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Charlotte Cramer

The government continues to lock up activists to stop feminism becoming a mass movement. Charlotte Cramer says Beijing will only succeed if it at last takes women’s rights seriously.

Image by Shao-Chun Wang via 123rf

The feminist activist Sophia Huang went to a police station in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to pick up her identity papers at the end of October. She has not been seen since and the reason for her detention remains unclear. Authorities had kept a close eye on Huang for her involvement in China’s #MeToo movement, though it’s possible a post about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests was the immediate cause of her arrest. Regardless of the pretext, the fact remains that the government is brazenly suppressing women’s rights.

Beijing is censoring the feminist discourse on several levels

At the turn of the century, Beijing tolerated small-scale protests and public gatherings about issues like sexual assault. But now it is censoring such discussions, shutting down feminist blogs, and erasing the term #MeToo from social media as it is afraid of feminism turning into a mass movement. Nonetheless, Zhang Leilei, who has campaigned against sexual harassment on public transport, has said Beijing is a losing battle. “More and more people are talking about gender issues in China. More people are becoming feminist.”

Eliminating individual activists like Huang does not gloss over the deep-rooted gender inequality of Chinese society. As a result of the cultural preference for sons and the now-abandoned “one-child” policy, there are 33 million more Chinese men than women. That means a cohort of men equivalent in size to the entire population of Malaysia has few – or no – prospects of marrying and founding a family. This has led to greater violence against women and more rape cases, and to more human trafficking and forced marriage.

China is a tough place to be a woman

China ranked 103rd of 144 countries in the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report – forty places lower than a decade ago. The pay gap between men and women is widening and employment discrimination has increased, not least through Beijing’s new “two-child” policy. Women are encouraged to bear children to secure the future of the nation, while their working rights are anything but secure. It’s no rarity for pregnant women to get fired or punished through a pay cut. Beijing’s message is clear ­– women should stay at home. Single, independent women in their late twenties and older are shamed as “leftover women”.

Lastly, women suffer alarming rates of sexual harassment. A study put together in 2018 showed that 80 percent of respondents had experienced some form of it at work. More than half of the respondents of another study experienced sexual assault on public transportation. Sexism and sexual assault at work, on the way to and from work, or elsewhere are everyday fare for nearly 682 million women in China. In the light of this, the promise of Mao’s famous dictum that “Women hold up half the sky” has not been fulfilled.

Eliminating individual activists won’t alter the fact that many Chinese women have new priorities, goals and aspirations. According to a study from 2019, women most often equate success with self-achievement – more than family and marriage. Lengxuecainü, a famous blogger and inspiration for many women has written: “The most comfortable way of life is staying single and childless”. New forms of self-representation – online and off, by the famous and not famous – are rejecting the traditional sexualized and objectified female.

But women in China are fighting back

A broad swathe of Chinese women is fighting back. In Shanghai mid-October, a man was sentenced for sexual harassment in public transportation for the first time. The perpetrator only got a six-month jail sentence, but the verdict will give other victims hope and bolster the recent trend for women to take sexual assault and discrimination cases to court. In July, the #MeToo movement scored a first success when the former boss of Liu Li, a well-known civil society figure, publicly apologized. “This is definitely hard, but not hopeless,” Liu said.

Eliminating individual activists also won’t stop the feminist movement beyond China’s borders. Chinese women studying and working abroad are exposed to feminist movements in any number of foreign cities, where also Chinese feminism can live on. The exhibition “The Voiceless Rise Up! The exhibition of MeToo in China” was shut down in mainland China, only to be put on in New York City. Co-organizer Luo Mai said: “We thought it might be the right time for an exhibition to remind people that the Chinese #MeToo movement is still around”.

In her book “Betraying Big Brothers: The Feminist Awakening in China”, Leta Hong Fincher said: “Although the antifeminist crackdown in China had driven some feminists to study and work abroad, very few of the persecuted activists I interviewed said they want to give up their activism.” China’s women are steadily turning gender inequality into a national problem. If Beijing is worried about feminism becoming a mass movement, it should stop locking up activists and quickly give more support, rights, and freedom to Chinese women.

Charlotte Cramer is currently pursuing a B.A. in Sinology at Freie Universität Berlin. She was an intern in the communications department at MERICS from September until December 2019.