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“You Can’t Arrest Us All!”9 min read

China’s Feminists Are Betraying Big BrotherEmily Walz

Rewind to early 2015, Beijing. Groping on the crowded subway system has the city government considering women-only cars in an effort to prevent sexual harassment (a marginal improvement over its 2013 plan to fix the problem by telling women to cover up). A month and a half later, five young feminists are planning to distribute anti-sexual harassment stickers on public transit for International Women’s Day. They never get the chance. Instead, they are swept up and brought to a detention center in Beijing. The women’s names are Li Maizi, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, and Wang Man, but when the state locks them up, they are reborn as the Feminist Five. The sudden crackdown marks a political tipping point: feminist activism in China has now crossed from the realm of the officially tolerated to the politically dangerous.

The Feminist Five, clockwise from top left: Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Wang Man and Li Maizi (Badiucao)

Authoritarian regimes make it challenging to offer accounts of individuals who protest in the face of repression, or to document social movements evolving in response to changing state demands. One of the few people managing this feat in China is sociologist and reporter Leta Hong Fincher, whose latest book draws on dozens of interviews with women the state has identified as threats for their feminist activism. In Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, Hong Fincher sets their stories against the backdrop of the larger feminist movement in China, where women are staring down a party-state juggernaut increasingly intolerant of activism or dissent and increasingly invested in women performing their traditional gender roles by marrying and having children.

Women are staring down a party-state juggernaut increasingly intolerant of dissent and invested in traditional gender roles

Despite the state’s attempts to repress feminist advocacy, many women are radicalized through their lived experiences of misogyny in Chinese society. In Hong Fincher’s account, when police interrogate one woman about why she would involve herself in such activism, she tells them she herself has been a victim of sexual harassment. “Chinese women feel very unequal every day of their lives,” says Lü Pin, founder of the now-banned new media platform Feminist Voices, “and the government cannot make women oblivious to the deep injustice they feel.” In a country that is home to more than 650 million women, this sense of injustice carries real weight for China’s future.

More women are also starting to call attention to Chinese feminist activism outside of China, aided by their sisters inside its borders. Some of them, including Lü Pin (who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States) and NYU professor Rebecca Karl, spoke alongside Hong Fincher at a recent panel on contemporary feminist organizing in China, marking the launch of the New York chapter of the international editorial collective NüVoices. They both highlighted the power of the internet in feminist organizing and the #MeToo movement, often rendered as #米兔# (mitu, or rice bunny) in China to avoid censorship. For its part, #MeToo illustrates the party-state’s capricious approach to public accusations of harassment and dovetails with the anti-sexual harassment work China’s feminists have long focused on. While theoretically an  innocuous issue, Lü Pin explained that anger at sexual harassment easily becomes a vehicle for broader outrage at inequality. Karl put a finer point on the issue, arguing that as long as #MeToo in China coincided with Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, it was not considered a threat, but as a systemic critique of gender inequality, it has become quite threatening to the regime. Now, even mild critiques get shut down.

This harsh state response is notable, since by and large, none of the feminist activists Hong Fincher meets are trying to overthrow the Communist Party. They design their campaigns to stay safely within territory that has widespread appeal and accessible messaging. This means focusing on economic and social issues and avoiding questions of women’s political rights, a strategy that prior to 2015 ensured against serious run-ins with state security agents. In Guangzhou, activists staged an “Occupy Men’s Toilets” action to call attention to the mundane inequality of long lines for women’s public restrooms; a “Bloody Brides” parade in Beijing protested the lack of a nationwide law against domestic violence (one was later enacted in 2016). These tactics – what the late social scientist Charles Tilly would have called a “repertoire of contention” – carry forward the larger fight for justice. But feminist activists stage these actions inside a shifting political landscape, what Hong Fincher terms the “shrinking public space for discussing women’s rights in China.” And as Lü Pin says, “you cannot decide whether you are deemed a state enemy or not.”

This is a familiar story: Chinese feminists in earlier eras were also deemed enemies of the state. In the fall of 2015, Hong Fincher rented a rowboat with two young feminists across Hangzhou’s West Lake, near the tomb of Qiu Jin, a late 19th-century Chinese feminist (read a book extract about it here). Qiu Jin flouted social convention; she cross-dressed, she wrote poetry and essays, she abandoned her family to study abroad and joined the Communist Party (which at the time offered women escape from social strictures). In 1907, she was beheaded by imperial forces for conspiring to overthrow the Qing government, cementing her status as a feminist and revolutionary legend. Qiu Jin wrote about the mythical Jingwei bird, a drowned girl who transformed into a bird, carrying pebbles to fill the Eastern Sea. In front of Qiu Jin’s tomb, the three contemporary women pose for a selfie, aligning themselves with a celebrated history of resistance, and persistence, in the face of a seemingly-impossible task.

With feminist activism redefined as dangerous to the status quo, “China’s all-male rulers seem to think that the entire security state would collapse were it not for the subjugation of women,” writes Hong Fincher. This idea is at the core of the book: China’s government stronghold is not just authoritarian, but a patriarchal flavor of authoritarian; it is no accident that the people leading it are strongmen, relying on misogyny to ensure social stability. Hong Fincher argues that this is a defining characteristic of the Chinese party-state, weaving in elements of her earlier book, Leftover Women, to show why it is so vested in controlling the social roles of women. The state feminist agency, the All-China Women’s Federation, which stigmatizes single women, is at the forefront of a state-orchestrated campaign to convince young, professional women to settle down and have (two) children. While the Party represses all perceived threats, there is an irony in its attempts to re-impose the gendered social roles it spent decades trying to wipe out, a reversal Hong Fincher takes as evidence that state support of feminism only ever went as far as it served the state itself.

China’s government stronghold is not just authoritarian, but a patriarchal flavor of authoritarian

If Leftover Women, a university press book, was a star of the think tank circuit, Betraying Big Brother steps more into mainstream bookstore territory. Leta Hong Fincher is neither detached sociologist nor beat reporter; she says in the opening pages that she’s a convert to the cause, and her friendship with the women is part of what allows her an insider’s seat to developments in their work. Nevertheless, she follows a rigorous approach that situates the life stories of women she follows in a larger socio-political context, outlining historical and theoretical frameworks to explain what is happening and why it matters, context that is notably absent from other recent books about the lives of Chinese women. But while Hong Fincher’s books make for riveting reading, their scholarly tics, like the author’s habit of declaring what she is arguing and the disjointed flow from one chapter to the next, make for somewhat stilted popular nonfiction.

Questions of style aside, Hong Fincher makes a provocative and persuasive argument about the significance of the feminist movement in China, asserting that it is already a political wave the likes of which China has not seen since 1989. The potential mobilizing power of contemporary feminist activism speaks directly to Chinese leaders’ not-entirely-illogical paranoia about well-networked social movements. Seeing college-educated feminists join forces to protest with working-class women cannot help but remind them that such a cross-class, countrywide organization is what brought the Party to power in the first place. Beyond organized social action, the Party also has to worry about the instability that might result should women decide to abandon social expectations en masse. Having followed these issues for years, it is Hong Fincher’s opinion that “the feminist resistance may yet have the potential to become China’s most transformative movement in the long run – provided that any social movement is allowed to exist.”

The feminist movement is arguably a political wave the likes of which China has not seen since 1989

While increased repression ensures that few dare challenge the Chinese state under Xi Jinping, it also contains a paradox: the Party’s efforts to reassert its authority in individual lives all but guarantees that more people will begin to resist it. Rather than harnessing the energy of these activists trying to change Chinese society for the better, Hong Fincher argues that labeling them enemies creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, radicalizing many who weren’t previously anti-Party.

Even as the state aims to make examples of dissident leaders, the women speaking about China’s feminist movement are hopeful, pointing to increased popular interest in the issues they champion, an upswell in feminist media, and a sense of connection to international feminist movements. Perhaps most important is their sense of solidarity. Hong Fincher’s interviews reveal a network of women committed to building their web of activists, supporting each other in furtherance of their cause. One photo of women masquerading as the Feminist Five during protests over their detention circulated with the caption, “You can’t arrest us all!”

After 37 days in confinement, the Feminist Five were finally let go. But while they now walk free, their freedom is precarious. They are subject to continued monitoring and state-sponsored intimidation; several have left China. In the years since their detention, other women have suffered similar fates, evidenced by the continuous stream of reports of missing activists swallowed by the state’s public security leviathan. These cases haven’t garnered the same level of international attention as the Feminist Five, but they show the state’s increasing willingness to target previously sheltered groups, like university students – Yue Xin, a labor rights activist and #MeToo proponent whom Hong Fincher interviewed in the book, is currently among the missing. ∎


Leta Hong Fincher, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (Verso, September 2018). #Freethefive image by Badiucao and used here with his permission

Emily Walz

Emily Walz is a China analyst and a 2018 American Mandarin Society Next-Generation Scholar based in Washington, D.C.