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Four Years on: The Whereabouts of the ‘Feminist Five’ and the Sustainability of Feminist Activism in China
Lü Pin, March 11, 2019
“As far as human rights activism is concerned, the outside world tends to focus on short-term incidents, such as when activism comes into direct confrontation with the state. But the outside world cannot keep long-term and sustained attention, which leads to many long-term, internal difficulties being left undiscussed.”
On March 6 and 7, 2015, police arrested and criminally detained five young feminist activists because they were planning an action on International Women’s Day to oppose sexual harassment on public transportation. The action never took place. Thirty seven days later, after strong domestic and international appeals, they were released on “bail pending further investigation.” The Feminist Five case was the first public suppression of a women’s rights initiative in the history of China under the Communist Party. It was an important event that marked a turning point in the relationship between the contemporary Chinese feminist movement and the state. It also made many people understand for the first time the responsibility the young Chinese feminist activists had undertaken in an effort to transform China into a country of gender equality. The government’s goal in this case was not only to attack the Feminist Five themselves, but also to target the community of increasingly active young Chinese feminist activists at the time. Due to the case, however, they deservedly became the most famous representatives of young feminist activists in China.
How are the Feminist Five doing now? I have been asked this question many times during the past four years. Our friends, partners, and inner circle supporters know that the Feminist Five have never left the scene and have continued to write about their resistance and struggles. But because of information barriers, and maybe also partially due to their own modesty, many people do not know about their current situation, and maybe even have some misunderstandings. This was my original intention in writing this article; but apart from providing an update, I would also like to further discuss the issue of the survival and development of feminist activists amid the increasing difficulty to stage public activities in China today.
The most common misunderstanding about the Feminist Five is this: “most of them have left China.” In fact, they now all live in Greater China–– Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. Although during the past four years they have frequently moved and traveled, most of them have never really left the Chinese-speaking area. Among the five women, Li Tingting (李婷婷, nicknamed Maizi) is the only one who has lived abroad for a period of time, and she has been the most active voice internationally after the Feminist Five case ended. Maizi has delivered many public speeches in North America and Europe, and is often interviewed by international media. After the NGO where she used to work, Beijing Yirenping, was forced to cease its activities, Maizi turned to LGBT rights and founded the “Rainbow Legal Hotline,” an organization that provides legal assistance to members of the LGBT community. In the second half of 2017, Maizi went to England to study in the Human Rights Master’s Program at the University of Sussex. After completing her studies at the end of 2018, Maizi returned to her hometown, Beijing. In an article posted on February 16 on her WeChat public account, “Li Maizi Who Occupied Men’s Bathrooms,” Maizi wrote:
“The reason why I decided, without hesitation, to return to China is simple: there is no escape. We live in a time when every day we can be disgusted by Trump. What’s so disheartening is that people are getting used to this awful world. Staying angry and awake, I realized that the longer I stayed in England, the more I felt like I needed to return to China.”
“As a feminist activist, a gay rights activist, other than returning to my own country, what better choice is there?”
“When history happens, I must be present. With this conviction, I came back to China. ”
This is Maizi’s understanding of her responsibility: a responsible feminist activist’s first choice is always dedicating herself to the liberation of her own country, and striving to maintain a connection with what’s happening on the ground.
Wei Tingting (韦婷婷, nicknamed WAITING) was the project director of a Beijing LGBT organization at the time of the Feminist Five case. In 2016, she went south to Guangzhou and started her own business as a freelance activist, focusing on anti-sexual harassment. In 2018, Wei Tingting’s organization “Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Centre” (GSEC) was very active in the anti-sexual harassment #MeToo campaign. GSEC used a variety of tactics, such as communication, research, individual case intervention, proposals, training, and a flexible and rapid response mechanism, which made this small, innovative organization assume an important role in organizing #MeToo work. However, on December 6, 2018, the GSEC was compelled to publicly announce that it was forced to cease operations due to “complicated factors such as force majeure.” This was one of the major setbacks in the organization of the #MeToo movement in 2018. However, Wei Tingting did not give up her activities in the anti-sexual harassment arena. Almost immediately, she launched a new activity: she formed a small, psychological help group for victims of sexual violence, which was also her effort to move in the direction of her professional training in psychological counseling.
Zheng Churan (郑楚然, nicknamed Datu or “Big Rabbit”) grew up in Guangzhou, went to college in Guangzhou, and has basically never left the city. After the Feminist Five case in 2015, she was forced to leave “Weizhiming,” an organization she helped to launch that advocated for young women’s rights, and become a freelancer. She tried many different kinds of ventures: starting a company, organizing themed parties, recording “Dong Xiaoxiao” videos (栋笃笑, a Cantonese standup comedy), and organizing debate competitions. In November 2016, the BBC described her as a female entrepreneur and included her on the list of Global “100 Women” for that year. However, Zheng Churan’s most successful attempt was writing. She writes in her public account on Weibo and also on NGO platforms, and has quickly become an influential columnist specializing in feminist commentary. She has a loyal following that likes her spicy and sharp style.
Zheng Churan is also part of a feminist-themed online store featuring original products, and continues to develop her ability in creative planning, training, and team building. Zheng Churan is an active participant in, and organizer of the #MeToo movement in China. She also witnessed the women workers’ anti-sexual harassment statement at Foxconn in Shenzhen in January 2018. The women workers wrote in an open letter: “We know that an unequal gender environment will not be eliminated in one day…. But this is only a beginning. There will never be any change unless there is action.” This is a remarkable achievement in the combination of feminist and labor issues in recent years.
In 2015, Wang Man (王曼) was the coordinator of a Beijing-based NGO that focused on anti-poverty issues. At the same time, she regarded the participation, observation and research of feminist actions as part of her job. After the Feminist Five case, Wang Man’s work and personal life were shattered–– the details of which she’s never disclosed to the wider public. After she was forced to cease her original work, she took some time to rest and recover, and then decided to reengage her interest in academics without leaving behind her public interest work. At present, Wang Man is in Hong Kong balancing research and social service work, and has chosen to keep a low public profile.
Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘) has been involved in volunteer activities ever since she was a university student. In 2011, Wu Rongrong left her well-paying job at Alibaba, and returned to nonprofit world, assuming responsibility for the young feminists project at the NGO, Yirenping Center. In 2014, the project became an independently registered advocacy entity in Hangzhou with the name “Weizhiming.” Unlike her colleagues Li Maizi and Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong was strong at leadership-style network communications, rather than demonstrating in front of the public and media.
In 2015, Wu Rongrong was the only one among the Feminist Five who was married and had a child. Because of her many responsibilities, Wu suffered a greater degree of anxiety and pain in the detention center. After she was released on “bail pending further investigation,” Wu was forced to disband Weizhiming, and she continued to be monitored and harassed by the police. She had to fight hard for her fundamental rights to live peacefully, travel, and obtain further education.
When she had no choice but to temporarily withdraw from feminist work, Wu Rongrong invested in her own studies and developed expertise in public interest-related psychological counseling. In September 2017, after a long struggle, she finally successfully renewed her passport, obtained necessary approvals, and flew to Hong Kong at the last minute to enroll in the University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Law. She was thus able to secure a valuable period of time to adjust and pursue further studies. Fortunately, it’s convenient to travel back and forth between Hong Kong and the mainland, so she and Wang Man have never drifted apart from their feminist colleagues, and the fellowship they shared.
The Sustainability of Feminist Activism
Another misunderstanding about the Feminist Five is that they have obtained a great deal of financial resources due to international attention. This is not the case. During the period of rescue and follow-up relief in 2015, the international human rights community did in fact give them some direct and indirect assistance to compensate them for the loss suffered by the raids and seizure of their property, and to ease the difficulties they experienced after they were released and unable to resume normal work. Furthermore, the international human rights community provided support for their follow up rights defense and recovery.
But this is not to say that the costs associated with forced eviction, loss of work, and the mental distress associated with such targeted persecution can be compensated at a single point in time. When the period of assistance following their case came to a close, the Feminist Five’s studies, livelihood, and career were all up to themselves to fight for. I never heard of them receiving any windfalls. It’s very difficult for them to turn their “fame” into resources. For example, in September 2016, Li Maizi livestreamed her bungee jumping on the Internet to fundraise for the Rainbow Legal Hotline. Once Zheng Churan published an article while she was sick, and was very happy to receive 800 yuan for it, which she then used to see a doctor. As for the interviews with many international media outlets later on, from the perspective of the Feminist Five and their partners, it was a kind of contribution in the public interest; they did not receive any personal benefit from them.
In fact, many human rights activists are in similar situation: attention from the outside world did not lead to much improvement in their personal circumstances. There are a few reasons for this: first, public opinion and funding are two different things, especially after the urgent need stage has passed. Foundations that provide long-term funding for human rights have their own relatively fixed agendas and will not invest based on trending public opinion. Second, after China’s “Overseas NGO Management Law” took effect in 2017, international foundations that are legally registered in China would no longer cooperate with independent rights organizations that lacked proper NGO qualifications. Moreover, it is now illegal to accept funding from foundations that have not established offices in China. Given that public fundraising is basically impossible within China, this essentially cuts off the channels of survival for these organizations and activists. Third, after 2015, Chinese officials intensified their efforts to vilify international public opinion. International fame has not helped the survival of activists in the mainland, but rather, its effect has been negative: it signifies “collaboration with Western hostile forces” and so on.
This is the reason why the Feminist Five either have to temporarily put their activism on the back burner, or think up all sorts of means of supplementing their livelihood. In 2015, all five of them were full-time employees of NGOs; today, none of them can find a paid full-time job in the field of feminist activism. Despite their enthusiasm and ability, the reality of their circumstances has driven them to make practical sacrifices. Five years after graduating from college, Maizi wrote: “I need a job that makes money… … the activism that I once dedicated all my efforts to is only my part-time job now.”
This, of course, is not to blame the international community for falling short in assisting the cause of Chinese feminism, nor does it imply that the Feminist Five depend on others for financial support. Each of them is highly educated, and it’s not difficult for them to join the urban middle class through their individual efforts. But different from ordinary citizens, they want their work to be socially meaningful. Many people in China are not aware that working for rights and justice — something of dire importance for a country like China — is also a job that deserves pay. The advancement of social progress requires expertise and committed professional activists. If the promotion and organization of women’s rights continues on an uncompensated basis, there is no way for more people to join the cause, which is exactly what the reactionaries want. Moreover, as mentioned above, the resources of feminist activism are being cut off from multiple angles, and activism is being increasingly targeted by the Chinese legal system. This has fragmented the organizational core, and rights defenders — such as those stepping out as part of the #MeToo movement — are not getting the service necessary for their work.
Amidst the challenges, the Feminist Five have not scaled back their activism. On the contrary, I think the most remarkable thing in the last four years is that despite not receiving due compensation for the sacrifices they made, they did not complain. Instead, they have been forward-thinking from the very beginning, being creative and exploratory as they seek ways to continue their work. Whether as individual activists, as freelancers, or even entrepreneurs, they have found ways to pair their personal development with their social ideals. As Maizi wrote: “I work hard every day to improve myself, meet challenges, solve problems, and achieve goals. At other times, I try my best to participate in the #MeToo movement and play my role. The work produced by one woman is still work; a single spark can start a prairie fire.” If we sighed with admiration at the creativity and courage they displayed in 2015, then four years later, I see that they have now become even more mature and tenacious as they carry out their duties in a harsh environment.
Their work deserves more understanding from the outside world. As far as human rights activism is concerned, the outside world tends to focus on short-term incidents, such as when activism comes into direct confrontation with the state. But the outside world cannot keep long-term and sustained attention, which leads to many long-term, internal difficulties being left undiscussed. In fact, the crisis was only the beginning of a continuous process of repression. In the past four years, the Chinese government and its agents have learned their lesson from the sloppy handling of the Feminist Five case, and have since been quietly taking gradual steps to cut off the resources of feminist activism. They do this by smearing feminists’ reputations and sequestering them from the broader social network, and so on.
The most typical example in this vein occurred in March 2018. The first feminist public forum on Chinese social media, “Feminist Voices” (女权之声) was completely shut down and this was followed up by a wave of online stigma against feminism. Zheng Churan was also dragged into the maelstrom of malicious accusations, such as that the feminists were advocating “Tibet independence,” “Hong Kong independence,” “organized prostitution,” “collaboration with hostile Western forces,” and the like. While these defamatory labels were heaped on and repeated a million fold, the editorial rebuttal of the “Feminist Voices” could not be posted (due to censorship). There is clearly an extremely biased system at work in this war of words: it seems as soon as “feminism” is flagged as being sensitive, the entirety of China’s social media will mobilize automatically to exclude the term “feminism,” without the need for an explicit order from the propaganda department, and replace it with the vaguer “equality for women.” This not only means a loss of legitimacy for the many years of feminist struggle, but it has also quietly marginalized the feminist movement by painting it as an untouchable subject.
People have to realize that support for progressive social movements cannot idle at the current level of showing “concern,” but that it must manifest in the form of providing actual resources to sustain them. Chinese feminism has a very large community of support, that is, young generations who cannot help but feel anger at violence and discrimination in the family, in education, and in the workplace. Meanwhile, the feminist activists have ample skills and insight to play a hard-core organizational role. Therefore, the problem of resources has become the key to the sustainability of the feminist movement, but to this day few have grasped this principle. If people come to realize that the feminist movement is not just a wing of Chinese social progress, but also linked to whether or not the country can transform to a more democratic and equal structure, and if they realize that the feminist movement is virtually China’s last — but still vastly potent — force of resistance, they will come to understand how important it is to support this movement.
Lü Pin（吕频）is a Chinese feminist activist focusing on strategic advocacy to combat gender-based discrimination and violence. She started her work on women’s rights in the late 1990s. In 2009, she founded Feminist Voices, China’s largest new media platform on women’s issues. Since 2012, she has devoted herself to supporting the activism of young feminists across China. She now resides in Albany, New York, where she continues to follow the feminist movement in China closely.
A Cafe Chat With Li Tingting, Yaxue Cao, July 26, 2016.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.
Xiao Meili, March 27, 2018
January 2018 was a special month for the Chinese feminist movement. On January 1, Luo Xixi (罗茜茜) released an open letter –– using her real name –– in which she accused her former PhD advisor, Chen Xiaowu (陈小武), of sexually harassing female students. It was as if she had lit a spark that ignited a powerful and dynamic wave of anti-sexual harassment on Chinese social media, and its impact far exceeded the expectations of many, including Luo herself. Students from nearly 80 universities sent joint letters to their university presidents, urging their alma maters to establish a sexual harassment prevention mechanism. More than 9,000 people took part. It’s said that this is the largest student movement in China since the June 4th pro-democracy movement. The campaign directly led to the dismissal of Chen Xiaowu, and within half a month the Ministry of Education promised, “we will work with relevant departments to earnestly research the establishment of a sound and long-term mechanism to prevent sexual harassment in universities.” In today’s China, where all kinds of citizen movements have been suppressed, and public space has shrunk, and everyone speaks and acts cautiously, how is it that #MeTooInChina was successful?
As someone who has been deeply involved in the campaign, I would like to explain how this action was operationalized, what kind of people participated, and the activists’ ideas and thinking.
On January 3, a person named Xiao Qiqi (肖七七) contacted me on WeChat, saying that she wanted to apply for on Weibo a hashtag called #打破沉默反对性侵暴力性别歧视# (#breaking silence against sexual violence and gender discrimination), and asked me how to do it. I was puzzled; I didn’t know who she was, or what she wanted to do, or how to do it. After some discussion, she changed the long hashtag to #MeToo在中国#, which subsequently became the name of this anti-sexual harassment campaign.
Xiao Qiqi is a university senior in Vancouver. After seeing Luo Xixi’s open letter, she excitedly said to her WeChat circle of friends: “MeToo has started in China.” She received comments such as: “It’s too difficult.” “This is not possible in China.” “Too sensitive.” And there were many people who didn’t know what #MeToo was. Xiao Qiqi observed on Weibo that the #MeToo hashtag was getting only a small amount of attention, and most of the content was related to pursuing celebrities. Occasionally, some people also commented: Foreign countries are really awesome. It seems that the anti-sexual harassment movement can happen throughout the entire world, but there is no way it can happen in China.
Spurred on by these pessimistic emotions, Xiao Qiqi, who previously was not adept at using social media, began to invest a lot of energy in learning how to manage a Weibo hashtag. She looked for various people –– people she didn’t know well–– seeking their advice and help. On the first day that she decided to take this on, she barely slept, and later simply followed China time to arrange her own life, work, and rest. She searched all the Weibo posts related to MeToo, and “likes” all positive comments, and gave encouragement to all those who left pessimistic comments.
At the same time, a 25-year-old feminist activist Zhang Leilei (张累累)and her friends living in Guangzhou were discussing how to make this issue more popular, and prevent it from being suppressed and then fizzle out like similar events in the past. Inspired by the January 2 letter from graduates of Xi’an International Studies University to their alma mater asking for the establishment of a sexual harassment prevention mechanism, Zhang Leilei decided to contact students from different universities to send joint letters to their alma maters. She reckoned that this was a mild action that would allow more people to participate.
Zhang Leilei previously had launched a crowdfunding campaign for anti-sexual harassment advertisements in the subway, and after working hard on it for a year, the advertisements still were unable to launch. She then called on 100 people to wear the billboards on their bodies as a human-flesh advertisement. This activity garnered an enthusiastic reaction, but it was quickly stopped by the police. The police also repeatedly forced Zhang to move out of Guangzhou.
On January 4, Zhang began to organize people to write to their alma maters. She provided a sample letter on the internet that became a template. The letter included five recommendations:
- Give every staff member of the school training in prevention and control of sexual harassment;
- Give every student a class on anti-sexual harassment;
- Carry out a sexual harassment survey online once every semester to enable students to anonymously respond to questions regarding sexual harassment, depression, anxiety, etc. online.
- Set up a channel for accepting sexual harassment reports and complaints, including a mailbox, an email address, and a telephone line, etc.
- Identify a department and a responsible person that accepts and handles complaints about sexual harassment conduct.
Beginning on January 5, Zhang Leilei chatted with dozens of people every day and added them to a WeChat group. Some participants already had a support networks; others were doing it alone. Getting launched was difficult. A lot of people don’t know how to do it, others just wanted to talk to her about feminism. Over the next few days, she communicated with more than 300 participants. In Zhang Leilei’s words, it was more arduous than being a customer service agent at Taobao.
A day later, the activists delivered a joint letter on sexual harassment prevention to 16 universities. Members of the WeChat group constantly pulled interested friends into the group. Many people found fellow alumnae in the large group, and then formed their own small groups. Everyone was in action. If there were new ideas, members would find people in the WeChat group who wanted to take action together and then separately went do it. After two or three days, the participants were very autonomous; they didn’t even know that someone had initiated and coordinated this campaign.
In the early stage, information was mainly published on WeChat. Since WeChat is a relatively closed circle of friends, each college initiator was like a signal tower, radiating out to where he or she could reach. Subsequently, more open publicity unfolded on Weibo. The members of the WeChat group for sending letters to alma maters decided to use two hashtags. One was “#10,000 people sent anti-sexual harassment letters to their alma maters” and the other was “#MeToo in China.” When the first hashtag was deleted, “#MeToo in China” became the primary one. Around January 10, this hashtag started to be ranked in first place on Weibo’s public interest list, with more than 3 million readers. It stayed in the first place until January 17, when the hashtag was deleted by Weibo.
Gu Huaying (顾华盈)graduated from Peking University, and is a graduate student specializing in gender studies at Cambridge University. She has also been an active participant in the feminist movement. When she saw that the open letter sent to a group of universities on January 6 did not include Peking University, she initiated a joint letter to PKU. She found her classmates, friends, and alumnae and formed a launch group. Based on the letters sent to other schools, the PKU letter integrated the school’s unique characteristics. The letter was published in a PKU student e-media “North Gate” (“北门”). Although the letter was deleted in less than a day, the number of viewers exceeded 10,000. It generated debate on PKU’s other websites and led to more anonymous revelations about sexual harassment.
The students involved in the launch of the PKU letter were prepared for it to be deleted. After the letter was indeed deleted, PKU students immediately began to make other links that were less likely to be deleted; they rendered the content of the text of the letter into images and disseminated the images, and they went on Weibo to look for relatively famous PKU alumnae to help re-post.
Chai Xiaoyang (柴小阳)is a university senior and one of the 9,000 signatories. Speaking of sexual harassment on campus, she could never forget an incident involving a classmate of hers in junior high school molested by a male teacher, who to this day still teaches in the same school. This letter campaign was an opportunity for Xiaoyang to take some action. In addition to participating in the joint letter, she also checked the e-mail addresses of the faculty members on her university’s official website and sent it to over 50 of them. She sent e-mails to the Hubei Provincial Bureau of Education, the Office of Letters and Visits, and the provincial People’s Congress, and other government departments. She also wrote and called the bus company in her hometown, and even went to the bus company in person to try to discuss the issue of sexual harassment. Xiaoyang did not receive a single reply.
She returned to her junior high school and found the teachers and principal. The teachers were all very cautious. They asked her what her goal was and on whose behalf she was acting — or told her to go find someone else to talk to. A teacher said to Xiaoyang: “Don’t follow the examples of college students here in a junior high school. It’s not necessary here.”
Xiaoyang said: The longer she received no replies from anyone, the more she wanted to talk with more people about the problem of sexual harassment. The fact that no one paid attention to her made her more upset than people attacking what she was doing. In a third-tier city like her hometown, people lived comfortably, but the problem was even worse.
Since the launch of the “10,000-Person Letters to Alma Maters to Establish Sexual Harassment Prevention Mechanisms” campaign, officials have been suppressing it. In addition to deleting posts and Weibo hashtags, students who initiated joint letters have been “talked to” by their schools. There were also reports that this campaign was characterized by the government as “being manipulated by forces with ulterior motives” and that the Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs was looking for the “black hand behind the scenes.”
The phrase “black hand behind the scenes” is ridiculous, but Zhang Leilei also understood that she faced great risks as an organizer. Because she previously experienced police harassment, she was somewhat prepared, but also at the same time a bit panicked. Even so, Zhang Leilei thought this was a rare opportunity: even if she was in danger, it was worth it. She really hoped that this action would create change.
Zhang Leilei saw that the participants were not scared; they were more rational and calm than she had imagined. Everyone was clear about why they were doing it, because they wanted to change the situation at the universities. After hearing the allegation of “black hand behind the scenes,” they began to discuss how to deal with the school’s roundabout, phishing-type questioning and how to communicate with the school to make them directly face the problem.
Gu Huaying, the initiator of the PKU joint letter, said that the deletion of posts enabled more people to see just how far the censorship system would go. For example, there was one member who was careful and cautious in participating in the drafting of the joint letter, and was as moderate as possible, so as not to lead to a misunderstanding by the school about any other purpose, and she also urged everyone not to accept media interviews. After the PKU joint letter was deleted, her attitude changed; she was disappointed with the behavior of the school –– the school didn’t understand at all the pains of the students had gone through to send this letter.
Along with the deletion of posts, there was also the “concern” of the school leaders. They cautioned Gu Huaying “not to be used by others.” Huaying angrily wrote in the WeChat friends’ circle: “Saying that young people are ‘immature’ is just like parents always trying to control their children.”
Facing the deletion of the Weibo hashtag she worked hard managing, Xiao Qiqi also worried about whether she would face political risks. But her worries dissipated after she realized that she was unsettled by conspiracy theories and the excessive self-censorship of people around her. She believed that the more people who know about this action, the safer she would be. Soon she created a new Weibo hashtag “#米兔在中国” [rice-rabbit in China], and commented on each post expressing sadness about the deletion of “#MeToo in China” posts: “Now you can use “#米兔在中国”.
Because she lived overseas, Xiao Qiqi observed changes in the attitude of foreign media and netizens before and after the #MeToo hashtag was deleted in China. In the beginning of the campaign, there were not many people following it on Facebook, but after the media reported the news that “#MeToo in China” was politically suppressed in China, some of her netizen friends began to repost the news and commented: “it is not at all surprising that such an action was stopped by the Chinese Communist Party.” Or, “in China it doesn’t work to sigh those anti-sexual harassment letters.” Xiao Qiqi believes that if she’s only concerned about political pressure, it will not help the action itself at all; on the contrary it will just give activists an additional burden. Is this not another kind of cynicism? The onlookers only want to see the result they envisioned –– “nothing of this sort can be done in China.” They are not interested in an action that is a thoroughly creative, active struggle in a difficult environment, and they can do nothing with a clear conscience.
She said that the pressure we face is real, but this is only one part of the story.
After Luo Xixi’s real-name reporting, exposures of sexual harassment in universities have appeared one after another. Some of them have been dealt with, others have been buried with no outcome. Now the next stage of the campaign is brewing. Students who participated in the joint letters established groups, and quite a few schools started to conduct surveys relating to the sexual harassment. The journalist Huang Xueqin (黄雪琴), who had disclosed Chen Xiaowu’s harassment incident with Luo Xixi, completed a sexual harassment survey of female reporters before the March 8 International Women’s Day this year. The surveys revealed that over 80% of female reporters had been sexually harassed.
That “#MeToo in China,” in a short period of time, created such a big response is a result of activists debating and learning during public incidents one after another over a long period of time. As feminist commentator Lü Pin (吕频) said, “it proves that there is no way for people to become apathetic to their rights. People are always waiting for opportunities to act.”
Lu Xun said, “May the young people of China cast off the cold air, just go upwards, don’t listen to the words of those who have given up and abandoned themselves to despair. If you can do something, then do it; if you have a voice, then make a sound. If you have heat, then send out a beam of light. Like a firefly, you can emit a little light into the darkness, without having to wait for the torch.”
The authoritarian environment has caused many people to exhale the cold air of nihilism and cynicism. What I’ve seen in “#MeToo in China” is that there are still many warm youth, who care for society, and are action takers. They are cool-headed, pragmatic, and very persistent. I am very happy to be a part of such a seemingly naïve but radiant group.
Xiao Meili (肖美丽) is a Guangzhou-based feminist activist.
China’s Feminist Awakening, the New York Times, Xiao Meili, May 13, 2015.
Yaxue Cao, July 26, 2016
Li Tingting (李婷婷), also known as Li Maizi (李麦子), is one of the “Feminist Five” in China who were detained on the eve of the International Women’s Day in 2015; they were planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transportation, which is insidiously prevalent in China. The women were released after 37 days in detention following an unprecedented international outcry. I met with Li Tingting recently over a Sunday brunch, and we spoke about her detention, women’s rights, LGBT advocacy, and civil society. — Yaxue Cao
YC: Let’s begin from your experiences during the arrest of the Feminist Five on March 6.
Li Tingting: At that time my girlfriend and I were living in a rental. The police came knocking on the door at about 10:30 pm, but I didn’t open it — initially I thought that they weren’t looking for me. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle, and had the event the following day to get ready for. But they knocked on the door continuously for about 30 minutes, and from their conversation I knew they were after me. They said they’d been monitoring my phone calls, and that I’d just called so-and-so. Then they called in a locksmith company to pry open the lock, so I opened the door for them. They looked flustered and furious and made a show of trying to frighten me. They took out a blank warrant of detention as well as a blank notice of criminal detention, slapped them onto the table, and began searching the apartment. They confiscated all of our electronics, including computers and cell phones, of which I had more than one. Then, they took us away. Downstairs, they were going to put Suan Xiaola (酸小辣, Li Tingting’s partner) and myself in different vehicles, and I told her: just say you were only staying with me for a couple of days and had planned to leave tomorrow. The police then forbade us from talking. Suan never acknowledged our relationship — if she did the police would exploit our intimate relationship to get information from her. At the local police station, the police went through our private conversations, listening to them one by one. It was infuriating. Later an opportunity presented itself: an officer asked me how to unlock my phone. I said: “I can do it for you,” and then went in and deleted my entire WeChat history. At that point I didn’t think that they’d detain us, because we hadn’t even carried out our activities — there was nothing we’d done for them to lock us up.
On that first night we arrived at the police station at 12am. The following evening we were led into a basement carpark and taken away in a 9-seater van. At that point they’d already let my girlfriend go. The whole time they were afraid I’d escape, and held me by the arm the entire trip. Wei Tingting (韦婷婷) was in front of me. I was in the middle. Wang Man (王曼) was in the back.
YC: Had the other two been brought from elsewhere to the same police station?
Li Tingting: Right. We drove for a long time. I don’t know where we ended up. Wei Tingting was in front of me, and it was easier to speak with her. I said: “It looks like we’re going to a detention center. Let’s keep our mouths shut for 37 days, and then we’ll be let go.” My thinking at that point was really naive. When we got to the detention center we were handcuffed and made to stand and wait. I was chatting with Wei Tingting. She remarked: “This is on my to-do list.”
YC: Ah — going to jail being on one’s to-do list. That would have to be a “Chinese characteristic.”
Li Tingting: Wei Tingting asked me: What is there to do in jail? I said, you can have a one night stand. She said: can you really? In the end when she left jail she really did find a girlfriend.
YC: Based on the interrogation, what did the police primarily want to find out?
Li Tingting: Their early questions were all about this anti-sexual harassment activity that we had planned, and they asked about it thoroughly, again and again. Then they asked about foreign forces, whether we were being used by foreign forces. They were extremely nervous about these “foreign forces.” “Who are paying for your activities?” they asked. But I didn’t know, and I really had no idea.
YC: Do these kind of activities need much funding at all?
Li Tingting: They do — for instance to cover the cost of printing materials. Some activities are paid for by volunteers themselves. The police asked about this over and over again. Then they asked about our other public protests: Occupying Man’s Room, the Wounded Bride protest, and the head shaving protest, as well as how we exposed our breasts to oppose domestic violence. When they printed out photos of our bare chests, they even censored out our nipples with black crosses. I thought it was hilarious.
YC: Where was that topless protest?
Li Tingting: The photos were posted to social media, but they were professional shots taken in a studio. They asked again and again: “Why are you doing these activities?” I said that everything we did was for gender equality in China, it’s not for anything else. Another question they asked was: Why are you working at an NGO? I said: “I have to work, I need to survive.”
YC: What kind of question is this? Is working at an NGO illegal or scandalous in China?
Li Tingting: There was a period in which every day they asked us about our organization. They also raided our office.
YC: At that time you were at Yirenping. What specific work did you do there?
Li Tingting: I did gender equality advocacy. Later I did LGBT work. They were asking about the details of those projects — they wanted every possible detail of them. They asked so many questions, but I was not in charge, nor in control of a lot of resources, nor did I receive any money from “foreign forces.” Besides, even if we did receive money from abroad, did the law prohibit it? Now China has passed the NGO law, but there wasn’t the law at that time.
They’re very good at scaring us. They’ll suddenly burst into the room and yell: “Li Tingting, you haven’t been honest with us, you’re lying again!” Then they’ll intimidate me, saying: “We’ve gathered such-and-such new evidence.” I thought it was quite amusing. Just like a cops and robbers movie, like they were deliberately acting out the drama, trying to scare you.
YC: Were you scared?
Li Tingting: I was at first. But as they just kept doing this, I got used to it and wasn’t afraid anymore. I feel that, while you are in their clutches like that, it’s like playing a game of chess with them. When you’re locked inside, you can’t think about when they will release you. I always expected the worst, so I’d be psychologically prepared.
YC: Did you ever think that your work would land you in jail?
Li Tingting: I was more prepared for it than others. Before we were arrested, lawyer Chang Boyang (常伯阳) was taken in, and the offices of Yirenping (亿人平) in Zhengzhou were raided. At that point I knew that there was risk in doing what we did. Actually, even earlier, when Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was arrested, I’d considered this possibility.
YC: Do you know Xu Zhiyong?
Li Tingting: I don’t know him. But the fact that he can be charged with disturbing public order and sentenced for four years, just for helping the children of parents with non-Beijing household registration (户口) attend school in Beijing, means that the authorities could use the same charges against us.
When lawyer Chang Boyang was released, he told us a lot. It was a very good preparation for me. He said, firstly, don’t collaborate with the police; secondly, don’t go along with the kind of predatory behavior that inmates often resort to to survive; and thirdly, if someone bullies you, ring the alarm. These points were extremely useful for life behind bars.
YC: How have these 37 days in prison changed and impacted you, a young NGO worker and rights advocate?
Li Tingting: For a long time after being released I had a very hard time focusing. After a period of mental training, I improved to some degree. Another thing is that I often had nightmares of being arrested. Others in the Feminist Five were the same. Also, we’re now all on the Chinese media blacklist, so no one dares to speak about or report on us.
Another direct impact is that our NGO was shut down, so I had no stable work and source of income. We became a “model case” in the NGO crackdown, and the surveillance against us was increased as a result. In the past we were just “troublemakers,” but now we’ve become political offenders in their eyes. Even though the platform of our movement is gender equality, once the government arrests you, life becomes harder. The government is still resorting to all sorts of methods to prevent the issue from reaching a wider audience.
YC: I recently saw the film Hooligan Sparrow (流氓燕). An elementary school principal in Hainan province took 11-year-old students from his own school to a hotel room, and it was suggested that these young girls were offered up as gifts for the “use” of local officials. It’s such a revolting act that you’d think the All China Women’s Federation (妇联) would immediately come out and condemn it. But the Women’s Federation didn’t make a sound. But when rights lawyers and activists went to the scene to protest (lawyer Wang Yu and lawyer Tang Jitian, as well as several other female activists, went to Hainan with “hooligan sparrow”), they were stalked, violently confronted, and later harshly retaliated against. This incident demonstrates how important citizen power is in China. If civil society doesn’t come out and organize protests, this society has no effective channel for seeking justice or resolving problems.
We also know that in February of this year Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center (众泽妇女法律咨询服务中心) was closed. As far as you know, what’s the current state of affairs in terms of civil advocacy on behalf of the rights of women and children in China?
Li Tingting: Right now the “path struggle” (路线之争) is more obvious than ever. When us young people began doing street activism, a lot of the older generation of feminists were supportive — including when we went to universities to give speeches, a lot of the teachers in the state system were very welcoming. Now the number of teachers that invite us to speak has dropped considerably. In 2012 and 2013 many universities invited us to come and give speeches. When I went to the Shandong University of Finance and Economics, I was received by the dean of the law school. At that time, even though we were considered sensitive, we weren’t so sensitive that state-affiliated teachers didn’t dare cooperate with us.
YC: What exact is this “path struggle” that you just referred to?
Li Tingting: It’s that there are women’s rights activists in China who think we’ve made this issue politically sensitive and have negatively impacted their own work. They keep a distance from us now. We used to work with the Women’s Federation, but not anymore.
YC: The detention and release of the Feminist Five was quite a shock to me in different ways. I had never heard of any of you, nor had our site written about women’s rights before then, because I had never really considered it part of our focus. When you were detained right before International Women’s Day, I was slow to react, thinking you’d be released after a few days at most. I was shocked because, firstly, I never thought the kinds of activities you engaged in would land you in jail, and it was an alarm bell for how bad things were deteriorating for activists — activists of any kind. Secondly, the global response was something rather amazing, unprecedented in speed and scale. The fact that feminist organizations and LGBT networks like All Out came out, in the tens of thousands signing petitions, also created a classic case study for effective activism, because these are not the “usual suspects” who speak out for human rights in China. And as it happened, Xi Jinping and his wife were to preside over the UN Women’s Summit. What a joke, but also, what an opportunity!
So ever since the release of the Feminist Five, I have been talking to the usual suspects about identifying the unusual suspects in each case, and about exploring potential opportunities.
Now, let’s talk about the state of LBGT rights in China.
Li Tingting: Most of mainland China’s LGBTs are still living in the closet. They might come out of the closet in their circle of friends; they might have their own communities, or bars, but they do not come out to their parents and employers, because the cost would be very high.
YC: The costs include?
Li Tingting: If you’re homosexual, you will be fired. If you tell your parents, they will beat you, curse you. There’ll be family discord. Some have been sent to mental hospitals, others have been stalked or detained. There are a lot of such cases. I knew a case where parents twice sent their daughter to a mental hospital and forced her to take medication until she promised her parents that she’d never engage in homosexual relationships again. Such private violence against LGBT is prevalent in China.
Take myself for example. My aunt, who is my mother’s eldest sister, cursed me in the most vicious language when she learned that I’m a lesbian. When I had my wedding ceremony with Suan Xiaola, she said I was a pervert and my parents would die as a result of me marrying my partner. It was so hurtful. I’ve never been close to her — what makes her think she has the right to judge my life? Well, just because she’s my mother’s older sister, she feels she has the authority to do so.
YC: What about your mom?
Li Tingting: My mom was embarrassed by me. She didn’t attend my wedding, my dad wouldn’t let her. She also said to me: “Can you not have your ceremony so close to us?” In other words, don’t shame us on our doorsteps. But my girlfriend’s parents were supportive. They spoke to my mom, so my mom called my aunt, telling her that “my daughter’s life is not your business.”
YC: Are there individuals and organizations openly advocating the legalization of gay marriage?
Li Tingting: Yes, there are. Some couples advocate gay marriage, like us, by holding marriage ceremonies to make a political statement about their rights and their desire to see the legalization of same-sex marriage in China. In Changsha, a gay couple went to the government asking to register their marriage. There has been an effort to rally support for same-sex marriage from parents whose children are homosexuals. This is a very good strategy, because Chinese culture values family, and parents want to see their homosexual children living in a family setting. Also, when parents support their children, it greatly increases the visibility of the issue.
YC: I read in the news recently that, in a college in Guangzhou, a lesbian proposed to her partner on the day of their graduation. Yesterday I noticed that there is an All Out signature campaign that collected over 20,000 signatures in two days since its initiation. According to Wang Xiaoyu — one of the lesbian students, though that’s not her real name — Party officials at her college outed her to her parents, and threatened to withhold her diploma. The police also raided her apartment.
Li Tingting: I know this case. The university sent people who opened her apartment, and had the police search it.
YC: That’s right, to collect “evidence.” Evidence of what?
Li Tingting: They said these students were manipulated by foreign forces.
YC: You’re kidding! “Foreign forces” everywhere! In a way, this incident reflects the official attitude of the Chinese government: it’s like, we’ll hold our nose and tolerate you homosexuals, but don’t “overdo” it, or we’ll get you. So, it’s worrisome. Now on top of that, we all know that over the last three years the rights advocacy work, not only in political rights but also women’s rights, has all but been shattered as a result of severe crackdowns and the promulgation of laws, especially the foreign NGO management law. Is there room for LGBT advocacy work?
Li Tingting: Yes, there is, because it hasn’t been politicized. But as soon as an LGBT activist is arrested for his or her work, it will become political.
YC: Give us some examples.
Li Tingting: The more mainstream advocacy that I just spoke about, the homosexual friends and family associations that identify with mainstream family values — they are occasionally reported on in mainstream media outlets. And they raise funds from the public, because they want the support of average citizens. There is also the Chinese Rainbow Media Awards given to media outlets that are friendly to the LGBT subject. In other cases, advocacy groups work with companies to hold job fairs just for gays and lesbians. One such event was held by a foreign company.
There is also a network of public interest lawyers known as “the rainbow lawyers” — they help meet the legal needs of the LGBT community.
The other recourse is lawsuits. The first case was in 2013, when a lesbian named Yanzi in Chongqing sued a psychological counseling center that used electric shocks to “treat” homosexuality. The court ruled that homosexuality is not a mental illness. That was a historic ruling. Since then there have been other lawsuits, but not all of them were successful. [Here, here, and here.]
But with litigation, if you are getting support from NGOs, the government can accuse you of working with foreign forces, because most advocacy NGOs receive funding from foundations overseas.
YC: Are you saying then that the civil advocacy work right now is still being done by NGOs?
Li Tingting: Right. Work done by civil society has already decriminalized and depathologized homosexuality, but they haven’t managed to normalize it. The wider public and the government are still prejudiced against homosexuality, like it’s something dishonorable. The problem is that they simply have no interest in actually understanding this group of people. But because LGBT groups have started to spring up in recent years, the police need to monitor them, and they also need to understand them. The reason this issue is still fairly safe is in part because the authorities don’t really want to touch it. So the government’s lack of advocacy and support also protects this population, allowing them to continue their advocacy in the current climate.
YC: Have you gotten involved yourself?
Li Tingting: Of course. Getting married is a prime example. When I was in second year university in Xi’an, myself and three others founded a “Lesbian Community Training Group.”
YC: Doing what?
Li Tingting: We played board games the first time. When we grew in number, we begin some advocacy work. Mainly it was service delivery: for instance, psychological counselling, providing all kinds of other support.
YC: One thing I noticed was that, when the five of you went to prison, the lawyers who took on your cases were all human rights lawyers. I was puzzled: you’re advocating women’s rights — are there no other lawyers who are willing to represent you?
Li Tingting: They were the only ones who dared. Our’s was a political case. There were also public interest lawyers willing to take it on, but their defense strategy was completely different to that of human rights lawyers. And I definitely prefer the human rights lawyers.
YC: When I meet you, the impression I get from you is that you’re really free — your facial expressions and gestures, everything about you seems to proclaim: I’m free. And yet this totalitarian system every day presents you with another message: I’m controlling you, you’re not free. You make me think of myself when I was in my 20s. At the time I was still living in China, and every single day I felt a fundamental, intrinsic sense of freedom clashing sharply against the external oppressiveness. But at that time there was no internet, no so-called civil society, so disgust and helplessness became a state of life. But I had never thought, in 2016, the term “freedom” still remains a remote, dangerous expression. You’ve been jailed, and you’re gay — tell us about your existential state.
Li Tingting: I think that the pressure is inescapable — it affects your personal relationships, and it affects your daily life. So we’ve all had to become superhuman: we have to stand against the pressure, and also work while under it. The government’s invisible tentacles are reminding you every single moment: “I’m watching you.” I’ve always been a rebellious person, incompatible with a mainstream lifestyle. Other people have said I’m “radical.” But once you choose your way of life, you have to walk the path to the end. So, freedom has its costs. Every way of life has its costs, it’s just a matter of what costs you choose.
YC: I hate the very thought, but have you considered the possibility that you’ll be jailed again? You didn’t think you’d be jailed when you planned the anti-sexual harassment protests on buses and subways. Maybe one day you’ll do something that you don’t think is dangerous in the least, and yet you might get arrested.
Li Tingting: Right. We can’t control whether we’re arrested or not, so there’s no point thinking about things we can’t control. We can’t censor ourselves excessively.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015
By China Change, published: March 6, 2016
Just before International Women’s Day on March 8, the Feminist Five activists in China, as well as their defense counsel, have been spoken to and put under pressure by police, according to friends and lawyers of the activists, communicating via social media.
On March 3, Internal Security police, the branch of the Public Security Bureau focused on internal political threats, sought out the defense lawyers of the feminist activists. They said that they knew that five lawyers had sent a legal opinion to the authorities recommending that the case against the the Feminist Five be withdrawn. Security police asked them which lawyer was in charge of that letter, what their motive was, and to which governmental departments it had been sent.
One lawyer responded: “Firstly, you can take me as the leader. I signed the postage for it and take full responsibility. Secondly, the motive was in the hope that the Beijing police would exhibit a modicum of legal awareness, adhere to procedure, respect human rights, and protect human rights.”
The lawyer then introduced the basic facts of the case of the Feminist Five, and added: “China is supposed to be known as a country of etiquette. Equality between men and women and respect for women is a sign of the level of civilization of a society. That women shouldn’t be subject to sexual harassment is something that all males in a civilized society should be taught. The five feminist activists were arrested by Beijing police simply because they had arranged some events to raise awareness about sexual harassment. The actions of the Beijing police not only have no legal standard, but completely violate normal social ethics. They seem to have a distorted sense of what is good for society and what bad. Do they really want to see, in public places in China, men harassing and humiliating women, with no sense of shame? Do they want to see China’s men turned into a bunch of hoodlums?”
Officials in the judiciary also called several of the lawyers in for talks, and among the Feminist Five, some were called in by police and talked to.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.
Guo Jianmei, Zhongze, and the Empowerment of Women in China, a profile of China’s first public interest lawyer and renowned women’s rights advocate. February 14, 2016.
By defense counsels of the Feminist Five, published: March 3, 2016
To: Haidian Precinct, Beijing Public Security Bureau
CC: Supreme People’s Procuratorate
National People’s Congress Internal & Judicial Affairs Committee
Beijing Field Office of UN Women
Last year, on the eve of the March 8 International Women’s Day, the five Chinese feminist activists Wei Tingting (韦婷婷), Zheng Churan (郑楚然), Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘), Li Tingting (李婷婷), and Wang Man (王曼) were placed under criminal detention by police in Beijing’s Haidian District on suspicion of “provoking a serious disturbance” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Later, they were released on bail pending additional investigation. These women came to be known as the “Feminist Five,” and their case sent shock waves throughout China and the world.
As the defense counsel for these five young women, we believe that the case against the “Feminist Five” was a miscarriage of justice deliberately perpetrated by certain police officers and that this case has become a laughingstock outside China and tarnished the country’s image.
Unfortunately, one year later the Feminist Five remains under the coercive measure of “release on bail pending additional investigation,” and the Haidian District police have not withdrawn this case in accordance with the law. So, we are now urging the Haidian police to drop their investigation immediately and restore these five women’s personal freedom and dignity without condition.
Our reasons are as follows:
- The police have no evidence to support their accusations, and the procuratorate refused to approve arrest.
Last year, the police applied for permission to formally arrest the Feminist Five, but the procuratorate held to the law and refused to approve the arrest. The Feminist Five were released after being held for 37 days. However, out of frustration the police not only did not withdraw the case but placed bail restrictions on the five under pretext of continuing the investigation against them. They proceeded to make a big show of continuing their investigation and summoning the women for further questioning, but to date they have yet to uncover any evidence of guilt. Meanwhile, these five women remain under the shadow of the label of “criminal suspects.”
- The Feminist Five have done nothing illegal; on the contrary, they have performed a service by protecting women’s rights.
For many years, the Feminist Five have acted in the public interest to promote the protection of women’s rights. Whether it was performance art like “Occupy the Men’s Toilet” or “Bloody Brides” or taking to the street to campaign against sexual harassment, these were all acts done for the good of the public. If you search for “Occupy the Men’s Toilet” on Baidu, you will see how mainstream media outlets endlessly praised this action.
They chose to use performance art to promote the public interest because equality between men and women is not simply about equal rights; it is also about opening up people’s mindsets. They wanted to influence the mindset of not just the government but also the general public. In terms of effectiveness, their actions were truly necessary and taken in the absence of other alternatives.
Even more importantly, while they were carrying out these artistic acts, they had no intention of disrupting order in a public place and their actions resulted in no such consequences.
- The police acted illegally in many ways, seriously infringing upon the rights of the Feminist Five.
According to these five women, the police acted illegally many times:
- On several occasions, they used blank summons documents to summon Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong;
- After summoning or detaining her, police failed to notify Li Tingting’s family members in accordance with the law;
- Li Tingting was also subjected to questioning to the point of exhaustion and had bright lights shone on her to prevent her from getting enough rest, to the point where she was only able to sleep two hours a night;
- During detention, Wu Rongrong and Wang Man were refused prompt treatment for their illnesses, and Wu Rongrong was forced to suffer the humiliation of sleeping on the floor despite her illness;
- Knowing that several of the suspects were homosexual, interrogators used coarse language to humiliate them;
- Police smoked during Li Tingting’s interrogation and blew smoke in her face;
- Police broke the lock as they burst into Li Tingting’s residence, resulting in serious damage to her property and loss of personal items;
- Li Tingting was denied access to her lawyer many times on the excuse that she had been taken away from the detention center for questioning.
Defense counsel made complaints about the above illegal acts to the relevant authorities in accordance with the law, but to date the police who carried out these acts have yet to be punished. If society allows police to deliberately misrepresent the truth and invert right and wrong in the course of exercising public power, then the people will inevitably suffer disaster.
- The detention of the Feminist Five and infringement of their rights goes against public opinion and violates internationally recognized values, and these acts continue to be the focus of both domestic and international attention.
Just recently, at the end of 2015, the case of the Feminist Five was named by the Chinese Lawyers for Human Rights as one of the “Top 10 Chinese Human Rights Cases of 2015.” As a group, the Feminist Five were named one of the “10 Most Inspiring Feminists of 2015” by the famous international publication Ms. magazine. One of the five, Li Tingting, was chosen as one of the “100 Leading Global Thinkers” for 2015 by Foreign Policy magazine. In September 2015, an art exhibit reflecting the work of the Feminist Five was unveiled. To date, it has made three stops around the world.
Clearly, the actions of the police in this case were not only illegal; from the beginning the case took on national, even international importance and influence. National authorities at the highest levels should intervene, the case should be discussed at the “Two Meetings” of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that are about to open in Beijing, and UN Women should pay attention to the case.
In order to safeguard rule of law and protect human civilization, we call on the relevant state bodies to withdraw this case, investigate those who committed illegality and criminal acts in manufacturing this miscarriage of justice, and restore the valuable reputation of the Feminist Five and the good image of China!
Defense counsel for Wei Tingting: Ge Wenxiu (葛文秀), lawyer with Guangdong Lü Cheng Ding Bang Law Office, 258 Dashadi East Road, Suite 301, Huangpu District, Guangzhou 510730, Tel: 020-82387045
Defense counsel for Li Tingting: Yan Xin (燕薪), Beijing Laishuo Law Office, South Courtyard, Fangze Pavilion, Ditan Park, Dongcheng District, Beijing 100011, Tel: 136-0129-7308
Defense counsel for Zheng Churan: Chen Jinxue (陈进学), lawyer with Guangdong Lü Cheng Ding Bang Law Office, 258 Dashadi East Road, Suite 301, Huangpu District, Guangzhou 510730, Tel: 020-82387045, 138-2600-2506
Defense counsel for Wu Rongrong: Lü Zhoubin (吕洲宾), lawyer with Hangzhou office of Beijing Yingke Law Firm, Supor Development Building, 8th Floor, 240 Dongxin Road, Hangzhou 310004, Tel: 0571-86799616 or 139-6809-6061, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Defense counsel for Wu Rongrong: Liu Shuqing (刘书庆), lawyer with Shandong Tianyuren Law Firm, Sanqing Fengrun Tower, Suite 1108, 100 Gongye South Road, Ji’nan, Tel: 133-5541-5256, email: email@example.com
February 26, 2016
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.
By Yaxue Cao, published: February 14, 2016
She is a renowned public interest lawyer, a pioneer of China’s NGO movement, a defender of women’s rights, a writer, a legislative advocate, a recipient of some of the world’s top awards for women, and her work has been recognized and supported by the likes of the United Nations. What could go wrong?
On January 29 a message on WeChat read that Zhongze had been ordered to close before the Spring Festival by the “relevant authorities.” Not long after this, the head of the Center, Guo Jianmei (郭建梅) sent out a WeChat message: “Announcement: Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center (众泽妇女法律咨询服务中心) will close from February 1, 2016. Thank you to everyone for your attention and support for the center’s work over the past 20 years!” The same “closedown notice” appeared on Zhongze’s website, drifting slowly and silently like a cloud across the page. She declined interviews.
The Chinese government has conducted a widespread crackdown on NGOs over the past two years. NGOs working on issues that used to be considered relatively “safe,” such as the rights of the disabled, the sick, women’s rights, employment equality, and labor rights, are now no longer tolerated by the Chinese government. For 20 years, Zhongze provided legal services for women who were victims of domestic violence, gender discrimination, sexual abuse, and various kinds of injustice, and its work was widely praised in China. Some even thought that it was a semi-official body. The fact that it was closed demonstrates the government’s determination to completely get rid of all NGOs working in the field of rights advocacy, and confirms the widespread consensus that the space civil society had to grow in China is now all but closed.
1995, The 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing
Beijing of 1995 was a forest of scaffolding with new buildings springing up everywhere; workmen were laying cables in the dug up streets, and deeper underground new subway lines were being built. The air was still clear, with little smog. Memories of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and the June 4th Massacre were fading, and the Beijing government was eager to win back the acceptance of the international community. “Aligning with international norms” was one of the most trendy phrases in both state discourse and everyday parlance. To that end, that September, Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women, while “equality for women” has long been considered one of the Mao Zedong’s and the Communist Party’s achievements to flaunt.
As was the custom, prior to the World Conference on Women, a NGO Forum on Women was held for several days as a supplementary meeting to the Conference. It covered a wide range of issues and was the main venue for civil society to discuss women’s issues. Participants often outnumbered those attending the main conference itself.
Guo Jianmei took part in the World Conference on Women as a journalist for the magazine China Lawyers (《中国律师》). She originally only planned to do interviews for one day, but became fascinated and ended up staying for the full ten days of meetings. She graduated in 1983 from Peking University’s Department of Law and then worked for the Ministry of Justice and the All-China Women’s Federation. Dedicated to protecting women’s rights, she had been involved in drafting the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women and helped lead a project that studied the problems and solutions to implementing this law. As part of the project, she conducted research nationwide and published articles advocating women’s rights.
During the Conference, at a lawyer’s forum, one report described the scene as: “When a foreign participant asked whether there were any civil society organizations offering specialized legal aid services to women, the room suddenly fell silent.” Guo Jianmei was one of those present. Of course, later, she also heard the then US First Lady Hillary Clinton’s famous keynote speech: “Women’s rights are human rights.”
“The participants’ concern for the protection of women’s rights and for the NGOs and the passionate vibes at the Conference worked like a warm current, wiping out the sense of aimlessness that I had felt for years. I instantly felt that I had found my home,” she recalled in 2009.
It was then and there that the idea to start a women’s legal aid organization began to take root. She quit her job not long after the conference finished, and that December, along with several teachers from Peking University, founded the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Services of Peking University (北京大学妇女法律研究和服务中心，the predecessor to Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center). She was China’s first public interest lawyer working full-time defending women’s rights. The Center’s start-up capital came from a US$30,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. “I was 34 years old, the assistant editor for the All-China Lawyers Association’s China Lawyers magazine, with a professional title the equivalent of an associate professor. I had an ‘iron rice bowl,’and good job prospects,” Guo said. Although the Center bore the famous name of the Peking University, the offices were located in the basement of a guesthouse in Zhongguancun, outside the university campus.
1995-2010, ‘the 15 Most Rewarding Years’
The first client she helped was a woman from Xuzhou, a city in Jiangsu province, whose son had been beaten to death by local police. She had come to Beijing to petition the authorities, to no result. Instead, she was hit by a tourist bus, sustained multiple fractures, and lost one eye. Even though the traffic bureau found her not responsible for the accident, the owner of the vehicle, a state-owned enterprise, only awarded her compensation of 30,000 yuan (about $3,600 at the time). The woman refused the compensation and took the company to court, but she quickly lost the case. According to a report from a few years ago:
When this woman found Guo Jianmei, her eye was inflamed, and her body stank. “I was shocked and agreed to help her with her lawsuit,” Guo said.
“When I took her to the courthouse and the judge saw her dishevelled state, he said to me: ‘Couldn’t you find other cases? How did you come to represent this kind of person?’ I said: ‘I’m a public interest lawyer.’ The judge just ignored me and, holding his nose, kicked us out of his office.”
Guo Jianmei wrote an 8,000-word statement on behalf of the woman, but in court, ‘the judge didn’t even give me the time to finish reading the statement.’ In the end, she lost the case and when the helpless mother asked her: ‘Didn’t you say we could win?’, Guo broke down in tears.
Over the next year, she and her team of four lawyers kept losing cases. Two of the lawyers left the Center, but Guo persevered, and she and her Center would go on, in the next 15 years, to provide free legal advice to more than 70,000 people, take on close to 3,000 cases, carry out more than 80 training sessions and seminars on women’s rights, submit over 70 recommendations on laws and regulations, and publish 13 books and over 200 articles, according to an April 2010 report.
From the assortment of cases on Zhongze’s website, we can see that their work mostly focused on gender discrimination in the workplace, women’s labor rights, sexual harassment in the workplace, violence against women, the rights of female migrant workers, and the land rights of women in the countryside.
At the same time, the Center acted consciously as an incubator for public interest lawyers: in 2002, it initiated a legal aid coordination group so that more organizations could join legal assistance work; in 2007, the Center established a public interest lawyers network that would attract hundreds of lawyers to provide legal service to disadvantaged members of society. In 2009, the Center established the Beijing Qianqian Law Firm (北京千千律师事务所) with an exclusive focus on public interest cases, not limited to women’s rights, but expanding its ambit to defending the disabled, migrant workers, and the elderly. Starting in 2005, the Center also launched the Women Watch website, a Chinese/English bilingual site that “investigates, researches, observes, analyzes, evaluates and tests the state of Chinese women’s rights protection from an NGO point of view.”
The Center recognized that behind each individual case lie larger issues concerning many women. So it chose “significant, typical, and difficult cases of gender discrimination that can also be used for theoretical studies and legislative advocacy.”For example, in China, workplace sexual harassment of female subordinates by male bosses is extremely common. Following the Song Shanmu rape case, Guo Jianmei and her team issued a Guide to the Prevention of Workplace Sexual Harassment, with the financial and professional help of the International Labor Organization. The Center worked with companies to hold trainings and build internal prevention mechanisms. At the same time, the Center held seminars where experts exchanged opinions and shared research findings. These opinions and findings were then submitted to the government for legislative action.
In rural areas across the country, married women who no longer live in the village are often treated as any other members of the village, due to unchanged household registration—they’re considered responsible for cultivating their share of the land, paying taxes, and fees, and fulfilling obligations in public projects such as roads and schools. But when the village sells the land to the government or a developer, the married women are often excluded from their share of the profits. In 2007 the Center successfully won a case for 30-some married women in Huizhou, Guangdong. In the same year, the Center recovered a total 90 million RMB for 28 married women in the city of Hulunbuir in Inner Mongolia. The Center went on to work with local chapters of Women’s Federations, providing training and conducting surveys which were published so as to push local governments to change rules and protect the property rights of women.
A young staff member described the Center’s work as “holistic head-to-toe service.”
Few reports on the Center describe their day-to-day work, but a careful analysis is able to capture some of the more exciting, and dangerous, moments: in Dengfeng city, Henan province, Guo Jianmei and Li Ying, deputy director of the Qianqian Law Firm, were helping a group of married and divorced women claim their rightful compensation for land sold to developers. In the rain, over a hundred of raging male villagers brandishing sticks had trapped the two lawyers inside their hotel, telling them they couldn’t interfere with “family discipline” and “village rules.” Once, in Yinchuan, Ningxia, she came close to being handcuffed when she clashed with a local judge.
In 2002 Guo had a nervous breakdown. “She didn’t want to go to work, or take anyone’s phone call in the office; during meetings she would burst into tears as soon as she opened her mouth to speak.” Her doctor diagnosed her with “moderate to serious depression and serious anxiety.” She asked for half a year’s leave. She recovered thanks to the care of her husband, the well-known writer Liu Zhenyun. Her husband told her that if her work really made her unhappy, she should stop doing it. Her friends hoped she would switch to working as a commercial lawyer. But she told her husband that in her dreams she kept seeing the pleading eyes and hearing the “thud” of women dropping on their knees to entreat her help. Once she recovered, she went straight back to work.
In 2009, Guo Jianmei described her organization to Xinhua News: “Nothing holds swings over us, nor are we enticed by any self interests. No one can slander us or attack us anymore. International organizations have been seeking us out; I’ve just been given a project from the United Nations, and every year the Center gets about a dozen big international projects.”
It’s hard to imagine that the Center only had nine lawyers and three administrative staff. Each lawyer had to take on at least 15 cases each year, according to a 2009 article in Southern Weekend. But the Center was a magnet for many young volunteers, including from overseas. This is how one young former staff member described the atmosphere: “Everyone just got down to work; colleagues got on really well with each other, and the work was incredibly rewarding,” even if the compensation was not ideal.
Revocation in 2010
In March 2010, the Office of Social Sciences of Peking University announced that it had revoked the affiliation of the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services, along with three other organizations: the Public Law Research Center, the Constitution Research Center, and the Finance News Research Center (公法研究中心、宪政研究中心、财经新闻研究中心). The statement said that “the above (four) agencies from today forward have no affiliation with Peking University, and Peking University takes no managerial responsibility for any of their actions.”
It’s important to note that in the early years of NGO development in China, many organizations depended on universities and colleges to survive, because they provided both a legal organizational form and a talent pool.
Due to the fact that these four organizations had become well known, the sudden revocation led to much speculation. In the case of Guo Jianmei’s Center, observers wondered whether it was because they had gotten involved in the Deng Yujiao case (邓玉娇, in which a spa attendant stabbed to death an official attempting to rape her), or the case of Li Ruirui (李蕊蕊, the prisoner of a black jail who was raped), both of which had attracted widespread national attention and support. Xinhua reported: “Last year, the Peking University leadership spoke to the Center, and hoped that it would not longer accept such ‘outside cases.’ It’s believed that this is the primary reason for the cancellation of the Center’s affiliation.”
Foreign funding may have been another issue—although a large number of organizations affiliated with the Chinese government also received foreign funding, and often receive the lion’s share of it.
Soon after Peking University’s move, China’s National Legal Aid Foundation (国家法律援助基金会) also severed its project with the Center. In this project, the National Legal Aid Foundation provided 100,000 yuan (about $14,600) to the Center and asked it to take on 35 cases (at $419 per case), a harsh project by any standard. Guo Jianmei nevertheless accepted these onerous conditions in an attempt to gain recognition from, and build a relationship with, the government.
In June 2010, the Public Interest Lawyers Network (公益律师网) was shut down after it had been launched for only a year. In 2011, “Women Watch – China” (妇女观察-中国) also faced the threat of being shut down, but managed to survive.
This series of closures and cancellations was actually just part of an overall crackdown in the post-Beijing Olympics period. In 2009, the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟) was fined 1.4 million yuan in tax payments, the OCI Legal Research Center (公盟法律研究中心) was banned, and Dr. Xu Zhiyong and an accountant were arrested on charges of “evading taxes” by Beijing police. OCI, founded by three Peking University Law School PhDs, committed itself to constitutional research and advocacy, and sought to provide legal support for disenfranchised citizens. The same year, the Beijing Yirenping Center (北京益仁平中心), which made a name combating discrimination against Hepatitis B sufferers, as well as a newly established organization advocating for gay rights, were raided. And then in 2010, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange promulgated a “Notice on Issues Concerning the Administration of Foreign Exchange Donated to Domestic Institutions,” which created obstacles for domestic organizations receiving funding from abroad. An internal document by China’s Ministry of Education claimed that the Hong Kong branch of Oxfam was infiltrating China and striking up alliances with rights defense organizations, and demanded that universities prevent Oxfam from seeking volunteer workers among students. And at about the same time that the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services at Peking University was being cancelled, the Guangzhou-based volunteer network NGOCN was also shut down. NGOCN had become one of China’s largest NGO exchange platforms, and nearly all NGOs in China would share information on it. (Later, through internal lobbying, the site was reinstated, though not at the same scale as previously.) At the beginning of 2010, one of China’s earliest NGOs, the Beijing Aizhixing Research Institute (北京爱知行研究所), which advocates for the rights of HIV-AIDS patients, also had its activities brought to a halt. The founder, Wan Yanhai (万延海), suddenly left China with his family “out of fear for safety.”
Prof. Wang Zheng, a gender scholar at the University of Michigan who used to hold academic meetings on gender studies in Fudan University in Shanghai with funding from the Ford Foundation, told me recently that as early as 2004 or 2005, the Chinese government banned foreign funding for programs at institutions like Xinjiang University. In 2011, Fudan suddenly told her that they could no longer host conferences funded by the Ford Foundation. Prof. Wang said that the university had a blacklist of foreign foundations.
Yu Fangqiang (于方强), founder of the the Nanjing-based NGO Justice for All (天下公), pointed out in an article : “the period from 2009 to 2010 saw a wave of crackdown on civil society that was organized, premeditated, and forceful.”
After the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services was disaffiliated, it published a firm statement: “For 15 years we’ve engaged in an enterprise that’s ‘brighter than the sun.’” It continued: “The Center has made contributions in the fields of women’s rights, legal support, and NGO. At the very least, it makes this much clear: the survival of civil legal support groups in China is crucial and indispensable. The reality of China is that if you want to establish a forward-thinking enterprise, you need a group of brave people who are willing to struggle and dedicate themselves, and you need to give them recognition and encouragement.”
Determination aside, this also sounded like an appeal to the government.
Zhongze, ‘A Profound Symbol’
After its affiliation with Peking University was revoked, Guo Jianmei and her colleagues registered Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center. But in China, a NGO like Zhongze cannot register as a non-profit organization with the Ministry of Civil Affairs ; it can only register as a for-profit business with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce. This, of course, opens the door for charges like “illegal business operations” or “tax evasion,” whenever the government wants to apply arbitrary punishments.
Over the past six years, Zhongze seamlessly continued the work of the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Services at Peking University. It has worked in areas where Chinese women need help the most, and played a role in filling many gaps in legislation in China, including the recently-enacted Anti-Domestic Violence Law. At the same time, it aligns its work with the Beijing Platform for Action, approved by the 4th World Conference on Women. Zhongze’s website specifically illustrates its work in 8 of the 12 areas defined by the Platform for Action: education and training of women, women and health, violence against women, women and economy, women in power and decision making, human rights of women, women and media, the girl-child.
Over the past 20 years, Guo Jianmei and the two Centers she has led have received many awards and accolades from many sources, including the Chinese government and media, as well as the international community. Guo Jianmei was the recipient of the 2007 Global Women’s Leadership Award, the 2009 Prix Simone de Beauvoir pour la liberté des femmes (shared with Professor Ai Xiaoming), and 2011 International Women of Courage Award. Many female dignitaries have visited the Center, including American First Lady Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Madame Annan, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Madame Mehr Khan Williams, Madame Margerida Barroso, among others.
But compared with the Peking University revocation, this closure appears to have a much more permanent character. In the past two years, Xu Zhiyong has been jailed, and the New Citizens Movement that was inspired by the work of the OCI has been repressed all over China. Large numbers of NGOs have been shuttered and raided, including the China Rural Library (立人图书馆), the Transition Institute (传知行), and Yirenping (益仁平). Labor rights NGOs have been eliminated, Christian churches have been suppressed, and frontline activists in the rights defense movement, such as Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), and advocate of civil disobedience Tang Jingling (唐荆陵), have been separately arrested and tried. Human rights lawyers have suffered large scale arrests and been accused of “subverting state power.” Then there are all the agencies that have been silently shut down—like the Center for the Rights of Disadvantaged Citizens at Wuhan University (武汉大学社会弱者权利保护中心), established in 1992.
Even though the work that Zhongze engaged in seemed not to concern itself with the topics typically considered politically sensitive, the comments on its closure indicate otherwise. A few commentators attacked Zhongze as a “running dog” of the Americans, or a tool used by foreign hostile forces to subvert China, or a spy organization using the banner of public interest.
And if these remarks sound like the malicious gossip of idle Internet users, think again. Peng Xiaohui (彭晓辉), a professor of sexology at East China Normal University, and a friend to many feminists in China, remarked on Weibo: “There are signs that certain feminists in China won the praise and support of Hillary Clinton. Last year after President Xi speaking at the UN Women’s Summit, Hillary immediately attacked China’s policies on women. The political motives behind this make one pause to consider. A society in which men and women are equal is of course the direction to which mankind needs to strive, but China cannot allow a foreign politician who views China with hostility to meddle in this undertaking.”
Foreign Funding; the Aspiration of the ‘New’ Chinese; and the Hostility of the Government
The question of foreign funding was brought to the attention of Guo Jianmei by “the relevant departments” years ago. They wanted her to stop receiving money from abroad. Guo’s response was to ask them: “You say that foreign funding is sensitive, but Chinese entrepreneurs are only willing to fund projects supported by government policies—they have no interest in our work. We have no other source of funds, so what are we supposed to do?”
But money wasn’t the only problem. The Open Constitution Initiative (公盟), for instance, avoided this danger by not accepting any foreign funds, only making itself available to donations from Chinese citizens and businessmen. But its orientation toward constitutional democracy and rule of law made it one of the earliest targets for attack by the authorities. Wang Gongquan (王功权), a businessman who offered financial support to OCI, spent several months in jail.
For foreign funders, organizations like Zhongze are the most ideal recipients of their largess: they’re located in urban centers, led by social elites; they’re professional, accepted by the government, and they don’t get involved in issues considered politically sensitive. Funding them allows these groups to fulfill their mission as a foundation, whether in assisting the poor or advocating for rights, without irking the Chinese government.
The wider meaning of all this is that Guo Jianmei and her colleagues represent a new kind of Chinese citizen. They’re spread across Chinese cities and the countryside, factories and schools, in industry and from all other walks of life. Their worldviews are open, they share a strong modern civic consciousness, they identify with the international standards advocated by the United Nations, and they want to throw their energy into helping China progress. “I’m completely comfortable with what I do,” Guo Jianmei says, “it’s only because of my love for my motherland that I do all this. The function we serve is to resolve social conflicts.”
But after 30 years of reform and opening up in China, China has not only failed to align itself with international norms, but has set itself up for a direct clash with them. Chinese leader Xi Jinping just addressed issues of gender equality last September at the UN Women’s Summit, but a few months later he shut down the most influential NGO in China that protected women’s rights.
Dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu (莫之许) points out that, in mid-1990s, Chinese authorities made many concessions on human rights in order to quickly integrate into the global economic system—for instance, signing the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and becoming a signatory to, though not ratifying, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, allowing Chinese to access the Internet, and granting more space for NGO work. The mid- 1990s to 2010 has often been thought of as a period of vitality and opportunity. As a result, an optimistic narrative took hold not only among Chinese liberals, but international observers and policymakers too: the middle class is growing, Internet use is expanding, civil society is developing, and new media is emerging—inevitably, the power of civil society will begin contending with the government, eventually change the power balance, and a constitutional transformation will then take place.
But the reality is, as Mo Zhixu points out, that the Communist Party authorities have since 1989 “not once wavered from their determination to maintain their dictatorship, and political structural reform has never been an option. Instead, the allowances and concessions they have made will not continue; furthermore, they have been the cause of harsher repression, until everything is frozen.”
But there are Chinese who don’t want to give up. Two hours after she announced the shutdown of Zhongze, Guo Jianmei added: “The Beijing Qianqian Law Firm is still around.” Once again, she’s faced with the difficult question of how to take her work forward.
Yaxue Cao edits this site. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
Chinese version 《郭建梅，众泽，与妇女赋权》， translated by Dinah Gardner, Matthew Robertson, and Yaxue Cao.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.