On the eve of International Women’s Day in 2015, Chinese authorities jailed five feminist activists for planning to hand out stickers against sexual harassment on subways and buses.
China’s leaders evidently thought they could crush a nascent feminist movement by detaining five young women, but they were sorely mistaken. News of the arrest of the “Feminist Five” spread swiftly, sparking protests and expressions of diplomatic outrage around the world.
Faced with enormous global diplomatic and social media pressure, the Chinese government released the women – Li Maizi, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong and Wang Man – after holding them in a detention centre for 37 days.
Four years later, against all odds, the fledging women’s rights movement has not only survived an intense crackdown by the government, but grown larger.
China has no press freedom, no freedom of assembly, no independent judiciary and the world’s most aggressive system of internet censorship and surveillance. Beijing perceived the threat from feminist activists to be so dire that in May 2017, the People’s Daily online – the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party – published an announcement from the vice-president of the All-China Women’s Federation warning that “Western hostile forces” were using “Western feminism” and the notion of “putting feminism above all else” to attack China’s views on women and the country’s “basic policies on gender equality”.
In January 2018, thousands of students and alumni in China – women as well as men – signed #MeToo petitions at dozens of universities, demanding action against sexual harassment. But many of the petitions were deleted by censors soon after being posted on social media.
Late on the night of International Women’s Day last year, Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) banned the most influential feminist social media account, Feminist Voices, because it “posted sensitive and illegal information”.
The following day, the group messaging app WeChat banned their account as well. At the time the ban was imposed, Feminist Voices had over 180,000 followers on Weibo and over 70,000 followers on WeChat.
The shrinking public space for discussing women’s rights in China makes it even more extraordinary that a feminist movement is able to survive at all. The party-state’s ongoing crackdown on women’s rights activists is particularly ironic, given the central importance of gender equality during the communist revolution and the early Mao era, following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The early communists enshrined “the equality of women and men” in the Constitution of the People’s Republic and the new government introduced ambitious initiatives to put women to work in building the new communist nation. By the 1970s, the Chinese government boasted the biggest female workforce in the world. With the onset of market reforms and the dismantling of the planned economy in the 1980s and 1990s, however, gender inequality came roaring back, leading to the rise of the contemporary feminist movement.
While prominent male human rights activists have emerged over the years (most notably, the Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died in custody in 2017), very few ordinary Chinese citizens knew about them or could relate to their abstract goals.
By contrast feminist activists today take up causes that are not directly confronting Communist party rule, but have broad resonance with millions of young, urban women across China, such as sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, and gender discrimination in employment and university admissions.
The feminist activists have cultivated a networked community numbering into the thousands, revolving around university students and graduates. They have become effective organisers and arguably pose a larger, more complicated challenge to the communist regime than the male activists who preceded them.
“The feminist movement is about women’s everyday concerns and building a community, rather than just having one or two famous individuals who can enlighten everybody else,” says Lü Pin, the founding editor of Feminist Voices, who is completing graduate studies at SUNY Albany. “Chinese women feel very unequal every day of their lives, and the government cannot make women oblivious to the deep injustice they feel.”
Even as the government cracks down on feminist organising, ordinary women are increasingly sharing information and voicing their anger about sexism on the internet – even if they do not embrace the label of “feminist”.
One of the most prominent voices in China’s #MeToo movement is 25-year-old Zhou Xiaoxuan, known by the nickname “Xianzi”, a former intern at China’s state-run television agency, who has accused a famous TV host, Zhu Jun, of forcibly groping her. Rather than backing down when Zhu sued her for defamation, Zhou Xiaoxuan decided to file a counter lawsuit, charging the TV host of hurting her right to personal dignity.
As the #MeToo lawsuits continue, Feminist Voices founder Lü Pin describes the government’s backlash against feminism as “loose on the outside, tight on the inside” (waisong neijin), meaning that the authorities want to crack down while giving the world the impression that they are not too repressive. Meanwhile, Lü Pin foresees a difficult battle in the years ahead.
“We must out-survive our enemies,” she says.
By Leta Hong Fincher