On March 8, 2015—International Women’s Day—the world watched in awe as millions of people took to the streets to protest a global history of women’s rights suppression. On the very same day, as Xi Jinping, leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), prepared to co-host the United Nations summit on women’s rights, the authorities of his government arrested and detained five prominent members of China’s feminist movement: Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, and Li Maizi.
Their arrest sparked a wave of backlash from protesters in the United States, the UK, Hong Kong, South Korea, India, Poland, and Australia. But to the surprise of those in power in Beijing, there was protest in China as well. In her new book Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, Leta Hong Fincher explains why this reaction was born and what it says about feminism in China today. Fincher’s book details the stories of the “Feminist Five” as well as the stories of Chinese feminists from all walks of life as they revolt against their authoritarian government. Fincher describes the patriarchal foundation of the PRC’s communism, and how the modern feminist movement in convergence with the Internet is shaking that foundation. Her book is devastatingly informative about the reality of being a woman in China—and convincingly demonstrates that you cannot be pro-life, pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ+, or pro-woman while claiming to be pro-communism.
One of the most attractive principles of the Chinese communist movement, going back to its emergence in the early twentieth century, was equality of the sexes. One of the first female leaders to emerge in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was Wang Huiwu. When the CCP was officially formed in 1921, the 23-year-old Wang was elected to create the Party’s independent women’s group, which eventually created the Shanghai Pingmin Girls’ School. Wang was solely responsible for designing the curriculum, hiring the faculty, running day-to-day operations, and recruiting new students to the CCP. Despite this, she was never admitted as an official party member. This became a consistent pattern through the growth of the CCP and its accession to power in 1949. Communist women, though key in the party’s success, were never given leadership roles.
In fact, the rhetoric of women’s empowerment was used cynically to pursue the party’s own political and economic goals. Amidst propaganda emblazoned with images of the “iron woman” during China’s Great Leap Forward, working women were required both to work and to perform all domestic chores, leaving many babies and children hungry and unattended to. In the phrasing of Lydia H. Liu, author of The Birth of Chinese Feminism, under Mao-era communism “women’s liberation [meant] little more than equal opportunity to participate in public labor.”
While this sort of “equality” was pushed by the CCP from the 1950s to the 70s, the party line changed when China turned towards economic reform. The reforms of the 80s and 90s spurred the “Women Return to the Home” (nüren hui jia) movement. As the CCP dissolved China’s planned economy, it encouraged state-owned enterprises to fire employees, the majority being women. Gender discrimination in hiring was promoted as a form of compliance with the movement, with some women forced to undergo gynecological exams to determine employment eligibility. Other women were forced into early retirement. By 1990, it was common for female employees to make only 77.5 percent of their male counterparts’ salaries (a number which had dropped to 67.3 percent by 2010).
The CCP continues to develop policy without regard for women’s welfare, often flipping the script on what it means to be an upstanding woman in a communist society. For example, China’s infamous One Child Policy left the country at a population deficit. In a country which once denied them the freedom to have children, Han Chinese women today are coerced into returning to the home to raise and replace the next generation of workers. Young women are the subject to propaganda campaigns meant to stigmatize single women in their twenties. Women who are single, uneducated, or part of minority groups, however, are discouraged from having children entirely. On either side of Chinese policy, women are made the responsible party for successful enactment of whatever goal the CCP is currently pursuing, with no say in whether or not this goal is to their benefit.
This long history of PRC misogyny created the underground feminist movement we see today. Leta Hong Fincher encountered this movement directly while pursuing her doctorate in sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing. During her time in China, Fincher was able to meet and connect with Li Maizi, one of the Feminist Five. In the years that followed their meeting, Fincher met with and gathered the testimonies of leaders in China’s feminist movement: Huan Yizhi, the feminist lawyer who won China’s first gender discrimination lawsuit; Xiao Meili, a well-known activist who walked 2,000 kilometers across China to raise awareness of sexual assault; Lu Pin, founder of Feminist Voices, China’s most influential feminist publication; all of the famous Feminist Five; and many others. Their testimonies detail stories of terror and surveillance. The Five were detained for 37 days, starved, interrogated, and denied essential medication. After release, they were watched and further interrogated. Several suffered from PTSD. Others’ stories tell of similar abuse and trauma.
With methods including performance art, online publishing, and legal action, activists are succeeding step by step in creating a better existence and a louder voice for women in China. In 2016, China passed its first anti-domestic violence law. Two years later, the country has yet to implement any of their anti-domestic violence promises. Activists today are working to end the cycle of false promises for show.
Their cry for a better quality of life has not only garnered the hostility of the powers that be but has had an impact on popular opinion at large. With new methods of communication and new feminist icons to admire, women in China are refusing to get married, are pursuing education, and are fighting back against their government now more than ever. Lu Pin, author of Feminist Voices, believes the journey ahead for feminists in China is a long one. “We must out-survive our enemies,” she says.
Betraying Big Brother is both enlightening and harrowing, but it also provides cause for hope. Despite their hardships, each of the women Hong Fincher profiles has a narrative of perseverance. Their sufferings, though terrible, have lit a fury that continues to baffle the PRC’s best propaganda efforts.