China’s feminist awakening

Betraying Big BrotherReview of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China by Leta Hong Fincher. Verso, 2018.

The MeToo movement has arguably had greater impact in China than in any other nation outside of the United States. It is all the more surprising given the tight controls that China places on online discourse and the punishing pressure it can impose on those who stir up social unrest. Despite these pressures, in a movement largely concentrated on university campuses, several professors at prominent universities have resigned due to misconduct.

China’s MeToo movement is just one of the most recent manifestations of a broader, years-long surge in activism for gender equality in the country. In the years prior to MeToo, China’s women had already begun to more determinedly criticize discrimination at work, inadequate protections against sexual harassment and assault, and even inequalities in the provision of public toilets. These are but the concrete demands of a broader push against a patriarchal society that mixes Confucian tradition and Communist dogma. Leading the charge in this movement are five activists who skyrocketed in international renown when they were all arrested in 2015. In Betraying Big Brother, author Leta Hong Fincher uses their story to frame China’s feminist awakening. 

The women known as the Feminist Five, Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, and Wang Man, all came to activism during or shortly after their university years. (Several also identify as gay, a community which has also grown increasingly vocal in China.) Principally in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou, they engaged in a variety of public “performance art” designed to draw attention and supporters to their cause. One month after their arrests, in the wake of intense international scrutiny, the women were all released “pending further investigation.” 

Betraying Big Brother makes three broad observations. The first is that awareness of the country’s pervasive sex discrimination among women (and some men) is growing. According to Hong Fincher, one year after the arrest of the Feminist Five, “so many women had started calling themselves feminists on social media that Weibo banned new account names containing the term for several months.” Among the targets of their protest: Chinese law “lacks a clear definition of sexual harassment, making it virtually impossible for victims to sue successfully in court”; a nationwide law against domestic violence implemented in 2016 remains poorly enforced; and, when searching for employment, women frequently encounter roles for which they need not apply, are chosen on the basis of their appearance, or must have higher credentials than men. Women joining China’s civil service must undergo mandatory gynecological exams.

Second, in many ways the pushback against female empowerment is getting worse under Xi Jinping. The precipitating factor is China’s grave demographic crisis: there are some 34 million more men than women in China, a consequence of sex-selective abortion spurred by the one-child policy. At the same time, women are increasingly outpacing men in educational attainment, leading to fewer socially compatible marriages and children. When combined, China risks social instability in the short-run and, in a long-term with fewer children, demographic and economic disaster. In response, China has loosened its family planning policies; while nominally a win for gender rights, it has been coupled with an aggressive propaganda campaign designed to shame women into marrying and having children. (Some women would welcome the opportunity to have children without marrying, as is common in the West, but it is still taboo.) In May 2017, the People’s Daily declared that “Western hostile forces” were using “Western feminism” to interfere in the country; accusations that China’s feminists are “anti-China” are one of the least hateful descriptions that trail them online.  

Third, in detailing the activists’ detentions and subsequent harassment, the book is a vivid case study of how China’s police-state works. As chilling as the temporary detentions and unannounced visits at home can be, the government’s preferred method of compelling compliance is to pressure activists’ family members into bringing their loved ones into line. Once on the security apparatus’ radar, troublemakers are regularly invited to check-ins over tea and, on sensitive occasions, encouraged to leave town. In one instance, the government arranged for an activist to visit the new Shanghai Disneyland with her son. Far from being all powerful, officials come across as anxiously solicitous, granting a surprising degree of leverage to activists. Hong Fincher acknowledges that it is not without irony that had the activists not been jailed, they likely would not have attracted much attention at all.

The Communist Party once championed gender equality during its revolution, abolishing arranged marriages, child brides, polygamy, and prostitution; granting greater financial independence and the right to divorce; and mandating equal employment for women and men. (Mao himself once proclaimed that women “hold up half the sky.”) But as China’s economic reforms accelerated, progress reversed: workforce participation has fallen to 61 percent in 2017 from 73 percent in 1990. Just one woman is a part of the powerful Politburo; by contrast, Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, and Taiwan are both led by women.

Unexpectedly, Big Brother gives credence to the old argument that as capitalism spreads in China, it would lead to demands for greater democratization. In one chapter, Hong Fincher documents how some middle-class activists are deepening their involvement in the labor movement with the aim of supporting the masses of working-class women who have powered China’s economic boom. At the same time, some companies and media have begun appropriating feminist messages in their products, broadening the movement’s reach, albeit in a diluted, apolitical form.

Whether “violence against women is an inherent part of China’s patriarchal authoritarianism,” is true, as Hong Fincher asserts, invites more scrutiny than she allows. Hong Fincher risks conflating the violent backwardness of many poorly-educated men (not unique to China) and the Party’s blind retaliation against anyone that demands it be better. Greater rights for women is not inherently incompatible with Xi’s vision of national greatness; indeed, it would further it. By demonizing reformers who, despite their mild provocations, largely sought change within the system, the Communist Party risks creating an impossible enemy not on the basis of ideology, but of an entire gender.

Since their arrest in 2015, some of the Feminist Five and their contemporaries have left mainland China for Hong Kong or the West. Their original NGOs and web accounts have been shuttered. Yet, even as repression has continued – in 2018, Chinese social media platform Weibo banned the country’s most influential publication, Feminist Voices – China’s feminist movement continues to push forward.

One of the activists Hong Fincher interviews believes that, unlike other movements with single identifiable leaders, the Chinese feminist movement has been intentionally broad and networked, aiding its resilience. Far from being silenced, the movement these women have helped spark is in many ways just beginning to be heard.