“You’ve given your best thing to another man,” he texted her, referring to her virginity. “I’m left with nothing.”
She texted back: “I’ve said my best thing is my future.”
“You’re shameless,” he lashed out, calling her a “stinking idiot” and a “slut.”
“I want you to get pregnant with me then get an abortion,” he said.
On Oct. 9, the woman, referred to as Bao Li, the Chinese equivalent of Jane Doe, tried to commit suicide. She has since been declared brain dead.
One of her last messages to the man: “You’re dazzling while I’m a piece of garbage.”
Her tragic story shocked the Chinese public. A hashtag referring to screenshots of her text exchanges got nearly 1.4 billion views in just two days on the social media platform Weibo before it was censored.
Many people could not fathom how an undergraduate at a prestigious school, Peking University, could end up in such a toxic relationship. Many also did not know that there is a name for men who often use such cruel tactics in pursuit of women: PUAs, or pickup artists.
In China, the English initials PUA refer to both the man and his manipulative techniques. Pickup artists often employ gaslighting, a form of psychological control intended to make someone question her own sanity. Friends of the Peking University student and many online users believed that her boyfriend, Mou Linhan, a fellow student, had used such techniques.
“Many of the details of their relationship reminded us of the notorious PUA,” her friends wrote in a long social media post that included screenshots of chat messages between the couple.
“After a long time of mental abuse, including cursing, humiliation and vilification, she was filled with pain and fear and lost the ability to push back,” they wrote.
PUA as a concept came to China from the United States. Chinese men translated what is widely considered a bible of the pickup artist community, “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists,” by Neil Strauss, and began sharing his seduction tricks. (Mr. Strauss did not respond to a request for comment.)
Over the last decade, it has become a big business in China. Thousands of companies and websites catering to the pickup community and offering dating advice for men have cropped up. One of the biggest websites, Paoxuewang, said it had nearly two million members before it was shut down in 2018. At its peak in late 2017, Langji, the most-well-known PUA company, employed a staff of about 400 and had nearly 100,000 students, according to Chinese news reports.
It is not clear whether Mr. Mou had enrolled in any such programs. But WeChat Index, which monitors the popularity of topics on WeChat, China’s biggest social media platform, indicated that mentions of the term “PUA” soared nearly 1,700 percent overnight after a news article about the woman’s attempted suicide spread across the internet.
In interviews with Chinese news outlets, Mr. Mou said he had not tried to manipulate his girlfriend psychologically and did not know what mind control was.
Some of the companies and websites geared toward men and dating provide common-sense lessons. They advise dressing nicely, holding doors for women and being considerate in relationships.
But the more nefarious teach men to manipulate women for their own sexual needs. They dismiss the concept of romantic love, instead promoting the idea that men should sleep with as many women as possible and dominate them completely.
One widely circulated curriculum offers a chapter-by-chapter guide to achieving such goals. It includes methods of destroying a woman’s self-esteem, setting emotionally manipulative traps to prevent women from leaving, pressuring women to change their personalities to become more compliant, encouraging suicide, and exploiting women financially to buy cars and homes.
“Then you will be on your way to the top of the world,” the guide reads.
The popularity of these programs reveals deeper societal issues. China is a highly patriarchal society, where men rarely face scrutiny for sexual assault and harassment, while women are routinely criticized for their age, weight, virginity or any number of perceived failings.
“Can PUA explain such tragedies?” Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote in a blog post about Ms. Bao’s suicide attempt. “If we expose PUA’s usual tricks, are we sure that such things won’t happen again?”
He says the root lies in China’s gender inequality. “PUA is an easy scapegoat,” he said. “Focusing on it simplifies the complexity of the tragedy.”
Some PUA programs seek to capitalize on that inequality, openly teaching misogynistic techniques.
In one program run by Langji, the teacher, Wang Huanyu, held out the prospect of sleeping with three women in a day, as he claimed to do. “That’s the life of a professional PUA,” he told students, according to a three-part documentary produced by a Chinese news site, The Paper.
“I’m the best PUA in China,” Mr. Wang told the class. “Chat up girls on the street in an hour.”
“Take them directly to a hotel,” he continued in the undated video.
In a series of YouTube videos, Mr. Wang, who is also a co-founder of Langji, demonstrates how to make sexual advances toward women — seeking consent is discouraged. In a 2016 video, he explained what to do when women say “no.” “The best way to prevent the girls from rejecting you is not asking the question ‘Can I hold your hand?’” he said.
He recommended against telling women where they were going when the man had sex in mind. “You don’t need to ask them, ‘Can I take you home?’” he said. “Just take them to a private space.”
If a woman is not willing to have sex, Mr. Wang suggested a solution in Chinese that can best be translated as persistent harassment. He also told his YouTube audience to initiate sex at 3 a.m., when women were sleepy and vulnerable.
“Tuidao,” or push down in Chinese, a euphemism for having sex, is the ultimate goal, he told the students. “How many have you tuidao?” he asked a thin young man in glasses in the documentary. “Sixteen in seven days,” the man responded.
Mr. Wang’s company would become a standard-bearer for the industry. In 2016, it was named a pioneering education institution by a Chinese online video platform, iQiyi.
The government started to crack down on PUA companies in the last two years, and Mr. Wang and his company became targets. Last year, he served 37 days in jail for spreading pornographic products. After the outcry over Ms. Bao’s suicide attempt increased scrutiny of the industry this month, the company deleted all the content on its official website and posted an apology letter, saying it had done “many bad things.”
Four students sued Langji in 2018 for teaching unethical content, including seducing women for sex through manipulative and controlling means, according to court verdicts. A court in the southwestern city of Chengdu, where Langji is based, ruled this year in their favor and ordered the company to refund their tuitions, between $1,000 and $4,250. Mr. Wang and his co-founder declined to be interviewed.
The police in the eastern province of Jiangsu announced in May that they had arrested a man who ran another program that taught men to encourage women to commit suicide, abuse them emotionally and treat them as “pets” and “prey.” The man was detained for five days and fined over $7,000. His websites and social media groups have been deleted.
Such programs are an outgrowth of the uneven balance of power in China. The country’s economic growth in the last 40 years has benefited men much more than women. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 ranks China at 106, falling from 63 in 2006.
Chinese women are better educated than before, yet they have fewer opportunities. They are still largely judged by whom they marry.
After I asked on Weibo if any women had boyfriends who followed PUA techniques, two young women contacted me. Neither of them was sure that her former boyfriend had actually studied PUA strategies, but both identified with the student who had tried to commit suicide.
One of them, Amy, from Sichuan Province, said her ex-boyfriend had been very sweet in the beginning, then had started criticizing her for the smallest things. During their three-month relationship, he kept saying she needed to get married and have children as soon as possible since she was too old at 30.
“He called me his husky and asked me to call him master,” according to the woman, who said she was scared to use her full name because of fears of retribution by him.
The other, Kate Zhang, said she and her ex-boyfriend had been high school sweethearts in Shanghai. The trouble, she said, began when he left to go to a top university in Britain, while she left for a school in the United States.
Ms. Zhang said he had become much more domineering, telling her that she needed to lose weight and was a toxic person. They fought all the time on WeChat, just like the couple at Peking University, she said, adding that he similarly told her to get pregnant and then get an abortion. When she told him that she wanted to kill herself, he said, “Go ahead.”
Both women are going to therapy. Both said they were not sure if they could trust men in their future relationships. It was a sentiment echoed by the student at Peking University before she tried to commit suicide.
“When I think of love now,” she texted, “I can’t help but shiver.”
by Li Yuan
The New York Times