Posted by Hazel Katherine Larkin on December 24, 2010

There may or may not be nine million bicycles in Beijing, but Chinese statistics tell us that there are at least 189 million women using the Internet in the country – just 45% of the total number of Internet users. Lu Pin, the woman who runs the Media Monitor for Women Network, says that women don’t assert themselves much online, however.

Last October, she organised a conference in the Chinese capital to provide women’s groups with information and advice on how better to use new media.  Addressing that conference, she told the delegates that when the government uses the Internet as a gauge of public opinion, women’s voices are still neglected because women don’t give their opinions online.

According to Lu Pin, women’s groups lag behind environmental and public-health advocates in their use of the Chinese-version of Facebook, Twitter, blogs and Web sites. Self-censorship is a big obstacle to expanding online as it attracts attention that can be perilous as well as desirable.

‘Sometimes new media is a little bit dangerous,’ says Ke Qianting, deputy director of gender studies at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. She goes on to explain that women who use new media are risking losing their jobs, and even being arrested. ‘So we will evaluate the risk before we do some advocacy or speak out,’ she says.

After the earthquake in Sichuan two years ago, the Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women organized a skills training project. The training included a session on how to use QQ – a social network.  The women who were geographically distant from each other instantly became part of a vital, virtual community. The women are still in contact and share advice and offer support to each other.

‘The indirect purpose is to raise the attention of society and also influence the government policy on the women issues,’ says Yuan Zhongda, the project’s deputy project manager.

Several activists assert that, without new media, little will change for women in China. New media is multi-faceted. It offers new tools of advocacy for women’s groups so that they can do more than provide services – and also help shape opinions.

Last year, a woman hit the headlines in China when she killed a local official who tried to rape her. The killing prompted a flurry of activity on the Internet. The official’s corruption was the focus of much discussion, but several chat rooms hosted debates on the woman’s guilt or innocence. Many gender activists criticized the buzz for missing the main story: violence against women. They published essays to help mobilize public opinion and win the woman’s eventual acquittal.

Hopefully, the power of the Internet will continue to be harnessed by women in China for their own benefit.