear.” After being attacked by users, she withdrew the post.

Some users on Weibo did defend Zhang Wei, saying that if she is aware that she is in an environment where she is an “object of the gaze” where it is highly likely that people would “pervasively record her.” Then “when you see a strange male squatting on a subway with his cellphone facing you, wouldn't you be scared too?”

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Livestream Shopping Is Huge In China — Will It Fly Elsewhere?

Streaming video channels of people shopping has been booming in China, and is beginning to win over customers abroad as a cheap and cheerful way of selling products to millions of consumers glued to the screen.

A A female volunteer promotes spring tea products via on-line live streaming on a pretty mountain surrounded by tea plants.

In Beijing, selling spring tea products via on-line live streaming.

Xinhua / ZUMA
Gwendolyn Ledger

SANTIAGOTikTok, owned by Chinese tech firm ByteDance, has spent more than $500 million to break into online retailing. The app, best known for its short, comical videos, launched TikTok Shop in August, aiming to sell Chinese products in the U.S. and compete with other Chinese firms like Shein and Temu.

Tik Tok Shop will have three sections, including a live or livestream shopping channel, allowing users to buy while watching influencers promote a product.

This choice was strategic: in the past year, live shopping has become a significant trend in online retailing both in the U.S. and Latin America. While still an evolving technology, in principle, it promises good returns and lower costs.

Chilean Carlos O'Rian Herrera, co-founder of Fira Onlive, an online sales consultancy, told América Economía that live shopping has a much higher catchment rate than standard website retailing. If traditional e-commerce has a rate of one or two purchases per 100 visits to your site, live shopping can hike the ratio to 19%.

Live shopping has thrived in China and the recent purchases of shopping platforms in some Latin American countries suggests firms are taking an interest. In the United States, live shopping generated some $20 billion in sales revenues in 2022, according to consultants McKinsey. This constituted 2% of all online sales, but the firm believes the ratio may become 20% by 2026.

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