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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.
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.
Published: May 6, 2015
Below are excerpts of the letters they posted following their release on April 13, 2015.
Wei Tingting (韦婷婷), April 17, 2015
Since the first day home, I have been constantly trying to make up for what I missed during the detention, reading your articles, tracking your chats, browsing through various reports from various venues, and then allowing tears to flow. I am moved and excited each day by your spirit, bravery and love, so much so that I can hardly sleep at the night. Having too much to say and too much to write about, I do not know how to start, overwhelmed by waves of feelings.
On the way back, I got to know the various voices of support from all over the world. I shed tears when I read how Po Po cried when she took out my clothes to dry on the line. I shed tears when I read how Xiao Tie prepared for me a T shirt/poster of the handsome Esther Eng. [Esther Eng was a Chinese–American film director and the first female to direct Chinese-language films in the United States.”] I shed tears when I read, one after another, articles posted in the two public [WeChat] accounts.
I saw the protest photos you took and loved especially the one featuring two half-naked girls. I saw your declaration that the feminist activist group (女权行动派) would never die, and there are too many of us to be all put in jail. My tears swelled uncontrollably when I saw you walking in cities wearing our photos as masks, so cute yet so determined, so warm to the heart. I already shed a flood of tears when Lawyer Wang, on his visit, told me about the mask protest for our loss of freedom. I was about to shed tears again when S said that those outside were, in fact, suffering more than those inside [the jail].
A few hours ago, Huang Ye said she was so concerned that she wanted to help find psychological assistance for me. So many people have called to inquire after me since I was released, and so long was the list of friends who want to take me out for dinner to comfort me. Even more touchingly, some of my college alumni had spoken up on my behalf, and a younger male alumni had written an article about me. Isn’t this what motivated us to do what we did from the very beginning: to let more people understand gender equality and to become one of those who make a difference?
Our faces have turned up in different countries. Because three of us are lesbians, All Out have collected over 100,000 signatures, promising they will help whenever we are in need of support. Upon hearing that my cellphone and computer were taken away, some friends wanted to bring me new ones. Friends in the gay/lesbian circle started posting my earlier articles, speeches, calling gays and lesbians to support the feminists. I was nominated for the Asian LGBT Milestone Award. Now I believe that, whether they like feminism or not, they understand that this is not just about women, or sexual harassment; the issues of the disadvantaged are always interconnected.
All of these have filled my heart with love, hope, and courage, inspiring me to go forward with surer steps.
I was disheartened at first, thinking this would be the end of the young feminist activists. But what each of you did has ushered in a new era of magnificent and persistent feminist activism, which shall live on, which cannot be locked up or shut down. You have also managed to bring the young feminist activists beyond China, and onto the international stage. As Sile (赵思乐) puts it: Whether or not we will be able to continue all depends on ourselves as a group. When some of us got into trouble and are imprisoned, the others did not disperse in fear. Instead, we overcame our fear and took action.
Although we cannot meet at the moment, I feel we are closely and profoundly united. I feel blessed to share such a bond with you, and I love you more than ever.
I’m in my hometown recovering now. So far so good. I shall take this experience as part of life’s trials and tribulations. The only regret I have is that, for the time being, I cannot leave here to hug you all. We of this generation love freedom. Cheers for freedom. A cup of wine until we see each other. Love you.
Li Tingting (李婷婷, a.k.a. Maizi), April 20, 2015
Thank you for your support, my friends in China, including my feminist allies, LGBT comrades, college alumni, close friends and netizens who care for me. Thank you for your help. In a domestic situation as critical at it is now, you have great power to speak up for justice and truth regardless of the cost. It was just for your efforts that I could walk out of the house of detention and see the smog of the capital city again.
Thank you for your support, lawyer Yan Xin, Xu Rong, and Wang Yu. You have never stopped providing me with strong support when I was illegally detained or since I was released on bail. Thank you for stepping out to represent me. Your timely visits and legal efforts helped make it possible to defend my legitimate rights, your effective communication and constant encouragement helped instill confidence in me that I’m innocent when I was interrogated and faced the pressure of self-incrimination.
Thank you, friends from all over the world, I may or may not know you but you are our allies and fellow-travelers. Your concern for our case and your demand for our freedom enabled more people to know us, to understand us, and you have made China and the world witness the strength and power of the young feminist activists. If we eventually achieve the dignity and freedom we deserve, you will be among those whose contribution is indelible.
Thank you, my family. You have fought fearlessly in the face of danger. You pushed back the pressure and refused to write a letter to persuade me to confess to a crime that I had not committed. You have been my most solid backer and my safe haven, and you have freed me from all family concerns.
Thank you, my girlfriend. In face of hardship, you endured insult and humiliation to secure the best outcome for me. Today, you are still doing everything you can to handle issues after my release. Xiao La (小辣), I’m sorry to put you through all this.
There are more feelings in me than I can express in words. There is so much to thank. I hope to have a chance to thank each of you in person. Our struggle has yet to succeed, and there is still hard work ahead. I will continue to fight for my innocence and freedom, and I will keep up the pursuit of justice. My belief in feminism has become only stronger after this episode. Thank you all again.
Wang Man (王曼), April 20, 2015
Hi, my caring and loving friends:
It’s been a full week since I came out of the Haidian Detention Center. Encouraged by friends and loved ones, I have been recovering. Please be assured that I am all right now.
Since the first phone call I answered upon my release, what I have wanted to say the most is simply thank you all – my family, friends, and lovers of justice in China and abroad, whom we may or may not know, who voiced their support. Without you, we might still be in prison enduring brutalities.
I want to thank Ms. Zhao Xia, my lawyer. The moment I saw her, I was reassured by her succinct and powerful remarks, which strengthened my belief in my innocence and informed me of the support in China and beyond.
I want to thank my four “co-offenders.” Their singing, which soared above the barbed wire walls, and their firm glances helped me to hold back tears.
I want to thank my fellow inmates (I hope they will see these words when they are freed). They did chores and duties for me, and they gave me the corner, the best spot in the cell, to me so that I could rest better, encouraging me to “get recharged and persevere to the end.”
I want to thank my friends, my elders, my lawyers and media friends for their rescue efforts on our behalf. They have embraced personal risks when they campaigned for us. Whether they carried it on or were forced underground, I imagine you have endured no less than I did.
I want to thank various women’s rights groups and people from all walks of life inside and outside China. Loud and clear, you supported us, strangers and ordinary people tens of thousands miles away, and your voices from beyond the national boundaries have impressed me profoundly.
The 38 days behind bars have strengthened me. We have yet to regain our rightful freedom and justice, we shall continue to demand them, and we appreciate your continuing support.
Thank you again!
Zheng Churan (郑楚然, a. k. a. Datu)
I thought I would cry only when I was detained, and I thought I would stop crying once released. No, not at all. I am still crying. As I browsed through the multitude of voices of support posted in the past 38 days, I was shaken from head to toe! During my only meeting with the lawyer, I was moved when Mr. Hu said “many people are campaigning for you, international, domestic, and especially from Sun Yat-san University,” but I had no idea that the campaign was so large, so earth-shaking, so beyond what I had ever seen. I was so moved, so flabbergasted that I did not know what to say but let tears flow.
Using a borrowed cellphone, I browsed articles that had not yet been censored (of course, most WeChat posts had been deleted with a big red exclamation mark in their places), crying as I read. My heart thumped when I saw photos of the five of us being carried from city to city around the world. I couldn’t stop crying when I learned that my schoolmates in Sun Yat-san University were summoned by police, warned by school administrators, and the campus was being “interrogated.” I can’t tell you how proud I am of my alumni and friends from other university campuses for their moral clarity.
Belatedly I received greetings from almost all corners of the world. I saw feminism being widely discussed. Feminists, women’s rights activists, LGBTQIA supporters, NGOers, our lawyers, legal professionals, citizens, my factory worker friends, students, scholars, researchers, media friends, and everyone else……I browsed through the posts of the friend circle, and I’m still reading it today, still crying now and then. And I read over and over again articles by teachers and mentors who I had always admired.
How vulnerable I was when I was cut off from information, and how my self-confidence and self-esteem ebbed in isolation. Once out of jail, I realized all the worries I had about you all while I was in detention were completely unnecessary—you are braver and stronger than I had thought and you are my pride. Your posts in the friend circle helped me to restore my confidence. Reading those legal analyses of this case, I saw that I was innocent (I will start reading the criminal law and the criminal procedural law). Law is not a doll to be dressed by someone at will; it is based on reason. Oh, I digressed.
Thanks to all of you, thanks for everything you are, past, present, and future.
Wu Rongrong, April 18, 2015
With your caring thoughts and well-wishing over the last few days, Rongrong has been slowly reviving, finding again her inner strength.
The night I was released, my husband choked several times telling me what had happened while I was in jail. I felt inspired as never before. As Teacher Wang Zheng put it, this is a world-wide women’s rights movement.
I have been catching up for the past few days, reading once and again some articles. The love and care emitting from those pages gives me the strength to start anew. I saw the signatures of my Hepatitis B friends; I saw the signature campaign launched by the lawyers; I saw feminist sisters inside China and abroad wearing masks of our photos; I saw people tirelessly passing on information and speaking out for the sake of justice; I saw photos of Big Sis Ye Jinghuan being taken away by police as she showed up in the detention center to bring me medicines; I saw the nursery rhymes professor Ai Xiaoming wrote and the letter from Professor Wang Zheng. Indeed, help and concern came from many and from all over the places. I feel love and strength.
On behalf of my family, I thank you all. While in custody, I had a dream one night. I dreamed of a roomful of balloons and smiles. And I believe I felt then the power of your support. It will accompany me wherever I go.
I look forward to seeing you again one day, when we will talk and cheer.
Meet the 5 Female Activists China Has Detained, April 6, 2015.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015
The Education of Detained Chinese Feminist Li Tingting, an Excerpt from “China’s Millennials: The Want Generation” by Eric Fish.
Taking Feminist Battle to China’s Streets, and Landing in Jail, April 5th, 2015.
Lawyer’s Account of Second Meeting with Li Tingting, March 25, 2015
(Translated by Li Sumiao)
By Wu Rongrong, published: April 27, 2015
Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘), though released along with the four other feminist activists on April 13, was subjected to grueling, humiliating interrogations on April 23rd and 24th. Don’t let the CCP machine destroy the very best of China. – The Editor
Fate and chance made me a social worker and a feminist: gentle and timid in appearance, but a staunch defender of women’s rights.
After four years of college social work studies and volunteer experience, I set off on a path of social advocacy
At college, I majored in social work. I fell in love with the ideas, values and curriculum of that major, its concern for society’s most vulnerable groups and its quest for fairness and justice. My Alma mater, China Women’s University (中华女子学院), was papered with images of heroic women who had been tireless campaigners for women’s rights. During my college years, apart from studying the book, I spent a lot of time volunteering at various public interest NGOs. I spent nearly two years as a volunteer at the China Children’s Press and Publication Group’s “Heart-to-Heart Hotline,” and nearly four years as a volunteer at the New Path Foundation’s Big Brother/Big Sister Program, where I served until I moved back to Hangzhou. In addition, I did a variety of volunteer work for other NGOs, pitching in for periods of days or weeks.
In the second half of my senior year at college, a friend who had opened up a bookstore couldn’t believe that I managed to be so actively involved in various kinds of social work while I was still bunking with roommates in a tiny, less than 8-meter-square, 600-yuan-per-month [then about $75 US dollars] apartment near Tsinghua University. But my material needs were few, and I realized that what made me happiest was using what I’d learned to do something of value to society.
In addition to my volunteer work during those years, I also did some personal advocacy, speaking up for the legitimate rights of many disadvantaged people. For example, when I heard about a female student who had been infected with HIV and was being pressured by her college to drop out, I took action at my own college—telling my friends, classmates and roommates to tell their friends and classmates about the young woman’s predicament, in the hope of drawing societal attention to the fact that she and other HIV-positive individuals have a legitimate right to an education. I was involved in many such efforts.
As a young student striving for academic success, I applied for scholarships and grants that required me to obtain certain certifications from officials of my home village. These officials frequently took advantage of the situation to sexually harass me or make me clean their houses for free. As a young student in that sort of environment, I had no advocate or supporter to turn to. Had I tried to speak up for myself, it would have resulted in humiliating gossip and innuendo and made me unable to show my face in the village.
In 2005, instead of returning to my hometown for Chinese New Year, I decided to stay in Beijing and find work. When I found myself in a car headed for Shunyi [a district in the far northeastern corner of Beijing] with a man who had posed as an employer to lure me there, I began to understand just how helpless I was—a weak and feeble woman versus a large and powerful man. Fortunately, thanks to some quick thinking on my part, I managed to call for reinforcements and get away. Like me, all of my female friends encountered harassment when looking for full-time or part-time work. As eighteen- or nineteen-year-old girls, all we could think of was buying a fruit knife for self-defense.
I am interested in public service, not only because of my vocation, but also because of a beautiful misunderstanding. While in college, en I entered university, a physical exam revealed that I was a “healthy carrier” of hepatitis B. Growing up in a small mountain village in Luliangshan (山西吕梁山), I had never heard of such a thing, but the doctor at the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital [in Beijing] told me not to worry, I could be 28 years old before I got sick. I took this to mean that I had only 10 more years to live, so from then on, I made a habit of trying to live each day to the fullest, and make sure each day was meaningful.
Why I stood up for Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) and spoke out against sexual harassment— courage and conviction in the struggle for women’s rights
As a child, I grew up in an extremely patriarchal environment where girls were regarded worthless. Too many times, I witnessed promising young girls from our village forced to abandon their studies and go to work to support their brothers’ educations. My close friend and neighbor, who was one of four children, was only thirteen years old when she left school and started working. After a large portion of her body was burned in an explosion of a fireworks factory, she eventually got married to a very elderly man. As the daughter of a poor family, my quest for an education was hampered not only by severe economic hardship, but also by well-meaning people who tried to dissuade me from continuing my education.
In 2009, when a young sauna employee named Deng Yujiao used a fruit knife to stab to death a government official who had been sexually harassing her, it made me think of the harassment that many of my female classmates and I had experienced. To show our support for Deng Yujiao, a younger female classmate and I put on a work of performance art called “Deng Yujiao could be any one of us.” Although that was over six years ago, during my recent detention the interrogators asked me about that performance repeatedly, and kept demanding to know who or what was behind it. I told them exactly what I’ve described above, and while I don’t know if my explanation elicited any compassion from them, I hope that it did, at least from those with daughters of their own at home. I’m not some mastermind conspirator working behind the scenes to disturb the social order; I just want to call attention to the plight of women facing sexual harassment, and call for more public measures to punish and deter perpetrators.
Don’t cry, friends—you’re not alone
The reason my fellow feminists and I were detained was because of our planned campaign [to distribute stickers with anti-sexual harassment slogans] on March 8, International Women’s Day. But in fact, by March 6, we had already made separate promises to local police not to go forward with the event, and had even submitted our stickers and printed materials to the authorities. The original intention was simply to bring the community together to oppose sexual harassment, and to extend loving support to women who had experienced sexual harassment. Time and again, I’ve blamed myself…blamed myself for getting my fellow feminists detained. I wonder if they, like me, are being treated as political prisoners. Just thinking about it makes me even more upset. Every time I think about it, I worry that they’ll hate me for it.
Several of my fellow feminists were detained a day before I was. Some people, not understanding the situation, asked why I didn’t try to hide. The thought did occur to me, but only for a moment, and then I pushed it aside. I told some of my younger friends, the ones who hadn’t been detained, that I was going to go back to Hangzhou to explain the situation [to the authorities]. I naively thought that if [the authorities] had me in hand, other friends with minimal involvement in the campaign would be released. I naively thought that keeping my friends company would make them safer than if I went into hiding, so I made up my mind and boarded a flight to Hangzhou.
Big Rabbit [Zheng Churan’s nickname] and I were interrogated separately but on the same floor in the evenings. Twice I heard her crying. I worried whether she had a vicious interrogator, or whether she was under too much pressure or suffering too much. At the time, I stopped and strained to hear what was happening in her room. Every day I prayed that my younger friends wouldn’t lose hope, that they wouldn’t feel alone. Sometimes we saw each other, and I wished I could tell them I’m here, I’m staying strong, and just knowing that we’re not suffering alone makes it easier to bear.
Making the best of a bad situation: my creative life in detention
My beauty regime: Of the 38 days in detention, I spent 19 days in a public security bureau hospital. 19 days, that’s all it took to transform my usual sallow complexion into a beautiful rosy glow. The secret was the leftover congee [rice gruel], which I would stir and stir (of course, as I stirred, I thought of my adorable little son, whose current pet phrase is “stir, stir the chocolate”). When applied to the face and body, the pale green gruel not only rids one’s skin of sallowness, it also keeps one’s hair soft and supple. Although the hospital had no “Yumeijing” brand beauty products or good shampoo, still I managed to emerge snow white and squeaky clean.
DIY fashion to beat the heat: During my first days in the detention center, the indoor temperature was kept too high, so I had to get creative by ripping out the stitching of my shirt with my teeth and removing the sleeves. It was a very fashionable look, but unfortunately the shirt was later confiscated, so I was unable to keep it as a souvenir. However, I would not recommend that others try the same, as some detention centers prohibit detainees from altering their uniforms.
Staying in shape by running in place: This is the very best medicine for curing pain and loss. Naturally, when running in place, keeping the arms elevated the entire time is an effective treatment for both neck pain and rheumatism.
The simple pleasures of reciting classical poetry: Before, I was never really able to relax and enjoy reciting classical poetry by heart—majestic lines like [Su Shi’s] “Eastward flows the Yangtze River, washing away all traces…”, or the bold optimism of Li Bai’s “Bringing in the Wine”, or the gentle beauty of [Xu Zhimo’s] “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again.” With such enjoyment, I would feel there wasn’t anything too difficult to get through.
There’s more, so much more. Later, someone will pick up where I left off.
You see, life is beautiful, I love you all, you who give me strength and warmth. You also give me the courage to describe my experience. I believe that, at the end of all this suffering, there will be a rainbow.
(Original title: Don’t Cry, Friends—You’re Not Alone)
Chinese Officers Harshly Interrogated Women’s Rights Activist, Husband Says, the New York Times, April 28, 2015.
Chinese feminist: Long hours of interrogations after release, AP, April 25, 2015.
(Translated by Cindy Carter)
Chinese original (the Chinese was posted in a friend group as a set of jpegs; China Change transcribed them for easy reading.)
By Beijing Yirenping Center, April 14, 2015
On April 14, Hong Lei, the Spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), stated publicly that our organization, Beijing Yirenping Center (BYC), “has allegedly violated the law, and will be punished.” Our organization’s response is as follows:
1. We welcome MOFA in its open discussion on BYC, as this is an improvement upon the break-in raid into our office, in the early hours of March 24.
2. BYC will take the accusation from MOFA seriously. We will hire legal counsel to respond in accordance with China’s laws, as well as pursue the March 24 office raid.
3. Since BYC’s founding in 2006, we have been the target of rigorous “solicitude” from various departments and levels of the police force. We have reason to believe that, should BYC have broken the law in any way, the police would have raised the issue long ago, rather than leaving it to be picked up by the foreign affairs agency. The fact remains that no one in the police force has ever pointed out any illegality in BYC’s work; on the contrary, across the board they see BYC’s work as meaningful. We are now unsure which of these two divergent opinions to believe.
4. We have noticed that, starting last year, other anti-discrimination groups in China have run into a series of crackdown that is without legal basis or warning. In July 2014, Zhengzhou Yirenping, an organization whose mission is eliminating discrimination against disability, was raided; in March 2015, Weizhiming, a Hangzhou group whose mission is eliminating gender discrimination, saw the same thing happen.
5. As the first professional public interest group against discrimination in China, BYC has, in collaboration with many other players, consistently pushed the envelope on anti-discrimination and promotion of equal rights. After many years of hard work, the concept of “anti-discrimination” is increasingly gaining currency within the entire society. In the communique issued after the 4th Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, “the elimination of all employment discrimination” was also raised. The government declares the intention to fight discrimination on the one hand, and on the other raids the office of anti-discrimination organizations and makes accusation of “illegality.” It is hard for people to know whether the government policies are real, uniform or consistent.
6. The “Five Feminist Sisters” just released are all peers and good friends of BYC, and three of them either are or used to be our colleagues. They were arrested without justification by the police for organizing a legal education drive to fight sexual harassment on public transportation, and we joined everyone else both in China and abroad as a matter of course to protest these arrests and to advocate for them. On April 13, we were relieved and overjoyed at their release. However, we do not flatter ourselves that BYC had made any out-of-the-ordinary contribution to the advocacy campaign, nor can we prove that the March 24 raid of our office and the MOFA accusation constitute “retribution” against us.
China accuses prominent NGO of ‘breaking the law’, Reuters, April 14, 2015
China Raids Offices of Rights Group as Crackdown on Activism Continues, New York Times, March 26, 2015.
(Translated by China Change)
Chinese original, not yet available on the web.