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Who Are the Young Women Behind the ‘#MeToo in China’ Campaign? An Organizer Explains

Xiao Meili, March 27, 2018


Meili, and Zheng Churan, Leta

Zheng Churan (郑楚然) and Xiao Meili (肖美丽), right, are two Guangzhou-based feminist activists. Photo: @LetaHong


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.

The Beginning

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.


#米兔在中国# Weibo feed 

Joining Forces

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.


MetooinChina Zhang Leilei

Zhang Leillei (right) and other activists staged an advertisement campaign to stop sexual harassment on public transportation. Photo: online


Joining In

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.

Metoo rally in DC, VOA

Chinese women took their message to MeToo rally in Washington, DC, in January 2018. Photo: VOA



Facing Suppression

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.


Metoo walk in NYC, Zheng and Liang, Leta

Feminist activist Liang Xiaowen (left) and Zheng Churan took part in MeToo rally in New York city. Photo: @LetaHong


What’s Next?

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.

Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with Gender Scholar Wang Zheng, April, 2015.





Legal Opinion on Dropping the Investigation Against the “Feminist Five”

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:

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

  1. 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:

  1. On several occasions, they used blank summons documents to summon Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong;
  2. After summoning or detaining her, police failed to notify Li Tingting’s family members in accordance with the law;
  3. 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;
  4. 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;
  5. Knowing that several of the suspects were homosexual, interrogators used coarse language to humiliate them;
  6. Police smoked during Li Tingting’s interrogation and blew smoke in her face;
  7. Police broke the lock as they burst into Li Tingting’s residence, resulting in serious damage to her property and loss of personal items;
  8. 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.

  1. 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:

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:


February 26, 2016




Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with Gender Scholar Wang Zheng, April 12, 2015.

Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.



On the Release of Five Feminist Activists in China – Statement by Gender Scholar Wang Zheng

By Wang Zheng, published: April 13, 2015


Professor Wang Zheng, of University of Michigan.

Professor Wang Zheng, of University of Michigan. Online phot. 

It is to my great relief that the authorities have decided to release the five feminists on bail. However, we insist that the police drop all charges against the five rather than treating them as “suspects”, restricting their physical mobility and job opportunity, and deprive them of their freedom and rights as citizens. Our fight for their total freedom continues.

In the Chinese context, this is the first time that a group of detained social activists are released all at once. This decision suggests: one, the unprecedented huge mobilization of global feminist and other non-governmental organizations’ support is effective. The massive grassroots based petitions not only pushed their own respective state politicians to respond, it also demonstrated clearly to the Chinese government that this petition is not instigated by a nation- based political enemy, but by a global political force – transnational feminists and other grassroots organizations for social justice and equality.  This global political force cannot be suppressed by the Chinese state, or any national state. And no nation state should treat this global political force as its enemy. That would be too foolish.

Two, the Chinese government is not a monolithic entity and the decision is a compromise among different political factions or state branches. It can be imagined how ferocious the contentions behind the scenes were over how to handle this hot potato in their hands. The final compromise shows clearly that there were officials in the system who pushed very hard towards a positive solution.

For both above reasons, today I am hopeful. History does not end but evolves with contentions of various forces in an indeterminate manner. I am grateful for the amazing transnational support to five Chinese feminists. I feel fortunate that there are still officials in the Chinese government who chose to stand on the side of social justice, or who simply have the sensibility of not sticking to a stupid mistake.

That said, I am fully aware of the grave challenges Chinese feminists confront with. As long as non-governmental organizations’ activism for advocating and implementing laws relating to gender equality or any other issue is defined as criminal, there will be no safe zone for feminists as well as activists working in other realms for social justice. Thus, our efforts cannot stop here with the release of the five. We need to further help the government understand that feminists are an extremely important social group to move China towards the realization of rule of law. The five young feminists should be treated as exemplars of modern citizens who have a strong sense of citizens’ rights and responsibilities and who have the capacity to take action to not only advocate for new laws but also to implement the laws in a country where there remains a huge gap between the laws on paper and the actual implementation.

And we have all noticed the UN’s awkward silence in the global uproar against the detention. Now the global activists are shifting their gaze to the UN who has the plan to co-host the Global Summit for Women with China, and see if they will do something constructive to set the five feminists totally free.

Finally, I am hopeful also because throughout this process I have been witnessing the rise of an increasingly large group of extremely brave young feminists that include men. The detention and the global support have totally galvanized a whole cohort of young Chinese in and outside China, turning them into social activists with deep commitment and a global vision. They are absolutely my sunshine through this ordeal. As Yan Wenxin, a male lawyer who involved in the case, commented, “The feminist group’s amazing solidarity, tenacity, and braveness is truly admirable.” Yes, the event has turned the term “feminist” a glorious one. Today so many young women on the Wechat proudly declared, “I am so proud of being a feminist!”


Wang Zheng (王政)

April 13, 2015




Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with Gender Scholar Wang Zheng, April 11, 2015

Lawyer Wang Qiushi’s statement (he represents Wei Tingting) via @Stone_SkyNews:

Statement by lawyer Wang Qiushi

Statement by lawyer Wang Qiushi

Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with Gender Scholar Wang Zheng

Published: April 11, 2015

“You must know the global picture of women to understand the international response to the detention of the five feminists in China.”


Professor Wang Zheng spoke at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, on April 3, 2015.

Professor Wang Zheng spoke at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, on April 3, 2015. Photo credit: @LetaHong

Professor Wang Zheng (王政), of the University of Michigan, is a scholar whose research focuses on the modern and contemporary history of Chinese women and gender, and Chinese feminism in the era of globalization. Since 1993, Professor Wang has been working with Chinese domestic feminist scholars to promote feminist scholarship and establish courses in women studies and gender studies. She has also participated in the feminist movement itself in China over the years. On April 3rd, Professor Wang gave a speech at Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, about the recent arrest of the five Chinese feminists (starts around 48:00). On April 7th, the editor of this website talked to Professor Wang, further discussing the Chinese and global background of the incident and how it will impact the women’s rights movement in China.

YC: (Yaxue Cao): In your speech at Brookings, you hinted that you had known beforehand these young feminists’ action plan on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Do you know them?

Wang: They are either my students or the students of my students.

YC: Oh, how so?

Wang:  In 1989, when a group of Chinese PhDs or PhD candidates studying abroad attended an academic conference, we said, since we were all interested in women’s studies, we hoped to foster the development of feminist scholarship in Chinese universities, given that feminism and gender studies had already been well established in American higher education. At the same time, we also hoped to help the west to learn about changes in China in this area. We wanted to be this bridge. So we founded Chinese Society for Women’s Studies (海外中华妇女学学会), and I was one of the founders. In 1993, we applied and received a grant to hold seminars and training in partnership with Chinese universities and research institutes

Professor Wang Zheng (far right on 2nd row) in a Chinese feminist forum at Nanjing University, 2014.

Professor Wang Zheng (far right on 2nd row) taking part in a Chinese feminist forum at Nanjing University, 2014.

on women. We also translated and published many titles of feminist scholarship.  In 1999, I went back to China to work there. Working with colleagues in China, we initiated programs for women and gender studies, and the participants included government officials, China’s Women’s Federation, the China Social Science Academy, and the university faculty and students. In China, women’s studies can be traced back to the 1980s, but it was suppressed following the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989. But after that, seeking ways to return to the international community, China hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women. To host the Conference, there must be a NGO forum, and China had to accept that. So the Chinese government gave a special pass for NGOs on women’s issues. So along with the Fourth World Conference on Women, NGOs on women’s issues began to flourish in China. It was against this backdrop that our Society worked in China legitimately and smoothly.

YC: How many members does the society have?

Wang: Over 100 scholars. The number fluctuates. It’s not just us who came from mainland China; it also includes scholars from around the world who study Chinese women’s issues. After returning to China in 1999, my Chinese colleagues and I secured a big grant from the Ford Foundation to train teachers in colleges. Our objective was very clear: we wanted to establish this field of scholarship to produce knowledge and to become interconnected with the international field. Speaking of interconnection with international scholarship, one of the most disconnected areas is feminist scholarship. We charged no fees for our training, and more, we disseminated large volumes of feminist translations and textbooks.

At the beginning, we held five-day training sessions, and we covered many people and many schools. In 2002, we partnered with China Women’s University (中华女子学院) and Hong Kong Chinese University and launched a three-year program. And later, China Women’s University became the first higher education institute in China to offer an undergraduate degree in women’s studies. After I began to teach at the University of Michigan, I still went back to China every year, and I established a base in Fudan University in Shanghai, the Michigan-Fudan Joint Institute for Gender Studies (密歇根大学-复旦大学社会性别研究所) where we offer courses during the summer. A number of feminist activists, not the ones who were detained, attended my classes. I know very well one of the five detained feminists who at one point attended my class.

YC: Wu Rongrong, one of the five, is a graduate of China’s Women University. Nine were arrested initially, and I think there must be a lot more feminist activists out there. So the feminist activism has been closely related to feminist studies in China, right?

Wang:  Right. They are the generation of feminists who grew up during a historical time when feminist discourse had been disseminated and making tremendous impact in China, centering on the two documents of the Fourth World Conference on Women – the Beijing Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action, the implementation and the review. And these are the key documents of global women’s rights, and gender, which is a feminist concept, is the core concept of these two documents. Comparing global feminism with the work of the Women’s Federation (妇女联合会) under the auspices of the Chinese government, there are commonalities in both ideology and practice, but the difference is significant.

YC: As such, feminist studies and practices in today’s China are closely tied to the Fourth World Conference on Women held in 1995 in Beijing, and they are part of the global women’s rights movement. Specifically, how did you learn about these young women’s action plan for International Women’s Day?

Professor Wang lectures at Nanjing Normal University in 2010. Online photo.

Professor Wang lectures at Nanjing Normal University in 2010. Online photo.

Wang: Through WeChat. We are all in a WeChat group. I taught a lot of students in China over the years, and my students in turn have students, and we have a very big network. In addition, I’m also a participatory observer as a historian of Chinese women’s rights. Some of my earliest students have long become influential organizers. Among them, there are lawyers, professors, journalists, students, and they are very effective action-takers. Some work in public, and others prefer to stay less visible. They have different strategies. Before they were scattered in smaller WeChat groups, for example, the students I taught last year had their own WeChat group. But last July, after the sexual harassment case of a Xiamen University professor, an anti-sexual harassment WeChat group was formed to facilitate interaction and discussion. They are very capable women. They launched a signature campaign before Teacher’s Day (September 10) to mobilize university faculty and students, and they wrote letters to the Ministry of Education. All of these were done on WeChat. The young activists, including the detained five, did an enormous amount of work among college students, disseminating pamphlets telling them what to do when they are sexually harassed by their teachers. So, this year, approaching the International Women’s Day, people in the group asked: What do we do to mark International Women’s Day this year? Lively exchanges ensued. These young activists said they were going to be distributing leaflets against sexual harassment on public transportation, and everybody cheered them: Great, that’s a creative idea! Then all of a sudden, the news came that they are taken by the police. At first, people in the group didn’t think it was anything serious. “Probably just drinking tea,” they said.

[“Drink tea” refers to police summons for interrogation, an extralegal practice used by Chinese security police to intimidate dissent and social activism. – the Editor]

YC:  I didn’t think it was serious either at first.

Wang: Then they were brought to Beijing, and that’s very serious, something different altogether. I was puzzled at first: why are they detaining people in Guangzhou if it was related to the Two Sessions in Beijing? When they were brought to Beijing, everyone realized something was wrong. Their laptops and cellphones were also seized. We couldn’t get in touch with them anymore, and the police can read all of our WeChat conversations.

YC: WeChat is watched and monitored closely anyway.

Wang:  So people in the group stopped talking, knowing that the police will be reading whatever they said. At a time like that, I felt I had to speak up. So I did. Through WeChat, I wanted to shout out to the police. The detention is so stupid. When you detain feminists on the eve of International Women’s Day, you not only trample over the basic national policy of gender equality, you also provoke the international feminists. So I wrote and wrote, hoping that they would be sensible and release the five. Of course they don’t give a damn to what I said. Others in the group became nervous, “Teacher Wang, stop talking, the police are watching.” I said, “I know. I’m talking to them.” The detention of the five drove others underground, because the police had intended to arrest more, not just these few.

YC: Why did the Chinese authorities do this? What’s their thinking?

Wang: They want to smash Yirenping (益仁平). Yirenping is a NGO [that promotes rights for the disabled, workplace discrimination, etc.] These young feminists are affiliated with Yirenping where they have a group working on gender equality. The authorities probably don’t want to make too big a splash by arresting the head of Yirenping, so they detained these young women to send the message. They succeeded in terrifying Yirenping. Once these young feminists were detained, everyone working at Yirenping knew this was about Yirenping. But the police are so ignorant, and they have no idea what a force the global feminists are.

YC: They also raided Yirenping’s Beijing office. And Beijing police investigated feminist activists who took part in the Occupy Men’s Room (“占领男厕所“) campaign a few years back. But the Chinese authorities are probably surprised by how big a global response they caused and how fast it occurred.

Wang: That’s because they are ignorant. These male Chinese officials have not an iota of an idea about the women’s rights movement and organizations around the world. Nor are they informed about the international situation. In their mind, these young feminists are less than nobody, with no power and no impact.

Let me give you the global picture. You must know this picture to understand the global response. March 9th to 22nd, for two weeks, the United Nations’ 59th Commission on the Status of Women met to assess global progress for women 20 years after the Beijing Conference, and in attendance were more than 1,100 NGOs and a total of 8,600 representatives from around the world. Thousands marched in New York City on March 8, 2015, in support of women’s rights and gender equality, and there were already signs in the march calling for the release of the five. On March 9, the UN Chinese delegation announced that, in September, China will co-host the global women’s summit with the UN. Xi Jinping will be visiting the U. S. in September, and he will be giving a speech at the summit. These were arranged and prepared a long time ago, and the stage has long been set. The detention of the five is like lighting a match and throwing it on a pile of firewood. China barbarically detains feminists who campaign against sexual harassment, meanwhile on the world stage, China is co-hosting a women’s summit with the UN. No one can disregard such incongruity. So before the two-week conference was over, feminist leaders from around the world, not just the U.S. but also India, South Korea, and many other countries, organized protests in front of the Chinese embassies. World women’s rights leaders stood in front of the UN headquarters, holding signs that read, “No Release, No Summit.” Therefore, whether or not Chinese authorities release the five activists will determine how Xi Jinping will be greeted during his US trip. There will be consequences, but the Chinese patriarchal leaders have had no clue.

YC: This Monday, April 13, is the deadline for prosecutors to decide whether or not to formally arrest the five. If all five, or four, three, or even one, of the five are formally arrested, what do you think international feminists and women’s rights organizations should do? What can they do? In your speech at Brookings, you urged Americans in the audience to contact the American government, contact President Obama, asking them to pressure the Chinese government. But if you ask me, in my own experience as an activist over the last two years or so, I have come to placing less and less hope on the American government. Instead, I feel there is a lot that NGOs and civil society can do to effect change. For example, this time, I think the most effective and impactful action would be to boycott the global women’s summit in September.

Wang:  They are already taking actions and doing a lot of things. They are already asking among themselves: What leverage do we have? I just told you the global picture.

Masked activists pose on a subway with tea cups. Being "invited to drink tea" is a common euphemism Chinese authorities use for bringing activists in for interrogation. Credit: China File.

Masked activists pose on a subway with tea cups. Being “invited to drink tea” is a common euphemism Chinese authorities use for bringing activists in for interrogation. Credit: China File.

YC: You touched on this the other day when you said China’s political climate is uncongenial to NGO activism, and you talked about the apolitical strategy of the Chinese feminists. Dr. Leta Hong Fincher used the word “merely” several times to emphasize the apolitical nature of these young women’s activism.

Wang:  I have worked with Chinese colleagues on women’s rights for over 20 years from 1993 to the present, and I know very well that every feminist in China understands where the line is. As I said, benefiting from the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Chinese authorities gave special tolerance to NGOs on women’s issues. So there are anti-domestic violence organizations, there are gender development groups, and there are organizations that help women in countryside to fight poverty. A lot has been done, but the work must limit itself within the boundaries of protecting women’s equality as defined by Chinese law, and never get involved in the so-called sensitive issues. Chinese women’s rights activists have been very vigilant against such involvement.

YC: This is exactly my question. The Chinese feminists, or any Chinese citizen for that matter, think they know clearly where the boundaries are and are careful not to step over them. The feminists in your WeChat group obviously didn’t think these young women were crashing the limits when they proposed action plan against sexual harassment on public transportation. So ultimately, it still comes down to the question of political rights and civil rights. There is no escaping it.

Wang: I wrote a lot on WeChat, and I said the detention busted the bottom line. These young women didn’t organize a political party, nor are they against the communist party, nor did they engage in separatism. They did not do anything that can be accused of threatening your regime. They were defending women’s rights safeguarded by the law. It is a turning point for women’s rights in China when these activities are outlawed.

YC: Is this what you meant when you said, in your Brookings speech, that the detention of the five changed the field of feminism in China?

Wang: Yes, “field” in the same sense of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. From the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 to the present, we have strictly limited our discourse and actions to address the social and cultural inequality in a patriarchal culture, and we have never had anything to do with the issue of regimes. Now they say, “No, you can’t do this either, no more talking about gender inequality and discrimination.” Now, even the words “women’s rights” become prohibited.

YC: You have been engaged in women’s rights education in China for so long and you have many interactions with Chinese universities and organizations. Going forward, what kind of impact will the detention of the five have on NGO work to promote women’s rights?

Wang: Can’t go on anymore. These women didn’t even go on the street yet. They were only planning it when they were apprehended. In universities, when many students made calls to release the five, the administration and student counselors found each of them and intimidated them: What did you do on Sunday? Cease these activities! So, white terror everywhere.

YC:  This is promoting women’s rights in a big iron cage. The Chinese feminists might have felt that they enjoyed a special freedom, but now they see the barbaric and brutal reality where every Chinese citizen, man or woman, is denied of basic political rights. You are the director of the US-China Gender Studies program, and you have a partnership with Fudan University. How will this event affect your teaching and research in China?

Wang: If these five young women are tried and sentenced, if the Chinese government decides to follow their course to the end to wipe out these feminist activists, then I’m prepared to be arrested too next time when I return to China. Of course I’m an independent scholar and all I have done is speak out. They have been censoring the news to prevent people from knowing what happened. Then my task as a scholar is to inform the public. This is my responsibility, because I believe you are wrong to arrest these women and you are wrong to suppress the news of their detention. If you think you are doing the right thing, why are you trying to hide it? Since you are sneaky about it, I have to speak up. To me, the logic of this is very simple.

YC: Will they cancel your programs in Chinese universities?

Wang: They may, but it doesn’t matter. For all the work I have done in China since 1993, I have not taken one penny from the Chinese government. I applied for and received grants from various foundations to do my work.

YC: There, you are the “foreign force” and must be driven out.

Wang: They can’t say foreign funding is foreign force. The Chinese government entities receive far more money from foreign foundations than Chinese NGOs. I can tell you all about it. To say I’m “foreign force,” I tell you, I am still a Chinese national with a passport of the People’s Republic of China.

YC: I remember someone did a study and concluded that foreign charities, such as the Ford Foundation, give most of their money to Chinese government programs than to civil groups and NGOs.

Wang: Yes, as a grantee of the Ford Foundation, the project officer once said that a lion’s share of their money was given to government programs or government-sponsored programs. So the Chinese authorities are being disingenuous, very disingenuous.

YC: Even if they don’t arrest you when you go back, they probably will interrogate you.

Wang: Oh, interrogation is nothing.

YC: Have you been interrogated before?

Wang: I have organized many international seminars in China. In Fudan for example, I organized three large-scale ones. The police came every time, not interrogating me but my Fudan partners. They would say, “Give us the complete list of attendees,” and they would review it. Last time they told us one of the persons on the list was not allowed to come. Everything I did in China had been under their surveillance. I’m an academic and I didn’t do anything they could construe as illegal. But the problem is, you don’t have to break the law for them to arrest you. If they want to criminalize you, they will find or create charges against you. They can do that and they have done that. So I’m prepared.

YC: My sense is that the detention of the five is part of the broad suppression of public-interest NGOs in China since last year, especially NGOs receiving foreign funding. Do many women’s rights NGOs in China receive foreign funding?

Wang: Of course, they all have to, because nobody in China gives you money to do what you do. Besides, wealthy Chinese are not doing such charity work. All they do is indulge in extravagance. Are there public-interest charities in China? Very few. Domestic NGOs all have to apply for funding from foreign foundations.

YC: So in the end, it’s all about the Chinese government’s suppression of civil society. They can take money from left and right, but if you do, you are colluding with foreign forces.

Wang: Right, they alone are the ones who decide the rules of the game.

YC: My last question. The Chinese women’s rights movement has purposefully separated women’s rights from the underlying political rights, but with the persecution of the five feminist activists, the Chinese government now has politicized it, perhaps even politicized it internationally. Is this a promotion of the Chinese women’s rights movement?

Wang: It is. Before there was the illusion, now there is no more illusion. That’s why I keep saying the government is stupid. These young women represent a big section of the population – college students and beyond. This generation grew up in the last twenty and thirty years, most of them not keen on politics. But they are being politicized by this event. Any young women who have had experience of sexual harassment would be angry, and this will raise their consciousness. These young feminist activists have been using performance art as their choice of action, because they have little influence in the system, in academia, or in media. They can only draw attention to issues through performance. That’s why I said their detention is their most successful performance to date, and the police are their prop. It’s going to be a grand performance, impossible not to be.



Signature campaigns:

1 Billion Rising

Feminists all over the World

The Association for the Advancement of Feminism

Amnesty International


Twitter hashtags: #FreeBeijing20Five #FreeTheFive



Meet the 5 Female Activists China Has Detained, April 6, 2015.

Taking Feminist Battle to China’s Streets, and Landing in Jail, April 5th, 2015.

Supporters of Detained Feminists in China Petition for Their Release, April 1, 2015.

Lawyer’s Account of Second Meeting with Li Tingting, March 25, 2015

US Foundations Boost Chinese Government, Not NGOs, Yale Global Online, 2012.


(Translated from the Chinese transcript by Yaxue Cao)

Chinese original

Evernote link accessible from behind the GFW