Organized

China’s feminists are finding ways to outsmart the government

University students dressed as battered wives hold banners in front of an office of China's Civil Affairs department, where local people register for marriage, in protest of domestic violence on November 25, 2012. (REUTERS/Stringer)

Even as the Chinese government cracks down on political activism and freedom of expression, the country’s women’s rights movement continues to push forward.

Four years ago, on the eve of International Women’s Day, Chinese authorities jailed five women for planning to hand out stickers protesting sexual harassment on subways and buses. Since then, the government has only tightened its grip on public protest. But China’s feminists have become adept at finding ways around the authorities.

For one, rather than being led by a small handful of high-profile activists, the women’s rights movement in China is a more decentralized network of agitators. In January 2018, in a coordinated effort, thousands of students at universities across the country signed petitions to protest against sexual harassment. Government censors deleted many of the petitions shortly after they were posted online, but the action galvanized the country’s nascent #MeToo movement.

By engaging in protests with no recognizable leader or hierarchy, feminists in China have made it more difficult for the government to target them. This stands in contrast with other political movements in China, many of which are led by high-profile male activists like Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died in custody in 2017. 

What’s more, the authorities’ attacks on feminists don’t necessarily signal hostility towards women’s rights — gender equality has been on the books in China far longer than in many Western countries. In its first constitution in 1954, the Communist Party stated that women should have “equal rights with men in all areas of political, economic, cultural, social, and domestic life.” (Of course, in the 65 years since, women in China have dealt with plenty of inequality, despite official policy.)

More likely, the government’s pushback against China’s women’s rights movement has more to do with its aversion to any particular group of citizens organizing politically. Even as China has transformed from a relatively closed society to a booming free-market economy, the Communist Party has insisted on its own singularity as the country’s sole political force, and has resisted “movements” of all kinds, from Falun Gong to LGBT rights.

But China’s feminists may have cracked the code to unimpeded activism. As one leader of the movement told The Guardian: “The feminist movement is about… building a community, rather than just having one or two famous individuals who can enlighten everybody else.”

Read more at The Guardian.

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