FEATURE: The Long Battle for Chinese Feminism

FEATURE: The Long Battle for Chinese Feminism

What you need to know

At a time when any public protest is deemed too radical for the government, Chinese feminists should keep the momentum going because there is a long-term battle waiting for them.

On March 7, the Chinese Communist Party held an annual reception to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day. That same week and a few blocks away, China’s “Two Sessions” meetings of 2016 — the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC), which feature mostly male delegates — gathered to discuss national matters. The reception featured gala-style performances, including a group dance called “paper-cutting girls,” a fashion show and an acrobatic performance called “spring flowers.”

The reception did not feature any serious political discussion on women’s rights. Instead, a group of Chinese feminists met secretly at a Beijing bar that same evening. Three of the five Chinese feminists, who were detained by the Chinese government a year earlier, gathered to mark International Women’s Day.

“No one felt the landscape of Chinese women’s rights movement is getting better,” said Jing Xiong, the executive director of Media Monitor Network for Women, a Beijing-based NGO focusing on promoting gender equality in mainland China. “In fact, everyone present was saying it is getting worse.”

At a time when any public protests, regardless of what protesters are against, are deemed too radical from the government’s perspective, Chinese feminists should keep the momentum going because there is a long-term battle waiting for them. The central question is: what can people who are encouraged and mobilized by the feminists’ dedication contribute to the ultimate goal of gender equality in China.

In the history of Chinese feminism, it has had glory moments in the past 20 years. Along with the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Chinese feminists were encouraged, for the first time in Chinese history, to join non-governmental movements, which marked the initial stage of contemporary Chinese feminism. Eight years later, several women’s rights-related proposals were submitted to the National Congress, alongside the emergence of a new generation of radical women activists.

But for a new wave of Chinese feminists who are more action-oriented than the previous generation, the good old days are gone and the future of Chinese feminism is now at stake.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap Report, China ranked 91st out of 145 countries in terms of gender equality, falling four places from 2014 and reaching its lowest position since the report was first published in 2006.

After the crackdown against the “feminists five” on the eve of last year’s International Women’s Day, the Chinese government might have loosened its grip on women’s rights movements in an attempt to repair its international image. But it didn’t. Instead, the party accelerated its crackdown on every upcoming feminist movement, even including those of organizations that were dedicated to protecting Chinese women’s rights for decades.

In November, Chinese authorities called off a feminist art exhibition in Beijing celebrating the fight against domestic violence. It was not until the artists arrived at the gallery to install the show that they discovered the doors had been bolted shut without any notification. In January, a leading women’s legal aid center in Beijing was closed, which was highly symbolic for having been born of the World Conference on Women in 1995. That was the first glimmer of hope for Chinese feminism when China loosened its control on civil society activities after the 1989 bloody military suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations around Tiananmen Square.

“To counter the government’s repression, we used to do protests in creative ways, such as flash mobbing, singing or dancing,” said Xiong. “But now, even these ways are not safe anymore. They police will drive us away immediately or they will come to us afterwards because it’s easy to locate us.”

With no chance of organizing a large-scale public protest against the government’s incompetence in protecting women’s rights or any feminism-related issues — including sexual harassment on public transportation, gender-based discriminatory admissions rates and gender bias in workplace — Chinese feminist activists shifted their focus from calling for a change through radical movements to presenting issues to the general public. They hope that public discussions triggered by this message will pressure Chinese authorities to compromise.

One of the biggest obstacles Chinese feminists encounter is the deeply-rooted gender bias in Chinese media. On one hand, women’s rights-related issues have been downplayed by Chinese media for decades. In a country where men still dominate in politics, business and many other realms, Chinese media outlets rarely speak for women as they seldom stand behind any socially disadvantaged group. For example, in 2012, when the word “feminism” was not as sensitive as it is today in China, a group of feminist activists held protest signs saying “Just because I am slutty doesn’t mean you can be dirty” on Shanghai’s metro. They caused a sensation on social media, whereas traditional government-controlled media turned a blind eye to the phenomenon.

On the other hand, since nearly all of Chinese mainstream media are state-owned, they can sense the dynamics in the political climate even without a direct order from the authorities. Silence on women’s issues in the media is an example of calculated neglect, rather than an unconscious media malpractice.

Fortunately, thanks to the rise of social media, the traditional media platforms, which were ever-increasingly controlled by the authorities, are no longer the only channel through which Chinese feminists can spread their words out. At a time when up-down changes are not possible, what’s at stake is whether Chinese feminists are able to garner support from the public, especially from the women they fight for, and mobilize them to uphold a grassroots revolt.

“We are seeing some inspiring signs,” said Pin Lu, a Chinese feminist activist and independent journalist who has been working for women’s rights and promoting gender equality for more than 20 years. “Five years ago, when I said the word ‘feminism’ on social media, I would be verbally attacked just because many people didn’t recognize that women have rights. But now, we have seen the rise of consciousness among young women, which was largely due to what those feminists did in the past few years.”

Positive changes are also being seen in other fields. In 2012, three Chinese feminists dressed in wedding gowns with fake bloodstains to protest against domestic violence on a busy business street in Beijing, signifying the first street performance action by young feminist activists in China. Three years later, China eventually passed its first-ever national law against domestic violence in December 2015 and it officially took effect last month.

“We all know there is no way to win the feminist battle immediately,” said Lu. “It seems that we will see changes only when changes have to be made. The only thing we can do is to keep creating conditions where things have to be changed.”

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole