The state of Chinese feminism in 2022 with Leta Hong Fincher

Society & Culture

Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal crackdown on online feminist activism in recent months, Dr. Leta Hong Fincher sees a glimmer of hope in the rising public outrage over victims of human trafficking. Even as civil society shrinks, new feminist spaces like bookstores and cafés are emerging.

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafe

Earlier this week — the third week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine of 2022 — I talked to Dr. Leta Hong Fincher, the most influential writer and scholar working in the field of feminism and women’s studies in China today.

It was March 8, International Women’s Day. This holiday was first celebrated by socialist women in the United States and Europe starting in 1909 and 1910. Now it is observed globally by everyone from Apple and Absolut Vodka to the Communist Party of China.

Leta is the author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (2018), and, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2016).

We talked about the state of Chinese feminism today, tennis star Péng Shuài 彭帅 (who is now more famous for her #MeToo allegations), the vigorous activism around the chained woman of Xuzhou, the birth of grassroots feminist spaces, and Beijing’s designs for Han Chinese women to bear more children.

We spoke by video call. This is an edited and abridged transcript of part of our conversation.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

With two decades of experience, first as a journalist, and then as a research scholar, closely following women’s issues and gender inequality in China, how does International Women’s Day 2022 look to you? What’s changed in the last two years? How did COVID affect Chinese women?

I think this was actually true around the world, not just in China: COVID certainly was tied to a rise in reported incidents of domestic violence. And there was also quite a bit of feminist activism surrounding the issue of rising domestic violence in various Chinese cities.

I don’t think that’s really unique to China. Of course, the difference is that China has a zero-COVID policy, so the lockdowns in China have been extraordinarily severe. But the fact is, with intimate partner violence, we’re never going to know the exact numbers.

With regard to just how International Women’s Day this year differs? I would say, of course, seven years ago on the eve of International Women’s Day, the Chinese government for the first time jailed five women’s rights activists who were planning to celebrate International Women’s Day by handing out stickers on sexual harassment. That really marked a turning point in women’s rights activism in China and kind of marked the birth of this new feminist movement that has had remarkable momentum in the years since, in spite of a really brutal crackdown from Beijing.

That movement is still alive. [But] various women’s rights centers have been shut down. Feminist activists continue to be persecuted. Some of them are in detention today. There was a mass deletion of feminist accounts on social media a few months ago. And of course, a few years ago, the most influential feminist platform on Weibo and Weixin [WeChat] was shut down,Feminist Voices (女权之声), on International Women’s Day, basically.

This year, there has been quite a bit of discussion, even though there’s all this censorship of discussion of feminist topics on Weibo and Weixin, but there’s still a lot of discussion of this Xiǎo Huāméi 小花梅, who is known as the “chained woman” in Xuzhou. And that itself has sparked a lot of new activism.

So there’s this woman, mother of eight, found in Xuzhou in Jiangsu Province, and she was being chained up in an outhouse, and the husband seemed to have procured her in some fashion. Is that the right way to think of it, or do we still not know what happened?

Yeah. Well, I don’t think we’ll know exactly what happened for sure, but because of overwhelming public pressure, the Chinese state media itself has started to report on this case. And so even according to official Chinese media, this woman was abducted and sold at least once to a husband. And then, I believe she’s the mother of eight children, and so she was presumably forced into having these children. It’s a really horrific case.

Her case, sadly, is not unique. The abduction of women, the trafficking of women is not a new issue. It’s been going on for decades in China. And there have been really horrifying cases over the past several decades.

What I find to be particularly interesting this year with this case is that it has aroused an enormous amount of outrage among the Chinese public. It has been a viral topic on Weibo in spite of the very aggressive censorship, and it has also sparked a lot of different kinds of activism. Citizens, women, and men as well, citizen journalists going and trying to investigate for themselves more about this case. A lot of citizens are being detained and prevented from finding out what’s happening. But nonetheless, all of these normal efforts to prevent independent reporting in China and to prevent activism have failed to kind of stem the tide of activist outrage. And that I find to be really interesting.

Why do you think that is?

I think that it is unquestionably related to a phenomenon that I write about in Betraying Big Brother, which is this new kind of feminist awakening. What I mean is there’s a critical mass of young women in particular in China. But not just women. There’s the LGBTQ+ community and male allies who are just paying much more attention to widespread sexism and mistreatment of women in society, and they’re demanding more justice and more rights for women. And so there’s just a new awareness about how horrific this situation is. And so there’s this new energy and curiosity. That’s definitely part of it. And I haven’t seen this level of outrage over a case of an abducted woman in the past in China. And this is just not the first time, so it is a shift in consciousness.

I have noticed that men — Chinese men online, public intellectuals, people who don’t normally post about women’s issues — seem to have become quite engaged with this, which is the first time I’ve seen it.

I noticed some men reposting this meme that looked like the lock that was used to lock up the woman in Xuzhou, but as a piece of jewelry, and this is the new Valentine’s gift for China in 2022.

Yeah. Well, this isn’t the first time that men have taken part in this kind of discourse about a women’s rights issue. But I am noticing a lot more men taking part in these conversations this year, or I shouldn’t say this year, just recently surrounding this particular case. And so, it does illustrate the fact that there is much more mainstream interest in a women’s rights issue happening right now.

And it’s not just mainstream: it’s really sustained attention on social media to a case of a trafficked woman, and so that’s very interesting. I find it to be an encouraging sign that more of the Chinese public is actually aware of this kind of injustice and speaking out about it.

I might add though that one major social media account that was just banned that I read about was Jīn Xīng 金星, this very famous trans woman. And her account on Weibo, I just read recently, was banned after she posted a comment expressing outrage about this case of the chained woman. And I think she also, though — speaking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine — she was also criticizing that.

I knew her when she ran a nightclub in Beijing in the late 1990s, she’s always been provocative.

But what about the government’s tolerance for discussion around the chained woman? Because one might hope that the government is more responsive to Chinese society than sometimes it’s given credit for, and perhaps it is responding to changing social norms. But the cynic in me thinks this might be an easy case because it’s very easy to blame this all on individual criminals. Where would you fall on this? Are we seeing, despite all the pressure of Xi Jinping’s rule, a little tiny sliver of hope?

There is a tiny sliver of hope. Yes.

I don’t think that the Chinese state media would have reported on this case at all were it not for all of the viral comments on Weibo and Weixin expressing incredible anger about the plight of this poor woman. But I completely agree with you that it is very easy for the central government to depict itself as doing the right thing by cracking down on the trafficking of women and showing that it’s punishing the criminals involved and lower level communist party officials. This is certainly not the first time that Beijing has kind of devolved responsibility down to lower level officials.

And so, I think it is rather easy for the Chinese government to highlight this case and tell the Chinese public, “Look, we’re doing the right thing. We are punishing the criminals involved.”

But the outrage continues. I just noticed on International Women’s Day, there was a group of young women who were parading through a street. I believe it may have been in Shanghai wearing chains. And that’s very unusual in this incredibly repressive environment to see a group of young women doing something like that and filming themselves and posting it on Weibo and Weixin.

And so, I don’t know. I would expect those women were probably pretty easy to track down, and so it’s very courageous of them. But that’s another act of feminist activism that is very performative. So it’s kind of in this feminist tradition in recent years of what they call feminist performance art, where you do something that is visually very provocative and on the streets, which is much more difficult to do now than it was seven plus years ago.

It feels like the government has raised the costs, people are rightly much more frightened of the consequences.

Yes. But I would also say that the National People’s Congress is debating the case of this woman, Xiao Huamei, as well, and discussing the possibility of punishing the traffickers of women more severely. I don’t know what effect that will ultimately have, but there’s no question that all of this public expression of anger does create pressure on the Chinese government. And this is not the first time that you’ve seen policy responses to activist voices coming from the ground. And then of course, individual activists then still get into trouble and are persecuted.

But it’s just another example of the enduring power of this new feminist movement that is very difficult for Beijing to crush. It’s trying to crush this movement. But we could compare it, for example — the outrage expressed over this chained woman and the fact that you do see some responses coming from the Chinese government — to the complete media blackout on the case of tennis star Peng Shuai. Of course, her Weibo post accusing former Vice Premier Zhāng Gāolì 张高丽 of sexually assaulting her is far more politically sensitive and very dangerous for the government to acknowledge in any way.

Do you think there’s a pivot going on from activism to a sort of more community-based support networks approach to women’s rights in China? I just read a draft of a piece, which I think we’re publishing later this week, by a writer named Wanqing Chen. In the story, she talks about a pub-café in Chengdu that is dubbed a feminist space.

In promoting women’s rights under Xi Jinping, a political approach does not seem so prudent. But perhaps clubs, women’s spaces, might be an area where women are allowed to organize?

Yes, definitely. That is part of this little glimmer of hope for China’s civil society. As the space generally for civil society continues to shrink, there remains this area where you do see room for feminist spaces, and they’re not overtly political actions. Those exist, the very political actions, but then there is a harsh penalty for that. But because overall there has been so much more interest and discussion of issues relating to women’s and girls’ rights and connected to LGBTQ rights as well, there is just so much more interest, and there are all these different ways in which you can create spaces to just develop a community, like a bookstore or cafe or a nightclub. And that definitely continues. In fact, it’s not only continuing. I would say those efforts are definitely increasing.

And so really, I think, I wouldn’t say it is impossible for the Chinese government to just crack down on all of these spaces, because clearly it is possible. But I think that one of the reasons that this feminist awakening continues and that the movement continues even in spite of these severe constraints, is because the Chinese government does not want to appear to be just completely intolerant of any discussion of women’s rights. And also, the Chinese Communist Party itself was, of course, founded on the basis of gender equality. And it continues to every now and then boast that the Party supports gender equality and supports female-male equality, as long as the parameters are set by the Communist Party and it’s not some kind of agenda coming from so-called hostile foreign forces.

And the Chinese government needs the support. It’s trying to cajole particularly college educated, Han Chinese women in their 20s to marry and have more children. And so it’s going to be really shooting itself in the foot if it carries out some mass jailing of feminist activists, which it is entirely capable of doing, as we know. But I just don’t think that we are going to see that level of draconian, complete effort to wipe out the feminist movement entirely, which contrasts with what is happening in Xinjiang, of course, with the mass detention of Uyghurs and Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslims. And I think that you see that level of brutality and crimes against humanity [in the Xinjiang case] because the majority Han Chinese population doesn’t really care that much, sadly, about ethnic minorities.

Whereas nearly half of Chinese people are women. Speaking of having more children, the government is turning on the taps again with regards to reproduction. And, although as far as I know, it hasn’t just gone ahead and completely abandoned any kind of family planning policies or birth restrictions, it’s basically okay for anybody in China to have three kids.

But meanwhile, they want more kids. There’s been stories about men having difficulties getting vasectomies, about a soft or perhaps growingly coercive means to encourage women to have more babies.

What’s your sense of the government’s attempt to persuade China to have more children. Is it just inevitable that the burden of this is going to fall on women and it’s not going to be good for women’s rights or…?

I’m definitely worried about the increasing use of coercion around this new three-child policy. So far, we mainly see it in, as you mentioned, the increasing difficulties for men to obtain vasectomies. That is no small thing. From what I read, it’s extremely difficult for men to get vasectomies. So I think that this is a very politically difficult issue for the Chinese government. I think that if Beijing had its way, they would just announce a nationwide ban on abortion. But they can’t do that. Well, they could, but there would be a massive revolt. So I fear that they may be edging closer to systematic restrictions on abortions for women starting around the edges, making it much more difficult for men to get vasectomies. This is not something I’m looking at closely, so I don’t know all of the details, but I have heard about some difficulties in various places for women who are seeking abortions. But there is certainly no systematic effort, nationwide effort to restrict women’s access to abortion.

And let’s be clear here that they want Han Chinese women to have more babies. They don’t want Uyghur, Kazakh, another Turkic Muslim women to have more babies because over in Xinjiang, they are actually carrying out forced sterilizations and even abortions. So the new three-child policy is an attempt to try to encourage the Han Chinese women to have more children. But so far, it’s really failed. So far, we see the birth rate continue to fall. And marriage rates are also falling, by the way. So the new three-child policy, and the two-child policy before that has not had the desired pronatalist effect among the Han Chinese population. And I am very concerned that it does not bode well for women’s rights in general in China.

But getting back to the feminist movement, what gives me hope is that because there is much more awareness about widespread sexism and injustice towards women in China, that all of these attempts to push back against the Chinese government, various efforts to impose greater restrictions on women, that all of these grassroots efforts to push back so far are having an effect. There is this tension that I write about in my book, Betraying Big Brother, between a top down, very heavy handed effort from the Chinese government just to subjugate women, to push women back into traditional roles of wife and mother in the home, to wipe out feminist activism. But from the ground up, and this is what gives me some hope, there is much more awareness about women’s rights and many different kinds of just spontaneous ways in which ordinary women and their allies are creating ways to resist that pressure coming from the government.