On Wednesday, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute invited author Leta Hong Fincher along with feminist activist and journalist Lü Pin to speak on China’s feminist movement. The story is of two worlds: a radical activism operating between the progressive #MeToo movement and an Orwellian Big Brother society. Andrew Wang, who has only ever known big brother as an older sibling, watched.
“Protect my rights, don’t keep me down; Why must I lose my freedom? Let’s break free from our heavy shackles, and reclaim our power as women!” sings Wei Ting Ting.
It is 2015, and Wei Ting Ting is detained underground, held by the Beijing police in a freezing room. She can barely see—the police had taken her glasses—and so she uses her voice, singing the anthem of China’s feminist movement. She and others had been handing out stickers on public transportation to raise awareness about sexual harassment in China. In response, the police conducted sweeping arrests across the country. They eventually focused their efforts on five women—later dubbed the Feminist Five—who were all brought to Beijing to be incarcerated. They were held for 37 days after immense international pressure.
Months later, above ground, China’s President, Xi Jin Ping—nicknamed Xi Da Da, or Xi Daddy—hosted a United Nations summit on gender equality.
Leta Hong Fincher told us this story as she read an excerpt from her book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China. From the get-go, we learned that China’s story of feminism is both like and unlike the western story.
Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist, was here to tell it with Hong Fincher. The history begins with Mao Zedong, who once said that women hold up half the sky. In the 1970s, it was doctrine that women could do anything men did. At the height of labor force participation, 90% of women were working, from factories to fields. But the market reforms that followed led to surging inequalities that established growing gender wealth and income gaps. Female labor force participation plummeted.
Then, in 1989 was the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in which a pro-democracy uprising was violently squashed by the Chinese government. Yet, despite worldwide opprobrium, the Communist Party saved itself by instituting beneficial economic reforms that were felt nationwide. The uprising had been co-opted. And yet, gender inequality prevailed. The numbers speak for themselves. According to Lü Pin, women made about 80% of men’s wages in 1990. In 2000, they made 70%. In 2011, 60%. In America, it gets hardly better each year; in China, it definitely gets worse.
This landscape of gender inequality is the world that China’s modern feminist movement inherited. The notion of feminism is deeply entrenched in China’s cultural and economic history, and as Hong Fincher argues, the subjugation of women is critical to understanding the regime’s durability. What comes out of the Chinese feminist movement, then, is a localized strategy sensitive to context.
Since 2012, Chinese feminists had been laying the activist groundwork for a #MeToo movement in 2018. Activism was largely centered around demonstrations such as “Occupy Men’s Toilets,” in which women occupied public restrooms in Guangzhou and told men to vacate stalls, calling attention to the lack of public toilets for women. This kind of protest garnered widespread support by being relatable. Another demonstration, “Bloody Brides,” raised awareness about domestic violence. Lu referred to these moments as precursors to 2015; while acting with relatability, women had courageously exposed their political bodies to the public.
Today, the Chinese feminist movement frequently operates through social media platforms such as WeChat. The platform serves as a carrier for the discussion and interpretation of feminist theory, lived experiences, and methods of organizing. This happens daily, across thousands of groups. In a country without the freedom of press, this is defiant; activists identified by feminist markers on their profiles frequently have their accounts suspended, and Lü is no stranger to this. To Hong Fincher and Lü, in the context of China’s history, this kind of mobilization is deeply innovative because it turns the gaze of Big Brother onto himself. When activists are punished and incarcerated, the government immediately falls under scrutiny. An American friend of Lü’s once asked her how she could have a social movement without freedom of press. “It’s more interesting. Social issues don’t die this way; they only become stronger.”
Still, the feminist movement remains strategic. The era of #MeToo centralized sexual harassment, and the Chinese feminist movement responded accordingly. “Different social issues have different opportunities at different times,” says Lü. Whereas domestic abuse, demonstrated in 2012 through “Bloody Brides,” certainly remains relevant, it may resonate less with young people. To Lü, the Chinese feminist movement represents a careful understanding of how issues can best be mobilized without losing nuance and scope.
As Hong Fincher and Lü ultimately argued, China’s feminist movement is not divorced from historical perspective. For example, many Chinese feminists are currently resisting China’s patriarchal push for the new “two-child” policy. During China’s previous one-child policy, the state committed mass violence on women’s rights, creating distrust of the government by women. To Hong Fincher, gender inequality has always been the secret to China’s economic miracle. And this, according to Lü, is something Chinese women won’t forget easily.
Chinese propaganda—bless its poor heart—has not given up. In a 2017 article in the Chinese magazine People’s Daily, there was the following quote: “Female university student’s joyful love; freshman year, live together; sophomore year, get pregnant; junior year, have baby.” Lü Pin clapped back: “the current drop in birth rate is the collective revenge of China’s young women.”
As a well-mannered Chinese boy, I am no stranger to Mao-era doctrine despite my skepticism of it. But Hong Fincher and Lü’s talk convinced me more of another clause that Mao used. It is one that the West has all but forgotten, and it goes like this: “Dare to struggle, dare to win.”
Note: Lu Pin responded in Mandarin Chinese instead of English, despite being fluent in both. A translator was used during the talk, and my quotations of Lu are the result of a spirited attempt to combine the translator’s speech with my childhood years in mandatory Chinese school.
Photo via Bwog Staff