Feminism in an Authoritarian State: Inside China’s Clash with #MeToo

By Christina Lu

Xi Jinping's face looms large over women protesting.

On March 6, 2015—two days before International Women’s Day—five young Chinese women were confronted separately by police, arrested, and later imprisoned in a Beijing detention center.[i] For 37 excruciating days, they were interrogated and disparaged by authorities, not knowing if they were facing criminal charges or if they would ever be allowed to return home.[iii]

Their crime?

According to officials, the women—now known as the Feminist Five—were being investigated for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” an offense punishable by five years in prison.[iv] In reality, the women were being penalized for circulating information about sexual harassment and domestic violence to commemorate International Women’s Day.[v] In raising awareness of gender equality, the Feminist Five—who officials quickly labeled “sp[ies] subverting state power”—had inadvertently challenged the Chinese Communist Party’s authority and status quo.[vi]

The CCP’s hostile reaction to the Feminist Five reflects a clash between current state goals and gender equality. Although Mao Zedong championed women as equals during the Cultural Revolution, as state interests evolved over time, so has China’s position on feminism—and women’s rights no longer align with the CCP’s mission. The CCP’s crackdown on feminist movements, like its arrest of the Feminist Five and censorship of the recent #MeToo movement, underscores an inherent contradiction between its political goals and the advancement of women. Xi Jinping suppresses feminist movements because they threaten his legitimacy and can unravel China’s delicate social fabric.[vii] But despite the government’s oppressive efforts, these movements have not given up. Their resilience suggests that social change may yet come.

Changing Perceptions of Women’s Rights

For decades, the Chinese government has manipulated societal norms—specifically, norms about the role of women—to achieve its political goals. In patriarchal Confucian-era China, leaders placed strict behavioral expectations on women in order to perpetuate a rigid social order.[viii] Since Confucius thought women were the inferior sex, marriage was seen as their “bondage,” and women—just “possessions for their husbands”—were valued only for their child-bearing ability.[ix][x] Prominent Confucianists like Yang Chen even went so far as to remark: “If women [were] given work that require[d] contact with the outside, they [would] sow disorder and confusion throughout the Empire.”[xi] To avoid provoking this “disorder,” women were confined to their homes and prized for their chastity.[xii]

In 1966, the government’s goals shifted with Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a decade-long period of social upheaval during which the state persecuted intellectuals with Western ties, purged officials from the former government, and assembled masses of students for the Red Guard.[xiii][xiv] To support this sweeping nationalist movement, Mao mobilized women, famously declaring: “Women hold up half the sky.”[xv] He later elaborated:

“In order to build a great socialist society, it is of the utmost importance to arouse the broad masses of women to join in productive activity. Men and women must receive equal pay for equal work in production. Genuine equality between the sexes can only be realized in the process of the socialist transformation of society as a whole.”[xvi]

In a stark divergence from Confucian times, Mao supported gender equality because it aligned with party goals: the advancement of the Cultural Revolution. As a result, during this period women were no longer seen as just women, but as comrades—on equal footing with, and bearing the same rights as, their male counterparts.[xvii] Together, women and men wore identical army uniforms, donned Red Guard army caps, and channeled the same revolutionary fervor for one purpose—promoting the CCP’s party line.[xviii]

Xi Takes Control: Conflicting Perceptions Surrounding #MeToo

Times have since changed. In contemporary China, the CCP favors a more traditional and docile view of women. This characterization helps legitimize the authority of Xi Jinping, whose carefully crafted cult of personality depends on conformity to traditional gender norms. Xi’s cult of personality depicts him as a Confucian patriarch who defends the nation like it is his own family.[xix] In Chinese propaganda, he is the strong and protective father, while his wife—Peng Liyuan, a former People’s Liberation Army singer—is the nurturing, supportive mother.[xx] Together they are the perfect couple: devoted, patriotic, and united in leading a strong China forward.[xxi]

The inherently defiant nature of feminist movements challenges this image of a perfect and traditional family, thereby jeopardizing the delicate social fabric that Xi has worked to construct.[xxii] In order to preserve this picture—and prevent the social unrest that could disrupt it—the CCP has stifled emerging feminist movements. In 2015, the CCP made international headlines after arresting the Feminist Five for disseminating information about sexual harassment—the state’s first public suppression of feminists since 1913.[xxiii][xxiv] News of the event quickly spread with the viral hashtag #FreeTheFive, right as Xi co-hosted a UN summit on women’s rights in New York.[xxv] As Xi declared the importance of promoting women’s rights, Li Maizi, one of the Feminist Five, was imprisoned and labeled a whore.[xxvi] Although the Five were later released, their arrest sent a chilling message to the Chinese public: under Xi’s regime, feminist activism can be criminal.[xxvii]

But even the threat of arrest could not slow the unstoppable tide of the #MeToo movement, which exploded on Chinese social media in 2018. The movement has been met with government backlash; in order to curb the campaign’s success, the CCP censored popular social media sites and disabled the #MeToo hashtag.[xxviii][xxix] In response, activists have grown creative: instead of using the hashtag of #MeToo, they use emoticons—a bowl of rice (mi) in place of “me,” and a rabbit (tu) in place of “too.””[xxx] China’s #MeToo movement is smaller than its western counterparts, but these strategies have given countless women the courage to go public with their stories—stories that would have otherwise been silenced.[xxxi]

The future of China’s #MeToo movement, however, is perhaps most dependent upon the result of one high-profile case: a lawsuit between Zhou Xiaoxuan, a 25-year-old screenwriter, and Zhu Jun, one of China’s most well-known news anchors. In 2018, right as #MeToo began taking root, Zhou published a now-viral essay on social media detailing how Zhu—"CCTV royalty”—forcibly kissed and groped her when she was an intern.[xxxii][xxxiii] When Zhou went to report the incident to police, the officers pushed her to drop her complaint.[xxxiv] Zhu was a “force for good” in society, they insisted, and pursuing the case could threaten her parents’ jobs.[xxxv] Zhou decided to remain silent.

It was #MeToo’s arrival to China that ultimately inspired her to share her experience with friends. Since posting her story online, Zhou has become a symbol of hope for Chinese feminists. She was also hit with a costly lawsuit: in response to her essay, Zhu Jun sued her for $95,000 for her “blatantly fabricated and viciously spread” accusation and his tarnished reputation.[xxxvi] Zhou fired back with a lawsuit of her own, citing damage to her own dignity.[xxxvii] But the potential consequences of losing this case are not lost on her. “My lawyer told me that if I lose my case, it’s possible that there won’t be anyone else to speak up,” she told reporters.[xxxviii]

While Zhou’s lawsuit draws the most public attention, other cases suggest that Chinese norms are gradually shifting in favor of #MeToo. In 2018, after four students and a professor made formal complaints against Sun Yat-sen University professor Zhang Peng for sexual harassment, the university launched an investigation and ultimately barred him from teaching.[xxxix]

The CCP’s attack on feminist movements like the Feminist Five and #MeToo underscores a deep-rooted clash between Xi’s political goals and the advancement of gender equality. In China, women only hold up half the sky when their equality also supports the CCP’s interests. But, by challenging the CCP’s prescribed gender norms, these activists are instilling change. Regardless of the outcome of Zhou Xiaoxuan’s lawsuit against Zhu Jun, #MeToo has already shaped public perceptions of feminism.

In an interview outside of her home in Beijing, Zhou was asked about the future of #MeToo and gender equality in China. She was hopeful—even optimistic—that popular opinion of the movement was shifting. “Once you light the spark that starts a fire,” she told reporters, “it will have an impact on people’s hearts.”[xli] #MeToo has already lit a spark in Chinese society. Despite Xi’s best efforts to extinguish its flame, the movement is catching fire.

Illustration by Lane Letourneau

[i]Wang Zheng, "Detention of the Feminist Five in China," Feminist Studies 41, no. 2 (2015): 476.

[ii] Zhao Sile, "The Inspirational Backstory of China's 'Feminist Five,'" Foreign Policy, last modified April 17, 2015, accessed April 16, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/17/china-feminist-bail-interview-released-feminism-activist/.

[iii] Leta Hong Fincher, "China's Feminist Five," Dissent Magazine, accessed April 16, 2019, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/china-feminist-five.

[iv]Hong Fincher, "China's Feminist," Dissent Magazine.

[v] Suyin Haynes, "Author Leta Hong Fincher Shows Why the World Should Pay Attention to China's Feminists," Time Magazine, last modified November 14, 2018, accessed April 17, 2019, http://time.com/5453927/china-feminist-five-big-brother-leta-hong-fincher-interview.

[vi] Hong Fincher, "China's Feminist," Dissent Magazine.

[vii] Hong Fincher, "China's Feminist," Dissent Magazine.

[viii] Xiongya Gao, "Women Existing for Men: Confucianism and Social Injustice against Women in China," Race, Gender and Class 10, no. 3 (2003): 114.

[ix] Gao, "Women Existing," 115.

[x] Gao, "Women Existing," 114.

[xi] Gao, "Women Existing," 116.

[xii] Gao, "Women Existing," 116.

[xiii] Austin Ramzy, "China's Cultural Revolution, Explained," The New York Times, last modified May 14, 2016, accessed April 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/world/asia/china-cultural-revolution-explainer.html.

[xiv] Ramzy, "China's Cultural," The New York Times.

[xv] The International Herald Tribune, "Holding up Half the Sky," The New York Times, last modified March 6, 2012, accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/07/world/asia/holding-up-half-the-sky.html.

[xvi] "Quotations from Mao Tse Tung," Marxists, accessed April 24, 2019, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/works/red-book/ch31.htm.

[xvii] Phyllis Andors, "Politics of Chinese Development: The Case of Women, 1960-1966," Signs 2, no. 1 (Fall 1976): 90.

[xviii] Maggie Wedeman, "Mapping Gender onto the Cultural Revolution: Masculinity's Triumph in a 'Genderless' Struggle," Schwarzman Scholars, accessed April 20, 2019, https://www.schwarzmanscholars.org/news-article/mapping-gender-onto-cultural-revolution-masculinitys-triumph-genderless-struggle/

[xix] New York Times.

[xx] Jiayang Fan, Taisu Zhang, and Ying Zhu, "Behind the Personality Cult of Xi Jinping," Foreign Policy, last modified March 8, 2016, accessed April 17, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/08/the-personality-cult-of-xi-jinping-china-leader-communist-party.

[xxi] Fan, Zhang, and Zhu, "Behind the Personality," Foreign Policy.

[xxii] Hong Fincher, "China's Feminist," Dissent Magazine.

[xxiii] Hong Fincher, "China's Feminist," Dissent Magazine.

[xxiv]Wang Zheng, "Detention of the Feminist Five in China," Feminist Studies 41, no. 2 (2015): 480.

[xxv] Hong Fincher, "China's Feminist," Dissent Magazine.

[xxvi] Hong Fincher, "China's Feminist," Dissent Magazine.

[xxvii]Wang Zheng, "Detention of the Feminist Five in China," Feminist Studies 41, no. 2 (2015): 480.

[xxviii] Simina Mistreanu, "China's #MeToo Activists Have Transformed a Generation," Foreign Policy, last modified January 10, 2019, accessed April 22, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/10/chinas-metoo-activists-have-transformed-a-generation/.

[xxix] Mistreanu, "China's #MeToo," Foreign Policy.

[xxx] Mistreanu, "China's #MeToo," Foreign Policy.

[xxxi] Jiayang Fan, "China's #MeToo Moment," The New Yorker, last modified February 1, 2018, accessed April 17, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/chinas-me-too-moment.

[xxxii] Javier C. Hernandez, "She's on a #MeToo Mission in China, Battling Censors and Lawsuits," The New York Times, last modified January 4, 2019, accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/04/world/asia/china-zhou-xiaoxuan-metoo.html.

[xxxiii] Hernandez, "She's on a #MeToo," The New York Times.

[xxxiv] Hernandez, "She's on a #MeToo," The New York Times.

[xxxv] Hernandez, "She's on a #MeToo," The New York Times.

[xxxvi] Hernandez, "She's on a #MeToo," The New York Times.

[xxxvii] Hernandez, "She's on a #MeToo," The New York Times.

[xxxviii] Echo Huang, "The Future of #MeToo in China Hinges on a Lawsuit against the Country's Most Famous TV Presenter," Quartz, last modified January 31, 2019, accessed April 24, 2019, https://qz.com/1520076/metoos-future-in-china-hinges-on-a-lawsuit-against-a-tv-celebrity/.

[xxxix] Chris Buckley, "Chinese Professor Accused of Sexual Harassment Is Barred from Teaching," The New York Times, last modified July 12, 2018, accessed April 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/12/world/asia/china-metoo-professor-sexual-harassment.html.

[xl] Buckley, "Chinese Professor," The New York Times.

[xli] Hernandez, "She's on a #MeToo," The New York Times.