Feminism and Social Change in China: an Interview with Lü Pin (Part 2 of 3)

September 16, 2019

Part Two

Starting ‘Feminist Voice’

The One-yuan Commune

Blood-stained Wedding Gowns

Occupy Man’s Toilets

Summary:

After leaving China Women News, Lü Pin began to work with women intellectuals pioneering women’s rights advocacy in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2009, Lü Pin founded ‘Feminist Voice.’ Its sharp interpretation of women issues through a feminist lens attracted many young educated women. A small NGO called ‘One-yuan Commune’ was established in Beijing that quickly became a springboard for street activism from 2012 to 2015.

Full transcript:

After I resigned from the paper, I continued my volunteer work as before, and did some work for women’s organizations that existed at that time. First, it was through a small group of volunteers established by my colleagues called Women’s Media Monitor Network. Through this organization, I was able to take part in the activities of some other groups in Beijing. For example, there was a network that was formed in 2000 to oppose domestic violence, whose main mission was to promote the enactment of legislation against domestic violence. This involved virtually everyone in Beijing NGOs concerned about women’s rights, and represented the progress women’s rights groups had made at that time. 

The leaders of this organization were veteran scholars and intellectuals, and others involved also came from a similar background. They were the forerunners of our era, and had keen foresight. They also had fled the system, but actually didn’t really escape it. Instead, they worked on the margins of the system, and they used a method of “both in and out” to develop their unconventional path. For example, the anti-domestic violence network at the time was operated as an “affiliate” of the China Law Society, which was a group with government background. The existence of the network was thus legitimized by its association with the China Law Society, and accordingly it used its “official” status to connect with many work units within the system, such as the All China Women’s Federation, police stations, and even courts. But it received no funding from the government, and was entirely supported by international foundations.

Therefore, operationally, it adhered to some of the ideals promoted by the international foundations, including internal equality, democracy, and participation. These were its values, and consequently, it developed an NGO culture. In retrospect, it was all routine, but in that era, it was not easy for people to make it even that far.  

But in fact some people did go further. For example, organizations such as Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative). I had never known much about Gongmeng, but I now think that its existence was very meaningful. I mean Gongmeng turned the spontaneous resistance that had existed in China’s lower social classes since the 1980s into an organized social movement. For example, Gongmeng was able to collect 100,000 signatures from migrant parents on the issue of equal education right. This is something that spontaneous activist movements, which quickly fade after standing up for their interests, cannot achieve. 

The structure of these women’s organizations is still too elitist. For them, victims and ordinary women are people to be saved, rather than equal members. They all sought “expert” status. Through the prestige of being experts, they could lobby the academic community, lobby the government, and promote their ideas in the decision-making process. This was the path they designed, but it isn’t necessarily successful. Why? On account of the very role itself, the core of power did not belong to these female intellectuals. Their advice might be accepted or ignored. Much of the time they were ineffective.

After many years of unremitting efforts, the law against domestic violence was finally accepted by the National People’s Congress, entered the legislative agenda, and eventually became law. But afterwards, this anti-domestic violence network, the organization that contributed the most, disappeared. How did it disappear? In 2010, the Chinese Law Society no longer recognized it. What had changed?

I had mentioned that, in 1995, the Chinese government was making efforts towards internationalization. The authorities lacked resources to engage in some social undertakings, so they accepted the developmental concepts promoted by international foundations. Because of their help, some non-governmental activities were organized in China, including women’s activities. But the 2008 Olympics gave the Chinese government a great boost of confidence. I think that from then on, the government began to take conscious action against Chinese civil society. Not only did it realize that civil society was a threat to its power, it also lost interest in the benefits it could receive from civil society. In 2010, two important women’s organizations were kicked out of the system. One was anti-domestic violence network “affiliated” with the China Law Society’s, and the other was the “Women’s Legal Aid Center” affiliated with Peking University. That is to say, the space in which these women activists operated at the edge of the system was disappearing, leaving them no room for engagement inside or outside the system. 

However, some of them were not prepared to really work outside the system because their work, most of their energy, their professional experience, and their identities were still in the system. This was the limitation of these women activists and their organizations. Looking back, the process of being driven from the system was the genuine beginning of a women’s civil society activism in China –– the beginning of a social movement. It was a completely independent, more energetic way of resurgence. Of course no one understood this at the time.

At the time, I was very loyal to the activities of these civil organizations. I spent a lot of time working for them without pay. But I became more and more dissatisfied with them as I realized that their advocacy activities were not effective. Nor were they really open, to be honest, because the people couldn’t participate. The people were not experts; since they were not experts, they couldn’t take part in government consultation meetings, which limited their participation. Also, the activists barely engaged with the public, so their influence among the people was extremely small.

In 2009, there was the sensational case of Deng Yujiao, a waitress living in Badong County, Hubei Province, who killed a local official to defend herself against sexual assault. The incident was very sensational and became a very important event for the rights movement, because for the first time, activists used social media to organize and speak, successfully and forcefully intervening in a social incident and raising a personal case to the judicial and legal level, to the height of institutional accountability. Many citizen activists emerged. And some liberal-leaning, market-oriented media outlets, such as the Southern Group, also took an active role in this incident.

This incident is related to sexual violence, so we were very eager to get involved too. At that time, I was very active and did a lot of work, but I soon discovered that we could not get our voices out at all. None of the mainstream media reported our views. I posted some of our ideas on social networking sites, but they were quickly deleted without anyone looking at them. 

Because our website never got any fans, no one looked at our posts, and there were no traces of our posts after they were deleted. So I knew that our activities were out of touch with society. The fact that I had no voice was not only because this society didn’t care about us, but also because we were unsuccessful in developing this voice. This contributed significantly to my disappointment with the women’s rights activism that so many elite women had spent so much of their time, so many years, on it. I realized that we needed to adopt a new strategy for organizing civic movements.

In 2009, I founded an online publication called Feminist Voice, which was issued weekly. I was this blog’s sole editor and writer.

Before I started doing this, no one knew what would come of it. Some people thought that I might do some news extracts, digests. Not extracts, digests. When people read it, they were surprised. People said that they had never seen anyone write articles in this way. I linked feminism to social critique in a way that was unprecedented. And there was also a strong element of mobilization in my articles that encouraged people to seek a path of social change and take spontaneous action outside the government system.

Of course, I had another purpose. I wanted people to see how feminism is a way of thinking and see how profoundly feminism could help people understand social issues more deeply. Many women wrote to me. Every week, there were women telling me how important my writing was to them and how it opened up a completely new world, and that they believed what I was writing was true.

That was the age before social media. Many things in the newsletter have disappeared from the internet today. Many of the things I wrote have disappeared from the internet. But, starting from that time, I realized that I myself could create excellent work on my own. Though the people at my original newspaper felt that I would be unsuccessful, I can say that the media I created by myself was more influential than theirs, despite their enterprise having hundreds of employees.

In this process, my readership gradually shifted from veteran activist women to more and more young people, many of whom were college students. I found them to be very enthusiastic. They had been looking for feminism, yet had never been in contact with women’s organizations, and did not know of their existence. This was their first contact with women’s activities with so much information. Later I saw that some young people on the internet started to organize around some small issues. For example, they discussed some gender issues they were concerned about in Douban groups. I realized that young people actually have great potential. Moreover, they are women outside the system, outside the systems of family and profession; their thoughts and their bodies, their hearts, are freer, I think they are the future of this movement. 

I predicted that the Chinese women’s movement would have a different future, and a new community was emerging. But I didn’t know what the community was like at the time, and I didn’t know how to organize it. But I realized that you can’t organize a movement by means of a media, that communication itself cannot rally a movement. There is always a misunderstanding of intellectuals who think that social movements are created by a call to action that thousands of people will follow and support. But things don’t work that way, it’s an elitist fantasy. The movement needs to be organized, and organizing is hard work. 

The One-yuan Commune — A New Community and a New Way to Organize

At the end of 2011, a friend and I created a civil activity center in Beijing. This center was maintained completely by donations from friends and volunteers. It was a two-bedroom apartment with a low rent within the second ring road of Beijing, near the subway. It had a 30 square meter living room, which was where we held events. The center was open seven days a week, with at least three or five events per week. There were a variety of themes, including movie screening, seminars, lectures, book club discussions, and even English classes, but the content of English classes were also related to civil rights.

These activities attracted young women, allowing them to constantly discuss and think about issues related to the development of civil society. But these activities had a feminist background; we didn’t have a feminist label because we didn’t want to scare people away. We talked about civil society and social development, but everyone would find that all topics related to feminism. And we also encouraged people to talk to each other and get to know each other. Many young people came to this place. They were students, volunteers, and some young NGO employees. They all had higher education, and they were nonetheless very eager to learn and very eager for companionship.

So we provided this opportunity to get everyone together and to raise awareness. In this space, we also created a drama group that collectively created and performed their own plays. The play was very successful, the theme was related to women’s sexual rights and opposing sexual violence. These continuous activities of various groups helped form a real community in Beijing. One of the participants said that it was the most open NGO she had ever seen. Anyone could join and everyone was welcome. We would sit in a large group of people and chat together; some people may be highly involved; others only listened without talking. But if someone came every time, you know that just listening was very important to her, there was something she was looking for here. This was our base in Beijing.

The name of this activity center was the One-yuan Commune. “One yuan” meant that every person who came was obligated to donate at least one yuan each time they came to the center. The “commune” meant that it was a shared and co-constructed public space.

At the beginning of 2012, a group of people from the One-yuan Commune staged their first collective event. Several women went together to protest a conference held by a film director. They believed that the documentary screened at this director’s film screening violated the privacy of a sex worker. A group of people, in the coldest of Beijing winters, went to the director’s large-scale press conference to stir up a scene, passed out flyers to the audience, and debated with the film director. One of them also used her mobile phone to capture the whole process and shared it online.

This was the first public event we did. You found that when people first tried this kind of activity, they were inexperienced, nervous and afraid. This is normal because Chinese in general have had little experience with public activism. Everyone wore a mask and didn’t dare to show their faces, so they called themselves the “mask squad.”

Very interestingly, I almost forgot that, in 1989, we were not afraid when we took to the streets, probably because there were thousands of people together at that time. But this time I realized that going to the streets and going to the public space was an action that required courage and support and was a process of mutual support. So looking at this debut protest, everyone still wore a mask, but later, of course, they got rid of their masks. And at the time I also created an email group to discuss this activity in detail. In retrospect, it was a time when everyone was already coming up with ideas for more actions.

Blood-stained Wedding Gowns – Chinese Young Feminists Took to the Streets for the First Time

Very soon it was Valentine’s Day, 2012. Valentine’s Day is an important date in the global feminist movement. American feminist activist Eve Ensler was the one who had called on feminists to pay attention to violence in intimate relationships on this day and amplify the feminist point of view through protests. So we thought we were also going to have our own V-Day event. V is for Valentine’s; for feminists, V is also for victory over violence. But what to do? A few months before, I had seen news photos from Turkey, I didn’t understand the language but knew it had to do with anti-domestic violence. I didn’t understand what the placards said, but women in Turkey were marching in the streets, a few of them wearing blood-stained wedding gowns. So I thought, we were going to copy this idea, we were going to do the same activity. I bought a few cheap wedding gowns from Taobao [China’s popular e-commerce platform], two or three hundred yuan, plus crinoline and veils. I bought them in long sleeves. It’s very cold in February in Beijing, and it was harsh to be wearing flimsy wedding gowns. Then we had to find the brides. We looked for them among participants at the One-yuan Commune.   

One of them is Maizi. When Li Maizi [Li Tingting is her legal name] was a college student, she had already been interested in gay rights activities and also anti-discrimination activities. She’d read my Feminist Voice digital newsletter and joined our readers’ QQ group. 

Another was a young woman who’d been with us at the One-yuan Commune. She was Xiao Meili. 

Even though Xiao Meili had experience in protests and other civic activities in her study stint in Taiwan, it was only at the One-yuan Commune where, she said later, she’d found a sense of identity and a group of like-minded friends.   

The third person was a neighbor of the One-yuan Commune. She’s an employee at an LGBT organization that had an office in the same building. She too had been a volunteer for women’s rights activities in college. She’s Wei Tingting, or Waiting. Waiting had very broad interests. She hadn’t taken part in our planning but she said she wanted to be a bride.  

You have to understand that it wasn’t easy to recruit brides. Many people were afraid to go public. But in the end, we found three “brides.” That morning – it was a weekend – they came to the One-yuan Commune, they put on the wedding gowns, did their makeup, and I had made a few placards with anti-domestic violence slogans. Then they went to Qianmen. The whole event was very brief. There were reasons why we chose Qianmen. It is just to the south of Tiananmen Square, next to China’s political center. It’s also a symbol of Beijing culture. It had been developed into a new shopping district. It’s symbolic politically, culturally and economically. It was the best space where we could take the feminist voice, through these young women’s bodies, and place it right at the center of the mainstream arena. When they did this, if you watched photos of the scene, many people stopped and watched. They had never seen anything like that before. It was essentially a protest, though we didn’t use that label. But it was a public protest, a protest by women. 

The security guards didn’t know what to do. Then the police came and started driving them away. The protest was over as they were being forced away. The police sent them all the way to the subway entrance. There is a video record of it. We have since used these short clips for numerous trainings. 

I think it marked the first time the Chinese young feminists made a public appearance, and it was a very important first step. 

All of these young women have one thing in common: they are nonconformists; they do not want to be government employees, they don’t want iron rice bowls [secure employment in a state firm]. They want a different life. I mean, from their personal lives, to social ideals, they are not mainstream. This is a very important point. Their minds are free, and so are their bodies. Therefore, they are unchained, brave, and ready to act. They do not want to wait. They are disgusted by sex discrimination. They do not think they can count on the state. They do not think they need the government’s favor to solve problems. They want to do something for society on their own. So their passion, their enthusiasm, together with their personal experience, helped shape them into feminists who have the potential to change society. 

Social movements require two kinds of people: the organizers and the followers. The organizers have a prior strategy and will do so much work to organize that others don’t see, including providing resources for the movement, both tangible and intangible. A movement also needs followers who are mobilized and inspired to join. What drives the followers is that the ideas of the movement meet their inner longing. And more, followers are easily encouraged by the achievements of the movement. Victory is a magnet that pulls people in. 

At the end of 2011, just when I realized that a new feminist movement was on the rise, I saw, I knew someone was trying to organize it. So as far as organizing the Chinese young feminists goes, I was a latecomer, but I had the acute sense that they would succeed. 

I was not a resource provider for these young women’s networks. I have never had money. But I can provide them with feminist theories and interpretations. Also in Beijing, we had a very loyal volunteer community, and those were the assets I had for joining this movement. I realized that it was a movement that would succeed, so I had to join it. But advocates of other women’s organizations wouldn’t join. Why? Because the women’s organizations at that time — when an organization is established, as time goes on it will become more and more regimented, and develop its own goals, its own projects, its own routines and procedures. It evolves to be less open and less flexible. This was the drawback for these organizations. By comparison, “Feminist Voice,” which I directed at the time, was probably the only organization that was more open and less regimented. 

Occupy Men’s Room – More Space and Less Wait for Women

“Feminist Voice” was from the outset not a member of the Chinese young feminist movement, but a supporter in the background. At the same time, Feminist Voice had attracted many potential readers online who became participants of the movement offline. So it was an online-offline cycle. Continued dissemination and education online incubated some potential activists, and these potential activists would come to the One-yuan Commune where they got to know each other and plan their actions. These action plans would then be disseminated online, attracting more people to join. 

The movement needed a victory, a quick victory, and that was the “Occupy Men’s Room.” “Occupy Men’s Room” was a well-planned event aimed at creating a quick victory for the movement in order to attract participants and supporters. It was designed, from the very beginning, to become a media sensation. It was carefully thought out to meet the needs of media and news dissemination. For example, it used the label “college women,” because it was a group that the media and the public were interested in.  

Take the word “occupy” as another example. It is controversial; something that the media would take an interest in. It turned out just as we had anticipated. “Occupy Men’s Room” was first launched in Guangzhou. Guangzhou was the first stop because in Guangzhou, many media outlets of the Nanfang Publishing Group were very friendly towards civic actions. So the first go of the Occupy Men’s Room protest was a big success and attracted a lot of media reports, which created a favorable condition for its launch in Beijing.   

I remember on that day, many friends of our One-yuan Commune went. Everyone wanted to participate in it and witness it. But unfortunately the event, and its location, were leaked. When we got to the first location the police were already there. We couldn’t occupy. So we changed to an alternative location. As a result, the event was over by the time some participants arrived. 

I wasn’t there — I wasn’t in either of these two important women’s rights events. We had a rehearsal the day before the Occupy Men’s Room, but I had an accident on my way to the rehearsal. I was hit by a motorcycle going the wrong way, and lost three front teeth. So I couldn’t go. 

“Occupy Men’s Room” was a huge success in Beijing. Sina Weibo, thriving at the time, made “Occupy Men’s Room” its top 10 keyword search. But shortly afterwards, “Occupy Men’s Room” was taken off the keyword search, and subsequently censored. 

When we had first planned the event, Li Maizi and I were sitting at a table at a mountain getaway outside Beijing, deserted in the winter. In summers it’s bustling, but it was winter and deserted. Maizi and I, and a few others, we were dining. The Occupy event needed an initiator. I said, Maizi, how about you being the initiator? She said I’d be the initiator. I said, Maizi, you are about to become famous. Later Maizi said that she didn’t sleep that night. Maizi must have realized that her life was entering a new stage, and she was going to become a public figure. It could mean achievement, but also pressure. But Maizi was courageous and she was willing to bear it all. What was the price? As soon as the event was over, Maizi was taken away by the police. In the following months she was harassed by the police. But few knew about the harassment. The event was a success because it attracted a lot of media attention, and also became a case that helped to recruit more participants. 

So the movement had a high starting point. From the beginning, in terms of the media and the public, it had a high profile. It aimed to empower these nameless young women by raising awareness. It placed women’s rights into the mainstream agenda, which previously refused to see and discuss it. By creating controversies, it became the focus of people’s attention and discussion, thereby changing the public’s understanding. Furthermore, it aimed to mobilize the public, build up pressure, and push the government to make concessions.

This is a work method of civil society for ordinary people — as long as you have passion and courage, you can take part. You do not need to be an expert; you do not have to be a student or a thinker. Moreover, it accelerated change faster than before. 

If you want to push for long-term, systemic change, you probably have to write a lot of articles, and they might go nowhere. But if you create a controversial incident, you will see that society changes faster than you think, that you gain more knowledge from it than you imagine, because before, those who were your potential supporters didn’t have the chance to see you, and didn’t have the opportunity to gather around you. So our entire strategy has been pragmatic, but also radical and effective.  

Of course, it was a time when pan-liberal ideas saw their best, but also their last, period in social media and commercial media in China. Those large commercial media outlets, though controlled and managed by the government, explored potential tension, even though they were not dissident per se. Many who managed these media outlets were dissatisfied with the system. They of course wouldn’t be the ones to initiate such actions, but they would use their platform to constantly build up pressure and drive for reform. They played an elite role that acted as a bridge between the government and the people, which, on the one hand, enlightened the population, and pushed the government to reform and transition on the other.   

During this process, these media outlets were very enthusiastic about civic activities that challenged the existing order. In fact they looked out for, discovered, and augmented all sorts of civic activities within the confines of news censorship. At first glance, these young people, these young feminist activists, were grabbing media attention through bold and unorthodox physical performances. But that was only the surface. The real reason why they had quickly become media stars and civil society figures is because their determined position was in tandem with the agenda of liberal-minded media outlets, and it was also welcomed by the market strategy of these outlets at the time.  

Related:

Feminism and Social Change in China: an Interview with Lü Pin (Part One of Three), August 26, 2019.

Leave a Reply