Almost a decade ago, in a hardscrabble mountain town in the remote Chinese province of Hubei, a 21-year-old woman named Deng Yujiao became an early, unwilling symbol of pervasive sexual violence against women by powerful men. Deng, a high school dropout, had a job giving pedicures at the seedy Dream Fantasy City karaoke and bathhouse in May 2009, when a local Communist Party bigwig came in with his cronies and demanded “special services,” a euphemism for sex. When she refused, the official slapped Deng’s face with a wad of money, pushed her onto a couch and climbed on top of her. Deng reached for the only weapon she had, a three-inch knife, and stabbed the big man in his neck, chest and stomach. She called the police as the official bled to death.
Deng was charged with “intentional homicide” and strapped to a bed in a psychiatric hospital. She might have stayed there, or been swiftly tried and executed, had her story not found its way to the Internet, where she suddenly became a national heroine. Fearing social unrest, authorities released Deng and allowed her to relocate to another province.
Deng came to mind recently as the #MeToo movement exploded in the United States, rippled across the globe to Asia and finally reached China — where it has run smack into a great wall of official repression and cultural obduracy. Some see this burgeoning women’s movement as a turning point that is already rattling the pillars of China’s patriarchal, authoritarian regime. Researcher Leta Hong Fincher, in her new book, “Betraying Big Brother,” writes that for the first time since 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.”
But my 30-plus years of following China have made me skeptical of the ability of any single grass-roots movement to meaningfully change the way the country does business. Since the massacre of pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Falun Gong movement assembled 10,000 practitioners in Beijing in 1999 before the government sent tens of thousands of adherents to prison or “reeducation” camps; factory workers staged labor strikes; farmers protested land seizures; and, in 2011, fed-up villagers in the small Guangdong village of Wukan took over their municipal government. All these actions were contained or put down by force. (Groups like the Tibetans and the Uighurs, set on resisting ethnic Han hegemony, have fared far worse.) In every case, the backlash meant mass arrests, restrictive new laws and an increase in the surveillance state. The various movements always remained isolated, unable to form linkages and metastasize into broader alliances for change.
To me, the #MeToo movement seems destined for the same fate.
It is undeniable that #MeToo has had an impact in China. About two dozen prominent Chinese men — including university professors, journalists, the head of a charity organization and a popular host on the government-run CCTV television channel — have been toppled by accusations of sexual harassment and abuse.
But the government has also stepped up its familiar tools, including its ubiquitous censorship, to try to squash the movement before it gets too far off the ground. Terms including “#MeToo” and “anti-sexual-harassment” have been intermittently blocked by China’s censors. Meanwhile, the country’s clever online activists are finding creative ways around the Great Firewall. Some have been posting emoji of a rabbit eating a bowl of rice; “rice bunny” in Mandarin is pronounced as “mi tu.”
Writers, journalists, activists and veteran China watchers lately have offered widely divergent predictions about whether this fledgling movement for women’s rights represents something more lasting or is merely another stirring that will be ruthlessly suppressed. Fincher, whose first book, “Leftover Women,” explored the problem of gender inequality in China, shows her optimism about the current movement in “Betraying Big Brother” by giving her latest work the not-so-subtle subtitle “The Feminist Awakening in China.”
Fincher focuses on the story of a small group of female activists known as the Feminist Five, who have been hounded by the authorities for innocuous acts such as trying to hand out stickers on International Women’s Day. She argues persuasively that the activism the five awakened is already challenging the authoritarian state, with more and more women taking control of their bodies and rejecting “China’s patriarchal institutions of compulsory marriage and child rearing.”
But even Fincher concedes that the feminists she writes about “were extremely unlikely to realize their dreams of justice or see an end to authoritarian repression anytime in the years to come.” One reason is that China’s communist takeover in 1949 did not so much overturn the traditional patriarchal culture as reinforce it. Officially, at least, communist doctrine holds women as equal, and under the party’s rule, forced marriages were banned, university places opened for women, birth control was made widely, publicly available, and the long-standing “one-child policy” was premised on the notion that a girl was equal to a boy — opening new opportunities for women.
In reality, entrenched cultural attitudes persist. Young women still face intense family pressure to marry early and give birth to a family heir, or be considered “leftover” after their prime childbearing years. Images of women mainly as sex objects still permeate popular culture. And the “mistress culture” — powerful men keeping multiple extramarital paramours — remains prevalent.
On the political level, women remain conspicuously absent. The seven members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee are all men. Among China’s top 63 ministerial-level positions, only four are women. And among the appointed 64 top provincial-level positions — the party chiefs and governors, who are typically groomed to become central-government leaders — only four are women, if you include Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. There are female governors of Ningxia, Guizhou and Inner Mongolia, areas not exactly known as steppingstones for those with ambition to climb the ranks.
Women have fared far better in the private sector, with private enterprise offering a path while government and party work has been blocked. There are seven female entrepreneurs among China’s 100 richest people. The Global Gender Gap index lists China as 100th out of 144 countries, with women outnumbering men at universities and in the professional and technical sphere, but men still dominating in parliament, in ministerial jobs, and as company senior officials and managers.
Fincher views Chinese authoritarian repression almost entirely through a feminist lens and argues that gender oppression is crucial to the Communist Party’s control. By her analysis, President Xi Jinping is not just a strongman but the paternalistic head of an extreme “hypermasculine personality cult” whose continued hold on power is premised on the subjugation of women.
By this analysis, subjugation of women is one of the regime’s central props. “The Chinese government wants women to be reproductive tools of the state, obedient wives and mothers in the home, to help maintain political stability, have babies and rear the workforce of the future,” Fincher writes. The “backlash against feminism” is thus the reaction of a government “terrified at the prospect of emancipated women rising up.”
But in a system premised on total authoritarian control, it seems that any organized group would be considered a threat. For those in power, the subordination of women can hardly be called more crucial to survival than the suppression of ethnic minorities in Tibet or Xinjiang, of Christians or labor rights activists, or young people marching for democratic elections in Hong Kong. And in a country where culture long predates ideology, it seems unlikely that even a collapse of communism would lead to a new era of gender equality.
More likely, I fear that this new feminist movement will be stamped out like so many promising movements before, including the early online activism that brought stories like Deng Yujiao’s to life. I learned about Deng while researching a book idea about how Internet activism had emerged as a serious threat to Communist Party rule in China — or so I thought. The Internet revolution that I believed I was witnessing was quickly crushed after Xi came to power and launched an unrelenting crackdown on the online space. That “revolution” was snuffed out, just like every other popular uprising over the past 30 years.
If feminist activism is any more lasting, it will defy the odds, and history.
By Leta Hong Fincher
China sees women as ‘reproductive tools of the state’ as birth rate falls, Leta Hong Fincher says
As the number of newborn babies in China declines, writer Leta Hong Fincher fears a corresponding rise in pressure on women to have more children.
- China recorded its lowest birth rate in almost 60 years
- There’s increasing propaganda and pressure on women to get pregnant
- Feminists are using emojis to circumvent censorship
“The [Chinese] Government very much regards women as reproductive tools of the state,” she told the ABC’s The World program.
“We have seen that in the past with the so called one-child policy, there were so many human rights abuses, like forced abortions for example, and I do worry that the future of population planning in China could be coercive as well.”
The author and academic has written a book called Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.
The book and its focus on feminism in China are timely.
New data released by last month from China’s National Bureau of Statistics shows the number of newborns in China dropped to 15.23 million in 2018 after also decreasing in 2017.
The drop comes despite China scrapping its one-child policy and passing a law in 2016 allowing couples to have two children.
It’s reported to be the lowest official birth rate since 1961, when millions died in China’s great famine.
Leta Hong Fincher says those statistics are an “alarming development” for the Chinese Government.
“It does show more and more young women, especially women who have gone to college, just have no interest in marrying and having babies very early in life anymore.”
The statistics also show there are more than 31 million more men than women in China.
The ‘feminist five’ and #MeToo in China
It’s been nearly four years since the Chinese Government arrested and detained five female activists in Beijing on the eve of International Women’s Day in March 2015. They became known as the “feminist five”.
“Because they caused such a huge global outcry the government ended up releasing them after just 37 days, but the government has been persecuting a lot of individual feminist activists pretty severely,” Ms Hong Fincher said.
“[China] also has very heavy internet censorship, so hashtags like MeToo are very heavily censored.”
“There is also no press freedom so it is difficult for young women to get their message out, but what is really extraordinary is that a lot of these women rights activists are very creative and resilient.”
Ms Hong Fincher says activists are trying to get around internet censorship by using emojis to communicate feminist messages.
Meg Jing Zeng, a senior research associate at the University of Zurich, explained how social media users used the rice bowl emoji alongside a rabbit emoji to signal “rice bunny”, pronounced “mi tu”.
“For the ruling party, online campaigns that seek to mobilise large swathes of the population are like wildfire that can easily spread out of control,” she wrote in The Conversation.
Speaking to the ABC, she said those who attempted to mount large-scale collective action were considered “troublemakers”, and that this was not just limited to women’s rights activists.
“MeToo got censored, not because [of] its cause, but because of the fact that it can potentially develop into a nationwide movement,” she said.
Ms Jing Heng said she would not go so far as to claim women’s bodies were seen as state property — while the Government was under lots of pressure to encourage women to have children, she said it was “neither desirable nor feasible” for authorities to force the issue.
She said the most vocal and visible feminists were well-educated, tech savvy, and based in big cities should “help their less privileged counterparts to be heard”, such as those in rural or low-income areas.
“Activists for women’s rights are very resilient … but feminists from home should not blindly endorse and promote a western definition of ‘feminism’,” she said.