A Requiem for Chinese Feminism

To be a woman, to be any human in China, is to master the act of double-think, self-censorship, and denial. But to be a woman on the mainland is to work twice as hard at filtering out the disturbing noises produced by the ever-ruling Communist Party.

China’s repression of minorities is well-known: the enduring unease of an occupied Tibet, the increasingly sequestered province of Xinjiang, the erasure of religious architecture, the dilution of everything non-Han, and the astonishing subjugation of Hong Kong. 

Anyone who glances at the front page of a newspaper knows at least a little about China’s activity.  Some might even understand the astonishing tracking and surveillance the population was placed under from 2020-2023, unraveling after the White Paper Protests that began in memorial of lives lost in an apartment fire during a months-long lockdown in Urumqi.

But China’s imprisonment of its feminists is often overlooked.

There are at least two Chinas: the National Geographic photograph of rolling misty landscapes, villagers farming, and children climbing rope ladders to get to school. This China, besieged by rural poverty, has a set of problems and depravations that feed into chronic social issues, including violence against women and girls, and demanding strategic interventions by specialist departments and NGOs.

But there is also the sparkling China, fast and glass with Gucci stores in every city, developed harder and sharper than any other place on earth. In this other China, women do not seem, on the surface, to be living lives particularly different from men. The girls are educated to the same level as their brothers, and they work and dress freely. The young spend money and party in throbbing clubs on Friday nights. The general feeling is only of the rising Capitalism, amplified by its Chinese characteristics. 

But in this life which does not look too dissimilar from any modern city in “the West”, there is a vacuum.

In northeast China in 2017, I watched through my laptop as the #MeToo movement gained pace, feeling a thrill at the transgressive biteback of a million women calling time on silence.

Censorship in China is effectively a question of wealth. No city-dwelling university-educated white-collar worker needs to live without a good VPN, and stepping outside of the firewall is seamless if you’re willing to buy it. Inside China, it is perfectly possible to be able to see but also to choose to look away.

Yet the young urban women of China did not ignore the #MeToo movement, and the hashtag began trending across the social media islands of Chinese-made and Chinese-monitored apps before being rapidly but unsurprisingly blocked. As the state flexed to bring things under control, the movement collapsed before it had even reached enough height for its downfall to cause reverberations.

This rapid repression is why when one researches the #MeToo movement and Chinese feminism, the same handful of names keep coming up: Sophia Huang Xueqin, and the Feminist Five: Li Maizi, Wang Man, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, and Zheng Churan. These women form a small, silenced memorial in the face of the patriarchy upon which China is founded, and have faced interrogation and incarceration for speaking out against sexual harassment and domestic violence.

It has been ten months since Sophia Huang Xueqin’s movements were last reported online, detailing her arrival at a heavily guarded courthouse for the start of her trial for subversion. Huang, a journalist, had long been conspicuous for her writing, for having an audience, and for having a serious and meticulous manner of working to reveal the acts of institutional sexual harassment that she exposed in her work. 

The police waited until days before Huang was leaving to take up her studies in England to detain her, and it was many weeks later before it was confirmed that this was what had happened to her.

Women across the world find themselves politicized, and to be female is so often to be contested —socially, legally, and too often physically. For a long time, one of China’s biggest exports was its reputation concerning the “one-child policy”, regularly reported being enforced in shocking ways. Most of the stories emanated from the countryside and seemed so far removed from the touch of the nerve center of the CCP in Beijing that one could imagine forced abortion was not really mandated, that women’s rights were supported in public policy, that things were getting better, that women were not a political enemy.

The silencing of feminists in China seems incomprehensible in the wake of Mao’s too often quoted phrase, occurring in the wake of modern domestic violence laws, in a country with maternity rights some of us could only dream of. To make sense of this incongruity, it is necessary to understand that grassroots feminism, the feminism practiced by Sophia Huang Xueqin and the Feminist Five, stands in direct opposition to Chinese policy on women’s rights and equality and is treated as extremism.

To protest sexual harassment, to demand an end to domestic violence, to highlight the discrimination in academia and the workplace is to turn squarely towards the party and accuse it of failing in its duty to its people. In this sense, China does not have a problem with women as much as it does with being criticized, even implicitly. One does not seek to disrupt the status quo, for to do so is to disrupt the party itself, the very machine that holds the state in place. Stability is everything. 

And so the women must wait, silent and grateful to the party that builds and sustains their world. The women must not ask for their inequalities to be addressed with any more urgency than they currently are, and instead, in a country where Xi Jinping’s name is rarely spoken and silence is the only guarantee of safety, feminism becomes almost extinguished, openly mourned by only a few, and documented by even fewer. 

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