When Popularity is the Kiss of Death: the paradoxical case of China’s feminist movements

December 2018

Featuring bold lyrics of sexual harassment, domestic abuse, and female infanticide, a music video called “China’s Male Scumbags” has taken the Chinese social media by storm. Released in November by feminist composer Youqin Tu, the song is a remake of the “Cell Block Tango” from the Broadway musical Chicago. In the adaptation, Tu played six Chinese female characters with each singing in a regional dialect about their murderous revenge on male partners.

Some denounced it as encouraging mob violence, while others pointed out the six tales resembled real-life cases in China and saw Tu’s work as an artistic contribution to the country’s #MeToo movement. But after racking up tens of millions of views within three days, the music video was quickly taken down by Chinese authorities. The composer’s account on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging site, that promoted the video also disappeared from the public eye.

More than a year ago, allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein sparked a #MeToo movement in 85 countries with thousands of women sharing their stories of abuse. Despite the instant global popularity, China’s #MeToo has struggled to take off in a state where the topic of human rights remains a taboo. Chinese authorities attach great importance to muting online activities that have the possibility of growing into collective actions.

The movement first reached Beijing when a Chinese software engineer based in San Francisco accused her former Ph.D. supervisor Xiaowu Chen at Beihang University of sexual harassment. Inspired by the #MeToo campaign reignited by actress Alyssa Milano, Luo shared her story on Weibo on New Year’s Day of 2018. The post (in Chinese) gained three million views within 24 hours. She had reached out to six other victims of Chen and gathered evidence before making the case public. On Jan 11, the aeronautics university removed the professor from his post and revoked his teaching credentials, calling his behavior a serious violation of the school’s code of conduct.

Following Luo’s success, prominent Chinese feminist forum Feminist Voices called for an online campaign on March 6 to echo the global #MeToo. After encouraging its 180,000 social media followers to post photo pledges against sexual harassment, the group’s account was forcibly shut down on International Women’s Day. The incident occurred two weeks before the annual meetings of China’s legislative and advisory body where the legislature removed presidential term limits from the constitution. Although there has been a history of government crackdowns on petitions ahead of top political events, the newly consolidated power of President Xi Jinping signals his push for stricter and harsher control of any dissent that can potentially threaten the legitimacy of the communist rule.

The chief-editor of Feminist Voices, Pin Lu, explained that China’s feminist movement was not politicized and had no anti-communist party agenda. “It focuses on the socioeconomic and cultural rights of women, rather than a citizen’s political rights. We hope the government can improve its policies,” said Lu during a panel discussion in New York organized by NüVoices, a collective of female writers and artists focusing on the China region.

“But whether you are the enemy of the state is not up to yourself,” she added, “In the Chinese context, that is potentially a force that fears the government. If today women can mobilize the mass fight against sexual harassment, then tomorrow they can mobilize to protest against other things.”

There is also a sociocultural stigma that comes with sharing experience of sexual abuse in a male-dominated society. State newspaper China Daily published an opinion piece by a Canadian-Egyptian educator, claiming “Chinese traditional values and conservative attitudes tend to safeguard women against inappropriate behavior from members of the opposite gender.”

A 2013 UN research on gender-based violence and masculinities in China, however, has proved otherwise. Among the 2,120 participants, 39 percent of female respondents described experiencing physical and sexual violence with intimate partners, 7 percent claimed to have been raped by non-partners, and 14 percent reported experiencing attempted rape. At the same time, 52 percent of male participants said having abused intimate partners physically and sexually, and 8 percent admitted having perpetrated non-partner rape.

The gender disparity in abuse disclosure is likely to be affected by the cultural justification that “hegemonic masculinity provides for men’s perpetration of violence and the shame and stigma that women victims suffer in China,” according to the researchers. Essential to create and maintain patriarchy, hegemonic masculinity was defined by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell as “patterns and narratives of masculinity that are perceived to be dominant, and against which other patterns of masculinity are measured.”

A second UN study indicates the male participants referred to the ideal woman as “wife and mother, whose best traits were fulfilling family responsibilities, being gentle, introverted, thoughtful, tolerant, diligent, hardworking, and generous.” Much of this idea of a female paradigm was influenced by more than two thousand years of Confucian tradition that reinforced male authority and patrilineal customs.

“The Confucianization of ancient Chinese cosmology assigned ‘yin’ to female, ‘yang’ to male and froze them in a rigid hierarchy of submission and dominance, passivity and activity, weakness and strength,” wrote Kay Ann Johnson in her book Women, the Family, and Peasant Revolution in China.

The basic moral principles of Confucianism advocates women’s inferiority to men, a notion echoed by both Islamic and Christian teachings. A woman is required to obey her father when young, husband when married, and adult sons when widowed. This gender hierarchy continues to permeate all corners of Chinese society today. The nation’s gender imbalance reflected by a ratio of 122 boys born for every 100 girls was a result of the one-child policy and cultural preference for boys. Biased views that females are less physically, intellectually and psychologically capable than men also hinder women’s academic and professional advancement.

Human Rights Watch listed a few examples in a 2018 study on gender discrimination in job advertisements in China. Thirteen percent of national civil service job postings in 2017 specified “men only,” “men preferred,” or “suitable for men,” while none favored women. Many job ads also demand female applicants to be married with children, a common practice for companies to evade accommodating maternity leaves. Major tech firms such as Tencent and Alibaba have repeatedly published recruitment ads featuring beautiful female employees to attract male job applicants. Some tech startups even hired women as “programmer motivators” to charm and massage stressed-out male coders.

National Constitution and laws guarantee equal legal rights for all Chinese citizens regardless of sex, but these regulations are rarely enforced in reality. China’s #MeToo is, in fact, a renewal of a series of home-grown activism with centuries-old grievances of women.

Rebecca Karl, who teaches history at New York University, traces the emergence of a Chinese feminist understanding of the world to the turn of the 20th century in the late Qing dynasty, when exiled journal editor Yin-Zhen He wrote critiques of women’s laboring conditions in textile factories. “From the early 20th century, there has been a real concentration of a very consistent, generational handing over of the baton to various feminist cultural producers who have taken on the mainstream ideology to make the feminist ideology visible,” said the professor.

The modern movement for women’s rights in China was launched by the Communist Revolution. Mao Zedong later proclaimed that “women hold half the sky.” Karl considers this form of feminist position “ascetic,” and highly inadequate to the notion of contemporary feminism but acknowledges that concerning “a state-supported form of practice, it was one of the more advanced forms in the world” at that time.

A Harvard expert on rights advocacy, Alice Hu, referred to the state-sponsored feminism a form of social control. “Women’s organizations such as National Women’s Federation were dependent upon the government and exercised little actual authority,” wrote Hu in an article published in Harvard International Review, “any trend that in any way jeopardized the central government’s power was immediately quashed.”

This conflict is believed to have further fueled contemporary feminist discontent. The 1995 United Nations Conference on Women held in Beijing provided Chinese feminists an opportunity to access transnational networks and ideas. The subsequent development of non- government organizations helped Chinese feminists transform the Marxist theory of “gender- blind” equality.

The latest waves of feminist campaigns coincide with the Communist Party’s official discourse on reinforcing women’s domestic roles. A rapidly aging population that followed decades of birth control policies is expected to slow down China’s economic growth and increase its social welfare cost. The government aimed its propaganda at the older generations who were susceptible to the rhetoric and would push their female offspring into these traditional roles, said Leta Hong Fincher, authors of two books on China’s feminist awakening.

In 2012, twenty-two-year-old college student Tingting Li initiated the “Occupy Men’s Room” campaign to demand more public restrooms for women. In the same year, Meini Xiao and her fellow young activists shaved off their hair to staged “Bald Girls” protests against gender discrimination in the university admission process. The year after, a group of female undergraduates in Beijing carried out “My Vagina Says” to challenge traditional norms.

One of the most recent confrontations occurred in March 2015, when five university students were detained for over a month for handing out posters and stickers against sexual harassment. Accused of public disturbance, the Feminist Five could have faced up to three years in prison. Since taking office in 2012, President Xi Jinping has stepped up his control on domestic media by “persisting in the principle that the party manages the media, and politicians running periodicals, TV stations, and news websites.” The same fall also witnessed a nationwide suppression on more than 300 human rights lawyers and activists, according to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.

“Journalists are not able to freely report on what is really an epidemic of sexual violence in China,” Fincher added, “It’s extremely difficult for women to have their complaints about the violence of any kind to be taken seriously by the police, the courts or even by agencies who are supposed to be helping these women, such as (the state-sponsored) All-China Women’s Federation. Their chances of winning any legal victory are extraordinarily slim when sexual harassment is not properly defined in Chinese law.”

Regardless of these challenges, author Leta Fincher considers the jailing of the Feminist Five as a turning point for China’s feminist movement. “Those who had not taken feminism seriously realized this was actually a serious problem,” Fincher explained, “More and more of young women are using the internet and social media to find and connect with other women who are angry about sexism, injustice, and unfairness. Over the last few years, more women realized they were not alone in suffering, and there was strength in numbers.”

A total of 36 cases involving sexual misconduct have been brought to light since January, hitting Chinese campuses, media, nonprofits, monasteries, and factories. A worker at Foxconn, Apple’s leading supplier in Asia, published an online essay describing her experience and calling for anti-sexual harassment measures in factories. Social media users have resorted to homophones, images, and satire as a form of coded language to circumvent censorship. A guerrilla-style movement with art and literature is underway.

According to history professor Rebecca Karl, the underlying problem with women’s rights is a matter of ideology. “The ways that feminists have done over the years, from the early 20th century all the way into today, is through the method of de-familiarization of everyday common sense and ideology. Part of that process is to create feminist literature and art,” Karl added, “to provide an alternative ideological space and norm that can take on the mainstream ideology in a way that is consumable and persuasive.”

“In recent years, you have more and more young women pushing back, saying no. They want more and refuse to give in to pressure. That’s why it gives me a lot of hope.” Author Fincher also emphasized that the non-totalitarian nature of an authoritarian government left certain political flexibility and civil freedoms where advocacy groups could make a difference by continually raising feminist consciousness.

In response to the widespread allegations, China’s Ministry of Education has pledged to instigate institutional mechanisms to prevent sexual misconduct on campus. In August, the country’s top legislative body also announced its intention to introduce new legislation to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. A draft civil code is set to be concluded and reviewed by 2020.

Multimedia journalist in politics & international affairs. Cortado drinker. Columbia Journalism School and SIPA alum. Views are my own.

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