On April 13, Chinese authorities released on bail five feminist activists detained for over a month without formal charges. Despite tight censorship surrounding their detention, support on Chinese social media and thinly veiled media criticism showed that many in China opposed the detention. But an outpouring of online mockery directed at the women, their campaign, and feminism in general also demonstrates the uphill battle that feminist activists face in the world’s most populous country.
The five activists—Li Tingting, age 25; Zheng Churan, age 25; Wei Tingting, age 26; Wu Rongrong, age 30; and Wang Man, age 33—were detained shortly before International Women’s Day on March 8, a widely celebrated holiday in China when they had planned to distribute leaflets protesting sexual harassment. Their detention prompted an international outcry: Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power all called for the women’s release. Although the five activists are no longer in detention, they remain the suspects of an ongoing criminal investigation and face restrictions on their movement.
With China’s recent criminal detention of five feminist activists, gender inequality in China is back in the spotlight. What does a crackdown on Chinese women fighting for equal representation say about the current state of the nation’s political landscape? Who is served by...
Tight information control initially surrounded the women’s detention—Chinese media did not report it until April 9, and even then only cited foreign media reports. When the news finally broke, many expressed online support for the activists. Some focused on the lack of sufficient legal and procedural protections afforded to average citizens. “Who knew a few young women opposed to groping on public transportation could frighten the authorities this much?” wrote one user on Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging platform. “Two of them were taken in the middle of the night, by people from the public security bureau who did not have a warrant for their arrest,” wrote another user, who identified herself as a 25-year-old woman. “This could one day happen to the people around us or even to us, all it takes is for the public security bureau to think we are guilty.” Equally distressing to many was the women’s apparent punishment for opposing sexual harassment. The activism was supporting a “national policy of gender equality. If spreading such positive messages gets you arrested (or stops activism from ever happening),” one Weibo user concluded, “let’s also arrest everyone who hands out flyers for restaurants that use gutter oil,” referring to a fetid recycled cooking oil at the center of several national food safety scandals.
But even though few directly backed the women’s detention, not everyone agreed with the messages the feminists had been trying to convey. A significant minority of commenters alternately mocked the women’s campaign, blasted the entire gender for being demanding, or denied the need for feminism in China altogether. “Real feminism should be ‘I am willing to bear the same social responsibility as men,’” wrote one 27-year-old man in a popular comment. “But ‘I want this, I want that, I want everything’—that’s not feminism, it’s ‘queenism.’” Another wrote, “Feminism is like so-called ‘animal rights activism’—they’re actually extremist organizations.” One male user in Beijing, a graduate of a martial arts academy, wrote, “Seriously, aren’t women’s rights in China the best in the world?” He concluded that those looking for a true example of gender inequality should “hurry off to India.” A man in the northern city of Tianjin, whose Weibo profile featured regular posts giving women advice about how to make themselves appealing to men, commented, “Nowadays it’s dangerous to be a man.”
Such comments hint at the underlying sexism that feminist activists believe is entrenched in Chinese culture. In February, activists slammed the annual Chinese New Years Gala, a widely watched variety TV show, for what they viewed as degrading to women. Baidu, a Chinese search engine, became the focus of pointed criticism for a homepage homage to women on March 8, which depicted a dainty ballerina dancing inside a jewelry box. Critics compared the image to Google’s homepage that same day, which showed women as scientists, teachers, and astronauts.
While the women’s initial detention was ignored in Chinese media for days, their release appears not to have been reported in any mainstream press at all. Searches for “five feminists released” on Weibo are blocked. But one media outlet has published a rare criticism of the detention itself, albeit one veiled as historical commentary.
On March 6, Chinese police detained a group of feminist activists ahead of International Women’s Day. Five of them, remain in criminal detention on suspicion of “picking quarrels and causing a disturbance,” a crime frequently invoked to silence dissent in China that can...
On April 13, the state-run Legal Daily ran an article detailing the 1913 detention of Chinese feminists under General Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China, whose autocratic rule and bid to instate himself as emperor have made him a reviled figure in modern Chinese history. The article, written by Chinese women’s studies researcher Zhang Hongping, began by hailing the feminist movement that Yuan crushed in 1913, writing, “Yesterday they were still heroines, but today they have become national criminals.” Zhang described how the women had risked their lives in an effort to overthrow the weak and corrupt Qing Dynasty, helping to establish China’s first republic on January 1, 1912. But Yuan had rebuffed the women’s attempts to secure their right to political participation in the newly formed government, and in 1913 he had many of them arrested. “With political retrogression,” the article concluded, in a thinly disguised indictment of the current government’s actions, “Chinese social trends rapidly turn conservative and reactionary.” (Historical allegory in service of criticism of contemporary rulers has a dubious history in China. In 1965, Communist Chairman Mao Zedong took exception to a historical drama called Hai Rui Dismissed From Office, a play in which an honest official loses his position after criticizing the corrupt emperor. Mao believed it to be a critique of his own policies, and he launched a political witch hunt in response.)
Both the detention and the online misogyny that greeted its reporting underscore the uphill struggle that women face in China, where it is still common for employers to reject female applicants on the basis of gender despite laws to the contrary, and where a traditional preference for male babies has created the world’s largest gender imbalance despite laws barring sex-selective abortion. As one Weibo user wrote, “Who knew that even the feminist movement itself was illegal in China?”
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