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After Lunching With Janet Yellen, Chinese Women Economists Are Called Traitors Online

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A group of Chinese female economists and entrepreneurs who dined with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have been blasted by online nationalists for betraying their country by interacting with the U.S. official.

While the Treasury department skipped identifying attendees from the meeting on Saturday, a group photograph of the gathering posted to China’s Twitter-like Weibo was used to identify some participants. It was not clear who first shared the image online.

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“There’s no such thing as a free meal,” wrote Shen Yi, a professor in international politics at Fudan University, who has over two million followers on the platform. “They’ll need deliver KPIs in exchange,” he added, using the acronym for key performance indicators, implying the women would have to give something to the U.S. government.

The criticism mostly targeted two women who posted about their experience on social media: Liu Qian, the Economist Group’s managing director for Greater China, and author Hao Jingfang, who previously worked for the China Development Research Foundation, which is managed by a branch of the State Council.

In a now-deleted exchange, one Weibo user asked Hao, whose award-winning novel Folding Beijing is widely considered to be about income inequality in the capital, why she attended the dinner. Hao replied: “Because Yellen is the friendliest American official, she’s always dedicated to developing friendly China-US relations.”

Several users accused Hao of being an “American spy,” while a post that garnered some 600 comments criticized the elite status of the women selected, saying “they have not worked in factories.”

Yellen’s exchange with women economists and entrepreneurs telegraphed the importance she places on female representation in elite decision-making. During her four-day trip to Beijing to stabilize ties with America’s biggest rival, the Chinese government exclusively put forward male officials to meet the first woman to run the U.S. Treasury, according to publicly available information.

“I see it all the time when I’m almost the only woman in the room,” Yellen told the women. “I’m sure many of you have that same experience at decision-making tables.”

President Xi Jinping excluded women from China’s top leadership at last year’s congress for the first time in 25 years. Furthermore, as China struggles with a record low birth rate, women are being encouraged to take on more traditional care-giving roles.

Read More: China’s Population Is Shrinking—and Graying. Here’s What It Means for the Future

The backlash against the women echoes attacks waged by online nationalists against foreign female journalists of ethnic Chinese origin working for Western news organizations.

“Attackers routinely disparage their coverage of China and make crude sexual innuendos, including alarming threats of physical violence,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China wrote in a report last year on the issue.

“Women’s participation in the workforce is one of the major drivers of creating inclusive growth,” the Treasury said in a statement after Yellen’s meeting. “Women’s contributions to economics, in particular, are important to help ensure that economic research and policymaking appropriately reflect society’s priorities.”

—With assistance from Yihui Xie.

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