Transcribed by Molly Benson
Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s Civic Series. On September 22nd, journalist and scholar Leta Hong Fincher came to our Forum stage to talk about the Feminist Five, five female activists who were arrested and jailed in China in 2015, and how this helped spawn a much larger civil rights movement. Fincher presented her new book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, and revealed a new feminist consciousness and how that could reconfigure China and the world.
Leta Hong Fincher: Thank you so much for that generous introduction. I’d like to thank Town Hall Seattle for inviting me here tonight. I’m particularly pleased because I have some relatives here whom I haven’t seen in years. Hi. (laughs) And also thank you to all of you for coming out during the Emmy Awards, which I didn’t even realize until just now that they were going on. So thanks for coming here.
So this is a rather serious topic. China has taken a very sharp turn towards more authoritarian repression in recent years, particularly with the announcement that presidential term limits would be abolished. So the current president, Xi Jinping, is theoretically going to be China’s ruler for life. China has always been an autocracy, but I’ve spent my entire life dealing with China, traveling to China. My mom is Chinese. I studied Chinese. I was a longtime journalist in China. But, really, what has been happening over the last few years is particularly disturbing. So, there will be elements of that that I cover in this book. However, I hope that what you get from this presentation, and if you read the book, you’ll really be inspired because this group of young women that I describe who have unleashed an extraordinary social movement revolving around feminism and women’s rights, it’s really, I believe, the most dynamic, transformative social movement we’ve seen in China since 1999.
So what I’d like to do is start with a really short reading from my book and then get into the presentation. It’s from the chapter called “China’s Feminist Five”: “When Chinese authorities arrested feminist activist Wei Tingting in Beijing on March 6th, 2015, just before International Women’s Day, they confiscated her glasses so she could no longer see. Severely visually impaired, Wei was only able to tell people apart by their voices. State security agents took away her cell phone and laptop and demanded her passwords. They led her to a dimly lit underground area of a police station, took her warm snow boots, and put her in a small, unheated room about five square meters wide, as the temperature outside fell to below freezing. Then the interrogations began. ‘Why are you engaged in subversive activities about sexual harassment? Who is collaborating with you and your women’s rights activism? Which foreign agencies are funding your actions?’ Wei told the blurry figures in front of her that she wanted to call a lawyer before answering any questions. ‘You can’t call a lawyer now. Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand the law?’
“Wei made it through one round of interrogations and thought it would be over, but in the middle of the night, she had no idea what time it was because she had no watch, the agents took her out for another interrogation. This time someone videotaped her as she spoke. Even when she went to the toilet, a female agent observed her. For the first time in her life, Wei Tingting, just 26 years old at the time of her detention, began to think about escaping abroad. She felt disoriented and overwhelmed by a mounting sense of powerlessness. Then she heard some indistinct murmurs seeping through from outside and put her ear up against the wall of her cell to listen more closely. With astonishment she recognized the voice of one of her feminist sisters, Wang Man, who had taken part in some activist campaigns with her, in the adjacent room. My God, Wang Man is in here too, she thought. Wei yelled out to a guard that she was thirsty and needed a drink of water. Then put her ear up against the wall to listen again. She made out the voices of other feminist activists who had been arrested along with her. Besides Wang Man, she could hear Li Maizi, Li’s girlfriend, Theresa Shu, and several other university students who had volunteered for feminist campaigns in the past.
“Wei later described how she overcame her feeling of helplessness in an online essay, later deleted, she called “Prison Notes”, which she posted on WeChat under a pseudonym. ‘I decided I must resist this feeling of sorrow and take action. So I started to do a lot of different things. My room was freezing, and I was only allowed to wear slippers, so I began doing leg exercises such as kicks and squats. Then I did deep meditation exercises. Other people before me had scratched words onto the old walls, so I squinted my eyes up close to the walls to examine them. Then I spun around in circles singing songs,’ She wrote. Wei sang out loud both to cheer herself up and to let the other detained women hear her voice and know that they were not alone, that she too was in there with them. Li Maizi also sang back “A Song for All Women”, the anthem of China’s feminist movement. ‘Protect my rights. Don’t keep me down. Why must I lose my freedom? Let’s break free from our heavy shackles and reclaim our power as women.’ Her spirits buoyed, Wei Tingting writes, she recovered her sense of defiance. ‘Even as I heard two guards walking back and forth making clanking noises outside, I felt a kind of joy in betraying Big Brother.’”
So, that’s where I got the title for this book. “Betraying Big Brother” was actually something that one of the feminist activists who was jailed by the government in 2015 actually said, and I think that it was a powerful kind of allegory for a lot of things about this feminist movement, taking on the all-powerful, patriarchal authoritarian state. So, what actually happened in 2015 was a really important turning point in the history of women’s rights in China, I believe. Up until that point, the government had not regarded feminism in any way as any kind of threat to the state, and, in fact, the People’s Republic of China was founded on the principle of gender equality. I’m not going to get into the history too much, although you may want to ask me questions about that later. But in 2015, out of nowhere, really, the government suddenly jailed these five young women who had been active in what they called acts of performance art for a few years that were designed to raise awareness about women’s rights in China, but they hadn’t attracted much attention at all. These are the five women, and the woman I quoted from, Wei Tingting who said she discovered the joy of betraying Big Brother, is in the bottom center, and there she is with her glasses. Without her glasses, she was virtually blind. So, these women, well, actually let me tell you a little bit about the kinds of activities they’re engaged in before the government considered them to be subversive. So, these are a couple of examples of their activities in 2012. One of them, the top right picture, is from an action they called ‘Bloody Brides’, Shòushāng xīnniáng, where these three young women — Wei Tingting is on the far right there with the long hair — dressed up in these white wedding gowns stained with faux red blood to symbolize the epidemic of intimate partner violence in China and to call for a nationwide anti-domestic violence law, which at the time China didn’t have. Now actually, at the beginning of 2016, China did pass this anti-domestic violence law for the first time, and it was a legal milestone. And it’s thanks to the activism, in large part, of young women like these. So, they were parading down through downtown Beijing. They were questioned occasionally by police and then let go. They were never in serious trouble.
Another action that they organized in the city of Guangzhou in Southern China was called ‘Occupy Men’s Toilets’, and that’s pictured on the bottom. For this action, they took over a men’s public toilet in Guangzhou, and they invited women to use the vacated men’s stalls to draw attention to the fact that there are never enough public toilets for women. That there should be many more toilets. And that’s actually kind of a universal problem, which I think you would all notice here in the United States as well. But they deliberately chose that topic of men’s and women’s toilets because they thought that this was not a politically sensitive topic. It wouldn’t be considered threatening to the government. All of the activities that they chose, they did a lot of street actions, they chose them all with the deliberate intent to just raise awareness about gender inequality. They never wanted to call for the overthrow of the Communist Party. They never wanted to be seen as politically subversive, in any way. And so it was a huge shock in 2015 when five of these women were jailed.
And what happened was that there were a rather large group of feminist activists in different Chinese cities who were planning to commemorate International Women’s Day in 2015 by handing out stickers about sexual harassment on subways and buses, just to celebrate International Women’s Day. So they were planning this activity, but on the eve of International Women’s Day, starting on March 6th, Chinese police in several different cities conducted a sweeping round of arrests, arrested more than 10 feminist activists in different cities, held them all for a day. And after a day they focused on five women who became rapidly known as the Feminist Five. And these women were from Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou. They were all taken to the same detention center in Beijing, where they were held, and they were expected to be prosecuted, essentially, for disturbing the social order. So, in jailing these five young women, it was pretty clear that the Chinese authorities thought that they would be able to just nip in the bud the development of a large-scale feminist movement before it happened. They thought that they’d be able to crush all traces of feminist movement very early, before anybody was really paying any attention. But that move drastically backfired.
Now, I used to have a screenshot of Hillary Clinton here, but there was a technical problem, so that’s what that gap is. There was an enormous global outcry to the jailing of these five women. And Hillary Clinton at the time was considered to be the front runner for the US presidency, and she even tweeted about these women and said, Xi Jinping is shameless for persecuting Chinese feminists, even as he hosts the United Nations meeting on women’s rights. So, at the time, in 2015, China was co-hosting the 20th anniversary meeting of the landmark Beijing World Women’s Conference that was held in 1995. And at that conference, Hillary Clinton gave her famous speech in which she declared that women’s rights are human rights. So, these women, the Feminist Five, attracted a huge amount of global media attention.
And what I have here is a couple of pictures that were actually taken and posed by their supporters inside China. So they had a lot of supporters in different cities. And what these supporters did was five of them would go out each day wearing the mask of one of the Feminist Five and take a picture in a public pose that was really carefree out in public, enjoying freedom of movement, just being kind of happy-go-lucky, as though they were free, while the real five women were actually in jail, and nobody knew what was happening to them. So that upper right picture there is kind of modeled on the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover, and it marks day 1 of the detention of the Feminist Five. Each day, these followers, different followers, would post another picture of there would be five women wearing the masks of the Feminist Five in various poses marking day 2, day 3 of the detention of the Feminist Five. This one marked the 31st day, the one on the bottom, and this one is sort of harking back to the Occupy Men’s Toilets action because they’re posing in front of a public toilet, and it says, “The 31st day of the detention of the Feminist Five.”
Meanwhile, there were a lot of protests around the world demonstrating solidarity for the jailed feminists. There were these viral hashtags “free the five” that went viral on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. And almost daily there were news reports about what was going on. Why was the government in China, which was officially very committed to equality between women and men, and, in fact, the People’s Republic was founded on the basis of gender equality, which is written into its constitution. Why would it consider these five young women to be such a threat when they were merely trying to celebrate International Women’s Day, which is actually a holiday in China. It was really shocking for a lot of people, myself included.
After 37 days, and I believe it’s because of this unprecedented media and diplomatic pressure both outside and inside China, particularly outside China, the authorities suddenly let these five feminists go. And that, again, was really unprecedented because that usually doesn’t happen. The government doesn’t usually respond in that way to external pressure, but in this case it really did. So in my book I describe a lot of the details of what happened to the Feminist Five when they were in jail, how they were mistreated. But this was a real turning point for the Chinese government. And it was certainly a turning point for women’s rights because after that- now, the government had tried to extinguish this really small, marginal, I wouldn’t even call it a movement at that point, just extinguish this community of feminist activists in China. But ironically, it just lit the fire for the development of a truly broad, rather extraordinary feminist movement that just grew much bigger after the release of these five young women.
So on the one hand, the government began a really systematic crackdown on women’s rights activism. Feminism itself, Nǚquán zhǔyì is the term in Chinese, became a politically sensitive keyword on China’s internet. Up until that point it really hadn’t been censored, but after the Feminist Five were jailed and then released, there was a lot more censorship on social media of feminist issues, the term feminism. But at the same time, there was so much more enthusiasm among young Chinese women, particularly university students or fresh university graduates, and not just women but men as well. And it’s been really amazing to watch the ways in which this feminist movement has grown in the years since 2015, even as the government is really trying to wipe out the movement.
So, I just want to give you a bit more of the bigger picture. Why does the Chinese government now view these feminist activists as such a threat? I mean, China has so many enormous problems to grapple with. Its economy is slowing. After more than three decades of double digit economic growth, the economy is severely slowing. One of the keys, I believe, to this new crackdown on women’s rights activism is the demographic crisis, where birth rates in China are plummeting. Marriage rates are falling. And so the government really wants educated Han Chinese women to have more children, and I’ll get into that a little bit more. But even more broadly speaking, under the current president, Xi Jinping, authoritarianism and repression has really increased dramatically. But it’s a kind of patriarchal authoritarianism, where Xi Jinping poses himself in propaganda and policy as this sort of paternalistic patriarch who’s ruling over a large number, or millions, of male-led or male-dominated patriarchal families. And you see that a lot in the state propaganda. So, one of the catchphrases of the Xi Jinping era is- and it’s part of this new personality cult around Xi Jinping that a lot of people have written about. There’s a personality cult the likes of which we really haven’t seen since the days of Mao Zedong who founded communist China back in 1949. And so, one of the catchphrases is what I translate as “family state under heaven”, Jiā guó tiānxià. And in this framework Xi Jinping is sort of ruling over everybody with the emphasis on jiā, or family.
There is a quote here. Xinhua News is the official state media agency for the Chinese government, and there’s a very long article that was published in 2017 that is extremely revealing about the role of family values in China’s patriarchal authoritarianism. The quote is, “Xi,” President Xi, “stresses the importance of family values. He says little family,” Xiǎo jiā, “but he has in mind the big family,” Guójiā. Now big family, Guójiā, is a compound word for nation state. The word Guójiā means nation state, or country, in Chinese. But this Xinhua News article says it also means big family. So China is a big family that is governed by the head of this big family, who is Xi Jinping. And in order to have harmony inside this big family, which is the nation state of China, you have to have harmony within all of the little families in China. Everybody has to play their correct role, their hierarchical role within each family in China. And so the man is the head of the family, he’s married to a woman — same-sex marriage is outlawed in China — and they have children. This is the ideal family that is considered to be harmonious, and it’s considered to be what the state media call “the basic cell of society” that leads to a harmonious society in a harmonious country without chaos. So a lot of that propaganda- And you’ll see I included a couple of pictures here. The top one is of Xi Jinping holding the hand of his elderly mother, showing that he’s a very filial son who’s devoted to his mother. And there he is, underneath is just one of the ubiquitous signs of Xi Jinping that you see everywhere in China, being friendly, waving his hand, looking very benevolent.
But all of the propaganda that you see about this big family in China is amazingly reminiscent of centuries-old didactic Confucian texts about the correct hierarchical role of individuals within the family. Just to give you an example, here’s a quote from this Ching Dynasty text, Biographies of Exemplary Women, and this is from the late imperial period. Quote, “The daughter obeys her parents. The daughter-in-law reverently serves her parents-in-law. The wife assists her husband. The mother guides her sons and daughters. When every family is harmonious, the state is well governed.” Now, those of you who don’t know that much about Chinese history may not know, but under Mao all of those Confusian ideas- where Mao actually told young people in China to go and burn these Confucian texts, tear down temples. A lot of people were killed in these purges to get rid of these traditional Chinese customs that were considered to be really feudal and holding back the new China. But now under Xi Jinping, and even before him under the previous presidents, but particularly under this current president, there has been a huge resurgence of emphasis on Confucianism, traditional Confucian values along with family values.
So a little bit more about the personality cult surrounding Xi Jinping. It’s very much a hypermasculine personality cult that shows him in these really macho, manly roles. So for example, the top picture is a screenshot of him surveilling the People’s Liberation Army troops at Tiananmen Square, and it’s a screenshot from a video of a kind of hip hop tune that praises Xi Jinping. They called him, in the song, “Xi Dada”, which roughly translates to Big Daddy Xi, and the title of the song is “If You Want to Marry, Marry Someone Like Xi Dada”. And so Xi Dada was frequently used in the state media to refer to Xi Jinping until sometime in late 2016 when the rest of the Communist Party thought maybe they were going overboard with that, and so they stopped using the term so much. But the idea is still there in propaganda now.
So all of these very macho, hypermasculine images projected of Xi Jinping are also indicative of a fundamental policy shift, and that was made kind of evident in Xi Jinping’s very first major policy speech, shortly after he became General Secretary of the Communist Party. And he gave this speech in January of 2013, and it was a long speech that talked a lot about why communism collapsed in the former Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe. And so China’s Communist Party is really obsessed with studying the collapse of communism in Soviet Union so that China can avoid that fate. And this is a key sentence, or phrase, from the speech. Xi Jinping said, “The Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.” So the emphasis is on the man, the manliness of the leader. And so from that speech you had the first hints that Xi Jinping was, contrary to what a lot of commentators or scholars were predicting that he might become a political reformer, he was actually very rigid, really hardline. He was not going to tolerate anything like Glasnost, which was unleashed by Gorbachov, whom he considered to be a real wimp. Xi Jinping was not going to allow that kind of thing to happen in China. He was going to be the man who stood up to all these perceived threats coming from so-called hostile foreign forces, generally the US or the UK. So I write a lot about the different kinds of hypermasculinity. It’s not just embodied in the figure of Xi Jinping himself, it’s also encouraged in men and boys in China. There’s a lot of emphasis on that in recent propaganda over the last few years, along with an emphasis on developing traditional femininity.
And what’s really striking to me is that in this recent propaganda about the importance of women to China’s development is that contrary to the early communist period women were really held up as being, well, Mao Zedong’s most famous saying was “women hold up half the sky”. But at that time, the propaganda was that women can do whatever men can do. They would be shown driving tractors or being welders. They would be shown in these really muscular, robust kind of postures. There was a real evaporation of the divide between women and men. But in recent propaganda, the emphasis has really been on getting women to return to the home, to return to their traditional roles, their supposedly correct roles as dutiful wife and mother. And there is no mention, there’s virtually no mention in the recent propaganda, of the importance of working women to the development of China’s economy. Which really is rather curious because given China’s economic slowdown you would think that the government would really want to encourage more female labor force participation. Again, this gets into a long and complicated history where China used to have, probably or undoubtedly, the highest female labor force participation in the world. Where at the end of the 1970s, there were over 90% of women who were working either in the cities or in the countryside. That’s just a staggeringly high number. But there’s been a precipitous decline in women participating in the workforce between 1990 and today. And it continues. Female labor force participation continues to decline, and the gender income gap continues to increase.
So now I want to just give you a few examples of the kinds of propaganda that are aimed specifically at young Han Chinese women, especially those who are in university or have just graduated. This is an article in the People’s Daily at the end of 2015. That was exactly the moment when China announced that it was going to abolish its so-called one-child policy and adopt a two-child policy. So, they had this long feature story in People’s Daily, and the title was “Female University Students with Babies, Brighter Job Prospects, Student Moms on the Rise”. And this, literally, was the picture they use to illustrate it, which, to me, looks frighteningly like Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale. Because there’s no face on the mother. She’s just this black figure, and it’s only the baby who’s in full color because it’s the baby that counts. The woman is just an empty vessel for the delivery of the baby. What is notable is that the woman figure, the mother figure, has a mortar board on her head, which indicates that she graduated from university. So another few examples of this kind of propaganda. It is really targeting university women, women who are still in college or in graduate school, and they’re Han Chinese. So, for example, remember, this is now the era of the Two Child Policy. After more than 35 years of telling women that they can only have one child and committing all sorts of human rights abuses to get rid of unwanted or excess fetuses or, even in some cases, there was female infanticide. Now, the government has done a 180 degree turn, and it’s glorifying women who are still in university who are having babies. So notice, in particular, the picture on the right. This graduate is, first of all, she’s quite attractive, conventionally. Not only is she carrying a toddler, but she’s also visibly heavily pregnant with her second baby on the way. That picture on the right was from a People’s Daily article, and the title was, “You’d Better Believe It, Under 30 Are Women’s Best Years For Getting Pregnant”. And then the subtitle underneath said, “Female university student’s joyful love. Freshman year, live together. Sophomore year, get pregnant. Junior year, have baby,” and then it’s accompanied by all sorts of pictures of blissful young women in college or university. It’s patently ridiculous, and, actually, women in China are not falling for it. In fact, it’s quite shocking to see that after this landmark change in population policy, birth rates have actually continued to fall. Even after the government announced this dramatic change in policy, encouraging couples to have two babies, the birth rate continues to fall. This is another example of the kinds of propaganda, where they’ve set up these schools that are sponsored by the All-State China Women’s Federation, which was originally set up to promote women’s rights. And now these schools are teaching these young women how to make-up and have the correct posture and grooming. And this is supposed to be the “New Era Woman,” which is another catchphrase of the Xi Jinping era. I want to get into questions, so if you want to quickly read. “Pretty girls don’t need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family, but girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult. These women, by the time they get their MA or a PhD, they are already old, like yellowed pearls.” So there’s all kinds of language and pictures and propaganda like that that is designed to just try to convince women: “Forget about going to school. I mean, why are you wasting your time? Just hurry up and get married and have babies.”
Now, what is really striking is that that kind of pro-natalist propaganda is targeting educated Han Chinese women. By contrast, in Xinjiang, which is in the Western part of China bordering central Asia, you may have read about mass incarceration camps, which are just appalling. We don’t even have a lot of knowledge about what goes on, but by a lot of reports there are about a million Uyghur Muslims who are incarcerated in these camps. And even before the government started constructing these mass detention centers for Uyghur Muslims, the propaganda was already there saying that China, or Xinjiang in particular, had worryingly high birth rates. And so while the government is trying to persuade educated Han Chinese women to have more babies, it is trying to get, quote unquote, “undesirable” ethnic minority women, like Uyghur women, to have fewer babies. And so I write about that contrast, as well, in the book.
Just to conclude the presentation, coming back to this feminist movement. So the government has been trying to wipe out the feminist movement ever since it jailed these five women in 2015. Last year they actually closed down the most influential feminist social media platform, known as Feminist Voices, and it was, again, on the night of International Women’s Day. So on the upper right, you have these feminists who’ve covered their faces and taken photos of themselves to mark the censorship, the ending of feminist voices, but they’re dressed in these really colorful outfits that are kinda like Pussy Riot in Russia. And the banner that they have in the background says “Feminism will never die.” And so I just want to conclude by saying how incredible it is, given the backdrop of China. This is the most authoritarian state in the world. There is no internet freedom. There is no freedom of the press. There is no freedom of assembly. So you don’t have any of the elements present at all that you have in the US that made the Me Too movement go viral. Because remember, that was kind of started by these investigative pieces about sexual harassment in Hollywood by the New York Times and the New Yorker, but you do not have any of that kind of reporting in China, and you also have mass censorship of feminist issues. And yet, last year the hashtag #MeToo or those kinds of topics under Me Too, sexual harassment, sexual violence, they were one of the top 10 most censored topics on WeChat, which is this wildly popular phone messaging app. Which just demonstrates the enormous power and attractiveness of these feminist messages. So I will conclude there and open it up to questions. Thanks very much.
Question 1: Hey Lena. I was wondering how you got in contact with the Feminist Five. So, how was your interaction with them and how did you communicate with them in order to get the main data for your book?
LHF: Sure. Well, this was my second book. So, my first book was also about women in China, it was called Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, and I was already introduced to some feminist networks at that time. And in fact, at the very end of my first book, I mentioned Li Maizi, who is one of the Feminist Five. And at that time I just thought, you know, it was kind of a bleak message for my first book because I interviewed so many, actually, hundreds of women, in major cities in China, and they were so privately despondent about their own lives and especially if they were about to get married or if they had just gotten married. And it was pretty depressing at times because they expressed to me, privately, their grief, their sense that there wasn’t any hope for a better future. And so they had to compromise. They had to marry some guy even though they didn’t love him. I mean, that’s a whole different topic, the extent of new gender inequality in modern China. And that’s actually the backdrop for the birth of this new feminist movement. But then I started meeting some feminist activists, like Li Maizi. So I wrote a little bit about her, but at that time, that was 2013, women like her were so marginal, hardly anybody was paying any attention to them. And so I certainly didn’t see it as a powerful movement, but then when the Feminist Five were jailed in March of 2015, first of all I already knew one of them personally, and I was really concerned. I was really shocked at this action, which even by the record of the Chinese government was really extreme. Why lock up these university-educated women, middle class women, just because they were trying to celebrate International Women’s Day and hand out some stickers? So I was watching their case and then after they were released — I describe a lot of this in the book as well — they were still really closely monitored by the government. They were under de facto house arrest. But then when the authorities started to kind of loosen their grip on the women, it was in November of 2015, I went to Shanghai and did some interviews with some women who were on the periphery of the feminist movement. And then I started just reaching out to all of the Feminist Five through encrypted messaging, and they all wanted to be interviewed. There are encrypted forms of communication, and it was a little hair-raising at times, but they all really wanted to get their story out. And so I interviewed all of the Feminist Five, and then I interviewed a lot more women because I realized that this feminist network was so much broader and deeper than I had realized. And so it kind of snowballed. So I already had the contacts in place, and then the more interviews I did, the more I was introduced to more women, and it just went on from there.
Question 2: So I’m sort of struck by how it seems a little similar to what’s going on here in the States, where we have this totally reactionary, sexist male president, and a lot of states fearing that abortion rights are going to be rescinded, and maybe they are here and there. Like, there seems to be this reactionary current, but then there’s also the Me Too movement and a lot of powerful voices coming up. And I’m wondering if there’s any parallels you see in the situation in China, and if there are any reasons for that similarity. And then I’m also interested in what you think the solution is. Yeah.
LHF: Thank you. I actually think there are a lot of similarities, and I wasn’t thinking that much about it when I was writing the book. At the end of the book in the conclusion, I begin to expand out. Because I write a lot about patriarchal authoritarianism in China, and how authoritarian rule in China really, at its root, has misogyny. And it’s an incredibly critical part of the extension of authoritarian control over the entire population. And then as I was writing the conclusion, I also said, well, this is not a dynamic that is unique to China, actually as we see the rise of authoritarianism around the world, including in the United States- Although the United States, yes, we have a really misogynistic, want-to-be-authoritarian-dictator, who’s extremely corrupt and who is constantly expressing publicly his admiration for other dictators. And our democratic institutions are under assault in many ways. And in many ways, the assault on our democracy is very misogynistic. But at the same time, I don’t want to take that comparison too far because we still have a functioning democracy, ust look at the midterm elections, you know, where record numbers of women of color were elected to the house of representatives. And at this point, I think we also have a really flourishing press, freedom of the press. We have protests all the time, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and so our democracy is definitely under assault.
But I would say that the parallels are more with other autocracies around the world, where there’s been a really worrying increase in the number, particularly, quote unquote, “strong man” authoritarians who are emboldened by this total moral vacuum created by the US president. Where the US has just withdrawn completely from its former role as, you know, leader of the liberal world in many ways. And I think a lot of dictators, certainly in China, but so many other countries — I mean look at Putin or Orbán in Hungary, the Law and Justice party in Poland or Duterte in the Philippines, I mean, you name it, it’s very worrying— and all of these strong man authoritarian leaders are deeply misogynistic and their policies are assaulting women’s rights and in some cases going after women’s rights activists. But China is really an extreme example. It’s the most powerful of all of the authoritarian states in the world, and it’s also incredibly technologically advanced. This is something that I write about, as well, is how this digital surveillance state is extraordinarily sophisticated in its ability to, you know, recognize people by their irises, or just the number of cameras that have been erected that can recognize people on the street from a distance. Particularly in regions in Western China, like Xinjiang, that’s where the digital surveillance state is at its most intensely, just, omnipresent, where literally it is Big Brother. It really is chillingly similar to the vision of Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. But I still have faith in America’s democracy, but talk to me after the next presidential election.
Question 3: Given that this messaging, as you’ve said, has been directed towards educated young women, and, you know, quotes about the anti-Western feminist forces. Do you see trends regarding Chinese students coming to study internationally? Can you speak to that?
LHF: Yes. Actually one of the women that I write about in this book is the founder of Feminist Voices, which was by far the most influential social media platform, and it was really important for the spread of feminist ideas through social media. Her name is Lü Pin, and she happened to be out of the country when the police rounded up the Feminist Five and jailed them. She was in New York attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women. And I have absolutely no doubt that had she been in China, she would have been jailed because she is kind of the intellectual leader of these feminists. So she’s actually based in New York now. She’s just finished her graduate work at SUNY Albany, and now she’s effectively self exiled. And she opened up what she called a “new battlefront” in the Chinese feminist movement. She said that the persecution of feminists in China was just too strong, that the movement would die if you don’t sustain it from abroad. So she created this organization called the Chinese Feminist Collective, and they’re based in New York, and she has a lot of followers who are young Chinese women, primarily students or recent graduates from university, who are living in the United States. But she has actually quite a big following in a lot of other countries too, like the UK or Canada. And so the global diaspora is incredibly important to sustaining the momentum of the feminist movement. And I write about how this is really different. The feminist movement and its ability to grow with the feminist community outside China, the way they feed off each other, they communicate a lot more with their peers inside China, there is no way for the Chinese government to completely shut off that communication. As much as it wants to. And this is really important. If you look at China’s revolutionary history, all of the major revolutions in China were sparked by intellectuals who spent a lot of their formative years outside China. Whether it’s the Chinese Communist Revolution in the twenties — the communist party was founded in the 20s, some of the major leaders like Zhou Enlai spent time in Paris, so did Deng Xiaoping — or the Republican Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen. I write about actual women who were feminists. Qiu Jin, for example, this feminist hero who was beheaded in 1907 for trying to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. She went to Japan. And so the diaspora, these intellectual revolutionary leaders throughout China’s history spent a lot of their formative years spreading their message outside China. So this is, in part, why the feminist movement is continuing five years, well almost five years, after the Feminist Five were jailed. And that is one of the keys to the extraordinary resilience of this movement that is so unlike anything we’ve seen since the pro-democracy uprising of 1999.
Question 4: I have to say that I’m embarrassed that I really didn’t know this was going on, and I’d like you to relate it to the one-child policy. I have a particular interest in that because I have two daughters that were made available for adoption because of that policy. But maybe in my naivety I assumed that- well, and maybe there isn’t the great disparity between men and women in China that I’ve been led to believe, but if there is, I would have thought that women would have a little bit more power. I mean they decide whether they want to get married or not, and they might demand to be treated a little bit better because they’re sort of a commodity. They get to call the shots to an extent. So maybe you can address that. I’m just really surprised.
LHF: Yes. Well, you know, it is surprising because you would think, well, actually, economists have argued that when there is a sex ratio imbalance and the shortage of women, which there is and it’s very severe in China. There are now, according to official statistics, at least 30 million more men than women in China, and that’s in large part because of the one-child policy and sex-selective abortions. So there have been quite a lot of economists who say women should have the upper hand because they’re a scarce resource, but that doesn’t take into account patriarchy. I mean, no, women are not more powerful because there is a shortage of them in China. In fact, there is a huge increase in the trafficking of women. And so there are a lot of things that you would think if you were to just look at it from an economic point of view, well then women, you know, they’re scarce, therefore they must be more powerful. But, in fact, they don’t have the upper hand. Gender inequality has really increased in so many different ways, which I describe in my book. I mean, I can’t even begin to go through all of the ways in which gender inequality has really increased in recent decades and especially in the last 10 years. But what has happened that is remarkable is that women in the last five years, especially, are increasingly pushing back and fighting back. Maybe they’re not all calling themselves feminist. In fact, I would say most women, most young women do not call themselves feminist. But this is totally understandable because the government has made the term feminist a politically troublesome term, where you could actually wind up in serious jeopardy if you publicly call yourself a feminist, and then add to that the strong social and cultural norms that are very sexist and misogynistic. I mean, look at the natural misogyny that exists everywhere. It exists in the United States. There’s no where in the world where you don’t have misogynists. But in China you have top-down misogynistic policies and propaganda. And it’s remarkable how much young women, particularly those who have gone to university, are rejecting those norms and fighting back. And you can see just in the official statistics on birth rates and marriage. Why is it that after this dramatic change in the one-child policy, where the government just introduced this new policy with great fanfare, “Yay, all women have freedom to have two children now. Go forth and procreate.” And yet the birth rate is continuing to fall and marriage rates are falling. It’s because young women don’t want to be confined by marriage and children anymore. They really are fighting back in many ways. And most of them reject the label of feminist, but it’s still pretty striking in a country that large, how many young women actually boldly proclaim themselves to be feminist. And I write about those women in this book. So yes, I mean it, it’s a complicated picture, and it is very surprising. I could go on more, but any other questions?
Question 5: I have a question. It’s connected to what we’ve already been talking about, but I also have a statement to make too, if that’s OK. Because I’ve wondered, too, about women becoming a smaller percentage. There’s a shortage of women in China, yet that ends up being something that oppresses them rather than giving them power. But if you think about places on this earth that have valuable resources, that have gold, that have diamonds, the people who live in those countries are also usually desperately poor. That doesn’t necessarily turn into a form of power for those people. I work at a college, and I work a lot with students who are from China but are studying in the US. Some may seek to stay abroad, some seek to go back home and pursue their careers. And I’m wondering how much study has been done on how women who are working, college educated women who are working in China, how they’re managing the tension, I would say, between ideas that might be commonly discussed in a US college campus and ideas that might be coming either from family or from the government in China. That’s one part of my question. And then another part is how much this push for, kind of, control over their own lives that young Chinese women are putting forward. How much of that is being influenced by what might be considered international feminism, like capital F feminism, and how much of it might be influenced by China’s own recent history. If they’re feeling what they’re being asked to do, if they’re in fact being asked to take less than what their mothers and grandmothers had.
LHF: Yeah. Actually one of the ways in which the government tries to intimidate women who are involved in feminist activities or who are involved in so-called troublemaking of any kind is to accuse them of associating themselves with hostile Western forces. The government actually says that feminism, Western feminism, is hostile to China. That China has its own — they don’t call it feminism, it’s gender equality or women’s liberation along Marxist Leninist terms — and so the official party line is that, “We liberated you women back in 1949 and that was the end of the story. No more need to talk about it because women have equality.” And now the propaganda in recent years has been that there’s this new threat coming from Western feminists who are using the guise of feminism to come and interfere in China’s internal affairs and to take over and corrupt our young people. So part of that, I suppose, would be true because young people, especially if they’re educated, if they leave China for any period of time, are exposed to ideas that are not coming directly from the Chinese government. So let’s say, you know, some of your students, they have access to all this information in America. They don’t have the great firewall preventing them from going to Google or YouTube or Facebook, which are all banned in China. So they’re more exposed to that kind of information and those kinds of ideas. But what is happening inside China, this feminist movement that has grown over many years, actually, it got really active in 2012 so it’s been going really strong for seven or eight years, that’s a home grown feminist movement that was, I would say, indirectly influenced by what was happening outside China. But it really came inside China in response to all these ways in which gender inequality has increased dramatically for women. For their own lives, they feel it themselves. And that has nothing to do with the outside world, the world outside China. So for example I alluded to the decreasing female labor force participation and the increasing gender income gap. So women are finding it much more difficult to get a job these days, and partly that’s because of this new two-child policy. Because employers, even though it’s technically illegal for employers to ask women who are interviewing for a job, “Are you married? Do you have a baby? When are you going to have your baby? When are you having your second baby?” But that is a routinely asked question by employers. It’s also technically illegal for companies to advertise that they’re looking only for men. But that’s another routine thing that you see. Companies are always saying, “Only men wanted for these jobs.” And even if they don’t blatantly say in their job ad that they’re only hiring men, you go talk to them or the women are interviewing for the jobs and there are so many stories. It’s been quite widely documented at this point that there is really severe and increasing gender discrimination in hiring. So, the situation for young career women, women who are entering the workforce is very, very different from the previous generation. Their elders, their mothers, their aunts and their grandmothers, were used to mandatory employment. And so, to that extent, the communist legacy of high female labor force participation still is very powerful and it still influences young women today. So there isn’t a widespread desire among young women to become a stay at home mother. It’s not like America where actually, you know, there are still a lot of women who choose to be a stay at home mother and don’t want to work. But in China it’s usually forced on them. It’s because they can’t find work. And the government is trying to change that through heavy propaganda, and then the gender discrimination in hiring is really making it tough. And so it’s in response to all sorts of things. And I also write about property ownership extensively in my first book, and how women are shut out of property ownership. There are so many different ways in which there’s just an increasing squeeze on, particularly, young women in China. And that’s given rise to this new feminist movement much more than exposure to feminist ideas from the outside, I think.
Question 6: Hi. My prior exposure to this topic was on a PBS documentary about a group of women maybe six years ago. I think one of them was Hooligan Sparrow, maybe. I’m wondering if you’re familiar with that story because I think it was about six years ago, and if I remember correctly, that was pretty shocking that no action was taken about a criminal activity. Where, I think, a middle school vice principal was, in essence, pimping out the girls in the school, and they were seen on film being taken to a hotel to have sex with some business people who were obviously bribing him to have access to these girls. And the women who were protesting were seeking criminal prosecution, and they wanted that vice principal to lose his job. And they ended up all going to prison. I’m just wondering what the influences of those women in these younger women that you’re focusing on now. Was there any connection between those two groups?
LHF: Yes, there is a connection, and, in fact, I write a little bit about Hooligan Sparrow, herself. She’s one woman who- but it is actually a group of women. In 2013 they went down South — I write a little bit about this episode too — where they went down South to Hainan province to tackle this case of a principal who’d abused all these young school girls. And those women, the activists who were involved- There was also a well-known feminist lawyer named Wang Yu, whom I also write about, who spent a lot of time in jail. And all she was doing was trying to represent the families of those girls who were raped by the principal and some of his associates. And, in fact, Wang Yu, this feminist lawyer, represented one of the Feminist Five activists in 2015 when she was in jail. But then several months later the lawyer herself wound up being jailed. And so there are connections. I do focus a lot on the young feminist activists because, I would say, they’re really at the core of this movement, but they are certainly influenced by women who are somewhat older than them. Wang Yu and Hooligan Sparrow, Ye Haiyan is her name, is somewhat older. And there are also other older feminist scholars who are still very sympathetic to these young feminist activists. And they do know each other. And they’re all persecuted in one form or another. Some of them have spent time in jail, others are just closely monitored by the authorities. I actually have a chapter called feminists lawyers and workers, which talks about how there’s this intersectionality of this feminist movement that crosses boundaries of class, in particular. Even though it’s primarily educated young women who are involved in the feminist movement, they also have begun to get attention from factory women. And some of them have joined forces with working class women and labor rights activists. So they’re combining their activism around more of the concerns of university educated women, who tend to be concerned with gender discrimination in hiring or sexual violence, with working class women’s concerns. But there’s also been a major crackdown on lawyers, rights lawyers in general. But that’s also because of a new wave of feminist lawyers, and Wang Yu, who was part of that group that you mentioned, who took on these cases of the sexual abuse of young girls. There was a huge wave of these women’s rights lawyers taking off around the same time. And this is why I use, “Feminist Awakening” as the subtitle for the book. There’s so many ways in which society, just a critical mass of people in Chinese society, have become much more aware of women’s rights and girls rights, in general, and how bad the situation is for women and girls.
Thank you so much for coming here.
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