Sophia Huang Xueqin Won Awards for Her #MeToo Reporting. Today, Her Fate Remains a Mystery.

By Max Fallon-Goodwin | Originally published: Ms. Magazine

Keeping stories like Huang’s circulating as they remain behind bars continues to show the world that we will not let their stories go uncriticized or unheard.

Sophia Huang Xueqin, a freelance journalist who wants to raise awareness about sexual harassment in China, poses with a #MeToo sign at her home on Aug. 12, 2017. (Thomas Yau / South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

“In 2018, [the Chinese government] started coming for me,” said Huang (Sophia) Xueqin—reporter and winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Wallis Annenberg Justice for Women Journalists Award—in an interview in May 2019 with the University of Michigan Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

Huang had been reporting on sexual assault at top Chinese universities and media companies on WeChat since 2016. Huang’s reporting sparked a wave of #MeToo allegations against various high-ranking media personalities and professors in China.

By the time of her interview with the University of Michigan, all of the reporting Huang had done on sexual harassment had been completely wiped from WeChat. Huang described the censorship she faced as “severe.”

The extreme backlash Huang faced for her reporting included an onslaught of threats, bullying on her personal pages, and intimidation from authorities—eventually leading to her arrest in September 2021. As of this month, Huang has been jailed and almost entirely cut off from her friends, family and advocacy groups for over 750 days.

In 2016, Huang noted the lack of mainstream coverage of a story about a young woman who had been assaulted by her internship professor at the School of Journalism at Jinan University—Huang’s alma mater. Huang began sifting through the comments sections of the reporting outlets and noticed a disturbing pattern: Most of the commenters weren’t addressing that the professor had taken advantage of a student, but instead focused on the perceived shortcomings of the woman.

“Everyone was talking about the various ‘problems’ that girl had, including her clothes—but what did her clothes say about her?” said Huang. “These comments implied that this girl had many reasons for being sexually assaulted.”

The woman’s story pushed Huang to reflect on her experience of being harassed by a professor during undergrad. She began questioning other women journalists about their experiences in the field. Later that year, at a conference at the National University of Singapore, Huang asked a group of fellow female reporters if they had similar experiences; out of the nine in the room with her, six shared that they, too, had faced harassment while working.

These moments catapulted Huang into her work as one of the leading voices in the Chinese #MeToo movement. Huang’s campaign against sexual assault started with her posing at various universities and news outlets throughout China, holding up signs with “#MeToo” written on them. As people began to take notice, they started reaching out to her for help sharing their stories.

Huang meticulously catalogued and researched each story sent to her with thoughtful attention and care. She eventually uncovered stories of assault from various universities in China, including Peking University, Wuhan University of Technology, Henan University and Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

“I think prevention and education is needed … because some things are kind of still a taboo for Chinese people to talk about,” Huang said. “The government has to play a bigger role, there is still a lot of space for them to improve. Because, in China, even though we are talking about sexual harassment, this word is still new to us. We don’t have a clear definition of sexual harassment. … The government should allow people to talk about it, allow the lawyers or the experts to study it, and should introduce a law to make a very clear definition of sexual harassment.”

According to a report by the IWMF, 70 percent of women journalists have experienced sexual harassment while working. A study by Huang found that 84 percent of Chinese female journalists had experienced harassment relating to their work. Still, less than 50 percent tell anyone about their experience, only 3 percent report the incident to their employers and under 1 percent file police reports. Women who chose not to share their stories said they feared that speaking out would negatively affect their personal lives and their careers.

Globally, newsrooms are headed by men; an IWMF report that surveyed 60 different countries found that in most countries, men hold the vast majority of leadership positions at media organizations and two-thirds of all reporting jobs belong to men.

Female reporters of Asian descent who critically write about China receive increasingly aggressive backlash, according to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Journalist Vicky Xu said, “The harassment of Chinese journalists like myself is mainstream. It’s a mainstream position that is encouraged by the state.”

As of 2021, when Huang was arrested, China had 19 female journalists in prison—the most in the world.

Before her arrest, Huang was dedicated to continuing the fight she started when she posed with her #MeToo posters. On Sept. 19 2021, she hopped in her car and set off to the airport, where she planned to fly to the U.K. and start her master’s degree in gender violence and conflict at the University of Sussex. Huang was arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power” on her way to the airport.

For the last two years, Huang has been detained in Guangzhou in what is known as a “black jail”—a nearly complete blackout of information has shrouded this case, her family has received little to no updates, and her lawyer was quietly replaced with a Chinese state-appointed lawyer.

What friends have been able to uncover about Huang’s state has been concerning.

  • A friend of Huang who spoke to reporters at Radio Free Asia under the alias “Wanxia” stated that Huang was being tortured in the form of sleep deprivation and malnourishment.
  • Another friend commented that Huang was no longer menstruating and had lost a considerable amount of weight.
  • The U.N. working group on arbitrary detention has stated that Huang is being wrongfully detained and called for her release or for them to bring her detainment up to international standards.

Huang’s trial began on Sept. 22, 2023—two years after her initial arrest. Plainclothes officers crowded the streets of Guangzhou, the streets to the court were shut down, and the courtroom itself was entirely off-limits to reporters and family.

Leading up to the trial, 70 people reported being questioned regarding the case, according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders Network. The people reported harassment and extreme interrogation tactics. Several left the city of Guangzhou after being questioned;; others have said they no longer feel safe and suffer from PTSD.

Stories like Sophia Huang’s can disappear with them, without proper coverage and follow-up. The IWMF’s Wallis Annenberg Justice for Women Journalists Award “brings attention to women journalists who are detained, jailed or imprisoned.” Keeping stories like Huang’s circulating as they remain behind bars continues to show the world that we will not let their stories go uncriticized or unheard.

If found guilty of “inciting subversion of power,” Huang faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Huang knew the consequences of speaking up and still did so. “I felt that I could speak out because I didn’t care about possible consequences,” said Huang in 2019.

In her fearlessness, she stood up for people terrified into silence by an aggressively antifeminist government. As female journalists continue to be arrested for speaking their truth, we must continue to spread their stories as they are forced into silence.

The IWMF relies on donations to keep fighting for women journalists. You can donate here.