Review Essay

China’s Feminist Fight

#MeToo in the Middle Kingdom

In This Review

Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China
Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China
By Leta Hong Fincher
Verso, 2018, 240 pp. Purchase

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

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