The Patriarchy Strikes Back in China
Attempts to crush feminists and labor activists linking up show what the Communist Party fears most.
This winter, Chinese authorities detained at least 12 young activists campaigning for labor rights in several cities, including kidnapping a student on the renowned Peking University campus and beating several of his classmates. Authorities have cracked down on student activists at other universities as well, including Renmin University, Nanjing University, and Sun Yat-sen University.
Foreign news reports emphasize that the students are Marxist, but the latest uprising is far more broad-based. The latest flashpoint around elite students supporting labor rights is connected to a years-long women’s rights movement since at least 2012 that has become increasingly cross-class in nature, advocating for gender equality and workers’ rights. The Communist Party has responded to the rise in student activism against inequality by tightening ideological controls on university campuses across China and intensifying its crackdown on academic freedom and women’s rights activism, particularly when it intersects with labor rights activism.
Take Zhu Xixi (a pseudonym), a doctoral student at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, where five young feminist activists were jailed for planning to commemorate International Women’s Day on March 8, 2015, by handing out stickers against sexual harassment on subways and buses. When Zhu—who volunteered regularly for feminist campaigns—heard that security agents had jailed the women who became known as the “Feminist Five,” she offered to hide a box of International Women’s Day stickers against sexual harassment at her university dorm room. Then, on March 7, 2015, Zhu received a call from a security agent saying that he wanted to meet with her. She made an excuse, then shut off her phone and decided that she had to go into hiding, along with many other feminist students and activists in different cities.
Zhu, who was 27 at the time, had been a women’s rights activist since 2012, when she was a master’s student in Wuhan majoring in political economy. That year, she demonstrated against mandatory gynecological exams for women applying to join China’s civil service. She and a group of young women staged a performance-art protest, standing in front of the local government’s human resources office wearing large paper underpants, with the character for “examination” crossed out in a large red X over their crotches. The women held up signs with slogans such as “No pelvic exams!” and “No questions on menstrual periods!” They said the medical exams for women were sexist and violated laws against gender discrimination in employment.
Since then, Zhu had moved to Hangzhou to start her Ph.D. in public administration at Zhejiang University. There, she became friends with Wu Rongrong of the Feminist Five, often volunteering at a local women’s center. After hiding outside Hangzhou for about a week following the March 7 phone call, Zhu thought she would try returning to her university to see if security agents would leave her alone.
Yet the moment she arrived back in Hangzhou and turned her phone on, she received a call from her Communist Party advisor on campus. (Most university students in China have a party advisor to monitor political behavior; this person is different from the student’s academic advisor.) The advisor summoned her to his office on campus and had clearly been given instructions from state security to be very stern with her.
“Why did you leave campus this whole week? Which of your acquaintances have gone missing? Who organized the activity on sexual harassment?”
Zhu politely feigned ignorance. After a while, the advisor let her go. Then Zhu received a call directly from a state security agent asking to see her on campus, and she agreed. The agent came to her Communist Party advisor’s office at Zhejiang University, bringing with him a pile of anti-sexual harassment stickers, which agents had confiscated from other detained feminists. He laid out the material before him as though it were evidence from a crime scene.
The agent was particularly interested in one picture of the protest in Wuhan against gynecological exams for women, in which Zhu stood at the front with her arms crossed. He told her to look carefully at the picture. “Is this you in the picture? Who organized this activity in Wuhan? Who are all the other women here?” The security agent ordered Zhu to sign a written confession stating that 12 women had taken part. Zhu said there were not that many women involved and refused to sign until they reduced the number of participants and toned down the inflammatory language. He agreed, then made her sign a revised statement before releasing her.
Zhu called around and discovered to her dismay that state security agents and advisors at several universities were interrogating virtually every student who had volunteered for any feminist activity in the last few years. She was suddenly afraid that she would be called for another interrogation and that her testimony might be used as evidence to prosecute the Feminist Five on criminal charges, so she decided she had to flee Hangzhou again.
In early April 2015, after the Feminist Five had been jailed for a full month, Zhu’s academic advisor contacted her and urged her to return to campus or she might “encounter problems” with her Ph.D. program. He said that so far, her extracurricular feminist activities would not affect her academic record, but that she needed to “watch herself.” The Communist Party advisor ordered Zhu to meet with him in his office on campus. This time he gave her an ultimatum: “If you don’t cooperate fully with state security, the university may be forced to expel you.” When Zhu showed up to her advisor’s office, the security agent who had made her sign the written confession was there too.
The agent started interrogating Zhu again about her feminist activism and her Ph.D. dissertation topic, domestic violence in China: “Why did you choose domestic violence as your research focus? Does your research have anything to do with your participation in anti-domestic violence activities?” This time, Zhu refused to be intimidated. There was no way she would ever agree to change her dissertation topic just because of pressure from a male chauvinist security agent, she thought.
In December 2016, President Xi Jinping gave a major address to university heads and Communist Party officials, urging them to tighten ideological controls on campus and transform universities into “strongholds of party leadership.” In June 2017, the Communist Party’s discipline watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, criticized Zhejiang University for being one of 14 top universities that were “too weak in their political work.” Zhejiang University issued a notice in September 2017 exhorting its students and academics to write online content that showed “core socialist values” and influenced public opinion with “correct thinking,” adding that content that promoted socialism and was widely circulated on the internet would receive the same amount of academic credit as a paper published in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.
While some Chinese feminist activists have not taken up labor rights as a major cause, others have long campaigned for the rights of factory women. Zheng Churan of the Feminist Five has linked her women’s rights activism with a deep concern for labor rights ever since she was a student at the prestigious Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. In August 2014, she went almost daily to photograph the striking University Town sanitation workers. Their strike attracted a lot of media attention, but Zheng said reporters were only taking pictures of male workers, even though 80 percent of the sanitation workers were women.
“Why weren’t the women workers being shown?” Zheng asked. “I decided I had to take my own pictures of the women, and we also handed out stickers to the women workers to express their demands and stick them on their faces and clothes.” She posted an online photo essay with the title, “These Are Women with Strength and Power.”
One of Zheng’s photos showed a female worker smiling at the camera, with a sticker across her forehead that said, “Guangdian Property, Stop Doing Evil.” In another photo, a female worker had her fist raised, with a sticker on her cheek that said, “Pay Me for My Labor.” Another showed six uniformed female workers huddled together, laughing as they reached out their hands to do a team cheer, their faces covered with stickers saying things like, “She Gave Nine Years of Blood and Sweat/You Used Her Then Threw Her Away.” A male co-worker stood beside the women, cheering them on.
“Too many of our media outlets lack gender consciousness, so they overlook and erase the women in our social movements,” Zheng said. “We can’t let that happen.” The striking sanitation workers also won support from many students: More than 900 students at Sun Yat-sen University signed a petition in 2014 to demonstrate their solidarity with the workers.
The largest online response in the aftermath of the detention of the Feminist Five in 2015 came from university students. Students from Sun Yat-sen University—Zheng Churan’s alma mater—bravely signed their full names to an open petition in support of the detained feminists. The petition was initially posted on Weibo and WeChat; when it was deleted by censors, the students circulated it through encrypted channels.
Petitions also spread to many more universities in China, until administrators began conducting internal investigations of all the students who had signed. Students in Guangzhou who had signed petitions were summoned for “guidance” meetings with university officials, who warned them that they would receive a “bad mark” in their personal files, damaging their prospects for future education and jobs, according to Didi Kirsten Tatlow of the New York Times.
When the Feminist Five were jailed, even male workers who had benefited from the feminists’ labor rights advocacy showed their solidarity with the five women on social media. One male worker posted a photo of himself naked from the waist up on Weibo with his bare back turned toward to the camera, showing off large red characters written on his body: “Giant Rabbit [ Zheng’s nickname], always proud of you! The proletariat supports you!”
Since 2015, ever more young women—some of them only in high school—began signing up as volunteers for the fledging but growing feminist movement. Some women who had previously avoided political discussion now decided to identify themselves publicly as feminists on social media, forcing the government’s internet censors to work even more aggressively to shut down new feminist content.
In January 2018, feminist activists seized on the global momentum of the #MeToo movement and adapted it for use in China, demonstrating the extraordinary resilience of a feminist movement that has posed a unique challenge to China’s all-male rulers in an era of global connectivity. Thousands of students at dozens of Chinese universities defied heavy internet censorship and used the #MeToo trend to demand an end to sexual harassment on campus.
Then Weibo deleted China’s most influential feminist social media account, Feminist Voices, after celebrations for International Women’s Day ended late at night on March 8, 2018. In July 2018, the women’s labor rights website Jianjiao Buluo was also deleted from Weibo.
But in spite of intensified censorship of #MeToo, in April 2018 a group of students at Peking University, including Yue Xin, a senior, filed a freedom of information request about an old case of a student who had killed herself in 1998 after she said she was raped by a professor. Then Yue wrote a detailed account of how her advisor had brought Yue’s mother to her dorm room at 1 a.m., waking Yue up and demanding that she delete all information related to her #MeToo activism from her computer and cell phone, warning her that she might face criminal charges due to her involvement with “foreign forces.”
Other Peking University students, enraged by the unjust treatment of their classmate, posted large, handwritten “big-character posters” (dazibao) on a campus bulletin board in solidarity with Yue. The students wrote, “We ask you gentlemen in charge of the school, what are you actually afraid of?” and said their classmate was acting in the spirit of the historic, student-led May Fourth movement of 1919. Their actions evoked memories of the Democracy Wall movement of 1978 to 1979 and the pro-democracy uprising of 1989, which was crushed by the Tiananmen massacre. Campus security guards quickly removed the student posters, and the following day, Peking University installed new surveillance cameras pointing at the location where the big-character posters had appeared.
Undaunted, Yue graduated and joined other elite university graduates—such as Shen Mengyu, who had a degree in mathematics and computational science from Sun Yat-sen University and documented the violations of pregnant women workers’ rights—to unionize workers at a Jasic factory in southern China. Both of them were among dozens of activists who disappeared after a police raid in July and have not been heard from since.
“#MeToo and worker activism actually go together,” Yue told Javier Hernandez of the New York Times before she was detained. “Female workers are faced with, and repressed by, both patriarchy and capitalism.”
Any large-scale, cross-class collaboration between elite university graduates and workers would likely be viewed as yet another grave threat to the Communist Party, which has now ruled China for almost 70 years—outlasting the Soviet Communist Party to become the world’s longest-lasting communist regime. The Chinese communist revolution succeeded because elite intellectuals joined forces with tens of millions of peasants and workers.
Today, for the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, organized feminist activists independent of the Communist Party have tapped into broad discontent among Chinese women and developed a level of influence over public opinion that is highly unusual for any social movement in China. Growing numbers of women are recoiling from the state’s relentless efforts to coerce them into heterosexual marriage and child-rearing. It is no wonder, then, that China’s all-male rulers feel threatened by young feminist activists, who are calling for an individualistic, cross-class emancipation of women who could potentially rise up to challenge the Communist Party’s political legitimacy.
As young, intersectional activists continue to disrupt the patriarchal, authoritarian order, the government will inevitably find new ways to persecute them. Yet the forces of resistance they have unleashed will be extremely difficult to stamp out. As one women’s rights lawyer, Liu Wei, told me: “This is what the Communist Party fears the most—that all these different social forces coming together will be unstoppable.”
This article is based on an excerpt from “Betraying Big Brother” (Verso, 2018)
Leta Hong Fincher has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, Dissent Magazine, Ms. Magazine, BBC, CNN and others. She won the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award for her China reporting. Her second book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (Verso), was named one of the best books of 2018 by Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Bitch Media, Foreign Policy Interrupted and Autostraddle.