Preserving the Erased Decade of the Chinese Feminist Movement
For young people in China, feminism has permeated every aspect of their social media experience. There is a plethora of media targeting young women, including talent shows, film, TV dramas and podcasts by and for women. Women - and the media written for them - seem to be the secret sauce for boosting page views and leveraging capital. A string of recent viral stories about domestic violence have dominated online debate. Feminist ideas continue to feature in these discussions, alongside the anger and anxieties of average women.
Despite the expansion of the pan-feminist community and the growing presence of women’s voices, little has improved when it comes to systematic gender discrimination and misogyny. Despite the #MeToo movement, there has been little progress on anti-sexual harassment protection mechanisms in universities and other public spaces, and those who have spoken out have yet to see justice. There is still a compulsory cooling off period before you can get a divorce, despite widespread opposition to the move. In 2020, China dropped three places to 106th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Difference Report. And a persistently gender-skewed birth ratio tells us that we still live in a patriarchal society.
What is hampering the feminist movement? The continued presence of misogyny and social stigma, intensified authoritarian controls over every aspect of our lives, as well as government censorship that silences the most active and outspoken. These things set hard limits on how creative and critical the feminist movement can be, and divide the women’s rights community..
The movement has become cut off from its own history, so that the new generation of online activists know nothing of events that took place more than 10 years ago. When we lose a coherent narrative and historical context, it’s much harder to pass on the experiences of our predecessors, to reflect on the past, and hold a vision for the future. It’s easy to lose sight of the main goal.
Yet activists remain the movement’s only hope of a breakthrough. So we are retelling the stories of the feminist movement here, laying bare its ideas and ideals, in the hope of empowering the future agents of change.
Lü Pin is a Chinese women’s rights activist and the founder of Feminist Voices. She is a gender studies scholar and commentator of current affairs. Lü has decided to remain in the United States after the police arrested the Feminist Five in China in 2015.
Liang Xiaomen, whose real name is Liang Xiaowen, is a Chinese youth women’s rights activist and lawyer. Liang participated in “Occupy the Men's Room” and “Shave Heads to Protest Gender Inequality in Education.”
A #MeToo victim, who bravely stepped forward to accuse a prominent public figure of sexual harassment. She actively engages in public discussions and involves in gender issues. With her digital influence, she connected and supported many other sexual harassment victims and survivors.
Zheng Churan, also known as Datu (literally Big Bunny), is a women’s activist in China and one of the Feminist Five arrested by the authorities. She has organized multiple street protests for women’s rights. Zheng was named one of BBC’s 100 Women in 2016.
Xiao Meili is a women’s rights activist in China. She has organized campaigns such as the Feminist Walk, Women’s Armpit Hair Competition, and Bloody Brides to advocate for women’s rights. Xiao is the founder of feminist blog “Youdian Tianyuan,” literally “Somewhat Countryside.”
Li Maizi, whose real name is Li Tingting, is a women’s rights activist in China. Li is one of the Feminist Five. In 2015, she and her partner held a wedding in Beijing, hoping to promote the legalization of same-sex marriages in China.
A Leilei joined VaChina, a UK-based feminist group, in 2018. She is a long-time activist on women’s rights issues. She is also involved in activism against racial discrimination.
Qiqi is a youth women’s rights activist. Currently she is a student in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia. Qiqi started the #MeTooInChina on Weibo, and she also designed logo of the homonym “#MiTuinChina” (literally #RiceBunnyinChina).
I. THE UNFORGETTABLE HISTORY:
THEY WERE IN THE STREETS
A Timeline of Feminism in China
On Mar. 9, 2018, the Sina Weibo account and the WeChat public account of the largest private feminism awareness platform, Feminist Voices, were permanently banned. Before the shutdown, the former had 180,000 followers, while the latter had 70,000. In order to have the accounts reinstated, the staff members advocated for their rights in many ways. Many online users voiced their support, but they were silenced by the social media platforms. On Mar. 16, the seventh day since the ban, several women’s rights activists hosted a “funeral” for the Feminist Voices in some rubble near a cemetery on the outskirts of Beijing. They called the performance art activism “On the seventh day of mourning, we danced on the grave of Feminist Voices.”
II. WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM NEXT ?
The detention of five Chinese feminists in 2015 as they planned an anti-sexual harassment campaign was a huge blow to the movement. Li Maizi, Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan were held for several weeks on suspicion of picking quarrels and stirring up trouble on Mar. 6, two days ahead of International Women’s Day, and released on bail with conditions that set further limits on their freedom.
In 2018, Beihang University fired a professor, Chen Xiaowu, after he was publicly accused by his former PhD student Luo Xixi on social media of sexual harassment and assault. Luo’s #MeToo whistleblowing was among the first to make headline news in China, and Chen’s dismissal represented an initial victory for Chinese women.
The #MeToo, or Rice Rabbit, movement has since spread at an unprecedented rate, with women’s stories of sexual harassment and assault fueling public debate and pointing institutions in the direction of change. But the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s army of censors wasn’t far behind. #MeToo content continues to be deleted as soon as it is posted.
Meanwhile, a landmark sexual harassment case involving a popular Chinese state-run TV personality and a former intern who was inspired by the #MeToo hashtag campaign and the victims of Harvey Weinstein remains mired in uncertainty amid an ongoing crackdown on the feminist movement in China.
Former TV intern Zhou Xiaoxuan, who is now 28, went viral on Chinese social media in 2018 after she wrote a long account of her alleged sexual harassment by Zhu Jun in a dressing room during her internship at state-run CCTV in 2014. But a lawsuit she brought stalled, with Zhu not even turning up to defend himself in court.
While #MeToo has swelled the ranks of online activists, who have a range of social media tools at their fingertips, the CCP is increasingly using armies of pro-government trolls to stage an online backlash.
The torrent of online abuse from government-backed anti-feminists is also dividing the feminist movement, with individuals left feeling isolated and confused by the onslaught.
Li Maizi’s Honest Spoken Account: “I have not committed a crime. Feminism is innocent.”
The Story of a Doomed Lawsuit
Fault Lines in the Movement: The Challenge of the Little Pinks
Backlash: How Victim Blaming and Gender Wars are Poisoning the Feminist Movement
Rebirth After Catastrophe: Feminist Activists set up Overseas Battlefields
Where are the Seven Chinese #MeToo Cases That Went to Courts Now?
III. TAPPING AREAS OF FUTURE POTENTIAL
New York, London, Chengdu, Beijing, Vancouver. For the first time, WHYNOT is connecting Chinese feminists everywhere, weaving the broken threads of the movement together across time and space.
So feminists will see how big the community has grown, and learn about its long and proud history.
So we know that we are not alone.
As Lü Pin puts it: “Feminism is an unwelcome awakening in an era of totalitarian power.”
This group of young activists have put body, heart and soul into their advocacy for Chinese women and other marginalized groups. In return, they have gotten hardship, displacement and misunderstanding.
We feel fortunate to tell their stories.
CONTRIBUTING EDITOR Mimi Yana
EDITOR Rosa Ng
FEATURE WRITERS Mimi Yana, Jiu Tian, Angelica S.
CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS Lü Pin, Zheng Churan, Xiao Meili, Zi
VIDEO PRODUCTION Andy Wang, Valeria Chen
ART DIRECTION Chris Wong
ILLUSTRATION Quai Chan
DESIGN Regina Li, 田园
TRANSLATION Luisetta Mudie, Timothy Ditter, Min Eu
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Alex Zhang
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Min Mitchell