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

October 1, 2019

Summary

In the final part of her interview, Lü Pin discusses the Feminist Five case, how the #MeToo movement caught on in China at a time when the feminist movement seemed to be fading, and the eventual shutdown of Feminist Voice. According to Lü Pin, while the feminist movement is facing an uncertain future, the repressive regime is far from claiming victory. 

Full Transcript

In March 2015, I arrived in New York as scheduled to attend the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. It was the third time I went to New York, and the second time that I attended the annual meeting of the CSW.  I attended this conference as an independent journalist and as a member of the NGO contingent. This was also perhaps a way to combine the Chinese women’s movement with the international women’s movement.

Before I left for New York, because International Women’s Day (March 8) was imminent, my young friends in China were planning various activities. I knew they were planning two activities. One was a fairly large-scale campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation involving 10 cities. The other involved our small volunteer team in Beijing who were organizing in advocacy event involving running in the Olympic Forest Park.

They gathered participants for both of these activities from our circle and they recruited publicly on the Internet. They also formed WeChat groups for these activities. But I didn’t participate in their WeChat groups because I was about to travel overseas. I remember there were so many things to do in the two weeks before my trip. I remember I had a hurried conversation with Wang Man (王曼) in my office. Wang Man sat across from the sofa, which was covered with a piece of flowery fabric. Our talk lasted half an hour. What did we talk about? Wang Man told me that she was preparing to return to feminist activism.

Wang Man had founded an organization, and was in charge of it. Her organization was involved in advocacy and training, not direct actions. She participated in the direct actions organized by the feminist activists, mostly in her own personal capacity. She told me that she was preparing to get involved again, and that she planned on joining the run at the Olympic Forest Park.  I thought this was great. I perhaps gave Wang Man some last encouragement. This was the final scene in my memory of the office I personally established in Beijing. On March 5th, I went together with some other colleagues and friends to New York to attend the U.N. conference.  I remember that I brought very little with me. I could count every single thing I brought, three pairs of socks and two pairs of trousers, as well as a pair of slippers.

The Feminist Five

On the second day that we arrived in New York; actually, the day we arrived in New York, from March 6 to March 7 Beijing time, the police detained our volunteers and core activists in different cities, one after the other. Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘) was the last one to be detained, on the afternoon of March 6, Beijing time. Later, more than a dozen volunteers were released in turn, and only five young people who worked full-time in NGOs were criminally detained. This was later known as the “The Feminist Five” case.

The direct reason for the detention of the five was because they attempted to plan a coordinated advocacy action to protest sexual harassment on public transport in 10 cities. All of us, and our community were extremely shocked by the detentions.  But I had more concerns than others. I thought I would inevitably be implicated in this. Other people were also afraid.  Everybody had fears, and was concerned about whether there would be more detentions. So in China, many of our friends and colleagues fled. But I felt that I was in a unique position; I had the profound feeling of being the “black hand” behind the scenes who caused this calamity. I felt as if I had fallen into an ice cave, or a black well, and could not escape. Although I was in New York far away from the scene, I actually felt like there was no escape from this disaster.

But we had to take steps to make sure that everyone knew about what had happened, and to work hard to secure the release of our partners. March 8, International Women’s Day, was imminent. On March 8, women activists from all over the world attending the CSW in New York would participate in a big demonstration.  So we hoped to find some people willing to support us in the women’s parade, and to convey their support in a relatively concrete way. We wanted to take photos of them. Before that, on March 7, U.S. East Coast time, the New York Times reported the detention of the feminist activists. The first story in the New York Times was very important to us because it was the only, or at any rate, the most reliable source of information at the time.

So we printed out the The New York Times article and took it to the women’s parade. We talked to everyone and said: Look, our friends have been detained, this is a report in The New York Times. Would you be willing to take a photo for me in a show of support?  Many people were very generous, and said without hesitation, “I am willing to take this photo.” Actually, people were shocked that this happened right before the March 8th International Women’s Day. This showed exactly what kind of attitude the Chinese government had towards women’s rights and gender equality. But International Women’s Day also created an opportunity for rescuing our friends. With this U.N. platform, women activists around the world were able to learn about this incident, and it also gave them an opportunity to show support for the detained feminist activists in China.

I barely remember what happened at the Status of Women’s conference, because I basically didn’t participate in the conference as planned. I devoted all my energy to the rescue effort. Every day, we were thinking about who we could find to help us. At this time, we didn’t really have many international connections. But I thought of Eve Ensler.

Eve Ensler is a famous feminist activist and playwright, who, from very early on in fact, cared about and supported the Chinese young feminist movement. In Beijing, our volunteer group Bcome was inspired by Eve Ensler and created their own original drama called ‘Vagina Knows.”  

Eve Ensler was very happy to know that the V-Day movement, which centered on her original drama Vagina Monologues, had developed and expanded within China through Bcome and other young feminist groups. So in 2014, through an organization in Taiwan, she invited representatives from Feminist Voices and Bcome to Taiwan to participate in an Asia-Pacific V-Day event.  Although Eve Ensler had been in contact with us for a long time, I didn’t know her personally, and I didn’t have her contact information. I didn’t know how to go about finding her in New York.

But at the U.N. meeting, I met, by chance, the director of the Taiwanese organization that had contact with Eve Ensler. The organization’s name is The Garden of Hope Foundation–very influential in Taiwan. I know the leaders of the organization, and, when they saw me, they expressed great concern about our case.

Then they told me that, while they were in New York, they planned to meet Eve Ensler and her colleagues. Eve Ensler was not in New York at the time; she was in the Congo. But the director of The Garden of Hope Foundation said that she could help me contact Eve Ensler’s team. I remember that she invited me to a coffee shop, where we talked together for quite a while. What was her purpose in chatting with me? She wanted to determine whether I was the right person to speak about this matter, and to ascertain my exact relationship with the Feminist Five.

After we talked for a while in the coffee shop, we went to another place and met Eve Ensler’s team there. They said they would tell Eve Ensler about it, and that they could help us. Later, Eve Ensler issued a very strong statement calling for the release of the Feminist Five. Eve Ensler’s V-Day Movement is the world’s largest women’s movement, so her support had a big impact.

Eve Ensler: Hello, Chinese government. My name is Eve Ensler, I am the founder of One Billion Rising, and a playwright. I’m here today to say to you with all my heart to recognize the Chinese Five, these extraordinary women who stood up, not to antagonize the government but to liberate women so that all people in China can be free and equal. Please let go their sentence, let go their charges, set them free, and erase their bail. Not only that, celebrate them, appreciate them, recognize them, so all women in China can be free. There are many women around the world who love the Chinese Five, support the Chinese Five, and stand with the Chinese Five. We will stand with them until all the women in China can be free. They are not a threat to you; they are not here to hurt you. They are here to make the world better for everyone.

After I received Eve Ensler’s statement, we translated it into Chinese and posted it on China’s Weibo and WeChat, and spread it on social media. This is just one example among many. During that time in New York, we sent more than 200 emails a day to everyone we could think of. Anyone we thought might be able to help or might be concerned about this incident, we wrote to them. It was also through the “Feminist Five” incident that, for the first time, the feminist movement in China garnered worldwide attention.

CBS announcer: The U. S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power is urging China to release a group of women rights activists known as the Beijing Five. They are behind the bars for voicing views that the Chinese authorities do not like. Seth Doane is in Beijing.

Seth Doane: These women were singing in Beijing subway to raise awareness against abuse and discrimination. Here dressed up as blood stained brides to encourage women to stand up against domestic violence, or making styrolon toilets to push authorities for more public female restrooms. But five of these women were detained recently for what the authorities called “picking quarrels.” No formal charges have been filed. Activists tell us that these detentions are indicatives of the shrinking space for dissent in China. Journalists, lawyers, now the women’s rights activists are locked up. Two years into Xi Jinping’s presidency, detentions have nearly quadrupled.   

From March to April 2015, the days seemed very long and chaotic. In addition to support, I also discussed our movement with many friends, even though it was an extraordinary occasion, one of those situations when we couldn’t see things clearly.  I remember at that time I said that society is constantly moving forward, but some of the vanguard had made sacrifices or had been forgotten. I said we absolutely cannot let this happen; we have to let people know the price our detained friends have paid. Personally, I feel that I am responsible for the Feminist Five, for the young people affected by this case. On the other hand, they are very independent and mature; I don’t think I am able to tell them what to do. The responsibility I am referring to is this –– it was purely by chance that I came to New York for a meeting and thus couldn’t have shared the risk with them.

I remember in particular my last conversation with Wang Man. That conversation made me feel that I was responsible for Wang Man’s detention. I think that, at that time, Wang Man really valued me as a mentor. During the Spring Festival in 2013 or 2014, she gave me a New Year’s card with eight characters: feminism, for a lifetime.

The Feminist Five case is very interesting. For example, the entire rescue process has never been fully disclosed.  This truly is an unprecedented exception. How did it happen? It is worth studying. Some people attributed it to the innocent image of the feminist youth. Others attributed it to the timing of the case, and still others attributed it to the international attention. I think the reason is multifaceted, and its success cannot be replicated.

 Stranded in New York

I had planned to stay in New York for only two weeks, so amid all this, a question had been shunned, and that was where I would go. I seemed to be avoiding this issue. It was Lu Jun (陆军) who finally brought it up. Lu Jun was the head of the Yirenping Center. At the time, he was a visiting scholar in New York, and two of the Feminist Five worked at Yirenping.   

He said, “For the time being, it’s better not to go back to China.” Lu Jun put it bluntly. It was something I didn’t want to talk about, a decision I was evading. Later, my colleague who came to the meeting with me, someone with whom I had worked for 20 years, Feng Yuan, said, “We are both staying for the time being.” So it was a shared decision made by our group; my not going back to China was a joint decision. 

I decided not to return to China for two reasons. One was that I didn’t want to see the case being further expanded; the second was for my own personal safety. I remember that one day I attended some sort of activity at New York University around lunchtime, when it was midnight in Beijing. In early April [2015], I learned that, at that time, the police had broken into my home in the Beijing Asian Games Village. In fact, the police definitely knew that I was still in New York. By breaking into my home, they were actually sending me a warning message. Perhaps this incident turned my decision to stay in New York into something that could not be altered.

When the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meeting concluded in New York, my friends left one after the other, and I realized I was left alone. That’s how I felt. I was alone in a place where I never intended to stay. No one in this place knew who I was. No one. I remember the three pairs of socks I brought soon had big holes, maybe they were too old. No socks, and the weather was very cold, it was still snowing in March. I didn’t even know where to go to buy socks, nor did I seem to have money. I think it was April 6, but I may be confusing the U.S. time with Chinese time. At any rate, later that night, Feng Yuan (冯媛) went to the Haidian Detention Center to receive the Feminist Five. On that day, the procuratorate refused to approve the arrest of the five, and they were released after spending 37 days in detention. Not long after they were released, I received a voice message on Telegram from Zheng Churan (郑楚然), one of the five. In hoarse Cantonese-accented Mandarin, she said, “You must not come back.”

For a long time, I was reluctant to talk about this; I didn’t want to tell my young friends that I was staying in the U.S.  As for myself, I always regarded it as a temporary state. But for their sake, I was very evasive, not wanting them to know for sure. The Feminist Five were released, but its impact was far-reaching, far beyond those 37 days. It wasn’t just that everyone needed to recover from the trauma, but also because the police continued to constantly harass and intimidate them after they were released. The future of the entire movement was gloomy.

During such a downturn, I felt that my staying in the U.S. gave my young friends an extra layer of trauma, especially for my colleagues in the office of Feminist Voice in Beijing. Because I recruited and trained every single one of them, I felt that each of them was my student, and I believed they thought the same. I was their professional advisor or mentor. But now, I wouldn’t be returning to our office, leaving them alone to face this challenging transition period after the Feminist Five case. It was particularly difficult for them.  

As for myself, I felt abandoned by the world. New York may be the center of the American capitalist world; but, for me, it was the end of the world –– the most desolate end of the world. 

At that time, I had a strong feeling that no one here knew who I was. It’s a feeling that I had never thought about before.  In China, the vast majority of people likewise didn’t know who I was; but in my own circle, I thought that I was very important. In New York, really no one knew who I was. And I was even more marginalized than everyone else.  I didn’t have my own language; I didn’t have my own work, and I didn’t have an identity that was recognizable in this society. I felt like I was a grain of sand at the end of the world that could be blown away at any time.

But I had a young friend in New York who gave me the most important help. I met this friend by accident in the summer of 2013. I was involved in establishing a Chinese feminist school in Beijing. A woman who was studying for a Ph.D. in social work at Columbia University decided to participate in our course in the summer, and we met there. When in April 2015 I decided to stay in New York, I knew I had to find some help. So I asked this friend for a meeting. So she came to see me, and I told her that I wasn’t going back to China for the time being, and that I needed her help. She told me right away that she’d do whatever she could for me.

She let me share her apartment with her, and gave me a lot of everyday things I needed urgently. She also let me use her bankcard and helped me make phone calls to others, etc. For a long period of time, I couldn’t make calls because I couldn’t understand what the person on the other end was saying. If I wrote an email to someone, my friend would write it for me in English, and then I would send it out. I thank feminism for having such a friend and making it possible for me to survive in New York. But overall, I felt terrible living in New York. It seemed like a prison to me. It was not until later that I realized that I had imposed this prison on myself. For one and a half years in New York, I hadn’t allowed myself to have any fun. Maybe this was because the Feminist Five were still subject to bail conditions, and still suffered ongoing repression. I felt that I must impose similar restrictions on myself so that I could share their sorrows with them.

After that, I felt that I had a new responsibility for the movement. This new responsibility was that I wanted to do as much as possible to let the outside world know what the Chinese young feminist movement had created, and what troubles they had encountered. We must protect and proclaim the assets created by the young feminist movement. On the other hand, I wanted to dedicate myself to be their companion, even though I’m a far-off companion in the U.S., as long as they need me, I’d be there for them, every day and always. From then until now, our mutual companionship has lasted for four years, with almost not a single day’s interruption. We have sent tens of thousands of messages to each other. Thanks to this secret Internet, we can overcome the distance and the time difference. I’ve also done my best to help share their hardship, especially their anxiety and fear that came from harassment. At the same time, I also had to discuss with them how we could move forward together.

A lot of times, I sank into memories, imagining returning to our office and my small apartment at the Asian Games Village. One time, I used Google Maps to see the street scenes, they were so familiar that they brought me new and unbearable pain. I also lost my cat. My cat is very important to me, because we have lived together for 9 or 10 years since she was a kitten, and kept each other’s company. When I traveled for business, I’d keep it short because I knew she was waiting for me at home. I feel such separation has to be very cruel to the cat: the cat doesn’t know where you’ve gone, or when you’ll be back. Nor can you explain it to her. She must have felt that she’d been abandoned. So the question is: how do you replant yourself when you lose everything you have had? I kept a secret diary in those days. What did I write in it? Objects that suddenly occurred to me that I wanted to use. For example, I’d suddenly remember a piece of clothes that I wanted to wear but I didn’t have it in New York. I’d write it down, and so on. You have to admit that you need a process to get over the trauma; and, many times, I wouldn’t really wish for this trauma to be over because, if I stopped remembering things, that would mean that I had lost contact with China, with my life there, and I’d have lost my life’s memories. 

Following the Feminist Five case, core groups and activists with their orientation toward feminist actions were met with continuous crackdowns and censorship. A long and difficult period was upon them. Indeed for a while, we didn’t know where the movement would go, but gradually we realized that the feminist movement hadn’t been annihilated, nor could it be. I mean, more people have understood and identified with the feminist concepts and the need to take action: here lies the reason why this movement does not only exist but continues to grow.

The government’s strategy was to eradicate the core groups and the key activists, forcing us to stay low-key and cautious. However, young women outside the center began to stand up and make their voices heard, and this development has made the movement bigger and harder to stamp out. I mean, the Chinese young feminist activists who were active from 2012 to 2015 were a relatively small circle; but starting in January 2018, when the MeToo movement caught on among Chinese young women, the scope was very broad. The government can make us lay low and drive us underground, but it can’t take feminism and activism out of the lives of these young women.    

Young women are furious about gender discrimination and gender violence, hoping that they’ll do something to solve these social problems that the state ignores. In 2012, I thought our movement had risen; by 2015, I thought our movement was finished. But in 2018, I realized that our movement had in fact just begun, and that it was becoming the faith of tens of thousands of people who had been mobilized to take part and the feminist voices couldn’t be ignored by society anymore. How did it happen? It happened in the midst of censorship, harassment, and intimidation. I’m so proud of the young women who have risen up during the MeToo movement.  

For us, from 2015 to 2018 to 2019, the question we have to ask each year is this: How do we maintain and grow our movement? How do we find new opportunities to expand? How do we connect with other forces of resistance? What we have to realize is that we are no longer the leaders and propellers of the movement. This shouldn’t matter; the key is that the movement is still out there, and we can still contribute to it. Why? Because we have experiences, and we are also battle-trained against crackdowns and smears. 

So I said to my friends: today we are not aiming to be the leaders of the movement; instead we join forces with it. People may not be aware of our existence when the movement is high, but when it ebbs, you will find that we are the ones who keep it going. At the beginning stage of the MeToo movement in 2018, the young feminist activists were very active. Zhang Leilei (张累累) launched the campaign to have 10,000 people writing to their alma mater asking for the establishment of an anti-sexual harassment mechanism. When Zhang Leilei proposed the goal of 10,000 people, I thought it was an impossible target given that the crackdown was so severe.

In the end, more than 9,000 took part in Zhang Leilei’s campaign: within two weeks or so, 9,000 people from all over the place signed her petition. It was a huge success. This example tells us how young women are united against sexual harassment. Also starting from the MeToo movement, China’s feminist movement has moved towards a state of no organization and no center. This is a result of government suppression, because when the movement has no core leaders, it deflects the risk of a crackdown.  

I think the MeToo movement is still ongoing, and people are waiting for the next MeToo cases. Just last month, there was a new MeToo hashtag called #IAmNotAPerfectVictim. It was designed by some of my young friends. It got 17 million views on Weibo, and more than 20,000 people participated in direct discussions. You can see how strong the young feminist movement is. Today many social movements have been silenced, Chinese civil society is weaker today than it was in 2015. But despite all, MeToo emerged, telling the Chinese government, as well as the whole world, that resistance will not disappear, that no one will be 100% subservient, and that people are forever searching for opportunities to rebel. Even though the space for activism has been closing up, people are still looking for opportunities. The space opened up by feminist activists is very important for society at large, for the country, even for the world. It means that our society hasn’t died, our country hasn’t died, and totalitarianism has not been able to announce victory. Seen as such, I think the value of China’s young feminist movement lies not in solving one or two women’s problems; and its value to our society and to our world needs to be reassessed.

 ‘Feminist Voice’ Was Shut Down

I founded ‘Feminist Voice’ in September 2009, in a tiny office in Beijing’s Asia Games Village. At the time, I was the only part-time editor of it. In the first two years, I wrote about 700,000 words, though much of it has since disappeared from the internet. I founded it to promote the women’s movement in China, but my only tool at the time was writing. Many people who read me said they had never thought someone was writing such articles. I mean they had never thought that China’s social reality could be so sharply interpreted through a feminist point of view. Through Feminist Voice, I came into contact with the young generation which embraced feminism, and together, we created a new stage of the [women’s rights] movement.

Feminist Voice has been a flag. It was the first public platform on Chinese social media with a feminist name. Before it was shut down, it had been the most prominent feminist platform on the Chinese internet. Between 2012 and 2015, it had collaborated with many young feminist activists in their actions. After 2015, because of the Feminist Five case, Feminist Voice was under constant police harassment and thus entered a stage of conservation. During this stage, its import to the movement declined, but because of its past influence, Feminist Voice incurred more attacks than what its impact warranted.    

The attack on Feminist Voice was engineered as an all-out effort. Police harassed us directly, and threatened volunteers and partners. On the internet, a large number of posts came out making our names public, smearing, and attacking us. I believe most of these posts were an organized attack. My understanding is that the authorities had learned a lesson from their handling of the Feminist Five case. That is, they focused on the case itself and ignored public opinion that rose against them. But three years later, when they orchestrated attacks against Feminist Voice, they combined direct crackdown and a smear campaign, rendering us helpless. At the beginning of 2018, Feminist Voice was singled out as the behind-the-scenes ‘black hand’ of the early stage of the MeToo movement. I can’t deny, nor can I admit, this is a fact. While I think Feminist Voice did what we should be doing, it could not possibly have created the movement itself. But the government has its set ways; they are always looking for a ‘black hand,’ so Feminist Voice is it.

Around midnight on March 8, International Women’s Day, in 2018, Feminist Voice’s WeChat and Weibo accounts were wiped out from the internet. The real reason is not because Feminist Voice posted a few articles, but because of its profound link with the feminist movement. As a matter of fact, we had known all along that these accounts would be obliterated one day, because so many other voices had been silenced, and we could not be an exception. But when it really happened, the blow was almost unbearable. My friends once again experienced a very traumatic period, as though part of your life perished. Irreversibly, you’ve lost a voice, and you can never speak again.

The Future of Feminism in China

Xi Jinping addressing the Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, September 27, 2015: “Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Executive Director Mlambo-Ngcuka, dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and the 20th anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, it is quite significant for us to convene the global leaders meeting to reaffirm our commitment to gender equality and women’s development, and make plans for a better future. Twenty years ago the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing adopted the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action. Laying down strategic goals and policy frameworks for promoting gender equality and ensuring women’s rights. Today the spirit championed by the Beijing conference has catalyzed positive changes worldwide.”

But it’s no use to be sad, and we still have to go forward. It’s so hard to do, but you have to. If you dwell on the loss, you will be abandoned by the movement — it’s very cruel. I think if we want to keep contributing to the movement, we have to leave behind our own pain and nostalgia, step out of our safety zone, move ahead with the movement, and find a place in the new movement. Or the movement will no longer need you.

I think the Chinese young feminist movement absolutely has the force to go forward. But it also has to face the double tactics of the government: more repression and more smearing.

Just a few days ago, a Weibo police account issued a virulent article, saying that extreme feminism aims at disrupting social order, bringing chaos to society, and also aid the trade war with the United States. These preposterous accusations are themselves not important; what’s important is the menace.   

At times like this, you can’t stop. You have to keep thinking: what else can we do? I think nobody knows the answer to how the movement can move forward. I used to think that I was someone who knows the direction of the movement, now I don’t know either. But I’m not concerned. I will just have to commit myself to this unknown future, and the uncertainty will not reduce the degree of my commitment. I will have to maintain my faith in the future so that I can keep going. At this juncture, I realize that the connection between people is particularly important. Because what the government does is to isolate us from one another; therefore, we must connect with each other, and moreover, we must create and spread the alternative knowledge of resistance. This is what feminism is good at after all.

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