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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.