Review: Feminist Awakening in China

December 14, 2018

From the November-December 2018 issue of News & Letters

An account of #MeToo in China is documented in a new book by Leta Hong Fincher, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (2018).

Fincher begins with the Chinese authorities jailing five feminist activists—Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, and Wang Man—for planning to commemorate International Women’s Day, March 8, 2015, by handing out stickers against sexual harassment on subways and buses. They became the “Feminist Five.” Strong international pressure resulted in the Chinese government releasing the five after 38 days in detention, but to this day they are subjected to criminal investigations, have lost their jobs, and are continuously threatened.


In November 2017, in addition to forcing three of the “Feminist Five” to move out of their homes in retaliation for their plan to hand out anti-sexual harassment placards, censors deleted a #MeToo-like essay posted on WeChat from a woman in Shanghai who wrote about a serial molester in her neighborhood. Her post received more than a million views and ten thousand comments!

In January 2018, thousands of students and alumni in China signed #MeToo petitions at dozens of universities—the largest coordinated student action since 1989. Censors deleted many of them soon after they were posted. Then on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2018, Weibo banned the most influential feminist account, Feminist Voices.

Lu Pin, founding editor of Feminist Voices, said: “The feminist movement is about women’s everyday concerns and building a community… Chinese women feel very unequal every day of their lives, and the government cannot make women oblivious to the deep injustice they feel.”

Fincher dates the current wave of feminism back to 2012, when 25-year-old Zheng Churan joined the Gender Equality Work Group. The feminists chose to focus on the shortage of public toilets for women, because they could not imagine it could be politically sensitive and opposed by the Communist Party (CP). They won widespread support which highlighted the systemic sexism and devaluation of women’s lives.


For Valentine’s Day 2012 they worked on a “Bloody Brides” project. Li Maizi, Wei Tingting and Xiao Meili walked the street of Beijing in white wedding gowns spattered with fake blood, protesting the absence of a law against domestic abuse. Their slogans read, “Love is no excuse for violence.” China enacted a law against domestic violence in 2016.

Fincher reports arrests of feminists, their interrogations, bullying, and torture in custody. Their demands center on the everyday experiences of their lives, on the humiliations, unfreedom, and denial of humanity.

Reading Fincher’s summation of the history of feminism in China, one is struck with how much this has been true throughout history. In the 1920s Lu Xun wrote, “First, there must be a fair sharing out between men and women in the family; second, men and women must have equal rights in society.” Note what is first: the everyday lives of women and men.

For International Women’s Day 1942 Ding Ling wrote “Thoughts on March 8,” in which she criticized the CP’s gender politics: “It would be better if there were less empty theorizing and more talk about real problems, so that theory and practice are not divorced…” She was ordered to “re-educate herself,” and in 1957 was sent for “re-education among the masses” for speaking about women’s double burden.

Fincher begins and ends with the internationalism of the Women’s Liberation Movement: from the international support for the Feminist Five starting in 2015, to solidarity with the Russian women in Pussy Riot, Mexican feminists murdered for their advocacy, Argentina’s 2015 protests against femicides, as well as Brazil’s, not to mention #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.

—Urszula Wislanka

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