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China's Feminists Bare All

What it takes to advance the struggle

Mao Zedong stressed that “women hold up half the sky,” but today things aren’t that simple. For example, in a photo that went viral on Chinese social media, internet giant Tencent’s 2016 end-of-year blowout entertained staff by asking female employees to simulate oral sex on their male counterparts on stage. This is not the only image that has left a bad impression. For many China-watchers, feminists, activists, and citizens, things seem to be going backwards in spite of the small, occasional victory.

During the May Fourth Movement in 1919, there had been a wellspring of Chinese feminism. Feminist pioneers such as Qiu Jin (1875-1907) aside, after the Communist Party began to take power, women revolutionaries such as Ding Ling had become enlightened during the May Fourth Movement and then took on important roles in the government. Ding Ling had organized the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942, an important event that set the Party line regarding the arts. Around the same time Ding directed the Literature and Arts Association in Yan’an.

As well as being a cultural figurehead, Ding objected to the gender double standards of the Party. Men divorced—sometimes multiple—wives, and women were expected to put revolution before domesticity but were looked down upon if they remained unmarried. This Catch-22 was a product of the conservative ideal still prevalent during a very revolutionary period. And most male revolutionaries held on to this patriarchal ideal. After 1957 Ding was labeled a rightist, saw her writings banned, and spent years in prison or laboring on a farm for reeducation.

Decades later, women continue to struggle for the right to be heard, as five young activists discovered. Around International Women’s Day in 2015, Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Zheng Churan each experienced a taste of Ding Ling’s difficulties.

Leading up to those events, Li Maizi (pictured above) had led the “Occupy Men’s Toilet” initiative; she campaigned to increase the ratio of female to male public toilets by mobilizing a number of women to take over men’s bathrooms. She also made posters reading, “If you love them, don’t make them wait.” This kind of direct action for women’s rights—taking to the streets and protesting—is practically unheard of in China. Li’s other direct-action campaigns included the “bloody brides”—protesting domestic violence by waving placards and wearing stained wedding dresses—and an advertisement in the Dongzhimen subway station protesting “leftover women.”

What had women done to make them a sudden, potential threat? Li Maizi tells City Weekend: “At the time when the five of us were detained, I was pretty surprised; I just couldn’t figure out why on earth we were in there. In the end I had an answer: By persisting in feminist activities and ideals, I had become an undesirable.” The “Occupy Men’s Toilet” activity had become sensitive; protesting on the streets is not a normative way of engaging in politics in China, but women’s issues hadn’t been on the public agenda for discussion before. Now they were.

“Politically, economically, culturally, [and] socially, women are behind women in the West now,” Li tells me. “Because, as history shows, without democratization and gender equality, the power of early women revolutionaries did not translate to actual power, and unlike in Europe and the U.S., the feminist movement did not develop on a large scale.”

The word “feminism” is still not widely used in public or mainstream media, and commenters prefer using nüxingzhuyi rather than its harsher—but truer—form nüquanzhuyi. Nüxing means “women” whereas nüquan has the affix “power” after “women.” But there is a women’s movement, with a recent groundswell of support for redefining a woman’s position in society, mostly played out on social media. “Straight-man cancer,” or zhinanai—a term that pokes fun at patriarchy and the men who don’t check their privilege—has made itself popular online and offline, hinting that far from being over, China’s war of the sexes is just beginning.

In popular culture this has become especially pronounced after the relaxation of the one-child policy in 2015. There is now rising demand on women to stay at home and reproduce, attend to in-laws or parents living with the nuclear family, and work to help afford housing and other expenses. How to be a woman in a world that demands too much from them? The titles and storylines of two popular TV shows from 2015 explore this, in “The World Has No Place for a Weak Woman” nübuqiang datian burong and urban drama “Ode to Joy” huanle song, the latter revolving around four young women who share a home.

Earlier, Shenzhen was a frontier place for women working away from home and finding freedom at the beginning of the Reform and Opening-up Era. “Let some people get rich first,” said Deng Xiaoping, and for women who understood this to include them, they found freedom for the first time in their lives. Shenzhen, where Deng established one of the most successful Special Economic Zones, saw its population boom from three hundred thousand in 1980 to more than four million in 2001 (cited in Peter Hessler’s “Boomtown Girl,” Strange Stones).

In droves women left their hometowns—and the duties of childbearing and childrearing—behind in order to work in these new industries, often earning independence as secretaries and assistants. But as recently as 2016 the All-China Women’s Federation, the main governmental organization devoted to women, publishes no serious articles promoting women’s freedom to have a career and whatever form of marriage, or home-life, that they prefer.

The federation does report on proposals in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference to amend the Marriage Law, which was finally rolled out in August 2011. The new law was controversial, as it put women at an obvious disadvantage. After divorce, whomever has their name on the deed of the house owns the house. In a patriarchal society, where marital homes are bought or provided for by the man’s family, women leaving an unhappy or abusive marriage now risk losing their home when they gain their freedom.

Discrimination against women is substantiated by a report from Catalyst, an international organization focused on women at work. The organization published a report in 2016 called “Women in the Workforce: China.” It quoted a survey from 2010 with 72 percent of surveyed women saying they weren’t hired or promoted due to gender discrimination, and over 75 percent of those surveyed believed they were dismissed due to marriage or childbirth.

Not only do such reports show women discriminated against during pregnancy, the reality behind these dismal findings is evident all around China. In 2015 a publicity poster at Xicheng District Civil Affairs Bureau went viral. A cartoon that showed a woman kissing a man bore a slogan reading, “A woman’s greatest achievement: being a good mother and a good housewife. What’s the point of competing, working until you spit blood, taking jobs from men?” This was 2015, and Xicheng District isn’t alone.

Chinese women are already shamed into secrecy and silence around many issues in China, where domesticity is accepted as the default. PhoenixRisen is a community and platform for survivors of sexual violence to share stories and resources, launched by Peggy Liu in Tokyo at the WEF Young Global Leaders conference. Stephany Zoo, based in Shanghai, is the organization’s “Chief Evangelist,” and she explains to City Weekend over email, “Despite China being a relatively egalitarian society, it still functions predominantly as a patriarchal society, and all men still view sex as their right.”

The problem of sexual violence in China is a big one and it is a common experience amongst many Chinese women—but they keep quiet because of the shame and stigma. “Sexual violence is most often committed by men, and these men should unequivocally be held accountable for their acts,” says Zoo. “However, as women, we must also fight to support each other against such abuses. If we continue to be bystanders while society does not change, we will never rid ourselves of sexual violence. If you not are part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

In China, the accepted narrative is that bystanders are often powerless to stop sexual assault, especially among married couples. In late 2015, a national-level domestic violence law was passed—it defined domestic violence as “physical and psychological abuse of family members and co-habiting non-family members,” but did not address sexual abuse. I asked Zoo about these specific challenges.

“The idea that what happens in the home should stay behind closed doors—this is most evident in the implementation of the new Domestic Violence Law in early 2016. I don’t think we are powerless to stop domestic and sexual violence—if we see it, we can still say something to the perpetrator.” Men have a role, too. Zoo continues, “Men can step up—women are typically more hesitant to discuss their abuses, but men will share with friends, sometimes even out of pride. In such cases, men must also stand up to these bullies and let them know what they're doing is wrong, regardless of the way it may make them seem.”

Zoo tells me there is more incentive now than ever for community-based solutions, because institutional help is typically unavailable in the Chinese mainland. Women are turning to the well-trod path of sisterhood, but when sisterhood isn’t on hand, action is. Li Maizi is sure of that.

“What is extremely apparent is that young people are beginning to hold the government accountable for their misconducts in gender equality, and these methods have brought about changes in the policies and the culture,” she tells us. Li Yinhe, China's prominent sexologist, has also encouraged women to stand up for their rights, and on social media women are calling out patriarchal attitudes more than ever.

The younger generation do their best work on social media. Even though the government doesn’t like using the word, in this writer's view feminism is no longer irrelevant, and public WeChat accounts such as Yummy, BCome, and Feminist Voices are just the beginning. They cover topics familiar to most feminists, from the personal (female orgasm, popular sex toys, and “fringe” sexual acts like sadomasochism) to the political (activism and legal cases happening in real time around Beijing, Shanghai, and other parts of China).

During the 2016 Rio Olympics, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui noted in a CCTV post-race interview that she was having period cramps. Despite the many accolades she received that summer — for being a national sensation with off-the-cuff commentary, as well as winning a Bronze medal—the comment about her period took the most attention, online and offline. In a country where discussing one’s period is taboo—especially in sports and particularly in national, Olympic-level teams—this woman had broken the taboo.

Feminist and women’s public accounts immediately followed suit to write about tampons, explaining what they were and how to use them—pertinent because tampons are not sold in markets frequented by locals, such as Wumei and Jinkelong. A lack of education about sex, reproductive health, and women’s hygiene is one reason that Yummy, for example, was started, and this information portal is only part of a growing trend. In the public WeChat accounts I follow, many are devoted to women and women’s sexual health, including the irregular posts from mifenglanhua 蜜丰兰花. Check out the WeChat blog of Muzi Mei (ID: bujiav123), a veteran journalist, blogger, and columnist who won fame in the early 2000s for frank descriptions of her sexscapades and one-night stands. Now she occasionally blogs on her public account about her sexual experiences and advises younger and less experienced readers.

Another subset of feminist activism is queer activism, especially lesbian activism. For Li Maizi, who participated in high-profile “marriage ceremonies” in public spaces to increase awareness of same-sex unions, still not legal in China, this queer activism goes hand-in-hand with her feminism. “My lesbian identity makes me a marginal figure in society, and disadvantages me, but I have gained a lot of strength from my identity,” Li says. “I am a lesbian, it is my way of life, my emotional life. And yet I’m also a feminist, so social inequalities are always on my mind. I try to implement these ideas of equality in my own life; I’m self-critical and self-reflective.” In her work for LGBT rights, she heads the LGBTQ Hotline, which offers college students a resource they can call when in need.

Li has also stated that she will campaign to legalize gay marriage in China. Li believes that the tide will turn. “Many legal scholars are seriously writing about this issue, and they approve of equal rights for gay people. The only issue is that gay marriage does not get discussed in public. And so, we need to bring up marriage equality again and again with the government and the public.” Outlets such as Vice have confirmed that in China, younger generations are in fact becoming increasingly tolerant of same-sex unions.

It is a time of tides turning, and action has already started to affect change. Li is grateful that the government has taken notice of her actions despite her detention. In December 2016 the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development rolled out the “Standard for Design of Public Toilets in the City.” In the next five years, women’s toilets will be increased to a ratio of 2:1 to men’s. Li says she is grateful that the government wants to make these changes. As for the rest of the country and all of its struggles, there is still a long way to go.

The views above do not necessarily reflect those of City Weekend.

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