With echoes of Russia's Pussy Riot, the arrest of five young women on the eve of International Women’s Day drew attention to the feminist activist movements simmering below the surface in China.
On 7 March 2015, on the eve of the International Women’s Day, five young women in China were arrested on the grounds of “picking quarrels and creating a disturbance”. This incident caught the eye of major international media including the Guardian and CNN, and received a personal endorsement from US presidential candidate Hilary Clinton when she referred to the detention of female activists as “inexcusable” in her tweet. On 13 April, they were released on bail but still under surveillance.
Opposing authority and the existing order
According to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders network, these five women were Li Tingting (better known as Li Maizi), 25, a Beijing-based manager of the LGBT programme at the Beijing Yirenping Center; Wu Rongrong, 30, founder and executive director of the Weizhiming Women’s Centre in Guangzhou; Wei Tingting, 27, director of Beijing’s Ji’ande LGBT rights organisation; and Wang Man, who had worked on issues including gender equality in poverty eradication. They are now often referred to as China’s “Feminist Five”.
Their one-month planned activity on International Women’s Day eve was known as the ‘March 7 stick stick stick’ (Sanqi Tietietie): that is, placing stickers on buses and other public transport vehicles in Guangzhou and Beijing to raise awareness of sexual harassment on public transportation.
Their timing was crucial. The activity was reportedly planned during the “sensitive” time when the ‘Two Meetings’ (the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference), the highest form of manifesting centralised authority and ideology in China, were being held in Beijing. The activists had heard reports that the All-China Workers Federation might introduce an anti-sexual harassment bill during the sessions.
These feminist activists’ work began with a stunt known as “Blood Brides” on Valentine’s Day in 2012, when Li and Wei walked along a busy Beijing commercial area in wedding gowns stained with fake blood to attract attention. They chanted slogans like “Hitting is not intimacy; verbal abuse is not love.” They also distributed anti-domestic violence pamphlets and cards to passersby. Many of the bystanders were sympathetic to their message and complimented them for their bravery.
Soon after the “Blood Brides” stunt, these young feminist activists organised another attention-grabbing event, called “Occupy Men’s Toilets,” inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They encouraged women waiting in long lines outside restrooms to “occupy” the less-used men’s rooms for 10 minutes, then return the stalls to men after the number of women waiting had been reduced. They called for an increase in the size of women’s public restrooms that would equalise wait times for men and women. The event in Guangzhou was such a hit that Li decided to duplicate it in Beijing, where she was residing.
Initially, the movement was not only socially successful but also approved by the authority. More than a dozen newspapers and online media outlets reported on the movement, and “Occupy Men’s Toilets” spread to other cities. Attempting to seize the opportunity, Li and her friends sent letters to representatives in the National People’s Congress, advising them to propose legislation to improve restroom gender ratios.
As a result, Congress delegates raised the issue during legislative sessions in March 2012. In that year alone, several cities made plans to improve public restroom gender ratios. Together with more Chinese feminists and activists, these five women also worked to replicate their success in other areas of women’s rights, including employment and education discrimination, genderbased violence, and the rights of sex workers.
However, they were not so fortunate this time. As the activism grew more active and more spread out, the official tone towards it began to change. On 6 April 2015, the Beijing police submitted the case of the five feminists to the procuratorate office under the criminal charge of “gathering crowds to disturb public order,” referring to the previous “Blood Brides” and “Occupy Men’s Toilet” incidents. According to the lawyers of these feminists, Beijing police only began investigating these activities after detaining the women.
The interregnum between arrest and release was harsh for the female activists. As Li Tingting recalled in an interview with Chinese feminist Zhao Sile, “I was interrogated a total of 30 to 40 times and was under a lot of psychological pressure, since I had never been placed in criminal detention before.”
In the days leading up to their later release, she added, “The police expressed concern that we might become ‘heroes,’ that we might be recruited or used, or that we would agree to be interviewed. The police kept on making implicit demands that I not agree to outside interviews.”
Tania Branigan from the Guardian rightly points out that the fact they are criminally detained – not just informally held – indicates they could have been charged. Detentions and convictions of activists have increased sharply since Xi Jinping became China’s leader two years ago; the women were seized during annual political meetings in Beijing, a very politically sensitive period for the regime. But similar initiatives previously to mark International Women’s Days had not led to custody.
Challenging traditional and new notions of gender and gendered violence
Ironically, the detentions took place as China’s premier Li Keqiang met female legislators and made the following comments by quoting Mao Zedong: “Women hold up half the sky and you should believe that your male counterparts... will move forward hand-in-hand with you.”
From foot-binding designed to control upper class women to concubines kept in the royal harem, the image of women’s role in traditional Chinese society was not particularly impressive. In the imperial hierarchical family structure, the male patriarch—a woman’s father or her husband when she is married—holds the final authority on family issues and is responsible for making life decisions on her behalf.
The New Cultural Movement in the 1910s and 20s that aimed to demolish traditional culture in China was often thought to have announced the end of the patriarchal society. Nonetheless, changes in the Chinese mindsets and social structure come much slower than changes in constitution and political arrangements.
When Communism “liberated” the “old China” in 1949, we see official propaganda portraying women as physically strong and professionally adequate. However, incidents such as forced abortions in rural areas (as a result of the government’s one-child policy) in recent years pose increasing challenges to the official image. At the same time, in more developed urban areas, despite rising education levels and income, public understanding and convention of gender roles remain mostly unchanged, and China’s current gender condition is even referred to as “regressing”. For instance, women with doctoral degrees are often a laughing stock and referred to as the “third gender.”
Well-educated and high-earning professional female in their late twenties or older who are still single, are now shamefully referred to as “left-over women”. Not only because they pose a threat to the traditional family-centred social structure and the mind-set of women being submissive and content within a familial space; more crucially, the increasing number of “left-over women” in urban China constitutes a de-stabilising factor to the “harmonious society” much emphasised by the Party.
In the light of such social reality, the praise for the Feminist Five’s actions as the “Chinese Feminist Awakening” by major international media might have neglected a larger imbalances in gender and the new forms of domestic violence and inequality. For many women within China, “Gender violence is getting worse” – as Li Tingting told a Guardian reporter. Recent studies have shown the increasing number of domestic abuses: Xu Xiao from Johns Hopkins University, for instance, found the persisting prevalence of intimate partner violence in China.
An old Chinese aphorism, “beating is love, and scolding is intimacy,” remains popular and silently accepted in terms of both child education and domestic relationships. Violence against a woman by her husband is generally concealed and protected within the sphere of private life and, as such, is largely overlooked and ignored.
In addition to traditional physical violence, new forms violence have emerged. China is now facing an unprecedented shortage of women, due to both the one-child policy initiated and a cultural preference for male heirs, a volatile combination that has led to sex-selective abortions and cases of female infanticide.
China’s female shortage, far from empowering women, has actually resulted in a situation where urban women’s rights are increasingly imperiled. Leta Hong Fincher’s book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014) researches such phenomenon and details a series of measures ranging from a media campaign to legal setbacks, all of which are ultimately aimed at deterring college-educated women from putting off marriage and family.
By doing so, the Communist Party hopes to maintain social stability — weiwen — and raising the quality (suzhi) of its population. The prevalence of expressions such as “leftover women” in public discourses are not only demoralising, but also makes one wonder about their long-term damaging effects to Chinese women’s self-esteem and the country’s gender equality.
A new generation of activists: The “X-generation” and international exposure
However, unlike the activists before them, this generation’s feminists are equipped with new media, art and a distance from the students and NGO workers. Their protests have often taken the form of performance street art. Photos and posts counting the days of the women’s detention were circulated on social media, sparking a battle between those posting and those seeking to censor them.
According to Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, the prevalence of personal digital devices gives rises to new concepts of defining people as “digital natives” or “digital immigrants”. “Digital native” is a term that refers to people who grew up in the digital era (that is, roughly from 1980s until now). In contrast, the term “digital immigrant” refers to those who were born before 1964 and who grew up in a pre-computer world. These feminist activists in China are digital natives, and well adapted into the world of technologies and social media.
Even though many international social media—including Facebook and Twitter—are banned in China, they were able to spread their ideas swiftly and widely. More importantly, as their detention already shows, living in an age of social media also means that they have a much level of exposure to the international world which will aid significantly to their work and subsequently, to increase the level of awareness of gender equality within China.
A future for feminists?
On 2 July 2015, in the wake of the US Supreme Court ruling of gay marriage as a legal right in the United States, Li Tingting announced her marriage to her lesbian partner in front of friends and journalists. Meanwhile, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television in China rejected the release of The Imitation Game (2014), considering it indecent for public viewing. The Imitation Game is a biopic on Alan Turing, British war hero and father of AI who committed suicide after being arrested, tried and medically treated for his homosexuality. China’s reason for refusing to import this film echoes the charge against Turing fifty years ago. It seems that, there is still a long way ahead for human rights issues on gender.
On 7 July 2015, the day that marks the fourth full month since their detention, the five Chinese feminists addressed to U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to make their release unconditional.