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Tea Leaf Nation
When China’s Feminists Came to Washington
They saw the women's march as a chance to combat creeping global misogyny — and to send a message back home.
Zhang Ling was dressed like a revolutionary from the Spanish Civil War. With a long braid emerging from a scarlet beret and clad in trousers a color she described as “communist red,” Zhang had driven her Honda from her home in upstate New York the night before, inspired rather than frustrated by hours of traffic jams: every passing car, she said, seemed to have been driven by a woman. “Women occupy the highway now, and the city tomorrow,” she said.
Swallowed in a sea of pink pussy hats, Zhang, a professor of cinema studies at the State University of New York, smiled when she saw American protesters raising banners with the Maoist slogan, “Women hold up half the sky.” But the reference saddened her too; a flashback to the People’s Republic where she had grown up, one where rosy-cheeked iron ladies had worked farms and factories alongside male comrades, until China took a turn toward capitalist individualism and away from (sometimes honored and sometimes ignored) socialist ideas of gender equality.
Ling was one of several dozen activists in China’s feminist movement who traveled across the country for the Women’s March on Washington on to join millions of Americans as they took to the streets protesting Donald Trump, a day after his Jan. 20 inauguration. Trump’s policies look destined to resonate far beyond America’s borders; millions of women’s rights advocates staged their own protests worldwide, in cities from Copenhagen to Riyadh. Mainland China, where protests are often harshly punished, was not among them. For Chinese activists living Stateside, that presented an irresistible opportunity.
Many Chinese feminist activists appear to have taken Trump’s campaign rhetoric personally, as an extension of the “straight man cancer” (read: everyday sexism) so widespread, and so reviled, in China. Shortly after the election, prominent feminist Zheng Churan posted on Twitter an image of her looking sternly into the camera, holding a sign in English: “feminists are watching you.” ”Although we are far away in China, we have seen the news reports of you being constantly involved in gender discrimination,” Zheng wrote in an open letter posted to WeChat. ”Just like cancerous cells, straight-man cancer spreads everywhere damaging feminist movements and undermining social equality. It is pervasive.”
Zheng knew well the dangers of patriarchal authoritarianism: the year before, she and four other high-profile activists – who would become known as the Feminist Five — were detained for months, before international outrage triggered their release. (None of them attended the Woman’s March.)
Now, as promised, more than 30 mainland Chinese women living in the United States had organized over WeChat, a social-networking app massively popular in China, and traveled to the capital. Few of them had met in real life before, but almost all of them wore the same t-shirt, spelling out in bold Chinese characters, “This is what a feminist looks like.”
“I never had this kind of experience before,” said Huang Yuhan, 29-year PhD student. Huang had come from Indiana, where she researches pop-cultural representations of the Cultural Revolution, and where she said she had become acutely aware of U.S.-style threats to women’s reproductive rights. In China too, female bodies remained politicized, though in an almost diametrically opposed manner. A few weeks earlier, many Chinese women had condemned their government’s offering to remove — free of charge — the contraceptive implants it had forcibly implanted in hundreds of millions of women as part of the (now-discarded) One-Child Policy, while giving no public apology for having required the implants in the first place.
The biggest draw for Huang was perhaps the thrill, and catharsis, of partaking in her first large-scale protest. “That’s also why I’m here: I want to see, to experience what it’s like to be in such a huge crowd. In China we don’t have that many demonstrations.”
Wang Zheng, Professor of Women’s Studies and History at the University of Michigan, grew nostalgic about the battles of her youth as she overlooked the masses perched on a metal pole, clutching a “Keep Abortion Legal” sign. Now in her 60s, her last protest had been a pro-choice rally in Los Angeles in the 1980s; a time when she felt China was a beacon of egalitarianism compared to the United States. “For my generation, we are all feminists,” Wang recalled. “I always felt pity for those American women — they didn’t even have maternity leave.”
Growing up in socialist China, Wang had taken gender equality for granted, only to see it regress. To some Chinese activists, Beijing is now less interested than bringing women in the workforce and more interested in a return to neo-Confucian family structures, revealed in the popular notion that any unmarried women older than 27 are “leftover women.”
The harsh treatment of Chinese feminists and the state-run effort to harden gender roles convinced Wang and others that they have something to offer their American counterparts.
Shortly after the election, Liu Xintong, a 26-year graphic designer based in New York, helped pen a note on a Chinese feminist Facebook page “to all Feminists impacted by Trump’s Triumph,” advising them to not “let the disappointment turn you against one another.” The day after the march, the page ran a message to readers that Chinese feminists had “put our bodies on the streets to amplify the brown, black, and beautiful voices.”
Liu told Foreign Policy she felt “very privileged to be in D.C. Imagine others in China doing frontline work — they are facing far more pressure.” With experience fighting an often repressive government unburdened by notions of free speech and assembly, the Chinese Feminists offered advice via Facebook to U.S. readers; “Don’t wait for the system to correct itself for you,” because “now we all have walls to tear down.”
While their turn-up in Washington was intended to signal solidarity with U.S. allies, it was also a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration, who had detained the Feminist Five for “disturbing public order” following “subversive” campaigns against sexual harassment on buses and for more readily accessible women’s bathrooms. The pictures of the group posing with a whirlwind of colorful banners outside Trump International Hotel — ”Nasty Chinese women say no!” and, “Mr. President: sexism and misogyny is a disease; feminism is your cure” — were generously shared on Chinese social media.
Living overseas had been what Liu called a “feminist awakening,” allowing her to explore layers of her own identity — as Asian, a woman, and queer, to name a few — in a country where dissidence was not a crime. Though Chinese opponents have sometimes dismissed China’s women’s movement as the result of foreign meddling and “external forces,” Liu saw feminism as engaging problems that had to be understood globally. “They always said democracy is a western disease — that’s their way of wording their propaganda,” Liu said about the Chinese leadership. “But for us, we never think of feminism as a Western term.”
The night culminated at a Cheesecake Factory on the D.C. outskirts. Over dessert, amidst applause, Lu Pin, a visiting scholar at Columbia, stood up to announce the launch of a new U.S.-based NGO, the Chinese Feminist Collective, which had just acquired legal status. She envisioned it as a support network for the next generation of Chinese activists, and a launching pad for activist initiatives back home.
“We need to create new front lines,” Lu said. “Even if we’re in the United States, we can still contribute to Chinese feminism: the topics we can freely discuss here, we may not be able to talk about in China.” With over 328,000 Chinese currently studying in the United States, Lu was optimistic that U.S.-based advocacy could inspire at least some to advance feminist causes when they returned home.
In the meantime, Lu hoped they could share with Americans what they had already learned.
“The Chinese feminist movement has always progressed in this harsh reality,” she said. “Chinese people are very knowledgeable about how to fight a dictatorship.”
Image: Mengwen Cao