ChinaFile

A Chinese Woman Walks Into a Men’s Room …

… and ends up in the cross-hairs of state security. What happened?

Weibo/Fair Use
Weibo/Fair Use

Probably no woman has ever taken more flak for walking into a men’s room than Li Tingting.

In 2012, in the run-up to International Women’s Day, March 8, the then 22-year-old feminist college student in the major Chinese city of Xi’an was distressed by the 1-to-1 ratio of public restroom facilities for males and females. She believed that women’s longer wait times necessitated legislation to enforce giving women twice as many toilets. Determined to correct the oversight, she organized demonstrations for true toilet parity.

The Feb. 19 “Occupy Men’s Room” movement involved some 20 women who took over male public restrooms periodically over an hour in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou; a week later, many of the same women did so in Beijing. Outside they distributed fliers and held signs with slogans like “Care for women, starting with toilets.” The two events were small and cheeky, causing no more trouble than a little embarrassment for a few men. Most onlookers just laughed it off and expressed support for the cause. Li figured her action wouldn’t draw the wrath of authorities. She could not have been more wrong. “We didn’t think it was sensitive,” she told me. “But I guess we can’t gauge the risk since the government is so strange.”

***

On March 6 of this year, Chinese police detained a group of feminist activists, including Li, ahead of International Women’s Day. Li and four others remain in detention on suspicion of “picking quarrels and creating a disturbance” — a crime frequently invoked to silence dissent in China, and one that can carry a heavy prison sentence. For years, Li and fellow feminists have faced harassment from authorities for their activities, but this is the first time any of them has been criminally detained for an extended period of time.

When I met Li, a year after her “Occupy” movement, I found it amusing that she had been considered a threat by China’s “stability maintenance” apparatus — a term that euphemistically refers to the country’s vast internal security network, which is tasked with stamping out any hint of potential unrest. It includes multiple agencies and thousands of offices overseeing surveillance, censorship, police, special informants, community volunteers, and even contract thugs. Since 2010, spending on the system has outstripped the country’s entire military budget. Li’s ability to organize groups for public demonstrations, albeit very small ones, is likely what led the apparatus to view her as a potential source of unrest. Whether the petite Li was recounting one of her quirky demonstrations or the childhood beatings she endured, she ended nearly every thought with a mischievous giggle.

***

Li was born in the rural outskirts of Beijing. She described her mother as a sweet and caring woman, and her father as a stubborn chauvinist. According to Li, her parents had been forced to marry young after her mother became pregnant with her. During her childhood, her father delivered fertilizer for a farming company, but he was exceptionally unpopular with his colleagues. He had narrowly failed the gaokao college entrance exam after high school and remained perpetually bitter about the peasant’s existence to which that failure had relegated him. So when his company had to start laying off workers, he was one of the first to go. A few years later, he was offered his job back, but he was too proud to accept.

Li’s mother picked up the slack and got a job in a Beijing factory. Although she was bringing in the money and even continued to do the housework when she was home, her husband remained firmly in charge. His orders were nonnegotiable, and any affront by his wife or daughter resulted in a beating — Li remembered getting thrashings for things as simple as writing with her left hand instead of her right.

Unlike her father, Li did well on the gaokao. At her top-tier university in Xi’an, she became involved in activism. In January 2011, she set up a gender-equality advocacy network, which she asked that I didn’t name, for fear of endangering the organization by publicizing it in Western media. They advocated for equal-rights legislation and highlighted discriminatory behavior in government and businesses.

The young women frequently rallied against domestic violence, which is rampant in China. In one survey conducted by Beijing Forestry University and the Anti-Domestic Violence Network, a China-based gender-equality NGO, half of Chinese men admitted to violence against their partners.

Since 2001, China’s marriage law had specifically prohibited “family violence,” but it failed to lay out any legal recourse or even define what constituted abuse (comprehensive domestic abuse legislation is currently awaiting approval by China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress). As a result, police and courts remained hesitant to take on these cases and tended to push couples to reconcile. “Some women get abused for 10 years, or even 30 years, because once she leaves her husband, she might lose her home and children,” Li said. “That’s the reason they don’t leave.”

The initiatives the young women took on were designed to garner wide attention on social media, and the work that made them famous was their “performance art” — a term they deliberately used to dodge the political sensitivity of “protest.”

On Valentine’s Day 2012, Li and two other volunteers called attention to the problem of domestic violence by wearing bridal gowns splattered with red paint to resemble blood. They marched down a crowded Beijing shopping street, holding signs and chanting slogans like “Love is not an excuse for violence.” They jokingly chided couples holding hands, warning them to be vigilant against abuse.

The crowd was mostly receptive, but the subject matter made some people uncomfortable. A common saying in China reflects the traditional attitude: “Family ugliness must not be aired” (jiachou buke waiyang). To many Chinese, beating is a normal part of marriage, and it certainly is not something to be discussed outside the home. “Many families had no humor,” Li recalled. “There were even some chauvinists in China saying feminists are evil — that our group is evil.”

As they marched down the street that February, chengguan (urban management officials) confronted them, warning that they had not registered their three-person demonstration. The officers followed the women until they left.

The “Occupy Men’s Room” demonstration a few days later was meant to address a less threatening gender-related issue that could gain broad support. After all, long bathroom lines for women also affect the men who accompany them. “In the beginning we thought it was very humorous,” Li said.

Most people did see the humor. After the first Occupy event in Guangzhou, the movement went viral on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, and started getting international attention. By the time the Beijing demonstration rolled around a week later, it was a media circus involving nearly every major domestic and foreign news outlet in the city. Li gave interviews under a pseudonym “Li Maizi,” hoping that anonymity would keep her under the radar. It did not.

Perhaps it was all the foreign media attention focused on China’s gender issues. Perhaps it was bad timing, as the National People’s Congress would meet that following week. Or perhaps Li’s ability to organize large groups for public demonstrations seemed threatening. She still is not completely sure why, but the Beijing event introduced her to the suffocating grip of China’s “stability maintenance” apparatus.

The day of the Beijing Occupy performance, the propaganda department reportedly sent directives for media to stop covering the movement. Then immediately after the demonstration, two plainclothes men escorted Li to their unmarked car. Only their badges, without names or numbers, identified them as police, Li told me.

To Li’s surprise, the men took her to a fancy restaurant and treated her to a feast. “The good thing is you can eat a big dinner,” she giggled while recounting the story. “Stability maintenance has a big budget for this sort of thing, and the standard for people like me — the lowest, I think — is having to spend at least 600 yuan [$96] on the meal.”

The officers kept her there for the rest of the day. They were subtle in their message and kept the conversation light. But eventually they got to the point and warned her to cease her demonstrations, stop posting on Weibo, and stop giving interviews.

Later that evening, six marked police cars with 10 uniformed officers pulled up to her parents’ home in Beijing’s outskirts. They took Li’s terrified father to a restaurant, lavishing the same expensive banquet on him that his daughter had enjoyed. For him they even brought an offer to the table, saying that if he could get Li to discontinue her activities, they could arrange a cushy job for her at the local branch of the All-China Women’s Federation, a government organization. “If my family had something — such as if we owned a factory — they could just threaten to shut it down,” Li speculated. “But my family had nothing to lose, so they offered me a job.”

Li’s father had always pushed her to try entering civil service and was disappointed and humiliated when she instead delved into feminist causes. But somehow, she now had a shortcut to his dream dangling right in front of her. After living a simple rural life for so long, he yearned to see his daughter improve the family’s fortunes.

But Li declined. Over the next few days, she continued giving interviews and kept posting on Weibo, so authorities stepped up the pressure. They showed up again and took her to their car, but there was no fancy dinner this time — just a brief session of “good cop, bad cop.” They told her that defying their orders constituted a betrayal of “trust between friends.” They also wined and dined her father a few more times, but it became clear that he had no power over her. She was already planning the next demonstration.

For International Women’s Day on March 8, 2012, she and a group of volunteers planned to hold signs outside a Beijing government building, protesting invasive gynecological exams that female civil service applicants were forced to undergo. This time, though, the authorities were one step ahead of her. On March 8, Li phoned a friend to make final preparations. Within half an hour, police showed up at her door. She later realized they had tapped her phone and hacked her email.

That day, Li was brought to the police station for a long interrogation, released, and then awakened again early the next morning for another session. Finally, the police invoked leverage that Li could not ignore by calling her university in Xi’an, where she was still awaiting graduation. The vice dean of her department and her counselor were dispatched to retrieve her from Beijing. “My counselor was proud of me,” Li said, “but told me I’d better stay at school and read more books.”

By this point, the harassment was finally starting to wear on her. She decided to retreat to Xi’an and then continue her demonstrations in the more open-minded city of Guangzhou until the heat was off in Beijing.

Over the following months, authorities would still listen in on Li’s phone calls and frequently called to check in, but she was largely left alone outside Beijing. “Sometimes I’m scared,” she said. “But I have some peers backing me, so I’m not afraid of them.”

And she still organized other events. In June 2012, Li and other volunteers mobilized after the Shanghai subway authority addressed a groping epidemic on its trains by suggesting that women “have some self-respect” and not dress so provocatively. A few volunteers proceeded to board the subway wearing miniskirts, metal breast protectors, and signs saying, “I can be slutty, but you can’t get dirty.” In September of that same year, they shaved their heads to protest some universities’ practice of lowering admissions standards for boys in order to maintain a gender balance with higher-achieving girls.

By 2013 the group consisted of some 200 active volunteers around China, many of whom, like Li, had grown up experiencing family violence. Despite her harrowing run-in with stability maintenance and the clampdown on activism and nongovernmental organizations that emerged after Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, Li and her volunteers pushed forward with their activities. In February 2014, Li reprised her bloody bride get-up outside a Beijing courthouse where a high-profile divorce compensation trial was taking place: American Kim Lee was suing her ex-husband, Crazy English founder Li Yang, for damages after he’d admitted to physically abusing her. And this February, weeks before she was detained, Li Tingting was among a group that flagged what it viewed as misogynistic themes in the annual televised CCTV Spring Festival Gala and publicly demanded that the network apologize (it did not comply).

In the 1980s or 1990s, a rabble-rouser like Li could have been dealt with easily enough. The state could have held her future ransom or could have simply scared her by dispatching her to a labor camp for a few years. But in today’s information age, Li’s network gave her a measure of security. Still, the Occupy experience gave Li a stark reminder that she could push the envelope only so far. If political winds shifted or she somehow crossed a line and the ruling Chinese Communist Party felt that its legitimacy had been questioned, it would not hesitate to bring the hammer down hard. China’s labor camps and prisons house dozens of activists just as influential as Li who focused their efforts on more sensitive goals like democracy, Tibetan autonomy, or recognition for the banned spiritual group Falun Gong.

Li’s case illustrates that even social movements pushing only slightly controversial agendas tend to irk the Communist Party. “I know what I do is a good thing,” Li told me. “But it’s hard to communicate with the government because they’re biased against nongovernmental organizations. They think they always make trouble and are bad for society.”

This essay is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book, China’s Millennials: The Want Generation.

Photo credit: Weibo/Fair Use

Eric Fish is a writer at Asia Society.

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