Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Five Chinese feminists have been arrested for planning to protest against sexual harassment. They face five to ten years in jail. This post explains the background to the case, and suggests ways that other activists around the world can show solidarity.
A network of women in three cities were planning to hand out leaflets and stickers on International Women’s Day outside train stations, protesting sexual harrassment and groping on public transport. Many of them were arrested, and Wang Man, Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong have now been held in Beijing for over a month.
They are charged with ‘Picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. The maximum sentence is five years, or ten years if agitation covers more than one city. The interrogations have lasted all day, every day, often until midnight. Wu Rongrong has been denied medication for chronic liver disease as a result of Hepatitis C, and Wang Man has suffered a heart attack.
As much of the coverage has noted, their case tells us a lot about gender, and about protest, in China now. But it is also part of a new, and different, global feminist movement on the streets against harassment and sexual violence. One of the distinctive aspects of this new movement is that almost as soon as people take action, they come up against the power of managers, the police and the state.
The youngest of the five feminists is 25, and the oldest 32. They are part of a new sort of network. Earlier Chinese feminists worked within the state machine, influencing policy, or in NGOs. These five are affiliated with NGOs, but their network has taken to the streets.
They have been involved in previous protests. In 2012 there were small protests at men’s public toilets, calling for more toilets for women. On Valentine’s Day in 2013, three women walked across Beijing wearing wedding dresses soaked with blood to protest domestic violence. And twenty women students in different parts of the country shaved their heads to protest university admissions policies that require higher exam scores from women applicants than from men.
These protests were all creative and theatrical. They involved small numbers of people, so they were not too flagrant a challenge to ‘public security’. But they were public, and their impact was magnified thousands fold on social media. The issues were also carefully selected so they were close to the hearts of very large numbers of Chinese women. These feminists did not intend to be part of a fringe movement.
They were also concerned with other issues. Zheng Churan (known as Datu) is an LGBT activist. Zeng Jinyan, a graduate student in Hong Kong, refers to a recent interview where Datu:
Talks about collecting data from 100 cases of child sexual abuse after hearing about six schoolgirls being sexually abused by principals and government officials in 2013.
The five were arrested the day before a planned protest outside train stations. They were going to hand out leaflets and stickers against sexual harassment on public transport. There is a great deal of groping on buses and trains in China, and women hate it but put up with it.
They were arrested for several reasons. First, public protest always carries an implicit challenge in a dictatorship. The regime that cannot stop protest is in danger of no longer being a regime. Despite that, there have been tens of thousands of protests in China each year, for many years now. Most of the protesters have been workers, or peasants who have their land taken away for urban development or factories. The regime permits these, sometimes prosecutes leaders, and sometimes meets people’s demands. But the red lines are that these protests are local, they do not happen in central Beijing, and they do not link up people across several cities.
Moreover, since Xi Jinping became president in November 2012 there has been a general crackdown on grassroots activists of all kinds. As Eric Fish of the Asia Society in New York writes:
Recently, I spoke with a Chinese news assistant for a Western newspaper in Beijing who lamented that it is becoming hard to get comment on certain stories. ‘Everyone we used to call up for a quote is in jail,’ she explained. ‘The Party has long grabbed anyone with rebellious political views, and now it has finished grabbing the ones with modest views. Now it’s coming for anyone who speaks at all.
Or as one person said recently on the Chinese social media Wechat:
When there are no men to detail, they will detain women; when there are no women they will detain children.
These are specifically Chinese reasons for the brutal treatment of the five feminists. But it is useful to place their activism in the context of the new movement against sexual harassment and sexual violence that is developing globally.
This movement has been strongest in India, with large angry riots against rape in Delhi, and a march of 200,000 and a four month long student strike in Kolkota. There have been other protests in the US, Britain, Turkey and elsewhere. [For a post on these Creative Protests, click here.]
What is striking about these protests is how quickly they come up against management or university administrations, and against the police and the state. The same has been happening in China.
Sexual harassment is widespread on public transport in China. Crucially, women remain silent while it is happening and try to move out of range. They absorb the shame. Once a campaign began, they might well shout out, and stand by each other. This could create a large number of incidents, which would be both a problem for public order and a great relief for many women.
More seriously, sexual harassment is endemic in Chinese workplaces, as it is in many other countries. This bears particularly hard on migrant women workers. They already find themselves at the bottom of an economic and social system in China that is rapidly growing more unequal. And they have few ways to defend themselves at work.
In these situations it is particularly managers, and the rich, who are harassing and exploiting. Moreover, sexual harassment has been part of the Communist Party’s culture for a very long time. This is one big reason why in China, as in other countries, senior managers and the state machine are quickly hostile to organised protests over sexual harassment.
So the five Chinese feminists are part of a global movement of many people confronting sexual violence in different ways. However, they are facing stiffer persecution than many of us, and they are very brave. They need solidarity.
International protest makes a difference in cases like these. Sometimes it makes a regime back down. But even where this does not happen, the spotlight makes the detained safer, and gives them courage.
Hilary Clinton, Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the UN, the British Foreign Office, and the New York Times have all expressed concern. This sort of pressure is valuable. But the readers of this blog are unlikely to be able to mobilise such heavy hitters. What we can do, and what would help, is to send postcards to the detained. Please also hold meetings, even small informal meetings where you can. And take a photograph of your meeting, and your postcard, and put it on social media.
Send details of what you do, and photos, to email@example.com. The Facebook page Free Chinese Feminists will show you how others have done this, and keep you up to date https://www.facebook.com/chinesefeminists?fref=ts.
Supporters have also called for protests outside Chinese embassies and consulates on April 12, before the prosecutors make a decision on whether to try them on April 13. For more details, and creative ideas for a protest, see https://www.facebook.com/chinesefeminists.
Finally, here is a quote from an open letter to Li Tingting from her girlfriend:
We made promise to each other at your birthday last year that we will be together regardless of all the challenges we need to face in the future. I didn’t expect the challenges come so soon and so cruelly. My birthday, like we promised each other, is the date we will put work aside and spend time only with each other. We are so longing for reunion because of our long distance.
For my birthday wish, no matter where we are, we will wake up naturally in each other arms. We will hold hands to buy groceries and cook for each other. Of course, you will tease me because I’m so bad at using the knife. I want to pick blueberry cheesecake for dessert. You will sing with the ukulele for me while I’m just free writing. At night, we will walk through the busy streets or sit next to the lake. We will talk and laugh. Or suddenly we are in sweet silence. Or we will hold each other because the night is too cold. Or we will fix each other’s hair in the soft light.
References and useful reading
The quotes from Zeng Zinyan and Eric Fish come from a useful series of different viewpoints on the case: http://www.chinafile.com/conversation/dark-days-women-china
The letter to Maizi from her girlfriend: http://freechinesefeminists.tumblr.com/post/114601574515/a-letter-to-maizi
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