Hard times for feminists in China

Society & Culture

Despite growing public awareness of gender issues, Chinese women’s rights advocates feel obstructed by their government and confronted with regressive forces.

On January 21, 2017, more than half a million people showed up for the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of similar protests took place around the globe. But not in China, a country with 645 million women — nearly one-sixth of the world’s female population. China’s absence in this worldwide movement challenging Trump and affirming minority and women’s rights shouldn’t come as a surprise: The Chinese government rarely allows any form of street protest. However, the concept of gender equality and other issues that feminists are fighting for globally are now firmly on the government’s radar.

A digital protest that dare not speak its name

The streets of China may have been empty of mass rallies, but the voices and sentiments from the Women’s March found their audience. During the main event in Washington, hundreds of Chinese flooded into a WeChat group named “Walking with women from all over the world” (和全世界的女人一起散步 hé quán shìjiè de nǚrén yīqǐ sànbù), from which Chinese feminists attending the march broadcast live video and photos. Cecilia Xu, a Ph.D. student of East Asian studies, traveled from Toronto to “be part of a historical moment.”

“I wanted to share what I saw with Chinese feminists who couldn’t be there due to geographical limitation,” she said. “It is ironic that to skirt censorship, we couldn’t even include words like march (游行 yóuxíng) or protest (抗议 kàngyì) in our group’s name.”

Prudent word choice has become a requirement under the government’s watchful eye. One recent example is the controversy surrounding the 2017 Spring Festival Gala, the most watched show on earth and, critics say, one of the most sexist. Under this year’s theme of “close family ties,” the show featured several comedic sketches that depicted the ideal image of a woman from the government’s perspective — it is not a choice but an obligation for a woman to get married, conceive children, and act like a good wife and mother, even at the expense of her professional career. Outraged by the underlying sexist message throughout the show, many viewers took to Weibo, the biggest social media platform in China, to start a hashtag campaign demanding apologies from the show’s producer, the state-run China Central Television (CCTV). That tag, however, was quickly blocked by censors.

Liu Xintong, a New York–based graphic designer who participated in the Women’s March and has closely followed China’s feminist movement, is aware of the accelerating speed of the government’s crackdown on women’s rights discussions in China. “Any online campaign about gender equality is under close watch,” Liu said. “But at the same time, I am delighted to see more and more Chinese, especially young internet users, starting to speak up for women’s rights.”

Throughout the interviews I conducted for this article, “the rise of public awareness of gender equality” is a phrase that cropped up many times. Yet in most circumstances it was mentioned, rather sadly, as the only real achievement of Chinese feminists in 2016, after years of endeavor.

Bloody brides and surveillance cameras

For now, it appears, public attention is the main tool that women can use to fight for their rights. In April 2016, a woman in Beijing was suddenly attacked by a man in the hallway of a hotel. A staff member passing by witnessed the assault without intervening. After the attack, the victim uploaded a video taken from the hotel’s surveillance footage to Sina Weibo. The video went viral on Chinese social media, resulting in a police investigation into the incident and an official apology from the hotel’s parent company. More importantly, the incident sparked a furious online debate over violence against women and a bystander’s responsibility in the situation.

“There is a Chinese saying that ‘the less trouble the better (多一事不如少一事),’ especially when it comes to other people’s family affairs,” explained Cecilia Xu. “When we see a man beating up a woman, we tend to think they are a couple.”

In Chinese culture, domestic violence has long been viewed as a private matter — something in which not even the police should intervene, let alone a passerby. But since China passed its first-ever national law against domestic abuse in March 2016, the issue has started to make headlines (in Chinese) in mainstream media and attract public attention on an unprecedented level.

The “bloody bride” protest of 2012 / Dissent Magazine

The implementation of this law, in fact, was widely hailed by Chinese feminists not only as a milestone to celebrate but also as the hard-earned result of their activism. In 2012, a group of three women, dressed in wedding gowns with fake bloodstains, took to Beijing’s streets to raise awareness about domestic violence. Shortly after photos of the small protest were circulated online, “bloody bride” became a trending topic on social media. In the ensuing years, many victims living with domestic violence found the courage to speak out, and voices calling for legal protection for victims grew louder. The government found it was imperative to heed the call by passing a law. And the new regulation, in return, granted further legitimacy to the activism.

“The surge of public awareness on gender issues is in a large part due to activities like the ‘bloody bride’ protest,” said Liu. Some critics described the demonstration as “too extreme,” but Liu explained, “Being radical is not always a bad thing. If the only way to get our message across is saying provocative things and organizing confrontational events, we should definitely go for that even though it might make some people uncomfortable.”

Jail time

The brutal reality for Chinese feminist activists, however, is that taking too aggressive a stand can lead to jail time.

The “Feminist Five,” from left to right: Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan, and Wu Rongrong / Photo via Reuters

In 2015, a group of young women preparing for a protest against sexual harassment on public transportation were arrested on the eve of International Women’s Day.  They became known as the Feminist Five. Before the arrest, many Chinese feminists believed their efforts were defensible. They saw themselves as having little in common with the political activists who preached anti-government or anti-Party positions; they were not, in their minds, politically rebellious. The Feminist Five case was sobering. It was a clear signal that, since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, being an outspoken feminist in China is politically dangerous.

The increasingly hostile attitude from the government to Chinese feminism does not come from nowhere. On a policy level, the urgent issue facing the government is how to boost birth rates and curb the demographic decline caused by the decades-long one-child policy. (For more on the policy’s historical background and long-lasting consequences, listen to this Sinica Podcast with Mei Fong, the author of One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment.) To achieve this goal, a series of actions are already being taken: replacing the old one-child policy with a two-child policy, providing free removal of the intrauterine devices (paywalled link) given to hundreds of millions of women in the age of stricter birth control, harnessing media power to put marriage pressures on “leftover women,” and testing public opinion about legalizing motherhood surrogacy.

“From the standpoint of a feminist, I think it is totally up to women themselves to decide whether or not to give birth and how many children they want,” said Liu. “As for the government, these policies all together should have exerted an immense influence on women. But the thing is, if you can’t have a well-built system, say, to protect pregnant women’s rights in the workplace, why would a professional woman risk her job to take a maternity leave?”

The government’s anti-feminist stance also finds its roots in Confucian ideology, which the Party has increasingly turned to for legitimacy. Though some scholars argue that the true essence of Confucianism doesn’t require women to return home and “settle,” the Confucian family value that the government aims to instill in women’s minds is nothing other than stay-at-home motherhood. Largely overlooked by Western media is an ongoing campaign to praise obedient wives and mothers-in-law, the vital people who, from the government’s perspective, should bear the responsibility to stabilize a family, which is the building block of a harmonious society.

To explain why Chinese feminists are currently under harsh attack from the top, Lu Pin 吕频, a former journalist from the state-run China Women’s News (in Chinese) and the founder of the leading feminist publication Women’s Voice, noted that Chinese feminists are facing a backlash from the government because their core message is viewed as a threat.

“The authorities want women to accept their rhetoric and follow orders without asking for protection, benefits, or power, whereas we want women to make their own choices and fight for any possible rights that they deserve regardless of what those powerful people say or do,” said Lu. “We want Chinese women to gain an equal share of power in the country. But for the privileged in this patriarchal political system, a redistribution of power is the last thing they want to do.”

No dogs or feminists?

Chinese feminists are not immune to criticism from the general public — much of it from men, but sometimes voiced by women as well. In 2016, as more pro-feminism voices have appeared on social media, counter-rhetoric has also evolved. A newly coined term to describe Chinese feminism is “countryside feminism” (田园女权 tiányuán nǚquán), a reference to the Chinese “rural dog” (中华田园犬 zhōnghuá tiányuán quǎn), a breed that is indigenous to China but seen as lowly and without a pure lineage. By linking Chinese indigenous dogs with Chinese feminism, the term disparages the Chinese feminist movement as outside of the mainstream women’s liberation in the West, and as coarse and unsophisticated.

Some who use the term “countryside feminism” further caricaturize Chinese feminists as anti-men extremists who only desire power without taking any of the responsibilities. Many sexists in China have also pointed to Trump’s ascendance to the U.S. presidency as a justification for their opposition to women’s rights. For example, many argue, “Given that a country like America with relatively high gender equality failed to elect a woman as president, but instead let a sexist take office, why should we Chinese care about this issue?”

Moreover, to tarnish the reputation of Chinese feminism, a new strain of thought circulating online draws close ties between Chinese feminism and pro-Islam activism, at a time when Islamophobia is on the rise both globally and in China.

After authorities suspended the Weibo account of Women’s Voice on February 20 for posting about a proposed “women’s strike” in the United States on March 8, International Women’s Day, Lu noticed that hundreds of anti-feminism commenters accused the account of being a hidden ally of China’s Muslim groups. “Personally, I don’t know much about ethnic tensions in China. I don’t see that any post from Women’s Voice is pro-Muslim. They just claimed it without providing any evidence. I wonder where they are from. Are they getting paid to write such comments?” Lu said.

Little hope on the horizon

It is worth noting that even during the Feminist Five’s five-week detention in 2015, arguably the darkest time in Chinese feminism’s modern history, supporters in China and abroad worked tirelessly to publicize the activists’ cause. In China, more than 1,000 people signed a petition to call for the Feminist Five’s release, a bold gesture given the Chinese government’s close surveillance of both offline and online campaigns. Outside of China, politicians such as Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly denounced the detention (paywall), while feminist activists from all over the world rallied around a hashtag campaign to put pressure on the Chinese government.

But with the ascendance of an American president with a track record of insulting women — and who accommodates a worldwide regression on human rights (paywall) — Chinese feminists can no longer depend on support and shelter from the U.S. “My biggest concern is that if my colleagues are arrested again, what can I do in such a limited space to get them out?” Lu asked. She does not know the answer.