A quick search of “feminism in China” into Baidu, a Chinese search engine, reveals personal blog posts and half-hearted jokes. These include forum threads on “acts of fake feminisms” and complaints about “princesses in the workplace.” The difficulty to access reportings on feminist activism reflects China’s prevailing internet censorship.
This reality obstructs Lü Pin, a founding editor of Feminist Voices, China’s most influential feminist social media account with over 180,000 followers, which was unfortunately banned on International Women’s Day in 2018. Feminist Voices confronted issues that reflected the experiences of many urban women, such as sexual harassment, intimate partner violence and gender discrimination in university admissions. Now pursuing a graduate degree in gender studies at SUNY Albany, Lü was invited to campus on Nov. 21 by Vassar’s Forum of Political Thought and the Political Science Department to discuss her journey on feminist activism in China over the past few decades.
Lü was disappointed but not surprised that the account had been banned. She cited the case of XueQin Huang, a pioneering figure of the #MeToo movement in China, who was arrested after she exposed her experience of workplace harassment when working as a journalist in the state media. Lü understands that the government is trying to restrict activist protests, but she thinks that articles on Feminist Voices are “not propaganda…instead [they] provide alternative routes of obtaining information” that raises awareness on gender inequality affecting all of us. By sharing anecdotes during her lecture, Lü raised multiple challenging questions: How does one commit to activism in environments with high censorship? What
is the relationship between the individual and the state? What concrete goals do we, as feminists, wish to see accomplished?
The lecture began with a video taken on a subway train in China, in which women holding signs with anti-sexual assault messages, chant a melody with feminist sentiments: “你是否与我一样，坚信这世界应平 等 [Do you believe as I believe, in that this world should be equal]/这是首传唱自由和 尊严的女人之歌 [this is woman’s song singing of freedom and dignity]/我爱我独特的 模样，不论它是美丑胖瘦[I love my unique self, whether it is fat or thin, ugly or pretty]/ 我又闪光的梦想，我也有丰富的欲望 [I have my glinting dreams, I also have fullness of desires].”
Lü explained that the majority of information on feminism is distributed, often with a short life span, through the internet. She also stated, “Feminism is a highly controversial topic in China.” Many
When asked where her sense of urgency for the cause of feminism comes from, she recounted an experience in a journalism workshop when she was still writing for state-owned media. The workshop instructor asked everyone in the room to write down their own answer to the question: “Who are you?” Lü wrote, “I am a journalist.” When the question turned back to the instructor at the end, the instructor revealed her own answer: that she is a female journalist. At that moment, it struck Lü utterly how much of her experience had been shaped by her female identity, and how much it would continue to do so. Before this realization, the most she claimed to have accomplished (aside from thousands of journalistic works on feminism that are now mostly wiped out by state censorship), was the reversal of a juridical decision on a murder case committed by a desperate wife against her abusive husband. But this wasn’t enough, she thought. She wanted to affect real change in the lives of women, not just write for their cause.
From her experience as an activist and a journalist, she shared various facets of the systemic oppression of women in China, despite the nation’s socialist reformative past. This oppression continues to silence already unheard female voices today. For fears of potential destabilization of the Chinese development model that a feminist revolution would bring, the state decides to implicate total control over free expression, which mutes discourse on feminism.
Following the lecture, a few Vassar students and professors engaged in a fruitful discussion with Lü over dinner. We delved into the historical trajectory of women’s rights in China—from the Communist Party equality that ignored nuances between men and women during the Mao Era, to the market reforms in the 1980s that drew a distinct line between male and female roles in society, causing gender inequality to bounce back into contemporary issues. Those around the table laughed uncomfortably as attendees discussed the reality where women are inevitably disadvantaged when they are expected to provide unpaid emotional and physical labor through childrearing and domestic work. The fact that one matriarchal ethnic group in China, the Mosuo, still functions within a patriarchal system where household decisions are made by the uncles shocked some at the dinner.
Lü acknowledged that the feminist movement in China is an ongoing battle. But she is moved by passionate youth activists, consisting mostly of university students and recent graduates. After Lü’s talk, a female student in WuHan University openly destroyed a large vase in a public space on campus to criticize the gendered standards of the school’s beauty pageant (Instagram, @Feministchina, 11.25.2019). Like this student, Lü’s views on feminism does not merely rely on ideals or theory. Rather, it exists through strong statements like these, as a continued struggle for concrete changes to address inequality women face daily.