The Unsettled West
China’s Long War on Xinjiang
As the #MeToo movement spreads around the globe, women’s rights advocates are looking for cases to cheer, stories of women standing up to sexual harassment and assault and saying, “Enough is enough.” Chinese women who are doing just that are the focus of Betraying Big Brother, a deeply affecting book by the journalist and China specialist Leta Hong Fincher. The main characters in her tale are a small group of relatively well-off, college-educated young women in China’s major cities who connect with one another through social media. Coming of age in an era of economic progress and promise, these women had high hopes for their lives and careers. But their aspirations were dealt a blow by widespread sexism. Beginning in 2012, they dared to take to the streets to engage in performance art, including forming flash mobs, and then posted videos of their activities online to promote discussion and raise awareness about gender among the general public.
Based on interviews with these young women, including the group that came to be known as the Feminist Five, Hong Fincher describes a collective awakening in which they came to see their lives as “worth something,” a realization that led them to believe they had a right to ask for more than their society seemed willing to offer. In recent years, young Chinese feminists have advocated a national law on domestic violence; criticized sexual harassment, sexual assault, and misogyny in the media and culture; challenged gender discrimination in college admissions, job recruitment, and workplace practices; and appealed for more public restrooms for women. Such activism “tapp[ed] into a groundswell of dissatisfaction among hundreds of thousands of educated urban women who were just beginning to wake up to the rampant sexism in Chinese society,” Hong Fincher writes.
But the story then takes a disturbing turn. In March 2015, one day before International Women’s Day, the Feminist Five were detained by China’s aggressive state security apparatus and held for 37 days, during which they were often treated roughly. They had been preparing to hand out stickers decrying sexual harassment in public spaces—for instance, the widespread phenomenon of men groping women on public transportation. Their ordeal created a scandal in China, where the news spread quickly on social media despite being mostly ignored or trivialized by the mainstream press. The story received extraordinary attention abroad, as well: major Western news organizations covered it, human rights groups condemned the Feminist Five’s detention, and prominent figures, such as Hillary Clinton and the feminist activist Eve Ensler, expressed support for the group. Ms. magazine added the group to its list of the year’s most inspiring feminists.
Nevertheless, the state’s repressive tactics essentially worked. After being released, the Feminist Five remained under constant surveillance and faced threats to themselves and their families. Three went to the United Kingdom or Hong Kong to pursue master’s degrees in human rights, law, or social work. One left Beijing for the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to start a new nongovernmental organization, which was quickly closed down because of its work on the still sensitive issue of sexual harassment. Most of the five turned their feminist activism into a part-time voluntary mission, while holding down day jobs, such running an online store or working at an education agency.
Hong Fincher’s vivid, blow-by-blow account of the women’s experiences is a valuable work of journalism, and she offers interesting evidence of a wider feminist awakening. But she ventures well beyond reportage, using the story to make a sweeping argument about the future of Chinese politics. This small group of women, she argues, “was capable of posing what the Chinese Communist Party perceived to be a serious challenge to its rule.” Portraying the episode as a harbinger of significant social change in China, she contends that “any major demographic shift as a result of women choosing to reject marriage and children—or perhaps even to rise up collectively against the Communist Party’s oppression—will inevitably reverberate throughout the global economy.”
Such far-reaching claims add a sense of drama and high stakes to the book, but they have a wobbly basis in fact. What is more, Hong Fincher’s account of the women’s stories is embedded in an overly simplified portrait of contemporary China. Although the book gives voice to the justified outrage the crackdown provoked in many observers, it is important to look closely at how Hong Fincher’s tale is constructed and how her picture of China sometimes deviates from reality and from conventional scholarship on the country.
In what seems like a gesture of solidarity, Hong Fincher borrowed the deliciously provocative phrase “betraying big brother” from Wei Tingting, one of the Feminist Five, and made it the book’s title. Hong Fincher’s use of the term suggests that Wei intended it as an expression of defiance against China’s party-state. But that is not how Wei meant it. In Prison Notes, a blog Wei published in 2015, in which she wrote about her experience of being jailed, she recalled discretely masturbating in her cell while guards tromped by outside—an act she describes as allowing her to take “joy in betraying big brother.” In repurposing that phrase, Hong Fincher conflates a relatively low-risk, private expression of individual autonomy with far more dangerous acts of public dissent. By suggesting that the women were opposed to the state, the book’s title could jeopardize their future work and even their safety. In a private conversation with one of the authors of this review (Wang), Wei confided that she felt uncomfortable with the title and was considering asking Hong Fincher to change it.
This sort of distortion extends beyond the book’s title. Throughout, Hong Fincher inaccurately elevates the Feminist Five’s protest against sexual harassment and sexism to a direct and open challenge to the Chinese state. But the notion of Chinese women collectively and openly challenging the state—either today or in the long history of women’s movements in China—lies beyond the realm of political plausibility.
Today, as in the past, most Chinese feminists, including the Feminist Five, believe that their agenda is consistent with the Chinese Communist Party’s long-standing official policy and the Chinese constitution’s guarantee of “equal rights for men and women.” The Feminist Five’s activism aimed to turn that goal into reality, but it never escalated into an attempt to contest the legitimacy of party rule. Rejecting strategies such as the protests and demonstrations used by Western feminists, they chose the mild tactics of performance art to express their ideas. They seldom directly critiqued government policies; instead, they submitted proposals to China’s legislature, advocated a new law on protecting women, and skillfully referred to China’s ratification of international agreements, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. They deliberately chose topics, such as domestic violence, on which their positions were in the line with national policy. If there is a betrayal involved in this story, it is one committed by the Chinese Communist Party, which cracked down on young feminists who were only trying to advance its official agenda.
As Hong Fincher describes it, the basic story of her book is a “conflict between the patriarchal, authoritarian state and ordinary women who are increasingly fed up with the sexism in their daily lives”—a conflict pitting good feminists against a bad party-state (which she generally reduces to “the government”). Although this narrative offers a sense of moral clarity, it requires limiting the cast to two main actors (feminist activists and the state), flattening out both in the process, and omitting other relevant actors: corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and communities such as villages and neighborhoods.
In this way, the book’s plot recalls classic tropes of the Cold War: a cruel, power-hungry communist party-state, unwilling to brook any popular challenge to its authority, oppresses its people and provokes heroic resistance. There is an undeniable element of truth to such stories today, as the harsh authoritarian regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping cracks down on dissidents and rights advocates of all sorts. In Xi’s China, the invisible line that separates what is permissible from what is impermissible is moving; with every new arrest, the party-state seems to shift it. The Feminist Five believed that their activities fell on one side of the line. For reasons that are hard to know for certain, the state security apparatus concluded otherwise.
The notion of Chinese women collectively and openly challenging the state—either today or in the long history of women’s movements in China—lies beyond the realm of political plausibility.
The trouble with accounts of this kind, including Hong Fincher’s, is that they tend lionize their subjects and rob them of their distinctive personalities. By framing the women only as courageous, heroic activists, Hong Fincher’s book obscures more complex feelings of frustration, conflict, and uncertainty that also motivated their actions. By hanging her story on a great divide between the state and society, the author also ignores ways in which the two are mutually constituted. These young women do not position themselves outside of and in opposition to the state. Instead, their ideas, their dreams, their fears—their very identities—have been heavily influenced since childhood by the politics and practices of the party-state.
One cost of ignoring this dynamic is that Hong Fincher struggles to convincingly explain why her subjects turned to gender-based activism in the first place and came to identify as “feminists”—a label that was, until recently, distinctly unpopular in China. She finds the answer in victimization. According to her, the women’s early childhood experiences of being mistreated and physically abused set them on a path to feminist advocacy. That was the case for one of the five, Li Tingting (who also goes by the name Li Maizi), and Hong Fincher implies that Li’s experience was typical. Yet many of China’s young feminists, including some featured in the book, were not abused in their youth—far from it: they were treasured as only daughters. And Hong Fincher’s analysis sits uneasily with the findings of other specialists on Chinese feminism. For example, one of the authors of this review (Wang) has conducted extensive interviews with more than 20 victims of domestic violence in China, many of whom had also endured childhood abuse. These women tended to normalize the abuse, trivializing their suffering by seeing it as simply their fate. Neither their childhood trauma nor the domestic violence they suffered as adults made them more likely to become feminists.
Rather than looking for clues in her subjects’ childhoods to understand why they rose up, Hong Fincher would have done better to attend to the historical context in which they came of age and flesh out the larger forces that shaped their lives. Most of today’s young female activists were born in the 1980s. As the first generation born under China’s one-child policy, they were the precious daughters of their families, and they reaped the rewards of huge investments made by the state and by Chinese professionals seeking to create a cohort of healthy, well-educated, sophisticated young people to lead China to prosperity and power. They benefited from a massive expansion of the educational system and typically excelled at top universities; quite a few went abroad for advanced degrees. Many gained a feminist consciousness by taking courses in gender and feminist studies or by joining projects organized by women’s rights organizations. Eyes opened, it became difficult to tolerate the pervasive discrimination and the glass ceiling they encountered in the workplace. Rather than accept a life of disappointment, they rejected the plans their parents and teachers had for them—landing a good job, finding a good husband, and becoming mothers—as too limited. They chose instead to take the risky step of making their voices heard. They were aided in no small part by the rapid expansion of the Internet and the rise of social media. By skillfully documenting their activities and spreading their messages via social media, they were able to closely coordinate their actions in different major cities, multiplying their impact.
Hong Fincher also relies on an essentially psychological explanation to account for the party-state’s reaction to the feminist challenge. She portrays this highly complex, internally differentiated institution as a monolith populated by male leaders whose emotions (primarily fear) led them to crack down on the activists. “The Chinese government . . . reduces women to their roles as dutiful wives, mothers and baby breeders in the home, in order to minimize social unrest,” she writes, adding later that “China’s all-male rulers have decided that the systematic subjugation of women is essential to maintaining Communist Party survival.”
A worldwide feminist uprising against the forces of patriarchy may sound like an admirable goal, but it relies on assumptions that have little merit: that sexism and misogyny take similar forms everywhere, for example, or that women everywhere face common obstacles.
Gender subordination is indeed a fundamental aspect of Chinese governance; however, many actors within the system don’t seem to be aware of it. That includes those in power and most male elites and intellectuals, who seem to believe that gender equality was achieved long ago. A more satisfying analysis than Hong Fincher’s would begin by acknowledging the centrality of what Chinese intellectuals starting in the late nineteenth century referred to as “the woman question” in China’s political history, and would then examine the many laws, policies, and programs that the state has enacted over the years to advance women’s rights and gender equality. Recent laws run the gamut, from the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests (1992), to the Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care (1994), to the Anti–Domestic Violence Law (2016). These statutes have many flaws, including limited enforcement, but at least they put worthy goals on the books.
Hong Fincher also fails to recognize the internal diversity and contradictions of a state made up of multiple bureaucracies, some of which push for women’s social, economic, and political advancement, and others that push against it. She focuses on parts of the state that have brutally harmed women, primarily the security forces and the birth-planning apparatus. She is right to fault the abuses of such forces, which in the latter case include the forcible imposition of often unwanted birth-control measures, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. But Hong Fincher casts even positive steps these state agencies have taken in a negative light. For example, she notes that the Birth Planning Association has gathered nationwide statistics on sexual harassment but dismisses the effort because the association is “nongovernmental.” In fact, it is a party-led organization, and its efforts show that some parts of the party-state are actively seeking to assess and address the problem of sexual harassment and promote women’s status and well-being.
Perhaps the best way to understand Betraying Big Brother is as a political tract, a feminist call to arms for women everywhere to join together to fight the patriarchy. This comes through most clearly in the many instances when Hong Fincher claims “sisterhood” with the book’s subjects, women whose life experiences are profoundly different from her own. In a related misstep, she sometimes treats the category “Chinese women” as undifferentiated, as though all women living in China were of a kind. Although she acknowledges that the young, college-educated women she profiles are a privileged group, she nonetheless uses their experiences to stand in for those of “all Chinese women” or even “all women.” This neglects a fundamental insight of feminist thought: that women’s identities are multiple and overlapping and that such intersectionality can produce meaningful divisions based on race, ethnicity, class, age, and sexual orientation, among others. Women often form political alliances across such divisions, but the multiplicity of their identities must be recognized, and individuals must be allowed to define and articulate their own identities.
In China, the term “feminism,” once a battle cry, has become a pejorative.
Of course, shared experiences and a common purpose can serve to justify collective action. Without such claims, there would be little basis for joint action. But although a worldwide feminist uprising against the forces of patriarchy may sound like an admirable goal, it relies on assumptions that have little merit: that sexism and misogyny take similar forms everywhere, for example, or that women everywhere face common obstacles. That is why most Western feminists gave up on the idea of a global struggle decades ago.
What, then, are the prospects for the fight for gender equality in China? The state’s crackdown on the Feminist Five deepened the divides between overtly state-aligned feminists (such as those affiliated with the All-China Women’s Federation), gender-studies scholars, and younger feminists. Some senior gender experts have blamed the Feminist Five for making their work more difficult, as the topic of women’s rights has become politically sensitive and less legitimate since 2015. Gender studies, especially sociological work on current issues, has been further marginalized; the top journal on women’s and gender studies now prioritizes articles on historical issues and cultural critiques rather than discussions of contemporary affairs. The women’s federation, for its part, has turned its focus to “family values,” emphasizing women’s roles as mothers, wives, and daughters—a far cry from the egalitarian Mao-era slogans, such as “Women hold up half the sky.”
In the meantime, on some measures, the situation facing China’s women (not to mention people of nonnormative genders and sexualities) has become grimmer. On the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, China fell from 63rd out of 115 countries in 2006 to 103rd out of 149 countries in 2018. The term “feminism,” once a battle cry, has become a pejorative. The Chinese mass media depict feminists as the most undesirable women in society, and feminist writings are routinely attacked and censored online. In this climate, feminist scholars and activists have little choice but to bide their time, strategically deploying safer terms—“gender perspective,” “gender equality,” “gender mainstreaming”—to advance the cause until the political environment changes and feminism (or something similar) becomes a politically safe and supported project again.