Tea Leaf Nation

‘They Are the Best Feminist Activists in China’

Why did Chinese authorities detain five feminists on International Women's Day -- and what will become of them? Zhao Sile, a part of the women's rights movement, explains.

Zhao SiLe 2 Weibo Fair Use

On March 8, International Women’s Day, Chinese police detained five women for planning a protest against sexual harassment. With their detention now stretching into its second week, the activists have yet to be formally charged — an increasingly common limbo many Chinese activists have faced as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tightening restrictions on civil society, NGOs, and dissent. Foreign Policy reached feminist Zhao Sile (pictured above) via mobile messaging app WeChat to discuss the detention of her fellow activists and the future of the feminist movement in China. Zhao previously worked as a reporter in Hong Kong and was part of the team that won a Human Rights Press Award in 2012 for its coverage of elections in the village of Wukan. Zhao is currently a freelance writer and columnist, as well as a major contributor to feminist public discourse in China. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Foreign Policy: What do you know about the detention of the five feminists in China over International Women’s Day?

Zhao Sile: The five detained women are organizers and activists in the feminist movement in China. We are all about the same age, around 25 or 26. Some of them are very close friends of mine. The news was shocking to me because detention of young feminists in China was basically unheard of. They have never been in trouble with the police or, simply put, been persecuted like this, so I’m very worried about how they are doing in detention. I heard that one of them, Wu Rongrong, is in bad health, and the detention center not only refused to offer her medical attention but also mistreated her by not allowing her to sleep in a bed.

They are the best feminist activists in China. Their detention reminds me of the arrest of the Pussy Riot punk band in Russia, whose actions against the patriarchal authority had found support around the world. I believe the implications of the Chinese feminists’ detention are similar to that of Pussy Riot.

FP: What had led to their detention?

Zhao: As far as I know, the reason was that they had planned to pass out anti-sexual harassment fliers on buses on March 8, International Women’s Day. I believe this particular activity is relatively mild compared to what we had done before, such as singing and dancing on the street to advocate feminism. This year March 8 fell during the “Two Sessions,” which is the annual gathering of the so-called legislative representatives to pass laws, so during this time China enters something like a lockdown. The [activists’] detention could be just a part of the “stability maintenance” measures undertaken during the Two Sessions. But I also believe this is a continuation of the government’s crackdown on NGOs in China in 2014.

FP: What has the impact of the detention been on the Chinese feminist community so far?

Zhao: Organizers will definitely have to adjust their positioning and strategy — their actions probably will become more targeted, more strategic, more discreet, and more professional. As for our young volunteers and activists, I don’t think they have distanced themselves from the movement after this detention. On the contrary, the detention has galvanized many of them, and we have seen great solidarity among activists. It’s very heartening.

FP: What was the interaction like between the feminist activists and the Chinese government prior to the detention of the five activists?

Zhao: We’ve had some official cooperation with the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), the government-affiliated women’s association. ACWF organized women’s groups around China, including the ones I’m involved with, to write the shadow report submitted to the United Nations for the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action [which emerged from the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995]. So we’ve had some good interactions with the authorities.

However, at the same time, we’ve sometimes had a tense relationship with the police. In 2012, the police tried to interfere with our “Occupy Men’s Room” movement, which called attention to the imbalance between male and female bathrooms in China. Also, from time to time, the police would show up at our offices and ask us questions about our work.

Officialdom is split too — some liberal-minded officials are open to working with civic organizations, but those responsible for “stability maintenance” want to repress all forms of citizen activism. China plans to co-host a women’s summit with the United Nations in September, and now many feminist groups have called for a boycott of the summit in the aftermath of the detention. I believe there is some tension within the Chinese government about how to handle the case of these five feminists.

FP: What was the state of feminist activism in China prior to the March 8 detention?

Zhao: In the past, the public paid very little attention to feminist issues, but that has gradually changed in the last few years. We’ve had more support from women outside feminist circles and could mobilize more volunteers as more people began to pay attention. Starting around 2010, Chinese feminists became more active by taking our causes to the streets with song and dance performances, and feminist activism was one of the most visible forms of activism in China. In the beginning [of that period], we focused on specific issues, like the skewed gender ratio of public bathrooms and employment discrimination.

But starting in 2014, our relationship with the authorities became quite tense as our activism has grown in depth and breadth. For the party-state, no socially active organizations and individuals are welcome, so it’s inevitable that we would become a target of the government organs that prioritize “stability maintenance” measures. We just never thought detention of our activists would come at this particular point because we believed that young women had some space to express their views. But now it seems that that space has disappeared completely.

FP: What is the current status of the detained activists, as far as you know?

Zhao: A group of lawyers is helping them, and their families have been able to send in money and clothes. One of them, Li Tingting, has met with her lawyer and believes that she will be released soon. The feminist network around China has come together to express its support and campaign for the release of the detainees. The police may have made trouble for the Chinese government [because it wants to host the summit]. I don’t believe the women will be prosecuted because they have broken no laws.

FP: Where are you right now? Are you concerned about your own safety?

Zhao: I’m in a small town in southern China, and I plan to stay here for a while. I didn’t feel like I was in danger, but my friends and the lawyers of the detained activists had advised me to leave Beijing for a while. The detentions have indeed created some panic and tension, but the activists have not retreated. They are only thinking about how to sustain the movement and further expand it.

Photo credit: Weibo/Fair Use

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