Image: Verso Books

In 2015, a group of feminist activists in China planned to commemorate International Women’s Day by handing out stickers calling out sexual harassment on subways and buses in cities throughout the country. For several years, they had been engaging in provocative performance art—acts of consciousness-raising that involved everything from their donning white wedding dresses doused in fake blood to call attention to domestic violence to holding street actions protesting the lack of equality in the number of women’s public toilets, dubbed “Occupy Men’s Toilets.”

But on the evening before March 8, five women—Li Maizi, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, and Wang Man—were arrested by state police. The women, who shortly became known as the “Feminist Five,” would subsequently be detained for more than a month, and subjected to harsh interrogations. Their arrest sparked a global outcry. Leaders from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere called for their release, condemning the Chinese government and its president Xi Jinping for jailing the women. The worldwide protest worked—the women were freed.

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Leta Hong Fincher’s new book explores why the women were jailed in the first place, and traces the growth of feminist consciousness in China. In Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (the title of the book comes from a blog post written by one of the Feminist Five, Wei Tingting, in which she wrote of her “joy in betraying Big Brother”), Hong Fincher explains that far from a small movement on the fringes of Chinese society, feminism is on the rise, from the burgeoning and ongoing #MeToo movement, to increasing calls for protections for survivors of domestic violence (China only passed a law against domestic violence in 2016), to protests against workplace discrimination.

This rise in feminist consciousness among largely urban, college-educated Chinese women is exemplified by China’s own #MeToo movement, which exploded earlier this year as women began sharing their stories of harassment and abuse on popular social media platforms like Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, and WeChat. Students on university campuses detailed stories of harassment by their professors and circulated petitions calling for their complaints to be investigated, a remarkable move in a country where taking action on issues that are deemed to be politically sensitive can result in everything from being called in for questioning to, as in the case of the Feminist Five, being thrown in prison.

I spoke to Hong Fincher about the emergence of #MeToo in China, the constraints on feminist discourse and organizing, and why she believes the feminist movement poses a unique challenge to Communist Party rule in the world’s largest country. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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JEZEBEL: This is your second book on feminism in China. Your first book, Leftover Women, was published in 2014. What has changed from 2014 to today?

LETA HONG FINCHER: At the time that I wrote that book, I felt that this is not a movement, really. It was just very small—some women who are activists here and there, taking part in these very quirky but isolated acts of performance art. And I have to say, now, speaking at this moment, I’m really astonished at the leaps that this movement has made just in the last couple of years. And especially when you go back five or six years, or even longer. Some of these feminist activists themselves talk about how a decade ago, when they were in high school or starting college, they had no awareness.

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So that’s one of the remarkable things, I think, that also speaks to China’s rapid development in general because often you see changes on the ground happen very quickly. Not only the feminist awakening and the development of a political feminist movement, but also a much broader awareness among women about gender inequality and sexism. Regardless of whether or not they identify as feminists, that awareness has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years. And it’s still growing.

What was the impact of the arrest of the Feminist Five in 2015 in China?

The arrest of the Feminist Five itself was a big marker of change. Before that, there was no obvious crackdown in any way on women’s rights groups. All of that changed dramatically in 2015 with the jailing of the Feminist Five. That act alone, I believe, fueled the feminist movement.

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After that, it became a much more powerful movement, because people were galvanized into action. They recognized that the government is actually seeing us as a threat. And these young women taking part, they’ll say, we always thought we were helping our country because the Chinese government itself says it believes in gender equality; it upholds equality between men and women as a foundational principle, and it’s in the Chinese constitution. But clearly, that is no longer the case.

What else do you think explains why awareness of women’s issues and sexism has expanded so much in the past few years? What’s happened?

There’s no question that the organized feminist activists I write about in [Betraying Big Brother] played a role, even though there haven’t been that many of these activists. Their ability to use social media, and to attract attention—they were able to generate some mainstream media coverage even in the Chinese news, with Xinhua News covering the Occupy Men’s toilets protest.

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But certainly, that’s not at all the whole story. Part of it is also simply the growth of the Internet. There’s no question the Internet has been an absolutely critical element of that, in spite of the draconian interference and censorship from government web monitors. And then also more broadly, just the fact that so many more women have gotten a university education. The higher level of education of young women has played a very big part in the growing awareness of these young women of their inequality in society.

Were you surprised that #MeToo has taken off in China?

At the beginning of the year, I was pretty pessimistic about the possibilities, because of all these enormous obstacles—from very heavy Internet censorship, complete lack of press freedom, complete inability to protest on the streets without being jailed, no independent judiciary. There are so many obstacles preventing a movement like #MeToo from catching on, and yet it actually has. So it’s really a remarkable movement.

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Ever since I finished the final edits to this book, which were made at the end of April, I had to keep updating everything, because of all the #MeToo news. The extraordinary resilience and determination and passion of these young people all across China is just amazing to me. It has really given me a lot more hope.

You mentioned some of the challenges that make it hard for social movements to take off in China. Can you talk a little bit more about the constraints that people face?

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I think this is hard for people who don’t understand China to grasp just how difficult it is for something like #MeToo to catch on in that country. Because most people don’t understand just how shut off from a lot of sources of information that young Chinese people are in China. They don’t have Google, they don’t have Facebook, they don’t have Instagram. They don’t have YouTube. They have the Chinese versions, which are very strictly controlled. So a lot of these young people have absolutely no knowledge at all of say, the Tiananmen massacre. They don’t have any clue that it happened.

It’s not just access to information too, but also the possible consequences of speaking out, right?

Most Chinese wouldn’t know what the consequences are until they actually take that step. They are given a lot of propaganda in school and university, warning them against falling prey to hostile foreign forces like the U.S. or the U.K., trying to undermine China. And so that’s very heavy ideological education that they’re subjected to, and that’s getting even heavier and much more controlled now.

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Students at universities all have a political advisor who monitors their, so to speak, political behavior. That can take the form of, you’re called to a meeting by your department and you have to attend some function, and you don’t show up to the function, then you get called out in front of everybody in your class. Why didn’t you show up?

The tentacles of control from the Communist Party extend very deeply into every individual’s life, into their family life, into their school life, into their social life. And if you’re a woman, they extend into your reproductive life. Some schools even keep track of your periods. Employers, they keep track of your periods. When did you have your period? Oh, are you pregnant? That level of control, that’s related to population planning as well. And so those are things that are just a natural part of a young person’s life growing up or living in China.

So you have to understand that environment, that level of control. So for so many young people to break out of that and to sign their real names to a petition, saying we demand that the university implements a mechanism to punish sexual assaulters on campus? The university has to take action. It’s extraordinary that it’s happening.

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How does the #MeToo movement differ from other social movements?

I have not seen anything like this. I haven’t seen that level of collective action on university campuses since 1989. It’s absolutely astonishing how much it has taken off, given the incredibly tight controls in individuals’ lives.

It’s already transforming China’s society. And it’s already transformative, and we don’t even know in the long run how transformative this will be.

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Another thing we haven’t talked about yet is the labor rights movement. Because there are feminists who are involved in that as well. All of these overlapping forms of movements, they are very destabilizing for the government. And we don’t know how stable the Communist Party is. And so this is another reason why the Party is so paranoid. They’re trying to find a way to stay in power, given the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe. So that’s why I say this is also a very perilous time. But at the same time, it’s also a time of great hope.

One point that you make in your book is that the feminist movement is possibly the one social movement that could undermine the Communist Party, because it has the potential to truly be a mass movement. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about that.

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There’s no question that they want to wipe out the feminist movement, but how do they do that? They tried jailing these activists, and that backfired.

Obviously, we can’t predict what’s gonna happen. Maybe they will end up jailing more in the future. That’s always possible. Let’s say they decide to jail—I don’t know—dozens of them. I don’t see that being effective in any way, because basic feminist consciousness has begun to really take root across China.

Whether or not the woman identifies as a feminist, that fundamental awareness that I as a woman, I’m discriminated against, I’m really sick and tired of being sexually harassed when I take the subway, or I’m really tired of getting paid less than that guy who has fewer qualifications than me just because I’m a woman. I mean there are so many ways in which women are so blatantly discriminated against in China, and there is a real critical mass of women, particularly college-educated women, who are much more aware of that now. And there is so much discussion of it on Weibo and WeChat. So the government can’t just completely shut down all of those discussions.

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It tries.

It tries, but well it also doesn’t entirely try to shut every discussion down. It just can’t. So it’s an incredibly potent challenge to the government in ways that other social movements have not been. And I’m sure that there are other people who would say well, what about the environmental movement, for example. But in thinking about all the different social movements that have been kind of big, ever since 1989, I really feel that this one, the greater women’s consciousness about their rights, is extremely powerful.

We’re still in the middle of it. We’re smack in the middle of it. And the government, we can see the government is trying to find a way to deal with it. And we don’t know what the outcome is going to be.

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You argue that the legitimacy of the government is tied to its ability to control women’s bodies, or promote these very patriarchal norms and traditional family values. And it seems like there’s been a resurgence of that under Xi Jinping.

Under Xi Jinping, the general crackdown on civil society has really intensified. And then, of course, the National People’s Congress abolished presidential term limits earlier this year, which is a huge step backward. But actually, that resurgence of traditional gender norms and gender inequality, the pushing of the role of the dutiful wife and mother, that’s been going on for much longer. I look at 2007 as an important turning point because this government pushed this new propaganda term, “sheng nu,” stigmatizing non-married women over their mid-20s, specifically to push them into getting married.

So that was a very strong propaganda drive, and it was already being accompanied by government initiatives like mass match matching festivals. But under Xi Jinping, there’s a new level of intensity. There is propaganda which aggressively is now pushing women not just into getting married but into having two children. For example, you have some articles in the state media targeting college-aged women who are only in their late teens, saying oh, you can have a baby when you’re in college.

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It’s wild that state media is promoting young 19-year-olds to have children.

There’s the propaganda element, then there’s the policy element which comes in the form of first loosening one-child policy, moving to an official two-child policy.

There are all sorts of ways in which officials are talking about, how do we get women to have more babies? This is a huge crisis for China. Falling birth rates, accompanied by falling marriage rates, and the severe aging of the population and the shrinking of the labor force. And that’s related to the deceleration of China’s economic growth. They believe that these falling birth rates are really dire threats for China.

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So the Communist party is extremely paranoid, and that explains all of these moves to tighten controls on civil society. The fear of feminism in general, new announcements warning against efforts by western feminists to infiltrate China. A lot of the women who have taken part in #MeToo have been questioned in hostile ways and told, you’re just allowing yourself to be used as a tool of foreign forces.

And so it’s a specific line of attack used against women who take on a more prominent role in organizing, whether it’s for the feminist movement or whether it’s for a petition about #MeToo about so-and-so professor who sexually assaulted their student.

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What seems pretty clear to me is that any kind of lip service paid to gender equality or women’s rights is always in the service of the economic development of the country, and is a nationalist project that’s not necessarily about the real needs and wants of women.

Exactly. Even that rhetoric of gender equality has completely changed in recent years.

How so?

Looking back at the history of China in the early part of the Communist era, the rhetoric of gender equality was extremely strong. And so Mao Zedong, probably his single most famous saying is, women hold up half the sky. So all of the propaganda back then was of very strong healthy looking women working bulldozers or as welders, in these traditionally masculine jobs. And then women were all put to work. China had probably the world’s highest level of female workforce participation.

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But economically, with the increasing privatization of the economy and the retreat from the planned economy, a lot of women lost their jobs, so the unemployment rate for women skyrocketed relative to men, and then other forms of gender inequality also really increased dramatically. And so already we’re seeing that rhetoric of gender equality being diluted heavily.

And today with Xi Jinping, you don’t see a lot of prominent political slogans about women and men being equal. It’s much more a return to traditional Confucian views of the women’s role, which is, women should be in these subservient roles.

Xi Jinping is called “Big Daddy Xi” in China, which I find hilarious but also terrifying.

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Some people call it a personality cult, although right now they seem to be kind of trying to reign in the cultish aspects. But there’s no question that Xi Jinping is now defining the Communist Party much more than any single leader did since Deng Xiaoping. So they very aggressively put him forward as the face of China and the face of China’s leadership, embodied in him. And the kind of propaganda revolving around him, he’s the head of the family state, and women and girls have to play their proper role, and that is to be dutiful daughters, to be very submissive wives, and to be really devoted mothers in the home.

There’s a renewed emphasis on familial piety as well that does not talk about, by and large, working women. Sometimes you still see articles in the state media about oh, look at these women working and contributing to China’s economic growth. But I think that from the top down, there is being an emphasis on doing away with those kinds of news stories and emphasizing women in the traditional family role.

There are so many different elements to the perceived threat of feminism, because the feminists, of course, advocate complete freedom for women, and the freedom to choose what to do with their bodies, including rejecting having children, rejecting marriage, and choosing non-normative forms of sexuality. It’s quite striking as well how many of the most committed activists are actually queer.

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How is queerness seen as a threat?

It’s a threat to the basic foundation of political stability, which revolves around marriage between a man and a woman resulting in babies. The feminists are encouraging women to reject these traditional roles, and a lot of women are just refusing to have babies. They don’t want to be constrained. And that just, in the eyes of Communist party leaders, that just leads to chaos.

What is really striking to me is not only that there are a lot of young women, particularly women who have gone to college, who are not getting married and having children. It’s how many of them actually declare that to be their mission. Their mission is to not get married and not have children. It’s very militant. And I’m not even talking about the political activists. I’ve been really struck by how many young women actually say, I’m never gonna get married. I don’t see that level of militancy in America.

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They’re really choosing to rebel.

One small detail in your book really stood out to me, and that was that the Feminist Five had their glasses taken away in detention. So they literally could not see their environment or see the world.

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The entire experience, for all of the women, was terrifying, and made much more disorienting and terrifying by the fact that they couldn’t see. They couldn’t see anything. Each one of the women, they were terrified by that inability to see.

And then this friend of mine read the first draft of my manuscript, and she said you know, that’s a really powerful metaphor for the gaslighting of women everywhere. And I thought, you’re right. Metaphorically, it does happen to women everywhere. And not just women, all the marginalized communities in some way, when they are being undermined by the powerful, our ability to see our own oppression is severely weakened, and that increases our own self-doubt, that our sense of reality is distorted.

It’s much harder to make out what is happening and to see a way out of your own oppression and to recognize the reality of your subjugation. Afterward, I saw one of the activists who was detained, and she told me that she got laser surgery for her eyes afterward, because she’s preparing for it, she says, if she’s ever detained again, she’ll be in a better position if they confiscate her eyeglasses.

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What the Feminist Five and other prominent activists experience isn’t common. But what is common for almost all women in China are high levels of harassment and abuse. Conservative estimates state that one in four married women in China has experienced domestic violence. Yet until 2016, there was no specific law in China against domestic violence.

That law itself was a real legal milestone, but from what I’ve heard from activists and scholars who are studying the implementation of the law, it has not been implemented properly. So the law, it’s really just cosmetic. And so it’s pretty obvious that the government doesn’t have the will to actually implement this law.

I make the argument that actually it’s the very purpose of the Communist party now to subjugate women. As long as the Communist Party is in power in its current form, it will never implement a law like the anti-domestic violence law, because it relies on the subjugation of women and violence against women to perpetuate its own rule. Yes, they passed the law, but I think that was much more a desire for part of China to appear to be an internationally responsible leader. But I don’t believe it’s going to implement it properly at all.

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Just like there are wages of whiteness, there are wages of patriarchy that in China, invest men in the continuation of one-party rule.

That is certainly part of it. I mean it’s very complicated, as patriarchy is complicated everywhere. But in China, because of the authoritarian repression, the state has much more tools at its disposal to keep the population under control. And one of the most powerful tools is actually deliberate misogyny and sexism. Because if the government actually were to, let’s say, enforce the domestic violence law properly, again it would lead to chaos, because it’s so widespread. The violence against women is so widespread that I think that Chinese leaders have concluded that there is no way for them to actually control the problem without undermining their political authority. And so from the government’s point of view, the best thing is to simply allow it to continue.

You argue that despite their small numbers, self-described feminist activists have played an important role in the #MeToo movement.

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These political activists, the hardcore feminist activists who are willing to go to jail, they are very important in circulating petitions that are related to #MeToo, even though most of the people taking part in those #MeToo actions have nothing to do with the more organized political aspect. The organizational ability of these activists definitely plays a part. So when you talk to those activists, they say well, that’s just the way things are, and I’m so glad that this petition or this little note that I wrote stayed up for 15 minutes. A full 15 minutes before it was taken down.

It often feels like there is just an onslaught of things happening, and how do you maintain your spirit for fighting? I always think about the Chinese feminists and what they’re dealing with. There is simply no comparison between the U.S. government, and the freedoms that we still possess here in America that are so much greater than what is available for your average Chinese citizen.

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As an example, the U.S. government is not shutting down Planned Parenthood, at least not yet! But in China, many NGOs have been shuttered.

The incredible resilience, the spirit of these activists, is very inspiring to me. Of course, they go through their waves of depression and despondency and despair, but it’s just really remarkable how committed they are and hopeful. They’re living in really the most powerful authoritarian system that exists in this world. It’s becoming more powerful at the same time that it’s also very fragile. And that explains the harsh political crackdowns.

But they have the ability and the faith to continue their struggle, and they really want to continue, for the most part. Very few of these women that I interview want to give up on feminist activism, even after they’ve been detained or repeatedly interrogated or kicked out of their homes, or lost their jobs or are unable to find another job.

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You quote someone in your book who said that they felt there was no space to have an independent feminist movement in China, and I’m wondering if you agree with that, based on what you’ve seen and what’s happening now.

There’s no question that the Chinese government does not want any space to exist. But what we’re seeing now, is that in spite of that strong control imposed by the government and all of the crackdowns that are designed to wipe out the feminist movement, it’s still alive. I don’t know if they can wipe it out. And in fact, you can see with #MeToo, it seems to be growing. It’s not shrinking. Even though the permitted space for feminist activism is shrinking, the rebellion is growing.

The vast majority of women speaking out with their #MeToo story would say, this has nothing to do with the Communist party, but of course, they have to say that for their own survival. But it’s also true, because it’s about their own truth and about their abuse. This is another reason why feminism is so powerful; because it relates to your intimate experience. These kinds of abuses of women are so pervasive that pretty much every woman in China has experienced them. This is what makes the message of feminism so powerful and so difficult to control.

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I don’t agree with that statement anymore. And I think that what we’re seeing now is proof that actually, you can have an independent movement. It’s surviving. And how long it will survive is anybody’s guess, but the more that I see people coming out with #MeToo accounts, the more I believe that it’s not possible for the government to get rid of this.

Any last thoughts?

Misogyny and sexism are at the root of all authoritarian forms of control around the world. Whether it’s rising authoritarianism in the U.S. under our current president, or these autocratic regimes under Putin or in the Philippines or Argentina, this kind of autocracy relies on the subjugation of women.

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I hope that readers can look at these young activists and Chinese feminists and be inspired by them to take part and fight for women’s rights and girl’s rights. I really feel that feminism is a very powerful force that’s on the ascendancy globally, but it’s also under unprecedented attack. We’re all facing different experiences, but the common enemy is patriarchy which is global. It’s really important for this to become a global solidarity movement, for women and feminists around the world can really learn from each other. We need to build on that solidarity to confront these really acute global challenges.