Tea Leaf Nation
The Inspirational Backstory of China’s ‘Feminist Five’
One of China's now-famous activists speaks out about her detention, release, and the outpouring of support that gave her hope.
The following narrative has been adapted from a Chinese-language article that first appeared in Hong Kong-based Asian Newsweek on April 15, two days after Chinese authorities released from custody five feminist activists who had been detained for over a month without formal charges. The author, a close associate of the released activists, relates the details of the women’s sudden detention, their previous activism, and how international and domestic scrutiny put pressure on Chinese authorities to release them. Newly incorporated into the following article, and exclusive to Foreign Policy, is an interview with one of the released feminists, conducted by the author. FP translates with permission, with edits for clarity and brevity, below.
“I am inspired and encouraged by the support from inside and outside of China,” the activist told me on April 15. She wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, and understandably so: She is one of the “Feminist Five,” female activists detained by Chinese authorities on March 7. (They were Li Tingting, age 25; Zheng Churan, age 25; Wei Tingting, age 26 [no relation to Wei Zhili]; Wu Rongrong, age 30; and Wang Man, age 33.) All were released on bail April 13, but not before enduring a weeks-long detention that reveals much about the power of worldwide outcry to affect change, even in China.
The five learned of their release just hours before midnight, April 13. I was in contact with Wei Zhili, Zheng’s boyfriend, that evening. He was part of a group on WeChat, China’s mega-popular messaging app, for those concerned about the Feminist Five. At that time, other members of the group told Wei that the procuratorate might have no intention of arresting the activists; perhaps police wanted to wait until the wee hours of the night to release them in order to minimize public reaction. The knell of midnight would have marked the 37th day following their detention, at which time the procuratorate, the Chinese agency responsible for prosecution and investigation, would have been required by law to formally arrest and prosecute them.
But at around 6:30 p.m., Wei received a message from a family member of one detained feminist: “Wang Mang will be out soon.” The attorney of another soon wrote, “Wei Tingting is out.” The next thing he knew, Wei Zhili was on the phone with Zheng’s mother, who told him that police had told family members to come pick her up. Wei described himself as “thrilled.” Before long, the families of the remaining two detainees, Li and Wu, also received the long-awaited news of their release. That evening, all five detained feminists regained their freedom, thanks to solidarity in the activist community and a well-mobilized international campaign to put pressure on Chinese authorities.
But the interregnum between arrest and release was harsh. “I was interrogated a total of 30 to 40 times,” the released activist told me. “I was under a lot of psychological pressure, since I had never been placed in criminal detention before.” In the days leading up to the women’s release, she said, “The police expressed concern that we might become ‘heroes,’ that we might be recruited or used, or that we would agree to be interviewed. The police kept on making implicit demands that I not agree to outside interviews.”
The monthlong ordeal of the Feminist Five began around 11 p.m. on March 6, when police in Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou knocked on the respective doors of Zheng and Li, almost at the exact same moment. In Guangzhou, they held Zheng in a hotel room. In Beijing, police searched Li’s apartment. According to Li’s live-in girlfriend Xiaola (who asked to use a pseudonym), the police felt they had a “gotcha” moment when they found stickers that Li had prepared to use at an anti-sexual harassment rally on March 7, just ahead of International Women’s Day, which falls on March 8 of every year. They subsequently took Li and Xiaola to the police station for interrogation.
The “March 7 Stick-In” was a project Zheng and Li had worked on together; they had planned to distribute the stickers on buses to combat sexual harassment. They had recruited volunteers from different cities through social media platforms. The police then detained two of those volunteers: Wei and Wang. Wu, who helped plan the “stick-in” event, was held at the airport of the eastern city of Hangzhou after she returned from a business trip. Late at night on March 7, the police brought Wu to Beijing.
After nearly 24 hours of confining her to the hotel room, the police also brought Zheng to Beijing from Guangzhou. Before departing for the Chinese capital, police took her home and searched her apartment. The police forced her boyfriend, Wei, to leave the apartment, but he stood right outside the door and refused to go further. He said he watched Zheng scarf down a bowl of noodles that her father made, and then she was taken away right in front of him, with barely enough time to grab some clothes and cash. “I was outraged,” Wei recalled. One of Zheng’s friends wrote on WeChat, “Today is a day marked by shame.”
On March 8, International Women’s Day, the police confirmed they had detained the five feminist activists and that they were in custody at the Haidian Detention Center in Beijing.
According to Ai Xiaoming, a feminist scholar and professor of Chinese literature at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, the taking of the Feminist Five went beyond the usual strict measures taken around the time of China’s annual legislative session. The detentions also happened, according to Ai, because the women represented a larger community of young feminist activists. Over the last several years, these activists had become influential advocates, the kind of people whom China’s elaborate security system of “stability maintenance” often aims to stymie. “What they are most scared of is the entry of citizen expression into the public sphere,” said Ai. “These activists possess clear public interest demands, utilize creative approaches, and evoke positive media reaction. They constitute a sustainable force of activism, and thus an uncontrollable one.”
With the women detained, the police resorted to a common tactic utilized by Chinese authorities and propagandists to discredit domestic protest movements, most recently the Hong Kong protests in late 2014: They attempted to link the movement to foreign meddling in China’s domestic affairs. “The police suspected that ‘foreign forces’ instigated [my work] and questioned whether I had received money or compensation for my activities,” the released activist told me. But she adamantly denies this. “These charges are ridiculous. What we have done is aimed wholly at promoting gender equality or fighting sexual harassment.” When the police asked her why she would involve herself with this kind of activism, she told me, “I answered that I am also a victim of sexual harassment, and I care about the cause.”
The activists had begun their advocacy work on Valentine’s Day in 2012, when Li and Wei walked along a busy Beijing commercial area in wedding gowns stained with fake blood to attract attention. They chanted slogans like “Hitting is not intimacy; verbal abuse is not love.” They also distributed anti-domestic violence pamphlets and cards to passersby. Many of the bystanders were sympathetic to their message and complimented them on their bravery.
Soon after the “wounded brides” stunt, young feminist activists organized another attention-grabbing event, called “occupy the men’s room.” The Occupy Wall Street movement had inspired Li to design an activist project in Guangzhou together with Wang, Zheng, and others. They encouraged women waiting in long lines outside restrooms to “occupy” the less-used men’s rooms for 10 minutes, then return the stalls to men after the number of women waiting had been reduced. They called for an increase in the size of women’s public restrooms that would equalize wait times for men and women. The event in Guangzhou was such a hit that Li decided to duplicate it in Beijing, where she resides.
The activism stirred media interest to a degree that organizers say they had not expected. More than a dozen newspaper and online media outlets reported on the movement, and “occupy the men’s room” spread to other cities. Attempting to seize the opportunity, Li and her friends seized sent letters to representatives in the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s pro-forma parliament, advising them to propose legislation to improve restroom gender ratios. As a result, NPC delegates raised the issue during legislative sessions in March 2012. In that year alone, several cities made plans to improve public restroom gender ratios. Young Chinese feminist activists also worked to replicate their success in other areas of women’s rights, including employment and education discrimination, gender-based violence, and the rights of sex workers.
On April 6, 2015, the Beijing police submitted the case of the five feminists to the procuratorate office under the criminal charge of “gathering crowds to disturb public order,” referring to the “wounded brides” and “occupy the men’s room” activities. According to the lawyers of these feminists, Beijing police only began investigating these activities after the women’s detention.
China’s feminist community immediately rallied to support the five detainees. Activists and their friends waged a battle on behalf of the detainees — they organized petitions, opened up new social media accounts to post updates about the case, helped detainee family members to contact lawyers, and started online campaigns.
Inside China, an online petition circulated calling for the freeing of the Feminist Five. Over 100 human rights lawyers made a joint statement on March 9 demanding their release. Female lawyers filed complaints with the Department of Public Security, the procuratorate, and the All-China Women’s Federation, a government-affiliated women’s organization. Students at Sun Yat-sen University, Zheng’s alma mater, joined by students from other universities, also petitioned for release.
When the police did not provide medical treatment for Wu’s health condition in the detention center, a group of more than 10 supporters went there to share their concerns. The police detained those supporters for a short time too. Other young feminist activists took to the streets wearing masks of the five feminists’ faces.
Outside China, a number of well-known international media outlets reported on the detention of the feminists, which led to shows of support across the globe. Canada, Britain, and the EU publicly asked the Chinese government to release the women. Feminist organizations from places like the United States, Japan, Korea, India, and Hong Kong demonstrated to protest the detention. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Vice President Joe Biden all urged the Chinese government to release the activists.
“During the first 10 days of detention before meeting with my attorney, I was extremely unsettled,” the activist told me. “But after meeting my attorney, who told me about the wide range of support — not just across China, but from around the world — I was so touched, and became more confident.”
Despite these efforts, the supporters still had low expectations. When all five were released on April 13, it felt like a miracle. Hundreds of supporters, who had gathered together virtually to wait for the news on WeChat, exulted. Now that the activist I interviewed is out of detention, the support has lifted her spirits, especially after facing down the doubts that her interrogators had continuously cast upon her motives. It “furthers my conviction that I am on the side of justice,” she said.
But the ordeal is not over. The five women were released on bail, with an investigation pending. They could still be detained again, and they may not travel freely. “I am extremely frustrated,” the activist told me. Being restricted “has a huge negative impact on my life and my work.” But she still has her sights set on activism, and hopes authorities drop the case. “That way I can return to work and continue to dedicate myself to public service and gender equality.”