Like in many parts of the world, things are changing in China so far the gender dialogue goes. Despite the power structures and lack of freedom of the press, there is a movement and it’s rapidly expanding. As young people in China increasingly embrace the basic ideal of gender equality, feminism is beginning to influence traditionally male-dominated, social movements says author Leta Hong Fincher who has written a new book called Betraying Big Brother The Feminist Awakening. It’s an extraordinary moment in modern Chinese history. Here’s our conversation.

From Leftover Woman to Betraying Big Brother, how has the narrative for women in China changed?

In my research for Leftover Women (published in 2014), I was extremely demoralized to find that time after time, highly intelligent young women gave their wealth away to men when they married, got married even though they didn’t want to, and stayed silent about their anger and resentment because they felt they had no other choice. In the years since then, more and more women have become conscious of the injustice and misogyny in their lives. Many more women are pushing back against sexism in society, openly expressing their anger and demanding systemic change. This new trend gives me a lot of hope, in spite of the Chinese government’s continuing crackdown on women’s rights, so I think Betraying Big Brother is ultimately a hopeful book.

Many more women are pushing back against sexism in society, openly expressing their anger and demanding systemic change.

What was the impetus that led to your writing the book, over and above the actual imprisonment of these five activists?

I personally knew Li Maizi of the Feminist Five before she was jailed in 2015, so I was extremely concerned by the detention of the five young women. When they were released after 37 days, they were still under de facto house arrest, but several months later, I reached out to them all and they were eager to be interviewed. I met with all of the Feminist Five in different cities, then interviewed more feminist activists, and before I knew it, I realized that the nascent feminist movement was much broader than I had imagined and deserved a book of its own.

China has no press freedom, no freedom of assembly, no independent judiciary, and very heavy internet censorship, but women continue to come forward courageously with their stories of sexual harassment and assault in spite of their extremely slight chance of ever finding justice.

How has China responded to the #MeToo wave that is sweeping most of the world, and what are the barriers to women in China speaking out about their issues with sexual harassment and violence?

The barriers for women in China going public about sexual violence are far greater than for women in most other countries. China has no press freedom, no freedom of assembly, no independent judiciary, and very heavy internet censorship, but women continue to come forward courageously with their stories of sexual harassment and assault in spite of their extremely slight chance of ever finding justice. These women often face severe retaliation not just from employers and peers, but sometimes state security agents who warn that they might be charged with “subversion” for acting as a “tool” of “hostile foreign forces” who are trying to interfere in China’s affairs.

Picture Credit: letahongfincher.com and Versobooks

The barriers for women in China going public about sexual violence are far greater than for women in most other countries.

How can the feminist movement in China pose a challenge to the Big Brother?

I believe the feminist movement could potentially become the most transformative social movement in China since the pro-democracy uprising of 1989. Young women are increasingly standing up for their rights in cities all across China, posing an unprecedented and complicated challenge to the world’s most powerful authoritarian regime. While prominent male human-rights activists have emerged over the years, very few ordinary Chinese citizens knew about them or could relate to their abstract goals. By contrast, the broad-based, feminist consciousness now finding expression through the #MeToo campaign relates to the core concerns of tens of millions of women (and like-minded young men) and the movement is beginning to cross class boundaries as well to overlap with the labor rights movement. The government cannot crush this movement just by jailing some activists because it is far too broad-based and popular.

The government cannot crush this movement just by jailing some activists because it is far too broad-based and popular.

Has the concept of agency over one’s own body changed in a country that promoted the one-child norm and is rigidly patriarchal? What is needed for women to come into their own in China?

Yes, women are increasingly refusing to allow the government to treat them as reproductive tools of the state and baby breeders. They are increasingly choosing not to marry or have babies, in spite of the government’s intense new pressure on educated, Han Chinese women in particular to have more babies to drive up the country’s falling birth rates.

What were the experiences of the five during their imprisonment that affected you the most on hearing them? This systemic repression of women who speak out, how did it deter other women from speaking out?

The five women were all severely mistreated in different ways, which I describe in my book. But one of the most striking things about their detention was that the first thing security agents did was to confiscate the glasses of four of the five jailed women, which made their experience all the more disorienting and frightening because they couldn’t see. When my friend Eileen Chow of Duke University read the first draft of my manuscript, she commented that the confiscation of the women’s glasses could be a metaphor for the gaslighting of women all around the world. The patriarchy deprives women and other marginalized people of our ability to see clearly and to recognize our own oppression. But when we recover our ability to see and recognize structures of oppression, we are able to fight back and regain our power.

One of the most striking things about their detention was that the first thing security agents did was to confiscate the glasses of four of the five jailed women, which made their experience all the more disorienting and frightening because they couldn’t see.

What can the world learn from this book about Feminism as it currently exists in China?

China’s male leaders see the subjugation of women – confining them to the traditional roles of dutiful wife and mother – as critical to their authoritarian rule. But feminism—which demands that women control their own bodies and reproduction—is in direct conflict with the pro-natalist, ethno-nationalist, population-planning goals of the patriarchal, Chinese state. The Chinese government’s crackdown on feminist activism is a form of state-level, fragile masculinity, terrified at the prospect of angry women rising up collectively to challenge the government’s political legitimacy. We are living in very dangerous times not just in China but in the United States and elsewhere, with the rise of strongman authoritarianism threatening democracies around the world. The United States is ceding its global leadership role to a newly assertive China, while misogynistic autocrats bent on rolling back women’s rights have been emboldened in many countries from Russia and Saudi Arabia to the Philippines and most recently, Brazil. I believe the solution lies in supporting feminist activists in authoritarian countries around the world. We must fight for women’s rights and freedom from patriarchal oppression everywhere.

We are living in very dangerous times not just in China but in the United States and elsewhere, with the rise of strongman authoritarianism threatening democracies around the world.

Where do you think this anger, currently simmering within women in China, will lead to? What is the social and cultural seismic shift you anticipate?

As young people in China increasingly embrace the basic ideal of gender equality, feminism is beginning to influence traditionally male-dominated, social movements. Some male labor rights activists are starting to recognize that there can be no economic justice without gender justice. In recent years, sexual violence, gender discrimination and LGBTQ rights have been at the center of landmark, precedent-setting lawsuits. Although so far the feminist movement has focused more on educated, middle-class women, some feminists have for years linked their activism with a deep concern for labor rights and the struggles of working-class women and women are increasingly on the forefront of labor unrest in China. The ability of Chinese women’s rights activists to connect the grievances of different marginalized groups— potentially combining them to create a mighty, intersectional force of opposition—is another reason that the Communist Party sees feminism as a threat. The consequences are highly unpredictable, but this uprising of women is likely to have a profound effect on China – which is the world’s second-largest economy – and therefore the whole world as well.

The ability of Chinese women’s rights activists to connect the grievances of different marginalized groups— potentially combining them to create a mighty, intersectional force of opposition—is another reason that the Communist Party sees feminism as a threat.

Your book, Leftover Women, was seminal in its highlighting of a disturbing socio-cultural phenomenon. Have things changed since you wrote it?

In Leftover Women, I documented a dramatic rise in gender inequality with the onset of market reforms in China, focusing particularly on the gender wealth gap in property ownership and the government’s propaganda campaign to shame single women and push them into getting married. Since then, the Communist Party has become even more aggressive about trying to push women to return to the home and have babies before they turn 30, to conform to traditional gender norms. But the big difference is that a critical mass of women are now rising up in anger to demand change. It’s an extraordinary moment in modern Chinese history.

It’s an extraordinary moment in modern Chinese history.

Feature Image Credit: Leta Hong Fincher

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