August 26, 2019
Growing up and enlightenment
1989 Tiananmen Movement
The Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995
Women pioneered NGOs in China
Leaving the system
Since the 1990s, Lü Pin has been a pioneering advocate for women’s rights in China as well as a prolific writer on gender issues and a mentor to a group of activists known as the “young feminist activists.” In part one of our 3-part interview of her, Lü Pin traces her upbringing, the 1989 movement, her journalism career at China Women’s News, and her recollections of the 1995 World Conference on Women.
My name is Lü Pin. I was born in a factory dormitory on the outskirts of a county seat in Shandong Province. My parents were factory technicians. The Cultural Revolution was happening when they graduated from college, so they were sent down from the provincial capital to a factory in the county — that’s where I grew up. My parents were the only college-educated couple, so I was relatively more educated than the other kids around me.
I later realized that my parents weren’t traditional Chinese parents — they didn’t believe Chinese medicine, which is quite rare among Chinese. They never used the ideas of Cool, Cold, Hot, Warm from Chinese medicine to explain illness.
My mum loved to read; she’s basically read every detective novel out there, every one she could get her hands on. When I was a bit older, she told me and others that she’d read more books than me. Even though the only thing she read were detective stories, she was still quite proud. She’s more curious and interested in things than the typical woman — she once explained to me how cabbage and cauliflower were all of the cruciferous family of vegetable. Indeed, cruciferae are the most widely eaten vegetables. My point is that she loves and feels proud of accumulating knowledge that others might see as rather useless. This is a habit she passed on to me.
My dad is a news junkie and he’d consume as much media as he could. During the 1980s, he subscribed to over 10 newspapers and magazines and would read them every night — in fact, he and I were the only ones at home who read them. There was People’s Daily, Reference News, Reader, Youth Digest, and also Shenzhen Youth Daily. I have no idea why dad ordered so many. He didn’t realize it, but through these periodicals and magazines, he’d allowed me, in this small county township, bypassing the people around us, to experience the enlightened thinking of the 80s.
When I was attending the No. 2 Experimental Elementary School, the teachers asked every student to subscribe to Chinese Teenagers News. The newspaper printed countless stories that had taken place at a number of the extremely elite schools in Beijing, which left a deep impression on me. For instance, they talked about how all the students at the Shijia Hutong Elementary School went and saw all manners of cultural performances and about the endless variety of extracurricular activities they got to do. These were all things that we kids living out in the sticks simply had no way of conceiving. It was through these constant stories about the Shijia Hutong Elementary School that Chinese Teenagers News portrayed the kind of happy socialist childhood that most of the country never had the chance to experience.
I remember a running column in Chinese Teenagers News that left a deep impression on me. The headline went: “Socialism is the Best, Capitalism is a Mess.” Each column had two pictures and captions presented as a dichotomy. One of them had the Shijia Hutong Elementary School students wearing red scarves, looking as happy as can be; in contrast was an image of black children in America, homeless and abused.
But was this accurate? I had no idea. The Party’s propaganda is expansive and omnipresent. One day in December of 1978, the headlines in the Chinese Teenagers News were printed green — in the news trade, this signifies celebration. What was being celebrated? The commencement of the Plenary Session of the 12th CCP Central Committee. China had begun to reform.
Here’s something I remember clearly. In the 1980s, amongst my reading materials was the Shenzhen Youth Daily, a core outlet for publishing the enlightened thinking of the time. I remember that that’s where I first saw the byline of Liu Xiaobo, whose essays at the time always caused a stir in literary circles. In that era, he was truly an idol. Though, of course, he wasn’t the only one — there were also those of the older generation, such as Liu Binyan, all of whom would publish perspectives that clearly didn’t quite line up with the Party’s guiding ideology. I recall reading in this paper a piece criticizing the lyrics of “The East is Red,” basically questioning how Mao Zedong could be taken to be a savior of mankind because that completely contradicted Marxist ideology.
Despite all this, however, I feel that through most of the 1980s I was still a collectivist — meaning, when your ideals and sentiments are looking for a way to reach out and find a direction, that was the default direction I’d go… I recall that at that point I still deeply revered the Party’s red aesthetics and its whole set of red, revolutionary songs still captivated and stirred me.
In 1987 Lü Pin matriculated to Shandong University’s Department of Chinese Studies
Later, as an ignorant underage student, I got involved in the June 4 student movement.
When the 1989 student movement burst onto the scene, there was no way… it essentially drew in everyone on campus. All of those simple and kind students, although they had no real understanding of the social forces and dynamics behind the protests, nor thought about it all that much, they were captivated by the impassioned speeches and oratory at the time and joined the events. When I look back and think on it now, I feel that everyone was just far too young. The student leaders of the time were all older — 20 or 21-year-old undergraduates, seemingly far older than the rest of us, at least old enough to lead first and second year undergraduates. Now when I think of them being merely in their early 20s — it’s just too young.
The student movement was a welcome respite from the drudgery of everyday life. It liberated us from pointless routine; you didn’t have to attend unintelligible classes on modern literature. Daily life was about reading big character posters, joining marches, going out to other campuses to reach more people, or simply going to wherever the action was. I saw on the first floor windowsill of one dormitory that someone had set up a massive radio cassette recorder and set it to broadcast Voice of America nonstop, constantly bringing VOA’s latest news about the student movement directly onto campus.
One day outside a building, I recall that students had for some reason surrounded the section chief of student affairs work at university  . There were so many people surrounding him, crowding in, getting closer and closer. I vividly remember the look of terror on the man’s face. At first it seemed as if he wanted to come off as a bit tough, but he got more and more scared.
We marched. It was really hot on those days, so I don’t quite know why — maybe to show I was deeply invested in this revolution.
During the march, someone suddenly shouted out: “Down with the Communist Party!” I was dumbstruck. In my experience at that point, that was taking things way too far. I said, “How could someone yell a slogan like that?” Someone next to me said that students in Beijing had already been shouting such things for a while.
In other words, our school was downstream, on the periphery, while the Beijing student movement was the center of the action. That’s why it was everyone’s dream to go to Tiananmen Square. Transportation in China at the time was a mess; students could take the train for free, so we got on and made our way to Tiananmen.
When I recall it now, management on the square was complete chaos. There was garbage everywhere and the conditions were terribly unsanitary. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that it was very dangerous and diseases could spread in the packed crowd. Residents sent comforters to students, but some were trampled underfoot.
It was the late period of the movement, everyone was waiting and tired. Everyone had also slowly come down and slacked off from the early state of high excitement, forgoing food and sleep, and now they were all at a loss. Though martial law had been declared, I think it was April 27, no one took it all that seriously and everyone thought they could keep fighting it out with the government. But where was this resistance headed? No one had a direction, no one could change the mind of the government; but nor was anyone willing or even had a way to come to some compromise.
We went back to school. But soon after, things became more and more grim. Everyone knew that the government was sending troops to Beijing, and this was the point when students in the provinces with the idea of intercepting the military trucks. So we all got involved. I don’t know where the news came from, but there was a rumor claiming that military vehicles were crossing the Yellow River to get to Beijing and we had to go and stop their advance.
So we all rushed outside the city and went on the roads to stop the vehicles. Back then everyone was a bit… there was just no real judgment about what was actually happening. We even thought that we could just go and lie down on the road and that’s how we’ll stop the military vehicles. Someone even started directing people, saying that we’ll lie down in batches, and if the vehicles crush the first group, the second group could still stop them. How did they not think through the fact that people would die? It’s as though we never thought that if these things truly happened, it would be cruel in the extreme.
Until June 4, the second day of the massacre, we were still running out onto the streets of Jinan. After we heard about the killing in Beijing, we were choked with sorrow and rage. I remember us on the streets telling people about the savage violence. But in the end, the resistance just evaporated.
When students got back to school in the fall, everything had changed. Universities began purging students, demanding that they come clean on the role they played, encouraging them to rat on each other, telling them to pick out who wrote which big character poster or other materials. What I remember so clearly was how one of my roommates wrote, without hesitation, that “I did not participate in any events during the June 4 period.” I thought to myself: How can you write that? It’s false. On one afternoon every week, university officers would split students into groups, lock them in their dorms, and make everyone “discuss” the incident. After the discussion, everyone had to write their thoughts on a half piece of paper (because no one would ever use more than that). This was their method to force students to submit.
One of my classmates, a boy, simply refused to write. He said, “The people are already dead, so what’s there to write? What do you want me to write, after so many people are dead?” But at that point, it seemed to be the choice of everyone to just concede and submit. There were numerous students enrolled in the China studies department that year, nearly 100 of us. We all lined up to get on stage to identify who wrote the “reactionary materials.” This is how they identified some of the student leaders, who were then psychologically tortured and disciplined.
Many of the students who graduated in 1989 weren’t able to find work and, in that era, if your university didn’t designate you to a workplace, you couldn’t get employment. It was extremely difficult to find work for oneself, and thus difficult to survive. Alternatively, they could simply assign you to some extremely remote location.
We went through an extremely dark period. From that point forward I realized that our government was not to be trusted. They once promised that they wouldn’t retaliate against students — but it was purely a lie. I also realized that social movements were extremely cruel and that ordinary members of the public who got involved might be harmed in ways they couldn’t imagine. One of the students in my dorm ended up staying in a psychiatric hospital for a few months. She was not some kind of important figure in the movement, but the psychological agitation of everything she went through was too much for her young mind to handle.
Of course, perhaps she had experienced some emotional disturbances; we hardly had any understanding of it at all. When she returned a few months later, everyone thought that it was over. Because of the class suspension, the grass around the classroom buildings had become overgrown because no one had walked on it. In the fall when classes resumed, it had been trodden back to ground.
I recall when I was about 20, I started suffering from severe insomnia. I couldn’t sleep. When everyone in the dorm was fast asleep, my eyes were wide open as the moonlight illuminated the room. At the time I didn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep — it was due to my disappointment in society and in the nation. But this wasn’t something I could express. Why? Perhaps because I was just a nobody who had no voice. I stayed at that university for seven years.
When I completed graduate school, I found a job in Beijing — and it was a good job, at a newspaper. This route seemed to be par for the course for Chinese studies graduates. So I went to Beijing and I became a journalist.
Lots of people later asked me why I went to work at China Women’s News and whether I had a particular interest in the topic. I’d say that no, I didn’t — and that in that era, you couldn’t simply pick your job based on your own interests. China Women’s News was founded in 1984 and was the official newspaper of the All China Women’s Federation. And of course, all newspapers in China have a government background, today and back then, without exception. Relatively speaking, China Women’s News was an insignificant paper and didn’t have all that much authority — certainly not the authority of People’s Daily or the readership of China Youth Daily.
The paper’s official mandate consisted of two sentences: Make women known to society, make society known to women. Now that I think of it, it’s very interesting. The ideology chief of the Communist Party, Hu Qiaomu, came up with this line. The unspoken words behind it seem to be that mainstream society doesn’t truly understand the circumstances of women, so they must be told. That was one aspect to it. The other side of it was to increase the “quality” of women because they lacked knowledge and education and didn’t know what was going on in society, and thus they needed to be educated.
In the 80s the entire publishing industry was really underdeveloped. Along with this came a phenomenon, which was that everything that was published got extremely wide distribution. The result was that everyone mostly read the same thing. I remember reading Liu Binyan’s works of reportage where he exposed the disastrous local fighting in my own hometown during the Cultural Revolution.
I also remember a book from the time that all the young people were reading called The Path of Beauty. When I think back to it now, I really have no idea what the book was about and I don’t get why everyone was reading it. The content consisted of how engraved patterns on bronze vessels had evolved over time, but now that I think of it, I don’t know how that was connected with the enlightenment of the 1980s.
In 1988, another book was published, George Orwell’s 1984. This was the first book I remember adding to my personal collection. I think I read it dozens of times. It made me reject communist ideology and helped me understand how communist ideology twists people. It also helped me see how people can resist — it can begin with oneself and from renewing connections with each other.
In 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing
At the newspaper, my first assignment was to report on the Fourth World Conference on Women to be held in Beijing. At the time I didn’t know why they were holding the conference, but it had already been decided. The actual reason for holding it was because the Communist Party needed to escape the isolation from the international community that it had experienced since the June 4 massacre. It seems that the authorities wanted to use these sorts of global events to elevate China’s position in the world. At that point China seemed to have some kind of inferiority complex before the world, so it wanted to join the “global village.”
Under these circumstances, the Party gave propaganda directives to make reporting on women’s issues a matter of great importance and emphasis. The holding of the women’s conference was treated like all the other official occasions elaborately extolled by the masses. I recall that we wrote numerous reports — for instance, grassroots women in a certain county in a certain province offered an embroidery of “a hundred birds paying homage to a phoenix” as a tribute to the women’s conference. So on and so forth. It was like they turned the women’s conference into a Communist Party congress that they were to sing the praises of.
I don’t think many Chinese people actually understood what this meeting was all about and what was going on there. Neither did I.
There was a surprise before the conference began. The NGO Forum was suddenly relocated to be held in Huairou county (about 40 miles from Beijing). The NGO Forum was originally to be held at the Workers Stadium in Beijing, but then it was suddenly announced to be shifted to Huairou. I was really innocent at the time and was curious as to why they’d moved it to Huairou. The official explanation was that there were structural problems at the Worker’s Stadium which needed extensive renovations. So we went to the stadium to see what was going on and also pestered the personnel responsible for repairs and maintenance at the stadium. We wanted him to explain just what was going on. Then we went to Huairou ourselves to look at the new venue. The county’s CCP propaganda people took us to a resort and entertained us with food and niceties. Of course, they weren’t the decision makers in the matter.
My point is that we were journalists at the time and simply didn’t believe that the conference was being moved to Huairou because of issues with the Worker’s Stadium, but we were still really naive in the attempt to dig for the truth. The truth of the matter was that the government suddenly felt that, if they held the event in Beijing, the NGOs might get up to some things that couldn’t be controlled.
It was also the first time that the word “NGO” was spread in China. It was perceived as an advanced structure that was being introduced to the country. The All China Women’s Federation immediately seized on it, claiming that “We’re the largest NGO in the world,” and that half of the Chinese people were members by default, without their consent to join. I mean, while China had to make some welcoming gestures for NGOs, the reality is that there were many taboos and fears. That’s why they sent the Forum off to Huairou to amuse themselves, because Huairou was on the outskirts of Beijing, the roads were primitive back then, and it was remote, so whatever happened in Huairou wouldn’t impact Beijing.
The conference started. My task was to help out with a very short-lived daily newspaper called Women’s Voice. It was a joint operation between the All China Women’s Federation and Guangming Daily, and was the daily newsletter handed out at the conference. It compiled daily information about this topic being discussed at venue A, that being discussed at venue B, etc. In fact, we didn’t really understand what was going on during the conference.
Every evening on the sportsfield of the Huairou Middle School, there were people putting on self-organized performances of various kinds and I went along to watch. The whole area was really poorly lit and you could barely see the performers. But the speakers were really loud, so you could hear them well enough. I was listening away and suddenly realized that the performance on stage was a kind of homosexual love piece and the female actress was making sensual noises. I was really stunned, but the other Chinese there hardly seemed to react.
Then it started raining and got really muddy and the area was a mess. Back then communication was difficult, so all the information about the meetings were communicated via small posters that were put up. The result was that sometimes you’ll miss some things that you expect and you’ll suddenly come across scenes you have no understanding of. One day as I approached an intersection, I found that a group of people gathered at the intersection, standing in total silence.
That was a collective silence event organized by Amnesty International, meant to grieve female victims of domestic violence who were killed or injured. There was an auditorium in the center of Huairou and Hillary Clinton gave a speech there. So many people wanted to get in, but they couldn’t because there weren’t enough tickets. The Chinese official media didn’t report on Hillary’s activities. In her speech, Hillary said that women’s rights are human rights.
Hillary has a whole chapter about this experience in her autobiography. Yet the Chinese government never reported it. On one hand, China wanted to integrate into the world, but on the other it wanted to resist American criticism of Chinese human rights. And it was in the same auditorium that some Chinese put on a protest against Western media besmirching and misrepresenting China.
There was another interesting development during the conference, which is that Coca Cola entered China. The company had sponsored free beverage machines for the World Conference on Women. At that point, beverage machines were new in China — you could simply press a button or pull a handle and you had cold, bubbly liquid in your cup. There were so many flavors. There was a new flavor then called Sprite. So all the journalists covering the conference could drink free Sprite and also eat free Nestle chocolate, because the latter also wanted to use the opportunity to advertise themselves. Global capitalism had arrived in China, as these instances proved. When the NGO Forum in Huairou and the formal conference in Beijing was wrapping up, I remember on the final day, Coca Cola stopped refilling their machines and no more coke came out of them. The conference was over.
The pioneers of civil society in China were women
The World Conference on Women opened up an opportunity for discussing women’s issues in China and it also brought the concept of NGOs to China. Women’s NGOs were thus the pioneers of the NGO structure in China and women’s rights advocates became the first group to explore this format. For that I’m extremely proud of them.
The year after the women’s conference, some colleagues of mine started a small volunteer group at the newspaper. Its purpose was to examine questions of sex and gender in Chinese media. I also joined this group; in fact, I have done work for the group all these years and turned it into a job.
In the late ‘90s in Beijing there were numerous self-organized groups and events about women’s rights always attracted a lot of people. After work, people would meet to listen to talks about the state of women’s rights in other countries, as well as what was going on in China. After the presentations people would socialize — networking was as important for them as gaining new knowledge.
The majority of participants were middle-aged intellectuals: scholars, teachers, cultural and arts workers. They had stable jobs and economic security, but they weren’t overloaded. They still had spare time in which they could attend events like this and they discovered the topic of women’s rights. It fulfilled their need for helping women in Chinese society. I think at the time in China there was a real lack of the public sphere or channels in which people could participate in public affairs, women in particular. The participants were all well respected and established in their own fields, though they weren’t leaders at their workplaces. In their spare time, in their self-organized space, they found recognition and an area where they could express and carry out their desire to help women. This was part of the background of how non-governmental women’s groups came about in the 1990s.
During the 1990s, many Chinese intellectuals kept to themselves. Many had simply given up on caring. I felt that these female intellectuals were the most idealistic and enthusiastic. However the circle they formed didn’t exactly connect with women, though they had stepped outside of the establishment. When I think about it now, of my contact with them, I felt that they were sincere, wanted to contribute to society, and had found their own angle for doing it.
Of course the reason I got so close to them is because they were nearby and also because… I don’t know… If it was another group I first got to know, maybe I would have joined that circle. At least, it seems so — but I think I wouldn’t have stayed in any other group. Why? If it wasn’t such an idiosyncratic group, women wouldn’t have felt such a sense of existence. If I were to have joined a group with lots of men, I absolutely would have been a nobody there. But when I joined a women’s group, I felt that their discussions gave me a sense of worth, a sense of being acknowledged. The discussions also awakened understandings in me of my own sex.
In 2000, some friends in Beijing organized a reading group. We’d meet every month and discuss a book. About half the time was for discussing the book, the other half was spent discussing woman-related issues — a kind of free talk. We were both friends and partners. In fact, this was an important form of activity in the feminist movement in the West called raising awareness. Participants would constantly share their own experiences of sex, gender and society, to reconstruct their critical understanding of sex and gender.
At that point I had realized that feminism was actually a political question. The general attitude of Chinese people was “I don’t believe anything.” Why? Because they’d been scared by the Communist Party. The Party always wants to inject its ideology, campaigns, and politics into everyone’s brain. It’s not OK not to believe it. You have nowhere to run. So in order to protect themselves, Chinese just became passive. They’d say: I don’t pay attention to politics, nor do I believe in any ideology. So of course they wouldn’t believe in feminism.
But for me, the loss of my political ideals led me in another direction. Maybe I’ve always hoped to be someone who can contribute to the nation — but what’s my direction? When I no longer believed my government, I simply had to find some other way to see whether I could help bring change to the country.
At the same time, I had become more and more disappointed with my work at the newspaper. I thought I had already wasted a lot of time on this job. The dominant ideology and censorship placed extreme restrictions on the paper and its employees. I was more discontent than all my colleagues. Many of them said, “What’s the big deal? We will complete our assignments, and we will still have a lot of time to do what we like to do.” But to me it was not so. To me, it was bondage to just do the assignments and I couldn’t stand it.
At the time, all my colleagues felt that I had great prospects at the paper. At 30, I became the youngest mid-level manager. The newspaper was small, but administratively it was of a high-level. I was the head of an important department called the Department of Women’s Rights, covering issues concerning women’s rights and related legal matters. Everyone felt that I would become the deputy editor-in-chief in the foreseeable future. Why deputy editor-in-chief? Because I was not a Communist Party member and the editor-in-chief has to be a Party member as the Party is the boss of the paper. Our editor-in-chief was a warm, kind and respected reporter. She said to me, “Do you want to join the Party? I’ll introduce you.” I said, “I’m the 1989 generation. As long as the Party does not redress the June 4th massacre, I will never join it.” The editor-in-chief used to work at the People’s Daily and had also participated in the Tiananmen protests. She said to me, it’s very good that young people have ideals, but things are not that simple. Of course she didn’t change my mind. I simply wouldn’t be a Party member. It’s a definitive decision. So I would never be the editor-in-chief of the paper, but it was no question that I could become the deputy editor-in-chief.
As everyone said this, I came to think of it as terrible. Why? Not that I felt it was a shame to become the deputy editor-in-chief of a Party paper, but that I saw my entire life being laid out. The life my editor-in-chief was living would also be the life I’d live. If that’s the case, life is not worth living. It was meaningless and I must escape.
I decided to resign. My colleagues… nobody understood me. I remember one of them broke down in tears. She felt that I shouldn’t leave – it would not only be a loss for the newspaper but also a loss for myself. I didn’t know what I would do next, but I did know what I didn’t want to do anymore. I couldn’t stay with this newspaper any longer. So I quit the job and abandoned my iron rice bowl. In retrospect, I stayed there for way too long. Ten years I had worked at that paper. Even though everyone was shocked that I quit, I felt I had stayed too long.
At that age, I had also met men who were my age and from almost the same background. Their ideas were that I was someone with whom they could have a relationship with or marry. We had the same educational background and did similar jobs that were stable and respectable, though boring. We could get married and continue that kind of life.
Later I realized that I didn’t want to marry anyone at all. It was not the life I wanted. I detest banal life and I felt must escape. Around 30 years old, before I quit my job, I decided that I didn’t want to live like everyone else. I had to run away. But as you know, you pay a high price for leaving the system. Why? Because the distribution of resources in this society all occurs within the system. There are no resources outside it. Women have little resources in this society and they are also very marginal, just like a freelancer.
I remember after I quit my job, I went back to the paper once to visit a colleague. The reception had changed personnel and they didn’t know me. He asked me what my work unit was, I said, “Why are you asking me what work unit I’m from? My name is Lü Pin. I’m me.” He was shocked. Probably nobody had answered him the way I did. To him, everyone belonged to a work unit, right? That was how the society was – everyone belonged to a work unit, your work unit defined who you were, your social networks, your status, and everything about you.
Later I wrote commentaries for newspapers. All commentaries have to provide a bio of the author. Some described themselves as scholars or editors, others said I’m a researcher at so-and-so institution, I’m a professor, etc. The editor asked for a description of myself. I said, “How about a freelancer?” The editor said, “It’s not good to have the word ‘free’ appearing in the paper.” I said, “How about ‘a Beijing resident?’” But in this case you can’t just describe yourself as a Beijing resident, because a commentary represents a kind of authoritative voice. You can describe yourself as a Beijing resident if you are complaining about sanitary issues and such, but as an author of commentaries, you have to have a respectable identity. So they said, “Let’s just say you are a scholar.” But I have never been a scholar; this label was forced on me, because people understand you only through labeled identities. People could not accept that you are not part of the establishment.
So all of a sudden, life became very hard for me. Many people, including a lot of my colleagues, said, “Look, she quit her job but isn’t living any better.” They probably felt I was a loser and they probably have always thought so. I see myself differently; I felt I had gained something they didn’t understand. What did I gain? I gained freedom, freedom of the mind. After I left the paper, I felt my writing went up a step. It was no longer affected by the dominant ideology. I also consciously cleaned up the linguistic pollution that came with the dominant ideology. Such a state of freedom was not something that can be appreciated by people in the communist system.
That system failed to indoctrinate me. Moreover, I made a different choice and walked away from it. The price for doing so was immense. No one understood what I got from it because my values were different from others. When this became clear to me, I felt it was the biggest pride of mine: it is an asset that is little understood and cannot be cashed in this society.
To be continued.
Photos and Videos
United Nations Photo
Screenshots from documentary “Once and For All”
“You don’t own me”
A China Change Production