Wang Zheng on Feminism in China

Wang Zheng is professor of Women’s Studies and History and Research Scientist of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan. She is the author or editor of Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories, From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society, Translating Feminisms in China, and Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era. Her recently published book is entitled Finding Women in the State: A Socialist Feminist Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1964 (UC Press, 2017).

A long-term academic activist promoting gender studies in China, she is the founder and co-director of the UM-Fudan Joint Institute for Gender Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai. She has also authored two books and co-edited nine volumes on feminism and gender studies in Chinese. She interviewed with Tiana Steverson Pugh CMC '19 on November 24, 2017.

The online work of Chinese feminist groups like the New Media Women’s Network and the “Feminist Five,” which consisted of the five activists detained in 2015 for attempting to put anti-harassment stickers on public transportation, has received extensive attention among Chinese youth. What is the significance of this interest among young Chinese people and how are Chinese feminists working to harness this attention?

The increasing interest in feminism among young women is mainly due to three factors. One is the single-child policy. Many families only had one daughter because of the one-child policy, so parents and grandparents in these single-child families tried their best to send their daughter to college. This coincided with the second factor, expansion of higher education and the rapid growth of the middle class in the reform era. For the first time in history, China witnessed the largest number of Chinese women who got the opportunity to attend college. Historically, only men had the opportunity to receive a formal education. The purpose of formal education was so that the emperor could select officials from the educated elite men. Chinese women did not receive formal education for at least about 1,000 years. Of course, there were women from elite families who received a private education, but percentage-wise it was very small. In 1949, 90% of Chinese women were illiterate. Starting from 2012, however, the percentage of Chinese women in college exceeded 50%. In college, women started to shape their sense of identities and open their intellectual horizons. They also started to have different ideas from what society or their family expected them to do.

Parallel to the development of the market economy and increase in educational opportunities, there was a backlash against socialist period gender equality practices and ideologies (the third factor). Hegemonic sexist ideologies and norms rapidly developed in Chinese society. These parallel socio-economic developments are inherently contradictory and engender antagonism.

You can imagine a single daughter who was treated as a princess from day one, had high expectations of herself, enjoyed two generations of family resources, received an excellent education and performed superbly throughout her school career, but then encounters blatant gender discrimination when she graduates. A lot of places openly put out signs that say “only men” wanted. These women then realized that “gosh, this world is dominated by men. I can’t do whatever I want to do.” For some, the idea that if they studied hard they could achieve their dreams was dispelled even before they graduated. In the past decade, different universities started to demand higher scores from female students who wanted to enter the college or enter certain departments. Sexual harassment also became very widespread in colleges during this time. In the larger society, things like advertisements, TV, popular music, etc. try to tell women that to be a real woman, you should be content with being a good wife and mother and put your husband’s career development before yours. That kind of rhetoric and ideology became dominant and bright female students, understandably, got very frustrated. That is the social base for the rapid growth of feminism in China.

Another parallel development was the Internet. The circulation of ideas and events has become very effective, benefiting the resource-poor young women. All these different factors made feminism look very attractive to two different cohorts of young women over the past 30 years. For the contemporary feminist movement, there is really no mastermind or something like the Republican or Democratic Party. The movement is very close to a participatory democracy. It is made up of the young women who encountered social injustice and gender discrimination, read feminist literature, raised their consciousness and decided to get together to do something. Its activities are very diverse, with different groups of young women and young men pursuing different interests. Their actions may not be grand, but they believe that what they are doing is contributing to the transformation of a patriarchal society.

The Chinese government appeared to be caught off-guard by the outpouring of support for the “Feminist Five.” What effect will this event have on the government’s approach to future feminist activism it views as unwelcome or even threatening?

The government is not monolithic, so there are many contradictions within the system. Not all the branches of the government work in synch and their tasks are different, which often puts them in different political positions. Oftentimes, the branch of public security will do something that the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) hates. For example, the ACWF’s leading bodies were very incensed about the detention of the Feminists Five. The security system’s priority is to contain or destroy NGOs, regardless of whether they’re feminist or not. That’s been the story since 2005. When the fourth UN Conference on Women took place in Beijing in 1995, in order to host the conference, the Chinese government had to compromise with global feminists and agreed to a parallel NGO Forum. The previous UN women’s conferences all had this NGO Forum, so of course the fourth one had to have one. The Chinese government did not realize this, but they compromised and allowed development of women’s NGOs around 1995 to prepare for that conference. In the following decade, Chinese women’s NGOs developed rapidly, followed by other NGOs groups working on all kinds of different issues. However, the blooming of NGOs scared the political officials who wanted to maintain control.

The policy of containing and controlling NGOs is not just a public security policy, it is a central government policy. However, not all the officials were against NGOs. The ACWF had a good relationship and collaborated with feminists NGOs in the decade following the Fourth UN Women’s Conference. Before 2005, the public security branch seemed to leave women’s organizations alone because gender equality is a socialist legacy. In official discourse, gender equality is always legitimate, even when officials make sexist remarks publicly. So you have this discursive legitimacy even today, but at the same time if you want to organize outside of the ACWF on behalf of women’s interests, you will most likely get in trouble. The main issue is the NGO. Regardless of what kind of activity you are doing or whether you are organizing to implement the state policy of gender equality, you are not supposed to organize on your own. In this sense, the state is not singling out feminist activists; there is an overall policy against NGOs. The state fears that a large influential organization will come into existence and become a rival of the Communist Party.

Faculty members at universities in Guangzhou have played an active role in sustaining New Media Women’s Network and organizing public lectures, exhibitions, and online discussions. How do these scholars navigate the challenges of wanting to effect change while also having to work within the political boundary set by the state?

Universities and faculty have not been given special attention by the authorities for a long time, but in recent years that has changed. Faculty members in universities in Guangzhou are now targeted because Guangzhou has become a sensitive location. China is so huge, different provinces not only have different socio-economic development, but their threat to the security of the state varies in the eyes of the state. Previously, Guangzhou was a haven for social activism with rapidly developing NGOs. However, the “Umbrella Revolution” protest in Hong Kong in 2014 changed the relationship between Hong Kong and the central government and made Hong Kong a highly sensitive area. Now, the adjacent region, Guangzhou, has also become a sensitive area because there was a lot of communication between NGOs in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. After the Umbrella Revolution, the government tried to sever these kinds of interactions and it tightened political control of Guangzhou. In this context, feminist activism in Guangzhou looks suspicious. The things that feminists in academia can do in other universities in other locations cannot be done in Guangzhou. In the decade following 1995, feminist faculty members in Guangzhou, particularly at Zhongshan University, were at the center of feminist activism. But now, the situation has changed because of the larger political context, not just because of feminism. Liberal universities like Zhongshan University have become politically conservative. The larger point is that the political situation is location specific. It’s not like that all over China.

Young Feminist Activism, a loose coalition of feminists from around China, uses performance art as a form of protest. One widely publicized performance was the donning of bloody wedding gowns to protest domestic violence. Why have younger feminists adopted this highly visible form of activism over the more behind-the-scenes activism employed by feminists during the 1980s?

The different social positions of the different cohorts determined their strategies. The feminists who were active around 1995 largely received their education or entered their careers in the socialist period. They were the beneficiaries of gender equality policies of the socialist period. By 1995, feminists activist were mostly academics or career women working in government branches, especially in the ACWF. They were inside the official system, so they had institutional resources. Because of ageism and sexism, however, very few of the college-educated women in the younger feminist cohort could get a position inside the official system. Also, they were born in the age of privatization and market economy, so many of them did not have the mindset that they had to work inside the official system. When you are situated as someone with power in the government system, of course you will not need to go out into the street to protest. You will adopt tactful strategies behind the scenes to utilize your social resources and network to reach your goal. Women who have no power, no social resources, but want to express their views and affect change have the internet. They will go into a public space to catch the public’s eyes, have their picture taken and put it online. Visibility is what the younger feminist cohort pursued because they had no other way of affecting public opinion. It is the exact opposite of the previous cohort’s strategy. The previous cohort did not want to be visible. The most effective method for them was to work behind the scenes, deploy their personal ties and pass policies, like the anti-domestic violence law in 2015.

In the anthology “Women’s Movements in the Global Era,” you argue that one aspect that differentiates the current cohort of feminists from previous ones is their rejection of “heterosexual normativity.” Could you explain the significance of this rejection?

Compulsory heterosexuality and heterosexual normativity are critical feminist concepts examining the relationship between sexuality and male dominance. The rise of sexist ideology in China in the past three decades has paralleled the consolidation of heterosexual normativity in the service of maintaining patriarchal social order. More concretely, a saying such as “all the young women have to marry men, that’s the normal way otherwise you’re not feminine or normal,” is taken as the universal law. That ideology has become quite repressive to a lot of young women, especially to lesbians. The gender system that regulates what is feminine and masculine and the system of homophobia all work toward maintaining patriarchal power and masculinist cultural norms. Sexual minorities were attracted to feminism often because of the feminist critique of compulsory heterosexuality. Among the young generation, quite a lot of lesbians have become very active in the feminist movement. Some heterosexual women are afraid of coming out as feminists because they don’t want to antagonize potential male dates. But lesbian young women do not have this fear, and they do not have to please men in order to enter a heterosexual marriage. Among the brave young feminists, some are LGBT activists. In other words, for the young feminists challenging heterosexual normativity is their conscious feminist practice, while feminists of the older cohort rarely address the issue.

Young Chinese feminists rely heavily on social media and apps like WeChat to organize and make their voices heard. How are they working to continue their efforts in the face of tightening online restrictions?

The strategy of putting on actions in the public space and posting pictures of such actions online was derailed by the detention of the Feminist Five in 2015. Up to that point, young feminist activists believed that they could affect public opinion by doing performance actions in public spaces. Seeking visibility was their major strategy. However, after the detention, the political scene changed drastically. After 2015, young activists had to go through a period of reflection to adjust to the new political scene because the stage they were used to was no longer there. On WeChat, for example, anytime you try to post an article, it may be deleted by the police in the next hour. Social space for activism in general has been reduced drastically. Feminist activists now have to explore new methods and channels, design new projects and not expose themselves to the police. They strove for visibility before, but now, as soon as you become visible, you attract the police’s attention. Organizing now requires intelligence, creativity and sensitivity to the rapidly changing political atmosphere. It’s challenging, but it’s also an opportunity for these young activists to grow more mature and understand better the political system in China. Before, a lot of young feminists did not pay close attention to how the official system operated, but because of the frustration in recent years, now a lot of young feminists are deeply immersed in learning about Chinese society and the political system.

Tiana Steverson Pugh CMC '19Student Journalist

Featured Image by 猫猫的日记本 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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