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Thwarted at Home, Can China’s Feminists Rebuild a Movement Abroad?

In February, an activist named Liang Xiaowen appeared on the widely-watched American comedy show Patriot Act to talk about China’s battered #MeToo movement. Liang, who now resides in the U.S., talked about her efforts to combat discrimination and sexual harassment in China and the threats from police her family received when she once tried to host a feminist salon. The show’s host, Hasan Minhaj, asked if anyone in China watched his show. “If I’m in it,” Liang replied, “I promise that at least some people will see it.”

Liang’s confidence stems in part from her belief in the importance of her mission. The Guangzhou native is one of the key leaders of a loose coalition of Chinese expatriates organizing what they describe as a “Chinese feminist movement” in the United States. And while Liang and her fellow activists may be little known in the U.S. outside a small circle of sympathizers and women’s studies scholars, in China their activities command large audiences among supporters of the cause who might be championing the same ideals if their political surroundings didn’t make it so dangerous.

About seven years ago, a vibrant, nimble campaign to fight gender discrimination and sexual violence was crackling to life in China. Young feminists staged visually provocative protests on public streets in big cities, calling out infringements of women’s rights. Feminist Voices, an independent feminist publication and a social media account, became the vanguard of gender equality punditry. Activists collaborated with gender and law scholars, as well as female officials, to push for policy changes that related to women. They toured universities and communities across China to present their work and advocate for gender equality. Guangzhou-based activist Zheng Churan, who’s better known as Datu, or Giant Rabbit, calls 2012 “Year one of China’s feminist movement.”

But three short years later, perhaps unnerved by the organizing prowess and media savvy of its leaders, the Chinese government came down hard. In March 2015, activists known as the “Feminist Five,” (Zheng was one) were arrested. The Chinese government has since shuttered at least five non-governmental organizations advocating for women’s rights. Under the tight monitoring of police, activists were effectively no longer able to demonstrate or call for gender equality in public spaces. Censors gutted Feminist Voices. At least eight key activists lost their full-time jobs with non-governmental organizations, and were forced to turn to work in other fields to support their increasingly risky volunteer advocacy work.

Now, “whenever you plan to organize something, the police knock on your door in no time, or force you to move out of their jurisdiction,” says Xiao Meili, who has been an activist since 2011. “They kick us like balls from one city to another, from one district to another. We are wanderers in our own country.”

Some find it more productive to wander abroad. A small number of the movement’s influential thinkers and organizers have relocated overseas, in search of an environment more hospitable to their activism. Today, though their numbers are relatively small, they have succeeded in cultivating a vibrant expatriate community of sympathizers and activists who are committed to raising awareness of assaults on Chinese women’s rights and fighting against them. Thanks in large part to the Internet, they are helping to rekindle and fuel the efforts of their friends back home, keeping alight ideas and campaigns that China’s government has sought to extinguish.

In January, at this year’s comparatively modest Women’s March in New York City, a squad of Chinese students trudged, chanting against the whipping winter winds. They held aloft bilingual protest signs that read “#MeToo in China,” supplemented by various translations of #MeToo in Mandarin and local Chinese dialects, and emojis and phrases used to circumvent censorship, most notably #米兔 (mitu), a close homophone of “me too” in Mandarin that means “rice bunny.”

Mengwen Cao for ChinaFile

Wushuang at Women’s March in New York City, January 19, 2019.

At the march, I met a young Chinese man, a self-proclaimed feminist. His parents had given him the overtly masculine name Pengfei, which means “flight of the roc,” but he now went by the more gender neutral Wushuang (“unparalleled”), a name he had given himself. Looking at the Caucasian faces surrounding us, he said, “If I hadn’t known about the Chinese feminist groups here, I might have felt powerless coming to an event like this one all alone. Being here together feels much better.”

The 23-year-old was pursuing a Master’s degree in Sociology at Columbia University. He moved from Massachusetts, where he studied gender theory at Brandeis University as an undergraduate. Marching in New York among kindred spirits from his home country gave him a sense of belonging he had craved in 2015, when the Feminist Five were detained. Back then, he says, “There just wasn’t anyone.”

That same day, in a small office space in the Financial District, three dozen young Chinese women and a smattering of men took part in what was billed as the 2019 Feminist Movement Winter Camp, an intimate workshop on gender roles, discrimination, and sexual assault. Over the course of two days, the group of primarily mainland Chinese students and young professionals living on the East Coast discussed the beleaguered #MeToo movement in China, Skyped with front-line activists there, and shared stories of intimate relationships and traumatizing experiences of the sort usually disclosed only to therapists.

Quite a few young women shared their stories of sexual harassment. Some lesbians spoke of misgivings about coming out to their parents. Two women bemoaned the emotional labor piled on them at work. The more experienced activists and scholars in gender, sociology, philosophy, and law led discussions on social movements, patriarchy, authoritarianism, and capitalism. Whenever Lü Pin, one of the organizers of the workshop and a key player in the mainland’s feminist movement, spoke, a roomful of 20-somethings listened with rapt concentration.

Liang, who wore a navy blue sweatshirt that read: “DARE TO USE THE F-WORD FEMINISM,” was one of the camp’s main facilitators. Her sweatshirt is an example of the feminist-themed merchandise Xiao and Zheng peddle on the Chinese sales platform Taobao to support themselves. A few other attendees sported t-shirts from the same shop. Theirs were imprinted with a vertical line of Chinese characters: “This is what a feminist looks like.”

Mengwen Cao for ChinaFile

Liang Xiaowen in Flushing, New York City, January 26, 2019.

I followed Feminist Voices on Weibo during its active years, when I was attending university in the U.S. Midwest. Those days, reading Nora Ephron’s essays on the women’s movement in America during the 1970s made me wonder whether anything remotely similar could ever happen in China. Of course, something was happening in China, far beyond the social media debates. I was following, but I didn’t realize it until 2015 when I started work as a journalist back in China. The detention of the Feminist Five was one of the first stories I covered. Feminist workshops like the Winter Camp had been taking place in China for quite a few years, I learned in my reporting, but now they were being shut down. I had missed them.

In January 2017, I attended my first rally, the inaugural Women’s March, protesting against U.S. President Donald Trump’s anti-women politics, in Chicago, where I was attending graduate school. Instead of a pussy hat, I wore my “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. But no one could recognize the Chinese characters; I did not spot a single Chinese face in the crowd. The following January, I was in New York. A friend invited me to a WeChat group called New York Feminist Salon, administered by Liang, a few days before the annual Women’s March. Liang invited a dozen people to that year’s march. This time, I didn’t need to wear the t-shirt to feel connected to the Chinese feminist movement. After the 2018 Women’s March, I kept coming back for events, dinners, and lectures the New York activists hosted. My fellow attendees were unlike any other group of young Chinese people I had contact with, in China or elsewhere in the U.S. Their enthusiasm and idealism impressed me. I began to wonder what they could achieve.

After Xiao attended one of Lü and Liang’s workshops in New York in June, she told me that she thinks Chinese nationals living in a freer political environment abroad can be a critical reserve force for the movement in their homeland.

“Whether it’s in the U.S., the United Kingdom, or France, this kind of network has the potential to help our movement in China in ways I can’t predict now,” Xiao says. “More people may have different ideas and resources, and they may discover new initiatives.”

Lü, the woman in her late 40s who’s often hailed as the “godmother of young Chinese feminist activists,” considers human capital the most critical resource of the feminist movement. To her, developing a political space outside of China is an increasingly important approach. “It’s a globalized strategy to combat suppression within one country,” Lü says. She has been living in the U.S. since 2015. “We can only survive if we put eggs in different baskets.”

* * *

China ranked 103 out of 149 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap report, slipping three ranks from the year before. In 2006, the country ranked 63. Wang Zheng, a University of Michigan Professor of Women’s Studies and History, says Chinese women’s status has been in decline for some time. The increasing gender gap, she says, is but one of a host of undesirable social by-products of China’s economic liberalization. “Besides economic exploitation of the disadvantaged by the ruling class, women’s deteriorating existence is also a result of the increasingly sexist discourse that legitimizes open gender discrimination in education, employment, political participation, and property control,” Wang says.

Nominally, the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.), which came to power in 1949 promising the elimination of traditional Chinese social and cultural hierarchies, prizes gender equality. In the early years of the P.R.C., Communist Party officials recognized women as a critical labor force to contribute to developing the nation’s shattered economy. To mobilize women, the state implemented laws and regulations that allowed women to divorce and remarry, mandated equal employment and equal pay, and propagated the notion of “equality between women and men.” In times of labor shortage, the government established public facilities to ease the burden of childcare and household chores for working women—who were also seen as primary caregivers. Officials invoked the well-known phrase “women hold up half the sky” to extol women’s achievements and encourage their obligation to the state.

During the Cultural Revolution, propaganda eulogized “iron girls”—strong women able to handle heavy physical work as men did—and it spurred a generation of women to devote themselves to hard labor, disregarding their gender and discarding femininity.

With the launch of market-oriented reforms starting in the late 1970s, and the later privatization of state-owned enterprises, the momentum changed. The government abolished its socialist-era state mandates that had ensured relative gender equality. Iron girls were not in vogue any more. Instead, a renaissance of Confucian virtues again reduced women to devoted, unselfish mother and wife figures. But this time, Confucianism collided with Western consumerism and materialism, and so mothers and wives were also expected to be sexual and attractive.

“Over more than two decades of reform,” wrote historian Gail Hershatter in 2004,“the female body was reconfigured as alluring, vulnerable, dependent, and inferior.”

Four decades since the economic reforms began, though Chinese women today have better access to higher education, healthcare, and social security benefits than ever before, the country’s third and latest survey on women’s status in 2010 showed that Chinese women faced pervasive gender discrimination. Women in cities on average earned 67.3 percent of what men earned. In rural areas, the figure was 56 percent. Compared to 1990, the gender wage gap increased 10 percentage points for women in cities and 23 percentage points for rural women. 30 years ago, 51.8 percent of men and 50.1 of women agreed that “the domain for men is in the public and the domain for women is within the household.” By 2010, the percentage of men and women subscribing to this idea had increased nearly 10 percentage points and 4.5 points, respectively.

Many Chinese universities require higher standardized test scores for female students than for male. Companies and government branches, reluctant to pay for maternity leave, post advertisements looking for male-only candidates. Some companies even have female employees or candidates sign agreements promising to not get pregnant during the first years of their employment. Though the country’s constitution enshrines equal rights for women and men, China doesn’t have a specific anti-discrimination law, and existing laws that protect against employment discrimination are abstract and general.

This, argues Wang, profoundly frustrated a generation of Chinese women born as only children who have ambitious professional aspirations.

In 2009, Lü, a former journalist who had worked at the state-run China Women’s News for 10 years before leaving to rally young activists to raise public awareness of discrimination and violence against women, launched an independent online publication called Women’s Voices. Two years later, in a bold move, she changed the publication’s name and its Weibo account to Feminist Voices, which Lü says was the first Chinese social media account identified as feminist.

Mengwen Cao for ChinaFile

Lü Pin in Manhattan, New York City, February 6, 2019.

Feminism, nüquanzhuyi, literally “woman-power-ism,” is an increasingly politically charged term in China. To many, the term connotes bellicose, radicalized women vying for more power than men. Worse even, many in China conceive feminists as man-haters.

Though feminism has never been mainstream in China, Lü says it empowers those grappling with grave gender issues, from pressure to marry, to career glass ceilings, to social and political stigma.

“Some young people on social media had already been interested in feminism, and unlike those of us with NGO and academic backgrounds, they made no bones about wielding the f-word,” Lü says. “Individuals needed a flag to bring them together. Once you show them this flag, they rally to it.”

During the boom years of Weibo, the then lively social media platform, Feminist Voices gathered a cohort of educated young women who started to label themselves feminists without apology.

“In 2005, I saw a book about Chinese feminism, and I marveled to my friends, ‘Wait, there are feminists we don’t know of?’” Lü recalls that 14 years ago, the circle of Chinese women identifying as feminists was small enough that everyone knew everyone. “Now? There must be hundreds of thousands or millions of people calling themselves feminists.”

Social media discussion gradually nurtured street activism. In 2012, active feminists, based primarily in Beijing and Guangzhou, formed a loose coalition called Young Feminist Activism.

Nearly 20 in this cohort of about 100 women worked full time for various grassroots organizations, actively lecturing at universities and organizing young women both online and offline to protest against a whole host of affronts to women’s dignity, from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination in college admissions to the paucity of women’s public bathrooms, Lü said.

The rise of social media, says Leta Hong Fincher, the author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, was critical to activists in galvanizing awareness among young people.

“There was more awareness of all different kinds of sexism,” Fincher says. “The gender inequality started much, much earlier, but social media has been key to the spread of this feminist movement.”

Until censors blocked it from Weibo and WeChat in 2018, according to Lü, Feminist Voices had the most prominent feminist social media presence in China, amassing over 180,000 followers on Weibo and 70,000 followers on WeChat. This may sound like a drop in the bucket in China, considering its 1.4-billion population. But in a country where most people steer clear of politics, the numbers were significant for a political grassroots account that had no capital nor political backing, says Dong Yige, a political economist at the University of Puget Sound, whose research focuses on gender politics in China. “They definitely did things no one else had done before, turning women’s rights, once only an elite issue, into a widely-discussed public topic.”

“Ten years ago, if a woman wasn’t admitted to a graduate program, she might not think much about it,” Dong says, referring to a widely read story on social media in March about a college student’s pointing out gender discrimination in graduate school admissions. “But today, women have learned to play the gender card, realizing right away it’s gender discrimination. Once you have the awareness, there’s no turning back.”

The alliance of activists emerged just as the P.R.C. government started tightening restrictions on Chinese civil society. Dong worked with an anti-domestic violence group in Beijing around 2010, and explains that at the time, some gender-based NGOs found it increasingly difficult to operate because of the state’s crackdown on NGOs receiving international funding. That situation prompted a few determined feminists, including Lü, who had been experienced in working with NGOs and female government officials in the past, to seek a brand new space to enact their own vision of feminism, Dong says.

“They had the capability and vision, and they grasped the opportunity to mobilize some even more enthusiastic young women to do things,” Dong says. “This is why feminist activism seemed particularly promising during those years.”

Unlike the older, more established generations of scholars and researchers who quietly lobbied for policy changes to protect women’s rights within the official system, these younger activists and self-described feminists worked in public. Lü strategized with her followers to take to the streets to protest gender-based violence and discrimination in employment and education. They carefully chose topics they believed they could bring to public attention without triggering a backlash from the government, and at the time, Lü says, the government didn’t consider those protests to be a direct challenge to social stability. “We’ve never intended to overthrow the regime,” she told me.

“Our bodies were the few resources we could deploy,” Xiao said at a New York event about Chinese feminism in June. In 2014, she participated in such actions as a four-month walk across China to protest sexual violence. “They could concretize gender-based violence. We used the most fragile parts of ourselves to fight a tough fight.”

Liang, then a college student, also jumped on the activism train.

“I realized I couldn’t go on pretending to be mild just to be accepted,” she recalls of her decision to start labeling herself as a feminist. “I had to take a stance and say [the word ‘feminist’] out loud.”

Liang was active in participating and organizing what activists called “performance art.” She and seven friends ate pig trotters in Guangzhou’s city center in 2012, calling for awareness of sexual harassment. Liang also joined activist friends in the “occupying men’s toilets” protest the same year to pressure the government to provide more public toilet stalls for women. And she shaved her head on a Guangzhou university campus, protesting against higher admission bars for female students, along with other activist friends.

“I made people uncomfortable because they barely knew anyone like me around them,” Liang said. “But they could then hear my appeals through such provocation. Once I could own up to the word [feminism], I was never afraid that people might see me as radicalized. Instead, the more I spit the word out, I felt more empowered to act.”

In Shanghai, also in 2012, in response to a Weibo comment posted by the Shanghai Metro that the activists believed engaged in victim-blaming, two women on the city’s subway wore masks and held a sign that read: “I can be slutty; but you can’t harass me.” The same year, Xiao and two other feminists wore blood-stained wedding gowns to protest domestic violence in Beijing. Xiao was also part of a group of about 20 activists who organized over 200 volunteers to put on Our Vaginas, Ourselves (阴道之道), a play inspired by the American production Vagina Monologues, in multiple Chinese cities.

Their attention-grabbing acts received extensive media coverage and sparked heated debates on social media.

“[The protests] were a great way to get people to pay attention and discuss the issues. They’re much harder to ignore than a post on the Internet,” Lü said. “As the debate continued, you’d find potential supporters of your agenda, and when they came together, they could affect policymaking.”

But the activists did more than just chant slogans or perform on street corners. Behind the scenes, they initiated petitions, filed lawsuits against government departments, and liaised with gender scholars and researchers affiliated with universities or government institutions to push for improvement or passage of policies and laws protecting victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment, and to abolish rules that favored men over women in college admissions and employment.

Though the Chinese government doesn’t attribute policy changes to activists, Lü claims credit on behalf of the young activists for helping propel implementation of laws and policies that advance Chinese women’s rights: The passage of China’s landmark Anti-Domestic Violence Law in 2015 was the result of a three-decade, bottom-up effort of scholars, lawyers, and activists. The Ministry of Education in 2013 announced that universities couldn’t set separate test score cutoffs for applicants of different genders, or establish gender ratios for admission, after a months-long advocacy campaign by activists. At the end of 2018, the Supreme People’s Court for the first time included gender discrimination in employment as a legitimate cause of action to file civil lawsuits. In February, nine government ministries issued a notice to regulate recruitment practices to promote equal employment, barring employers from inquiring into women’s marital or parentage status or making pregnancy testing a part of employment health assessments. The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in 2016 ordered the ratio of women’s stalls to men’s in all new or renovated public restrooms to expand to three to two from one to one.

* * *

The feminist momentum took a sharp twist in 2015 with the detention of a handful of bold activists.

In early March that year, ahead of International Women’s Day, over a dozen young women were detained in various Chinese cities for planning a campaign to hand out stickers at public transportation hubs in 10 cities to raise public awareness of sexual harassment. The most prominent detainees, who became known internationally as the “Feminist Five,” were taken into custody in Beijing because they worked full time at non-governmental organizations.

Their case quickly provoked an international outcry, with demands for the women’s release both in and outside of China. The harsh international condemnation included a statement from then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Under enormous pressure from the international community, Beijing released the Five after 37 days in detention. The Chinese government at the time wasn’t specifically targeting feminist groups, Wang says, but the entire civil society, which blossomed following the Fourth World Conference on Women that Beijing hosted in 1995.

Wang says that the "vibrant" NGO space that developed over the following decade “aroused tremendous fear in the state.” “So [the government] started to try to control, contain, co-opt, or just outright suppress NGOs, to close [civil society] space.”

As Chinese police were taking the Five to a Beijing detention center, Lü, who has advocated for women’s rights in China for well over two decades, happened to be in New York City. She was attending a conference organized by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Fearing her immediate return might endanger friends and colleagues in China, Lü decided to stay after the conference ended.

In 2017, she began a Master’s program in Gender Studies at the State University of New York at Albany. Lü already was well versed in gender theory and admits that she learned little new, but her studies provided for a rare period of introspection after years of intense political advocacy, exhaustion, and fear.

Liang followed Lü to New York in 2016. Liang lost her job at the Gender Equality Advocacy and Action Network, an NGO in Hangzhou, that was forced to close after the 2015 roundup. In 2016, she accepted a scholarship to study human rights law at Fordham University.

As the two met enthusiastic young Chinese women yearning for some analytical framework through which to understand the thorny gender issues they battle in their daily lives, they discovered a tentative space for Chinese feminism in the U.S. Lü founded a non-profit organization and worked with Liang and about 10 other activists to develop their expatriate community.

The bar to join the network is low. Although a few are experienced activists, many identify vaguely with some notion of feminism and hope to befriend like-minded people. Some are simply dragged to events by friends. At least 300 people in North America are involved in the network, with half in New York.

“If people are going to live and die together,” Lü quipped, “they need to know who their friends are.”

Mengwen Cao for ChinaFile

Liang Xiaowen and a colleague work on the organization's tax form in Queens Library, Flushing, New York City, Jan 26, 2019.

* * *

The idea of feminism as a life or death struggle was novel to quite a few of the participants in the January workshop. Many came because of their own experiences of sexual harassment. Some newcomers showed up merely out of curiosity.

“I joked with my roommate before the workshop that I wanted to see how activists brainwash people,” said Gao Jie, a New York University student who had arrived in the U.S. the previous September. “But at the workshop I realized they’re not all empty talk, they’re actually taking action and getting things done.” In the end, she joked, “They succeeded in brainwashing me.”

The 21-year-old native of Wenzhou, an affluent city on China’s east coast, was curious about the #MeToo movement in China, but wary of politics. In the dozens of strangers coming together to talk about feminist activism, she found a community that welcomed discussions that would have been unthinkable at home. Growing up an only child, she had thought there was no gender inequality in China. Now, though she wasn’t quite sure she would identify herself as a feminist, Gao seemed to have adopted a new perspective on her own life.

“Feminism can help me determine whether I’m discriminated against as a woman,” she said after the workshop. “Before, if I didn’t get a promotion or a raise, I’d have chalked it up to my lack of ability. Now, I can see things from a structural perspective.”

Small-group discussions at the workshop were punctuated by occasional bouts of weeping as group members opened up about their sexuality, pressure to marry, and experiences with sexual assault and discrimination. During breaks, when the crop of principally 20-somethings played risqué games with sexual themes that required people to switch seats, the room was filled with giggles and the thrum of Dr. Martens thundering toward seats.

Like workshops held in the 1970s by American feminists, the meeting’s goal, according to Lü, was to build solidarity by creating opportunities for like-minded people to forge bonds.

“Their bodies are here, but their minds are still constrained [in China],” Wang says. “You participate in these things to gain personal empowerment, and you find other young women who have the same problems.”

For others, “feminist boot-camps” cultivate idealism. Nancy Tang, a law student at Yale University, has attended every New York feminist workshop Lü and Liang have organized since they started holding them in the winter of 2017. She comes back, she says, in part because of the friends she has made at the workshops—the kind of people, she says, that she hasn’t met at Yale. She describes many of her fellow Chinese students at Yale as self-serving, apolitical elites.

“The minute I returned to New Haven from last summer’s workshop, I realized I was again back in a place where the Chinese speakers didn’t understand feminism and the people well-versed in feminism didn’t speak Chinese,” Tang said. “For a moment, I felt really sad.”

Those involved in the organizing are fully aware that only a small fraction of the 360,000 Chinese students currently studying in the U.S. may subscribe to their cause, far from enough to form a movement of its own. Plus, they don’t have much political capital—the movement depends on marginal groups: foreigner youngsters, most of whom are female students.

Even though the feminist activists have gained some visibility in the U.S., they are far less known in their host country than the Chinese dissidents who landed here after the 1989 pro-democracy protests and crackdown, says Zhao Mengyang, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on social movements.

Chinese activists also haven’t actively rallied support from Americans due partly to their critique of social movements in the U.S., Zhao says.

“[Some Chinese activists think] it’s like a carnival here. People think they can just do a march, and that’s enough. In China, every day you are building a movement, in a highly politicized environment where every step has to be carefully considered.” Zhao continues. “Here, things are so frivolous, and a lot of times there’s a commercial element. There’s very little contact with the [U.S.] movement and so it’s hard for the Chinese feminists to absorb resources that could benefit them.”

Still, argues Fincher, the creativity and the striking ability of the Chinese women to mobilize sets them apart from many exiled Chinese human rights activists who seem to have lost relevance at home and abroad. “I think there’s a real difference in the feminist community; it seems to be much more organized,” she said. “This is just one reason that it’s definitely playing a role in sustaining the feminist momentum in China.”

That momentum, and the way it could be accelerated with support from overseas, burst into particularly vivid view in 2018, when the global #MeToo movement swept into China. Lü found, to her surprise, that the seeds of gender awareness she had helped sow back in 2012 were germinating. “It was because young activists had started an anti-sexual harassment campaign five or six years before #MeToo,” Lü said.

In January 2018, an alumna of a Beijing university who was living in the U.S. issued a public account accusing her Ph.D. thesis advisor of sexual harassment. Having already been limited in organizing under the watchful eyes of authorities, feminists in China were able to mobilize roughly 9,000 college students to sign petitions to nearly 90 universities in China demanding on-campus sexual-harassment prevention mechanisms, according to Zhang Leilei, a China-based activist who put a call out for petitions. The #MeToo hashtag on Weibo had attracted more than 4.5 million clicks before censors took action to block it.

Abroad, echoing the action in China, a few anonymous volunteers outside of China collected signatures from over 300 overseas Chinese students and scholars on a similar petition calling for anti-sexual harassment policies in Chinese universities.

In the year since, the movement has been keenly felt in China as dozens of women have come out to accuse prominent professors, intellectuals, celebrities, activists, and Buddhist monks of sexual assault or harassment.

In a symbolic move, a draft version of China’s first civil code includes a provision protecting against sexual harassment as “a response to the widely followed issue,” according to state news agency Xinhua. Drafting of the country’s first civil code has been in the works since 2017. Though it won’t be fully drafted until 2020 and won’t be adopted for another few years, activists and scholars see it as a positive sign to legitimize a #MeToo movement that is under siege.

In what Wang calls a “dormant” period for Chinese feminism, one might argue that despite censorship efforts the vanguard of China’s feminist movement is online. Kindred spirits stay in touch with one another via encrypted messaging tools. Video conferencing platforms allow individuals who cannot gather in person in China to take part virtually in events, panels, and seminars held in China, the U.S., or elsewhere.

“Chinese activists in and outside of China keep up with the goings on in the other country,” Dong says. “They respond to one another’s action and support each other, eventually achieving transnational mobilization through the Internet.”

At the January Winter Camp in New York, via conferencing software, activists based in several Chinese cities spoke with their overseas allies about increasing isolation due to a persistent government crackdown on their work, as well as some hard-won exposure of the sexual harassment history of a Beijing labor NGO’s key organizer, which prompted the organization to issue a public apology. The New York attendees diligently took notes. At times, a palpable gloom descended on the room. Then loud braying laughs would ricochet through the overheated air. When a participant asked how those in the U.S. could pitch in, one of the China-based activists suggested they share uncensored information and texts on gender studies theory with those inside the Firewall.

One way overseas activists can help is through the provision of information that can’t circulate in China. With free access to Google and Wikipedia and bilingual volunteers available, young women in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K., led by Liang, have started to add Wikipedia entries about key feminist campaigns and events in China that have either been banned on the Chinese Internet or are susceptible to censorship. “It feels like a race,” Liang said. “If we don’t start to record things now, they’ll be erased.”

Liang and Lü are not the sole organizers of campaigns outside of China. In a decentralized movement, it’s often difficult to pinpoint specific organizers of particular events. Many are simply inspired volunteers living abroad, enacting similar strategies without ever being in contact with one another.

In April, soon after a Chinese international student at the University of Minnesota sued billionaire JD.com CEO Liu Qiangdong over alleged rape, U.K.-based Chinese social scientist He Yuan spearheaded a group of 27 volunteers to translate the indictment into Chinese, which has been circulating widely on Chinese social media. Meanwhile, a few other volunteers started a petition in support of the woman. It has gathered over 4,400 signatures, the majority from outside the Great Fire Wall. The petition was inspired by the support for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford after she came forward with sexual assault allegations against now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

After leaked and edited surveillance videos posted to Weibo showed Liu walking with the woman who accused him of rape, a Canada-based feminist activist named Qiqi, who declined to reveal her full name for safety concerns, along with a few other feminists, created a hashtag #I’mNotAPerfectVictimEither to condemn victim-blaming and empower sexual assault survivors. As of August 4, more than 23,000 people used the hashtag on Weibo, discussing China’s rape culture. The hashtag received more than 182 million clicks.

“Even though it’s only a handful of women, what they are doing here is seen by people who identify with the feminist value elsewhere, and so they will spontaneously join the movement,” Dong says. “You cannot even identify a central organizer in the movement, but you can nevertheless feel the calling. This is what #MeToo essentially is.”

* * *

As energetic as overseas feminists may be, though, the situation of their comrades at home is rapidly deteriorating.

If previous government crackdowns on individuals and feminist organizations were part of a widespread move to curb civil society, then 2017 marked the beginning of Beijing’s conscious efforts to suppress feminist activists. That year, the All-China Women’s Federation, a state-sponsored women’s rights organization, warned gender scholars and researchers within the system attending a meeting that feminism was being used by foreign hostile forces to infiltrate China. Wang, the University of Michigan professor, said she learned about this from workshop attendees.

On International Women’s Day of 2018, three years after the Feminist Five incident, censors shuttered Feminist Voices permanently on Weibo and WeChat. The closure dealt a huge blow to China’s most active feminist organizers, especially Lü.

“[The feminist activists] might not mean to be confrontational, nor did they intend to overthrow the regime,” Dong says. “But they are now in a pretty awkward situation as the government has framed them as a foreign force after all the years of pushing and shoving.”

It was then when Lü realized that feminist activism might become even more marginalized and risked being forced underground in China. Without visibility, activists face more difficulty converting momentum and anger into action. Without central organizations offering strategies and setting an agenda, the movement is losing its direction, she lamented.

Feng Yuan, a long-time feminist activist and gender scholar, said in February that she believes the government silenced Feminist Voices out of fear that the already-influential platform might attract even more supporters as the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum globally.

In recent years, the Chinese government’s institution of stricter legal scrutiny of NGOs has further eroded civil society. This includes the Foreign NGO Law, which mandates foreign NGOs partner with government agencies or government approved local groups to carry out their work.

Feng says the Foreign NGO Law, which went into effect in 2017, has effectively kept domestic NGOs that haven’t registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs from working with and raising funds from international organizations, and the government can easily claim the unregistered NGOs are illegal. Feng heads Equality, a Beijing-based NGO focused on domestic and sexual violence.

But the bar for registration is high; the government allows service-based NGOs, such as organizations helping the elderly or the disabled, to operate, Feng says. “It doesn’t encourage civil society organizations to register in general, and the advocacy NGOs face even more difficulties in registration.”

Earlier this year, the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, founded by one of the Feminist Five, Wei Tingting, was forced to close after the Guangzhou government listed it as a “suspected illegal social organization.”

“Feminism has become increasingly politically sensitized in China,” Feng says. “The authorities assign a monopoly on representing women to the Women’s Federation, backed by the government and by the Communist Party. Independent groups, especially those that identify themselves as feminist organizations, are suspected of colluding with foreign forces and seen as potential agents of a color revolution.”

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China has a history of social and political change that has germinated among groups of expats, idealistic individuals studying abroad or in temporary exile for political reasons. At the turn of the 20th century, when Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, was in exile in Japan, he organized anti-Qing revolutionaries—many were Chinese students studying in Tokyo—and founded the Tongmenghui, or Chinese United League, which ultimately formed the nucleus of the Kuomintang, the ruling party of the Republic. He had lived 16 years of his life in exile, biding his time, raising funds for the Tongmenghui, and supporting uprisings in China, before the 1911 Revolution overthrew the country’s last imperial dynasty.

Among the anarchists who joined the Tongmenghui was Liu Shipei, who was in exile with his wife, He-Yin Zhen. He-Yin, little known to many, was a pioneering radical feminist theorist in the late Qing dynasty. In 1907, far ahead of her time, He-Yin began editing and writing for the first Chinese feminist journal, Tianyi, where she launched blistering attacks against patriarchy, imperialism, and capitalism.

Another pioneering feminist who joined Sun’s revolutionary alliance in Tokyo was Qiu Jin. Qiu created Chinese Women’s Journal and co-founded a women’s school in Shaoxing, her hometown, before her tragic death in 1907. One of her last poems, “A Song to Encourage Women’s Rights,” has become the anthem of today’s Chinese feminists; they chant it at Women’s Marches, wear it on shirts, print it on tote bags.

A century later, He-Yin and Qiu’s critiques remain relevant, and their successors are still fighting for the same politics they advocated for: women’s liberation, justice, and livelihood.

Lü and Liang’s activism in the U.S. is just as impoverished as it is in China. All the key activists in the New York area are working on a volunteer basis. This year, they both are scheduled to speak elsewhere in the U.S., hoping to expand the network outside of New York.

As newcomers to the U.S., the women have struggled in navigating a whole new social and political system as well as many personal barriers to overcome: language, visas, finances, just to name a few.

Despite this, both women described themselves as committed to the cause for the long haul. What drives their work, they say, is an unparalleled sense of fulfillment when they feel their impact on their country. “It’s not about personal livelihood,” Lü says. “I am a nobody, but in a hard environment like China, the power I have might be greater than you’d imagine.”

“In America, we’re just getting started,” says Lü, “I have to be less impatient.”