Chinese government’s detention of five feminists may have deeper political concern.
By Muyu Xu
On March 7th, a hazy Saturday in Beijing, Wei Tingting was doing laundry at home when the police came in and took her away. "She did not turn off the machine when she left. Apparently she thought she would come back home in some hours." Fan Popo, a roommate of Wei, recalled. But Wei was not released until April 13th, 37 days later. According to Chinese law, 37 days is the maximum restrain for detainment.
Wei was not the only one who was arrested on that day. Tens of feminists around the country were taken by the police, but they were set free within 24 hours. Only Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wang Man and Zheng Churan were arrested and then detained, on the charge of "creating disturbance". The detained five people are all young, well-educated females on the average 27 years old. They are the core members of Chinese new feminism movements and were dubbed as 'Feminist Five'. The Feminist Five were planing to conduct some activities, aiming at raising public awareness of sexual harassment on public transportation, on March 8th - the International Woman’s Day.
"I never thought doing common good would be accused of crime." Wei was shocked when she was transferred from the police station to a detention house. During the detention, she was summoned more than 30 times. According to Wei’s lawyer, Wang Qiushi, the police illegally monitored his meeting with Wei in the detention house.
The detention of five feminists was soon spread on the internet. Foreign media, such as The New York Times, Deutsche Welle, Radio France International and BBC also gave series reports. Hillary Clinton re-twitted The New York Times’ article about the detention and commented "The detention of women’s activists in China must end." Many NGOs worldwide, including Women Human Right Defenders International Coalition and Amnesty International, organized a petition to appeal for the release of the feminists. However, no media in mainland China kept silence about the detention.
The government of People’s Republic of China has always been advocating the idea of gender equality. The arrest of Feminist Five is a sharp-cut contrast to the government's propaganda. Famous Social Issue expert Ai Xiaoming criticize that the behavior of the government mangled all the current legislation of women rights and protection. "The only government in modern China who once suppressed feminism movement was Yuan Shikai’s warlord government a-hundred-years ago!" Li Sixin, a new media convener, bitingly pointed out.
Feminism itself is a thing, but the government must be driven by other causes behind feminism in order to conduct detention against feminists.
Did some work, still a long way to go
Chinese governments, both Republic of China (before 1949) and Peoples Republic of China, have been taking gender equality as a significant part of their governing agenda. From foot-binding housewife to independent office lady, women in China have increasingly enjoyed independence and respect in every areas of society within 100 years.
However, there is still a long way to achieve gender equality in China. Women are still in an inferior position, particularly in rural areas, where the idea of looking up to men and downing on women is still deep-rooted. In terms of legislation, laws of anti-domestic violence are still on the way of enactment.
"I grew up in rural area where beating women is very common. I frequently saw my father beating my mother when i was a child. And our neighbor sometimes dragged his wife out of home and beat her publicly." Wei Tingting said during 'Blood Bride' activity in 2012, a performance art aiming at eliminating domestic violence. "People in my hometown tolerate this violence and see it as a natural part of life."
In a broader political and economic context, women are far from equal to men. The proportion of female NPC (National People’s Congress) is maintaining at the level of 21-23% since 1978, while only 13% of the seats are held by women in the NPC standing committee. There was no female in Political Bureau of the Central Committee (CPC), the core political institution in China, until 2012, and there is still no female member in the CPC standing committee even now, according to data from China Women’s Federation. There is also a lot of improvement that needs to occur in economic and other fields. The Globe Gender Gap Report released by World Economic Forum shows that China only ranked 69 out of 136 countries in terms of economic equality. China Women’s Federation and State Statistics Bureau also pointed out in the survey of women’s status that women are facing gender discrimination in today’s job market.
From state control to self-empowerment
"Let’s say it together. Vagina." "Vagina, I’ve said it." "Vagina. We don’t say it enough." The feminist play 'The Vagina Monologues', written by Eve Ensler, was put on stage in China by groups of professor and college students in 2003. Ke Wenqian, one of the actresses on stage, recalled "When we did it back then, what i was thinking was that we could send out a new message that we can now start to talk about certain topics."
"We want to propel local dialogue, local change," Ke said.
The history of Chinese feminism was interacting with a history of politics. "Feminism is not an easy term to define. In China its meaning has been constantly reinterpreted," Elizabeth Croll concluded in her book 'Feminism and Socialism in China'.
In academia, it is generally believed that the feminism movement started in the late 19th century when male scholars such as Liang Qichao and Jin Tianhe promoted the idea of gender equality, freedom of marriage and female education, even though the word 'feminism' was introduced in China in the early 80s with the books of Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Eagleton and other feminism scholars. The early feminism in China was always combined with the Enlightenment and Nationalism, which was called 'male feminism' by Wang Zheng, professor on Chinese feminism in Michigan University.
As a progressive party in the early 20th century, the Chinese Communism Party did much propaganda on promoting women’s political and economic equality, as part of their "mass line" strategy. In Mao’s time after 1949, "women can hold half side of the sky" is one of the most popular propaganda. The government named a few agricultural women as prototype of "iron lady" to eliminate gender distinctions and to create a collective concept until the end of Mao’s era, when "state feminism" was abandoned together with many other revolutionary concepts.
With the reform and opening-up policies in the 1980s, massive social and economic capitals were inclining back to male power. International Women’s Day, for instance, has become a consuming symbol for male sending gift to women. New feminists are no longer satisfied with being inferior and being controlled. They speaks loud to express themselves.
Together with other feminists, the Feminist Five proposed and participated a series of gender-theme activities, such as "occupy men’s room" (appealing to increase the number of female restrooms), "anti-sexual harassment and anti-gender discrimination in job market," "opposing beauty contest." During the two Conferences (i.e. the National People’s Congress and the Chinese Political Consultative Conference) in 2014, Li Tingting and hundreds of female college students jointly sent letters to NPC members and asked them to increase female restrooms.
Gender study scholar Li Xiaojiang commented that "feminism should be separated from national model and control."
Feminism is a sensitive word
In 2013, the General Office of the Communist Party of China released a confidential internal report Concerning the Situation in the Ideological Sphere, known as “Document No.9 ”, and asked all government officers to carry out. Shortly after the internal circulation, the document was leaked to an overseas based magazine called “Mingjing". In April 2015, a Chinese journalist, Gao Yu, was convicted for releasing Document No.9. The document mainly warns the government officers of seven dangerous western values, i.e. Western constitutional democracy, universal value of human rights, civil society, pro-market neo-liberalism, media independence, historical “nihilism” and questioning reform and opening.
Chinese political commentator Chang Ping reckoned that the feminism ideas promoted by "Feminist Five" collided with the ideology of Chinese Communist Party, especially the Document No.9. "Poor society enhanced the employment rate of women and weakened their dependency of men and family. However, it strengthened the controls and explosion from the government." Chang Ping said, "The new feminists are not satisfied with the ‘cares’ from the government. They act on their own."
Moreover, "feminism" is always tangled with "western" in the discourse system of the Chinese Communism Party. "The efforts of reevaluating western feminism are taken as a challenge to Maoism by Chinese intelligentsia." Wang Zheng described in her book, 'Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual History.'
Challenge the authority
"Gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power," historian Joan W.Scott wrote in her famous article Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.
What feminists are challenging is not only the relationship between men and women in society, but the relationships between individuals and government in power system.
One of the current movements of Chinese feminists is criticizing the opuscules on 2015 Spring Festival Gala. Spring Festival Gala is seen as vane of Chinese social and political trends. Among music, acrobatics, magic and other entertainment performances, opuscules and cross talk are the most welcomed programs because of its sarcasm to the society and politic. However, the opuscule and cross talk on the Gala became less penetrating in recent years due to censorship. Former director of CCTV (China Central Television station) Hong Minsheng criticized that "In the last five years, Spring Festival Gala has been dying and singing the praise of the government." Hong worked as gatekeeper of Spring Festival Gala for 10 years until 1992. From 1992 onward, all the programs on the gala need to pass five censors in order to be put on the stage.
Opuscule "Happy Street" in 2015 was disputed due to its insult of female discrimination of unmarried women, while another opuscule "Cater to their pleasure" and cross talk "That is not mine" hinted that female officials trade their beauty for promotion. 25 people signed the protest letter to the General Bureau of Radio, Film and Television on the second day of the Gala. Among those 25 people, 9 of them claimed they are feminists, and 5 work for NGOs. Li Tingting (one of the Feminist Five) also signed the letter, even though she did it in the name of audience instead of feminist. The protesters also pointed out that at least 44 parts on Spring Festival Gala were involved in discrimination problem.
"Cultural and institutional criticism, together with questioning authority and supremacy, are the core of feminism." Ke Qianting, associate professor of Sun Yan-sen University commented, "Without critical thinking, feminism will be dead."
Protest + The "two conferences" = Arrest
On April 9th, The Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, published an editorial article "Defending feminism is not an excuse for protest and demonstration." The article criticized western forces was conducting Opinion Judgment and took this opportunity to accuse human rights situation in China. "For sure, striving for women rights is not a taboo in China." the article claimed, "however, we need to figure out the true purpose of their activities. Are they really talking feminism? Or using protest to disrupt the social order."
Meanwhile, the article also admitted that "Chinese society is always sensitive toward demonstration. It is widely known that launching illegal protest activities during the Two Conferences increase the possibility of being investigated." Since the "Tian’an men Square protests" in 1989, Chinese government has been highly alert to all protests and demonstration, especially the protests in Beijing and during sensitive times.
The two conferences period is the focal point of stability maintenance. Due to the increasing domestic contradictions between people and governments, together with the corruption in administrative and judicial system, more and more people choose to appeal to higher authorities, i.e. Central government, for help. The annual two conferences period became the peak of appealing. For the concern of stability, Chinese government set up a special department to deal with the petitioners. Sending them back is the most common means. In some extreme cases, detention is also adopted.
Wei Tingting was sent back directly to her home town by five polices after 37 days of detention. "Detention in prison is like a dream." Wei wrote on her blog after release. "I was wearing winter jacket when I was arrested. Now, people dress in their summer cloth outside."
Sending back home doesn’t mean Feminist Five are completely free. According to Chinese law, after the maximum days of detention, five girls were bailed and pending for trail. "The case of five feminists has not been revoked, which means they are still watched over by the police and are obliged to cooperate with further investigation." Lawyer of Wei,Wang Qiushi, explained.
2015 is 20 years anniversary of the UN 4th World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing.
Muyu Xu is a Chinese journalist currently based in London.