Stay Angry and Leave Hope for Tomorrow: Understanding the Feminist Movement in China
Where does the future of our movement lie? This question has surely troubled many Chinese feminists like me in the past year or two. Against all odds, the feminist movement had been making progress in China. From 2018 to 2020, when critical public spaces in the country were closing, the explosive emergence of the #MeToo (米兔) movement had astonishing impacts. It put feminist demands on the public agenda in an unprecedented way and compelled society and the government to respond, even if their responses were often regressive. However, as the sharp authoritarian turn flattened everything and everyone in its path, the movement lost a significant amount of its organisational and accountability power.
Like many other Chinese feminists, I have experienced considerable anguish and turmoil, the extent of which depends on the degree of my hope for change. Only recently, the ‘A4 Movement’ (白纸运动) has provided a moment of awakening and prompted me to restart the search for the future, even though I believe the premise must be first to recognise that certain hopes I had in the past no longer exist, and that everything we are facing is unprecedented. In this piece, I will briefly outline the state of the Chinese feminist movement since 2022, but the focus will be on assessing the resources of this movement and the path it can take.
The De-Organisation and Survival of the Feminist Movement
The ‘chained woman’ incident in January 2022 and the defeat of Xianzi’s sexual harassment case against Zhu Jun in August 2022 have starkly illustrated the limitations on the feminist movement in China (for background on Xianzi’s case, see Xianzi 2021; on the ‘chained woman’ incident, see Cao and Feng 2022). Starting in July 2018, the Xianzi case spanned almost the entire timeline of the #MeToo movement in China. The fundamental question that was raised by a young woman’s lengthy lawsuit against a powerful figure was whether sexual harassment can be addressed within China’s legal system.
The final answer given by the court—namely, its refusal to validate her claims of sexual harassment due to ‘insufficient evidence’—was undeniably frustrating. This certainly does not mean that victims can no longer seek legal justice; the legal process still exists. However, what has been proclaimed to the world is that the (un)fairness of the outcome cannot be questioned, and the process itself is inherently violent. The setback of the Xianzi case is not merely about Zhu Jun personally overturning the verdict; it also indicates the unyielding nature of the system and, therefore, prematurely crushes the resolve of many victims seeking justice.
The ‘chained woman’, an anonymous woman with a mental illness, was trafficked, forced into marriage, imprisoned, and subjected to forced childbirth. She is a remnant of a previous era, embodying the enduring, unaddressed nightmare that Chinese women face: the extent to which they can be harmed and exploited simply because they possess a uterus. Many people experienced a moment of ‘moral shock’ in cross-class empathy for the chained woman, realising that there is no social contract between our country and women. The overwhelming anger that ensued did not lead to the rescue of the chained woman; it only resulted in the government taking over her confinement. Many people faced harassment and threats because they tried to act, while others simply expressed their anger through social media posts. Though difficult to quantify, the police violence triggered by this event targeted ordinary feminists on an unprecedented scale. Pre-emptive suppression was widespread. When minor protests were still in the planning stages or even just brewing emotionally, the police were already knocking on doors. This crackdown, implemented through social media surveillance, prevented even small-scale organising from taking shape.
The feminist movement in China has remained active and has even seen some development, becoming the last visible social movement in a context in which civil society has been withering due to increasing political repression. This is because this movement has awakened many urban young women and has helped women form alliances based on gendered experiences on social media, which has been increasingly active since the shrinking of offline public life. It is also because of the evolution of the movement’s agenda and organisational forms: despite becoming increasingly wild and spontaneous, the movement has maintained itself within the legitimate space delimited by the state. It does not directly challenge the Communist Party regime and has never launched large-scale direct confrontations with the Party-State.
When the movement reaches scale, it is no longer possible to maintain legitimacy through consensus among participants. Those who cannot navigate the boundaries of legitimacy and those who challenge it from the margins do not receive widespread support from the feminist masses. The state deeply regulates the movement’s boundaries and ecology, while normalising and naturalising self-restraint in the movement’s strategies, even among those who consider themselves critical and radical. This also explains the surprising nature of the persecution faced by the feminist movement of late. The names of those arrested and imprisoned for feminist organising are memorable, but they are still very few, especially when compared with other social movements.
Permissible Anger and Resistance
I am not denying the achievements and significance of the feminist movement in China. Rather, its sustainability is premised on not being perceived as a substantial threat to the Party-State. Of course, the Chinese feminist movement has experienced tightening regulation and repeated purges, including political smearing, censorship of speech, dilution of activists’ efforts, and the dissolution of organisational structures down to the microlevel. Feminists have endured too much. However, while part of this movement can continue to exist to an extent within the boundaries of the law, another part has become practically impossible. I used to believe that as the state continuously moved the political red lines, the feminist movement would increasingly move away from its political safe zone. Now I believe that the loss of organisation does not necessarily mean the decline of the entire feminist movement. However, the form of this movement will likely be far removed from what it once was, and it is uncertain whether it will still constitute a movement in the future.
Feminism will continue to exist and spread in non-public spaces in China. Feminism has a strong appeal to Chinese women because they have no other outlets for expressing their grievances. The rise of resentment is not due to women being more oppressed but because they have reached a point where they can no longer tolerate it. From this perspective, the emergence of feminism in China is an unintended outcome of the 40 years of Reform and Opening Up. As the political space continues to shrink, the Party-State needs to maintain economic vitality and the flow of people and information, and requires a female labour force with ‘high quality’ (高素质). This means feminism still has room to manoeuvre if it avoids criticising the government and refrains from taking direct action.
In today’s China, the internet is heavily censored and filled with violence and manipulation, leading many feminists to withdraw or go into hiding. Even in this situation, social media platforms, although subject to strict scrutiny, still tolerate feminism by allowing likeminded individuals to gather in echo chambers. They provide a space for feminists to engage in debates and resistance related to their daily lives. Through their experiences in online feminist communities, many individuals have been able to establish cognitive boundaries and even educate and form alliances within their own communities, challenging patriarchal hierarchies, gender norms, and gender culture in families, schools, and workplaces.
The dissemination of feminist knowledge is flourishing and becoming more popular than ever, even though the production of that knowledge seems to be declining. There is a greater demand from the audience, which has created a considerable market. Commercialisation ensures sustainability, although it is unreliable and filters the knowledge that can be disseminated. Literature, art, culture, and lifestyle are all topics that can be explored, with varying degrees of censorship and popularisation depending on the medium of dissemination, such as publishing, podcasts, videos, and so on. However, they are mostly engaged in popularising what is allowed—that is, linking feminism with practical life and providing explanations. For instance, the popularisation of feminist works by Japanese scholar Chizuko Ueno in China is partly due to her identity as a foreigner and a scholar, which gives her a broader platform for dissemination, and she resonates with Chinese feminists because of her understanding of East Asian culture. As for non-commercial feminist knowledge and dissemination projects, they emerge every day, relying on feminists’ ‘voluntary contributions’, although many of them cease before accumulating a significant audience. I believe these small-scale and even microlevel projects are more precious than large-scale dissemination efforts, not only because they contribute to building communities but also because they produce knowledge. By grafting a feminist perspective on to various issues, they expand the breadth of feminist knowledge and deepen feminist insights.
People continue to debate crucial issues related to women’s lives, in a manner that is permitted and always directed towards personal choice. In February 2023, one of the hottest debates on the Chinese internet revolved around a video featuring three Chinese women discussing feminism with Chizuko. During the interview, the three Chinese interviewers, all of whom were married, focused only on marriage-related questions. This interview was supposed to be an opportunity to discuss and explore feminist issues, but it was overshadowed by the interviewers’ tendency to use this opportunity to justify their choice to marry. This approach triggered huge dissatisfaction among many feminists, but the public discussion later shifted to criticism of the three women’s personal lifestyles based on assumptions and speculation. The intense scrutiny generated by this video on its creators indicates the dearth of public topics that can be discussed in China. However, it also shows that the positioning of women in negotiations within patriarchal systems has become an important public topic. While women are still in the process of breaking free from traditional subordinate roles, they find themselves pulled in conflicting directions, including by the relationships between feminism and the implied neoliberal orientation of ‘self-realisation’, equality in intimate relationships, and the maximisation of women’s self-interest. Some view these values as overlapping, while others see them as conflicting. Another critical issue, given the current population crisis, is whether women should marry and have children. This question is used to test one’s loyalty to feminism and is also a call for women to engage in passive resistance against the state, although the debate itself is limited to the dimension of personal choice. It may not matter which viewpoint prevails for the feminist movement; what matters is that this broad debate leads to the diffusion of feminism.
Moreover, Chinese feminists have the potential to create focal moments for women’s rights, albeit only on the internet. They carry a lot of accumulated anger due to the state’s endless evasion, delay, and even violent suppression of women’s rights. Anger is always seeking an outlet, often requiring an uncensored, universally relatable, and ‘perfect’ case of violence that is not easily targeted by male-dominated voices on the internet. Some cases can remain uncensored, but feminists have been consistently working to expose many more cases so that individual examples will generate significant momentum. In other words, behind the widely known individual cases, there is a continuous struggle by countless individuals to make their voices heard. Once a focal moment is formed, feminists can have a tremendous impact on public opinion, even if they are powerless to change the system and cannot establish organisational structures for the movement. Anger usually cannot be sustained for long and eventually collapses, awaiting the next spark. Loosely organised feminist anger still has the potential to erupt.
The Significance of Maintaining Uncertainty
Although urban educated young women are the visible advocates for feminism today, the diffusion of feminism has benefited a diverse range of individuals, including women who are marginalised in terms of class and age. So, what does this mean for the future of the movement?
This depends on how we envision change in China. If we understand change only as the overthrow of the regime, the feminist movement will never possess such power, but this is also not a position advocated by many feminists. If we believe that change is the state making meaningful institutional reforms to women’s rights, we have very little leverage. A powerful authoritarian state can still address individual cases or allocate welfare resources to women, but its authority and arbitrariness remain unchallenged, with a refusal to engage in dialogue or negotiation, let alone succumb to pressure. We must move away from the notion of change being indicated solely by reform or revolution, since both are unlikely. What is meaningful is to maintain the vitality of society and sustain hope for tomorrow. Although it has been de-organised (去组织化), the feminist movement still holds great significance for China because it continues to sustain widespread discontent, even in its retreat.
Empowering women through feminism is also crucial for their struggles within culture, knowledge, and everyday life. It relates to the extent to which people can lead autonomous and meaningful lives under authoritarian rule, and how they can connect with one another. Some participants in the ‘A4 movement’ have formed seemingly apolitical communities in their daily lives, but they can come together at a particular moment to join the resistance. The reconstruction of women’s lifestyles will have far-reaching impacts on the whole of society and, in the current context, this will primarily be driven by women’s own decisions. I value the choice to remain unmarried and childless as a woman’s strategy for nonviolent non-cooperation with the state, but what I value first and foremost is women attaining the freedom they desire for themselves, and second, the possibility for them to use that freedom to contribute to changes not yet envisioned. Immersed in Chinese feminism, one is often disheartened, occasionally uplifted, and always confused. However, seeing so many feminists persevering and spreading their beliefs reminds us that the effort to keep hope for tomorrow is both fragile and precious.
Featured Image: China Girl, Illustration by Alexandra Bolzer (CC) Flickr.com