Q&A: Leta Hong Fincher on China’s Resilient Feminists
A former journalist, Leta Hong Fincher was the first American to receive a PhD in Sociology from Tsinghua University in Beijing. Her research there led to her first book, “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China,” which examined rising gender inequalities in China today through the lens of economics, marriage, and the real estate market. Her widely acclaimed second book, “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China,” examines the rise of a new feminist movement in China and profiles several of the key participants, including the so-called Feminist Five, who were detained in 2015 after launching a public campaign against sexual harassment. Now based in New York, Hong Fincher is currently an Adjunct Associate Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University and writes and speaks widely about the feminist movement in China. CDT recently spoke with her about her latest book, the new feminist activism in China, and its linkages with labor activism among students and recent graduates from China’s top universities as well as with protest movements from years past. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
China Digital Times: You wrote that the feminist movement in China has “tapped into broad discontent among Chinese women and developed a level of influence over public opinion that is highly unusual for any social movement in China.” Given the strict censorship in both the media and online discussions, as well as tight restrictions on public gatherings and organizing, where do you see this influence being felt most strongly?
Leta Hong Fincher: Most strongly I would say it’s pretty clear on university campuses, among university students and recent university graduates. This increased discussion of women’s rights issues was obviously happening prior to the jailing of the Feminist Five in 2015 and I’m sure contributed to the decision by authorities to jail these women, because they noticed that this was increasingly being discussed on social media. That was the real demarcation point, the jailing of the Feminist Five and then after that the really systematic aggressive censorship of feminist issues online. Prior to that it was a much more freewheeling discussion where you have more and more young women identifying themselves publicly as feminists online or changing their Weibo or WeChat handles to include the word feminist. But I have not done a quantitative study so can’t provide numbers. One useful somewhat quantitative study is to look at University of Hong Kong’s WeChat Scope. One of the most censored topics on WeChat last year was #metoo and issues related to sexual harassment. That is really extraordinary given the long list of pretty sensitive topics, so it really stands out.
CDT: What do you think it is about this generation of university students that has made them attach themselves to the feminist label, or made it an issue that they are discussing, compared to prior generations?
LHF: I can only hypothesize because I myself have been wondering. There is no question that gender inequality in general has become a lot worse in recent years, so that’s certainly a very big factor. That’s the context in which you have this new feminist movement that has arisen and then also just more of a willingness to speak out. For example, most recently the global #metoo hashtag movement led to #metoo inside China, where in April of 2018 there were thousands of petitions being signed by university students and alumni at dozens of universities. Although censorship of the internet has increased, it’s not a total blackout. And so the #metoo hashtag was being censored but discussion of sexual violence or harassment is hard to pinpoint with keywords. So feminism itself has become a more aggressively censored keyword, but it’s not a total blackout on discussion, unlike discussion of the Tiananmen massacre, for example. I don’t even know how they would be able to completely wipe out discussion of women’s rights on the internet without just shutting down the internet completely.
Just to give some examples, there are university programs that discriminate quite blatantly against female applicants and require young women to score higher on the gaokao entrance exam than their male counterparts in order to gain admission. This is a topic that the feminist activists in China have taken up. Once the women graduate it’s much, much harder for them to get a job than their male counterparts. There is extensive documentation now of routine gender discrimination in hiring, and so all of these women who are about to graduate from university and look for jobs are directly experiencing blatant gender discrimination. It’s very common for employers to explicitly say they are not considering female candidates even though technically that is illegal. So that’s the general backdrop.
As to why women are more keen or more courageous to stand up and speak out and vocalize their desire for more rights, I think it is a gradual process that has built up over several years, and it certainly started in 2012 or even at the end of 2011. It relates to Feminist Voices, which was founded by Lü Pin in 2009, just when Weibo was founded. Feminist Voices really took off and became much more popular in 2011, so that certainly had an impact on anybody who was online, on Weibo and then WeChat. So a lot of credit is due to that outfit and Lü Pin, and all of those feminists who were starting to post a lot online.
But the censorship wasn’t really aggressive at all until the jailing of the Feminist Five in 2015. There was a period of chill in the immediate aftermath of [their] jailing where feminists were in hiding and censorship was extremely aggressive for quite a few months. And then toward the end of 2015 the censorship wasn’t quite as aggressive anymore. But there’s still been a real systematic increase in censorship of feminist issues, issues related to sexual violence. Feminist Voices itself was banned last year on the night of International Women’s Day, on Weibo and WeChat. There is an overall tightening across the board on women’s rights activities, [such as] the closure of a women’s rights center that was run by Wei Tingting, who was also one of the Feminist Five, last year. So there is individual persecution and harassment of activists who are not just feminists but taking an active role in #metoo on campus.
Last year, a lot of attention was surrounding a young senior at Beida [Peking University], Yue Xin, which you translated, and that was all heavily censored. It was surprising how much support she received in spite of the censorship, with her classmates trying to express solidarity and getting around the censorship. All across the board, all university campuses have really tightened their ideological control in relation to any discussion of gender and feminism, and I have heard anecdotally, though I don’t have as much knowledge about this, that controls around discussions of gender have tightened at high schools.
CDT: You mentioned Yue Xin and I’m interested in the overlap of the workers’ movement which has recently gained a lot of steam also among university students and recent graduates, and how that movement and the feminist movement overlap and intersect. Some of the young activists like Yue Xin who have been working in solidarity with workers in Shenzhen and elsewhere are also active in the feminist movement. And labor activist Wei Zhili, the husband of Zheng Churan, one of the Feminist Five, was recently detained. So could you talk a little bit about the intersectionality between these two movements and how and whether their goals are aligned?
LHF: The feminist movement is not monolithic. There are some activists, notably Zheng Churan, who have been very heavily involved in labor rights, going back quite a few years, to 2013 at least. So if you’re just talking about the rights activism in its overlapping with feminism, there are many ways to look at it. One is to simply look at the increasing number of women workers who are on the frontline of labor related protest or collective action. But a lot of those workers are not naturally thinking about feminism. Zheng Churan is one prominent feminist who made this her main focus. She is particularly interested in advocating for working class women and she has a years long history of working to advocate for these women workers in particular and highlighting the fact that women workers have their own needs and concerns such as pregnancy discrimination, or sexual violence on the job from male supervisors or colleagues. There are other feminists who haven’t been directly advocating for such a long time for workers in particular but they’ve been very active on university campuses. Sometimes the feminist activism on campus has had nothing to do with the rights of workers. And then at the same time, other university students have only been looking at workers’ rights and haven’t been paying attention to gender. But I would say the level of activism has been higher with regard to feminist issues, and that has been going on for several years. And that is what the police have really been cracking down on.
In recent months, there has been a new burst of activism among elite university students advocating for workers’ rights. And some of those activists who are quite prominent and are now in detention have also been feminists. Yue Xin is probably the most prominent example. But there are some others as well who were focusing on the rights of women workers, like Shen Mengyu, who has a Masters degree from Sun Yat-sen University, which is really striking because after she got her masters degree from a very prestigious university she then got a job as a factory worker to better understand the working conditions. And she was working inside the factory and paying close attention to pregnant women workers in particular. She was detained before even Yue Xin was, so before the much broader crackdown, and is still in detention. And there are other activists combining their feminism with advocacy for workers and labor rights activism who are in detention as well. Most recently, Wei Zhili, known as Xiao Wei, Zheng Churan’s husband, has long been very supportive of feminism and working on the unique needs of women workers on top of just generally advocating for labor rights. And of course his wife is a very prominent feminist, so there is this intersection but it’s all very slippery. It doesn’t mean that every feminist is also really strongly advocating workers’ rights in general. Some of them are, some of them are not.
CDT: Aside from these individual activists you mentioned, who work on both labor and gender rights, have you seen any efforts from the feminist movement to include women from different classes and economic backgrounds? Is that something they are trying to do or is it not on their radar?
LHF: I would say that some of the activists, like Zheng Churan, really strongly pushed for greater attention to the needs of working class women. Usually those women are working in cities, so the emphasis has really been on urban women. With regard to feminist activism, there isn’t a lot of focus on women still living in the countryside. First you have to consider that all of the feminist activists themselves are being persecuted and closely monitored, and they are living in cities, not in the countryside. That’s where they are located so that’s one reason why they are not focusing so much on, say, rural women. When you consider working class women and where the jobs are, the jobs are in the cities. A lot of the feminist activists themselves actually grew up in the countryside and then went to university in the city, so this rural-urban divide is not as sharp as it was in the past. A lot of the women working in urban centers, whether in factories or in the service industries, their hukou, or household registration, is in a rural area so they are migrant workers. So those concerns overlap as well. It’s not only a focus on elite women at all. The focus is very much on women living in cities, but China as a whole is urbanizing rapidly.
CDT: What about members of ethnic minorities, like Tibetans or Uyghurs who are also in their own fight to preserve their own ethnic identity and autonomy? Are there examples of women in the movement working in solidarity with them or other ethnic groups?
LHF: There were Tibetan women who were starting their own WeChat groups discussing their rights. There were also Uyghur women starting WeChat groups related to their rights, but then there was a real crackdown on those groups, particularly in 2016, a very harsh crackdown. Cross-ethnicity solidarity, that is not at all public. Particularly with regard to Xinjiang, you could make the argument that that may be the most politically sensitive issue in China at the moment, given the mass incarceration of Uyghurs.
Because the feminist activists that I have been observing are Han Chinese, and they are already heavily persecuted and monitored, I am not aware of any public organizing in collaboration with women who are ethnic minorities. But that’s totally understandable and it doesn’t mean it’s not happening, it’s just that I’m not aware of it and they have to be extraordinarily careful. The feminist activists have already been jailed. I would like to say that there are foreigners who are not in China, who have criticized feminist activists in China for not paying sufficient attention to ethnic minorities. I think this is really wrong-headed, it shows a complete lack of understanding of the hostile environment for activism of any kind. To blame these feminist activists for not publicly expressing solidarity with Uyghur women or Tibetan women, I think is extremely judgmental and shows no understanding for how difficult it already is. Why should they show public evidence of any kind of collaboration? That would be the death-knell for them.
CDT: Looking back historically a little bit, because this year is of course the 30th anniversary of the June 4th crackdown: From your conversations with those activists, have you found that the protest movement of 1989 or its aftermath retain any legacy for the current generation of activists? Is it something they think about and have as context for their own movement, or is it not on their minds at all?
LHF: It is on their minds. I can’t speak for every single feminist, but I definitely heard feminists talk about what happened with the Tiananmen massacre and it is on the minds of quite a few activists. One characteristic of this feminist movement is that they are not calling for the overthrow of the Communist Party. All of their activism is about women’s general rights, about very pragmatic issues, like tackling the epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual violence, tackling gender discrimination in its various forms. They are deliberately avoiding publicly attacking the Communist Party. That’s one of their strategies and they thought that by confining their activism to issues relating to gender and women’s rights and not mentioning the Communist Party they might be able to avoid persecution. Clearly that didn’t happen because of the jailing of the Feminist Five in 2015. But that continues to be their approach.
I have to say that that is a real component of the endurance of the movement. It’s been more than four years since the jailing of the Feminist Five and the movement has not been wiped out. One of the reasons why it has such broad resonance for women all across China is because the activists deal with issues that are of direct relevance to the lives of ordinary women. So many women themselves personally experience sexual harassment or rape, or they have personally experienced gender discrimination of some kind. So they feel aggrieved, they feel a deep sense of injustice. In fact, even when I was doing my PhD research, I wrote about this in my first book, “Leftover Women.” That study did focus on more elite women who were middle class, experiencing this intense pressure to marry and buy homes. I started that research in 2010, so throughout that period, these women that I interviewed described a feeling of real suffering and deep injustice. But at that time, those women did not feel they could stand up for their rights so by and large they were keeping their grievances to themselves. So what has really changed is there has been a critical mass of women who express their grievances publicly, you can see it on social media, that has coincided with the feminist movement, which really got underway in 2012. All these different phenomena have happened at the same time so today you have more and more of the women who kept their unhappiness to themselves, and now they can look around and see other women voicing their unhappiness and so there is definitely strength in numbers. More and more of these women are stepping forward and going public and expressing their dissatisfaction with sexism in general.
CDT: Going back to what you said about the movement not directly taking on the Communist Party and just focusing on very pragmatic issues, some of the members like Yue Xin have spoken very eloquently about the ideals of socialism, and a lot of the activists working in both the labor movement and feminist movement would appear to support that ideology. In the early days of the Communist Party, gender equality was a big part of their ideology even though it was never realized in practice. You’ve argued that the longevity of the Communist Party has been built on the back of a patriarchal society. Do you feel that there’s room within this current governing structure in China to create a society where true gender equality exists?
LHF: I believe that if the Communist Party wanted to actually adhere to their expressed belief in gender equality, then it could. But that’s just not what we’re seeing. So to me, all of the evidence suggests that the male Communist Party leaders of China have decided that in their interests it is critical to the survival of the Communist Party that they subjugate women and relegate women to very subservient roles, within the family to being a dutiful wife and mother, to being responsible for upholding so-called harmony in the family, in the household. It’s very complicated and I write about it in my book but it’s essentially related to the idea that the Chinese nation-state can only maintain harmony and political stability when the families themselves are so-called harmonious – and a harmonious family in the view of the Communist Party today is very explicitly one in which the man is the head of the household and he’s the one who is making money, and the woman is in charge of the family itself. So all of these really traditional gender norms are being aggressively pushed in Chinese propaganda today. And there’s been a real resurgence of Confucian ideology in the propaganda today. So the claim is that this is just Chinese culture and that women should behave according to Chinese culture. But of course Chinese culture itself was uprooted violently with the Communist revolution. Feminism itself has played a very important role throughout Chinese history, in the Communist revolution, the May Fourth movement, through the revolutionary era at the turn of the century when revolutionaries were trying to bring down the Qing empire, which they did successfully. But that aspect of Chinese history has been erased by the male leaders of the Communist Party today.
Given all of the evidence, if you are just looking at government policy, I don’t hold out much hope for women’s rights. However, what does give me hope is this grassroots political movement, and not just feminists but even ordinary women across China who are increasingly speaking out about women’s rights. That is what is going to be decisive going forward for the future of women’s rights. No one can predict the future, but I think the Chinese government has to be very careful to accommodate and listen to the demands of women – and men, by the way, because there are like-minded men who are supportive of women’s rights.
One of the Chinese government’s most urgent priorities is to boost the plummeting birthrate, so with this new two-child policy, it’s really trying to push particularly Han Chinese women to have babies while they are in their twenties, so it has a very complicated task. On one hand, it wants to eliminate this women’s rights movement; on the other hand, it’s trying to persuade women of that exact demographic–urban, educated, Han Chinese women–to get married and have more babies. If it were to jail hundreds or more feminist activists, it would alienate so many of the women it is trying to co-opt. That is one of the reasons why I believe the movement has been able to survive, because the government itself is reluctant to crack down too hard.
CDT: That’s interesting, because if you look at any of the other grassroots movements that have sprung up in China over the past recent decades, with the 1989 movement and then various labor strikes, independent environmental activism, rights lawyers, political dissidents, we can look at any of those kinds of movements and see that they have been crushed. And then new national security laws that criminalize a broad range of activity, increasing surveillance, all of these things make it incredibly hard for any grassroots movement to survive at all. But you believe the feminist movement is a little different in that the government wants to maintain their relationship with Chinese women in order to reach their own ends, and won’t be willing to crack down as hard as they have on other groups?
LHF: So far, that’s the case. Look at it – it’s been more than four years since the beginning of a systematic crackdown on feminist activity in 2015. That’s a long time. And the movement still survives. Obviously it’s increasingly difficult but it’s very far from being crushed. In fact, it grew, pretty dramatically after 2015. I don’t know if it can continue to grow, but it certainly still exists. And the feminist community is quite large, certainly in the thousands, if you are only talking about activists who identify themselves as feminists. That’s not even getting into tens of millions of women who are not calling themselves feminists but are speaking out more about gender discrimination of various kinds, or sexual harassment, or whatever particular injustice they have experienced in their personal lives. So part of the reason why the movement hasn’t been crushed is because it’s so slippery, it has extremely broad appeal. Other movements have been more narrow, they don’t necessarily resonate with as many people across the country. But the issues the feminists are talking all directly relate to the lives of literally hundreds of millions of women.
CDT: Is there anything else about the feminist movement in China that hasn’t been adequately covered in recent media reports that you think people should know?
LHF: Media coverage of women’s rights in general in China is terribly inadequate. Obviously there aren’t a lot of foreign reporters in China. I really wish the news media would pay more attention. It’s a real flashpoint in Chinese politics and in society. It’s ongoing, this confrontation. There is so much happening that needs to be reported on regarding women’s rights in general and is not being reported. And of course it can’t be reported by and large in the Chinese media because there is no real press freedom. That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book. Not only is it really interesting, it is incredibly critical to the future of China, and the future of the entire world. This is an issue of international security because it relates to the future of the Communist Party in China. China is the world’s most powerful authoritarian regime, yet these women’s rights activists have been able to pose this incredibly strong, complicated, and resilient challenge to this regime. That is something that really needs to be closely watched. I only wish more people would pay attention to it.
There has been media attention to the latest round of detention of labor rights activists, but so many of the media reports erase the feminist side of this new activism. Because the new activism has grown from the years long women’s rights movement, it’s kind of an offshoot of that. I’m very disappointed by a lot of the media coverage. It’s not the fault of the reporters on the ground because there simply aren’t enough of them. But I would say news agencies and news media in general are very male-dominated and this is a big problem not only in China but for women around the world. To that I might add that I write about patriarchal authoritarianism in China and how the patriarchy underpins authoritarian rule in China, but that is true in virtually any authoritarian regime around the world. If you look at any autocracy around the world, they are all oppressing women, they are all misogynistic. So obviously the dynamics are not exactly the same as in China but we need to pay much greater attention to women’s rights and to the resistance of women in China. This is not a marginal issue, this is a central security issue of importance to the entire world.
CDT: Aside from journalists and the media, what do you think is the most effective way people outside China can support the feminist movement in China?
LHF: One thing that is really important is to invite and welcome Chinese — and this goes beyond just women — intellectuals and activists to various countries. So the U.S. needs to be more open to all these incredibly talented but also persecuted Chinese. There are Chinese feminists who are in the U.S., Lü Pin is one very prominent example of a visionary intellectual activist and feminist who started the Chinese Feminist Collective based in the U.S. There is a community of Chinese feminist activists in other countries as well, in the U.K. and in Canada most notably. All of these countries need to be more welcoming. The governments need to grant more visas to these people because they are fleeing an incredibly hostile environment, yet we are not welcoming them sufficiently. So that’s one very obvious way in which more governments around the world could support these activists.
On the individual level there are these organizations and if you speak Chinese you can get involved in these groups. As Lü Pin said, the main reason she started the Chinese Feminist Collective in the U.S. was she feared the environment in China was too hostile and that the feminist movement would not be able to survive without another frontline in the struggle. So that global diaspora and global exchange of ideas and people is absolutely critical to sustaining the women’s rights movement inside China, to supporting women’s rights in general.