Leta Hong Fincher on the Feminist Movement in China and its Future

Leta Hong Fincher has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, Dissent Magazine, Ms. Magazine, BBC, CNN and others. She won the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award for her China reporting. Fluent in Mandarin, Leta is the first American to receive a Ph.D. from Tsinghua University's Department of Sociology in Beijing. She has a master's degree from Stanford University and a bachelor's degree with high honors from Harvard University. Leta's first book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014), was named one of the top 5 China books of 2014 by the Asia Society’s ChinaFile, one of the best foreign policy books in 2014 by FP Interrupted and one of the best Asian books of 2014 by Asia House. Leta also recently published Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (2018). Through interviews with the Feminist Five and other leading Chinese activists, Hong Fincher illuminates both the difficulties they face and their “joy of betraying Big Brother,” as one of the Feminist Five wrote of the defiance she felt during her detention. Tracing the rise of a new feminist consciousness now finding expression through the #MeToo movement, and describing how the Chinese government has suppressed the history of its own feminist struggles, Betraying Big Brother is a story of how the movement against patriarchy could reconfigure China and the world. Named by the Telegraph as an "awesome woman to follow on Twitter," Leta was a Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor at Columbia University and recently moved to New York.

Claudia Chandra interviewed Dr. Fincher on Nov 5, 2018.

How is China’s version of feminism different to that of Western nations?

China’s feminist movement is extremely different from social movements in developed democracies because China is a dictatorship with no freedom of the press, no internet freedom or freedom of assembly, and there is effectively no rule of law. It is a very hostile environment for any social movement. Since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, any kind of organizing which appears to be gaining traction has been viewed as a potential political threat by the Communist Party. So the feminist movement in China today is remarkable, in part, simply because it is still surviving against all odds. This is something that may not be easy for people outside of China to understand. Since 2015, when the Feminist Five were jailed, the Chinese government has been carrying out a very intense crackdown on feminist activism, but in spite of this, the feminist movement has actually grown instead of being wiped out.

In your book you explained the difference between the top-down feminist movement, or the CCP’s “movement of women” (yundong funü), and the bottom-up “women’s movement” (funü yundong). Can you clarify the distinction between these movements and how they co-exist in China today?

That was a quote from Feng Yuan, a very well-known women’s rights scholar in China. According to Feng Yuan, there is a difference between ‘yundong funü,’ which I translated as mobilizing women from the top, and ‘funü yundong,’ which is a movement by women from below. From reading about the history of women in the Communist Party, I found it quite striking how (and it is not just during the Communist Revolution but also at the turn of the century with the fall of the Qing dynasty) feminism has played such an important role in Chinese revolutionary history. In the past, various revolutions have used feminism or gender equality partly as a rallying cry to attract women into a revolutionary movement. In that sense it was also the same with the communist revolution; one of Mao’s most famous sayings is, of course, ‘women hold up half the sky.’ The communist revolutionaries used feminism to recruit women into their party in the early 1920s. Later, when the People’s Republic was founded, gender equality was written into the Constitution. The new communist government used the rhetoric of gender equality very heavily in its propaganda to mobilize and assign women jobs in the workforce, both in cities and the countryside. China has had a complex history of feminism, but there has not really been an independent women’s movement in the country since before 1949. And that is what Feng Yuan means when she talks about mobilizing women from above as opposed to women organizing on their own, organically and independent of the Communist Party. This is what we are seeing today: independent women who are not working with the Communist Party and are advocating for women’s rights.

This movement is seen as a threat by the Communist Party even though the government officially upholds gender equality. The Chinese government is officially in favour of equality for women and against sexual harassment, yet it alone must be in charge of organizing everything, not the women on the ground. It is fundamentally all about the survival of the Communist Party. The party leaders are always grappling with the question of how to stay in power amid perceived threats and that is why they are so paranoid about any social movements. So whenever young women take the initiative to organize and call for gender equality, that is viewed as a threat. Similarly, recently there has been a huge crackdown on labour rights activists, some of whom are also feminist activists. A lot of these labour rights activists who have been detained call themselves Marxists and even quote Xi and Mao. Yet the Chinese government still sees them as a threat, as is anyone who organizes independently of the Communist Party.


There is a bit of overlap between the ‘top-down’ initiatives from the government and ‘bottom-up’ movements in China, insofar as the government nominally still supports the goal of gender equality. Within the Communist Party there is the All-China Women’s Federation that was set up to promote women’s rights and interests. And there are some members of the Women’s Federation who unofficially are supportive of these young feminist activists but cannot say so publicly. But by and large, the Women’s Federation has been an agency designed to control women rather than protect their rights.

From the story of China’s Feminist Five and their treatment by the government, it is clear that the current Chinese government is acting to restrict Western feminism from spreading in China. How successful have their efforts to control rising feminism been?

First of all, you have to look at the language. The Chinese government is trying to make the term ‘feminism’ itself politically sensitive and troublesome. They label it ‘Western feminism’ and then they depict that as a force coming from the outside that has nothing to do with China and is a threat to China’s own management of women’s affairs. But this feminist movement is not organized by outsiders. It’s organized by young Chinese women in China. There is a long history of the term feminism (Nǚquán zhǔyì) from the early communist era. Although it had embraced feminism very early on, the Communist Party changed its tune on feminism in the late 1920s. They said feminism was ‘bourgeois’ and the party marginalized all the feminists among them. So, there is also a long history of stigmatizing the term ‘feminism’. However, the party is now using this new language of ‘Western feminism’ to intensify the rhetoric against it. And the government is using the idea that feminism is not a concept which is natural in China, saying that ‘Western feminism’ is hostile to China. The government often uses this kind of language to harass and intimidate women’s rights activists. For example, when the Feminist Five were detained they were interrogated constantly and would hear the lines “you’re a spy, you’re being used as a tool by hostile foreign forces.” There are many other young Chinese activists who have been detained or questioned for their activism in the last few years, who have also been accused of being ‘tools of hostile foreign forces’.

The government’s efforts to contain the spread of feminism have been largely unsuccessful so far, but this depends on how you look at it. For instance, I know that there are reports saying Me Too has been slow to take off in China, but I think it is actually extraordinary how widespread the movement is in China given how hostile the political environment is now. So, yes, the government has been trying to wipe out the feminist movement ever since it jailed the Feminist Five in March 2015, but it has failed thus far. Because the feminist movement still exists and the Me Too movement has spread throughout China’s cities. If you look at it from another perspective, however, China’s internet censorship is incredibly intense and the most influential feminist social media platform Feminist Voices was banned in March. That was a heavy blow to the feminist movement but, despite that blow, it continues. This is why I would say the efforts from the authorities, so far, have failed. That doesn’t mean they won’t succeed in the future, but this movement is very popular and will be hard for the government to control. 

To what extent is the ‘bottom-up’ feminist movement in China limited by traditional views and values (e.g. sexism and the belief in the virgin complex, or chunü qingjie)?

A lot of older Chinese will say that feminism is contrary to Chinese culture. The young people won’t necessarily agree with them. I mean, what is culture? It is constantly changing. Feminism and the idea that women are equal to men are certainly not concepts that are part of Confucianism, which has long dominated governance in China. However, if you just look at the early communist era, the Communist Party actually declared war on traditional Chinese culture. Now, the party finds it more convenient to revive the idea of traditional Chinese culture and says all Chinese should adhere to these traditions, which dictate that women should be subservient to men. These messages are effectively what the propaganda is pushing these days. If you look at the People’s Daily and Xinhua News, they are constantly talking about how women should behave according to certain traditional ideals. They are reviving the Confucian ideals of so called ‘womanly virtues,’ such as the notion that a woman’s place is in the home and that her natural position in society is to be a dutiful wife and mother. The Communist Party’s position today is that there is a monolithic Chinese culture and that women, according to tradition, should play their proper roles. I think that this push is coming very much from the Chinese government. In the last couple of years China ended its one child policy, officially adopted a two-child policy, and has completely changed its propaganda on babies. It now says women should marry and have two babies whereas for over 35 years it was telling women that having one child was glorious. The whole notion that feminism is alien to Chinese culture is not something that I agree with.

Your book highlighted how large corporations, and even celebrities (like SK-II and Li Yuchun), are starting to recognize the commercial power of apolitical feminism and using this as a marketing strategy. Do you think this is likely to impact how Chinese women view feminism? If so, in what ways? 

Yes, feminism already has affected the mainstream and ordinary Chinese women. I would say most Chinese women do not call themselves feminists outright. They would recoil from that term in part because the Chinese government has stigmatized it and made it politically sensitive. But if you put the term aside and look at the behavior, young urban middle-class and working-class women increasingly want more rights for themselves. They want the right to make their own decisions about their bodies and their lives. They want to be able to work or study without being sexually harassed. They want more freedom to make their own choices and do not want to be only docile wives and mothers, which is what the Chinese government now wants them to be.

So, it is the other way around. Some corporations have picked up on this growing awareness among young women and are trying to capitalize on it. It is not the commercial marketing that’s going to change women but the other way around. The celebrities and companies that use the idea of women’s empowerment in their branding, those are the messages that resonate with young women. More and more young women, even if they don’t call themselves feminists, are becoming aware of the need for equality. They want to be treated equally and be given the same opportunities as men. Some corporations have picked up on this and are already using it more in their marketing because they see that it can be a successful strategy. And this is because a growing number of women identify with these ideas. They can have careers and independent lives and these are all good things.

What is the social impact of shaming women in their late-20s and dubbing them Leftover women?

Young women are generally turned off by the government’s propaganda that pushes these traditional gender norms. And a lot of the propaganda is outright ridiculous and not working with most young women. However, I do think the propaganda is still very effective among older Chinese people. So, it can influence parents, grandparents, and older relatives, and then it is these older relatives who put pressure on the young women to marry and have children. And it is this pressure, the direct pressure from their own families, that is what most young women feel.

What is the impact of dubbing women as ‘leftover’? The impact is what you see happening right now: this confrontation that I write about between the Chinese government, which is trying to push young, particularly educated Han Chinese women, into these roles of marrying early and having two babies, and the women who are increasingly saying no. It is the stated goal to get women to have more babies but it is not working and birth rates fell last year in spite of the new population policy. There is also a strong element of eugenics in China’s population planning and, so, the pressure to have babies is aimed solely at the Han Chinese. It is the complete opposite with ethnic minority women in China. The government wants Uyghur women to have fewer babies and it is all part of their population engineering.

In light of growing political repression under the current Chinese government, what is the future of the feminist movement in China?  Will feminism become a political force?

I would argue feminism is already a political force in China but that depends on how you define political force. It is already influencing the Chinese government, which has been put in a position where it needs to respond to some of the demands of Chinese women. This is simply because these demands are so widespread. For example, if you look at the Me Too movement, there were thousands of university students at dozens of universities across China demanding that their universities take sexual harassment seriously. In response, the government has actually announced that it will work on a new civil code on sexual harassment. The Minister of Education also said it will set up new nationwide regulations for handling accusations of sexual harassment and assault on university campuses.

As we have seen, the authorities are already responding to the demands of young women. However, the government continues to persecute individual activists and I believe the crackdown on women’s rights activists is likely to intensify in the future. Nevertheless, the feminist movement has survived and even grown, which is quite extraordinary. But we know that China is the world’s most powerful authoritarian regime and it can be brutal. I cannot predict the eventual outcome but what I can say is that this is an incredibly dynamic movement that will be very hard for the government to extinguish.



Claudia Chandra CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image by Kanegen [Public domain], via Flickr.

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