Dark Days for Women in China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

With China’s recent criminal detention of five feminist activists, gender inequality in China is back in the spotlight. What does a crackdown on Chinese women fighting for equal representation say about the current state of the nation’s political landscape? Who is served by rolling back the progress Chinese women have made and why are women being targeted now? —The Editors


As in any economy in the world that is being restructured around a pure profit motive—i.e. neoliberal capitalism—China’s social transformation in the past forty years has entailed a complete re-orienting of employment around two major poles: management and labor. (We’ll ignore the owner class, as that is so intertwined with the State that it is too complex to deal with here; and we’ll also ignore the self-cultivator peasants, other than as labor power, because their production is not organized in the same way.) In these restructurings, labor, in China as in all such countries including the United States, has lost absolutely in relation to management. Also, as in other places, uneducated or relatively less-educated women, and in China’s case, rural people in general, have been relegated to the lower rungs of labor; men and urban educated people inhabit the upper rungs. Educated women in China, to a certain extent, have benefited from this split and have joined the ranks of management; the majority of women have not. There is, in China, an added layer of socio-cultural expectation that has become far more strident of late (past two decades) and has received a good deal of State support in direct and indirect ways (see Leta Hong-Fincher’s work): that is, there is a widespread call for (educated, urban) women to retreat from the workplace so as to raise and nurture their (elite) families, and to leave formal employment for men, who will then support them financially while they reproduce elites for the nation. Rural or less educated women have no such luxury and must toil at the lower ends of the economic ladder, reproducing and rearing with the help of elderly parents. The vengeful resurgence of the worst of socio-cultural gender norms and the attachment of those norms to the everyday lives of women has been the outcome of this vast restructuring.

This shocks so much because of the history of women’s equality in China. In the Mao years, the rhetoric and the practice of gender equality in employment was pervasive. Women were not equal to men, but in Mao’s time, because of the economic embargo by the Euro-American-Japanese world and the paltry-to-diminishing support of China by the Soviet Union, China had to be self-sufficient: labor participation by all—women, men, rural, urban, young, old—was compulsory as a matter of national policy. Women’s work in the public sphere of production was rhetorically supported by the State and ritually celebrated. However, women also had to cope with family rearing in ways that men were exempted from; although their work in public was politically validated, women’s domestic struggles were mostly ignored (other than during the disastrous Great Leap). Given a choice—in the post-Mao years—many educated women, when encouraged, decided to give up the two-pronged struggle and focus on domestic issues. This was and is the path of least political, social, and cultural resistance.

The backlash against women who refuse this new gender norm is vicious and ongoing.

The last time I met with Li Maizi (as Li Tingting likes to be called) at a small dumpling restaurant in Beijing, I asked if she was optimistic about the future of women’s rights in China. “I am an idealist, but I am not in a hurry to see real change,” she said. “It will require a long, drawn-out period of struggle to see any progress, especially when it comes to gender issues.” These are not the words of a dissident trying to challenge the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power. Rather, Li and the other young activists she worked with went out of their way to avoid “politically sensitive” issues and chose causes that would resonate with the mainstream Chinese population. Take the “Occupy Men’s Toilets” campaign they organized in 2012, which called for more public toilets for women. “This issue isn’t that politically serious,” admitted Li, “but it’s a problem every woman has to deal with every day, so many women and men were able to see the inequality and to support the cause.” Little did I imagine that a year and a half later, Li Maizi and four other fun-loving feminists would wind up criminally detained, facing a possible jail term for planning to distribute stickers about sexual harassment on public transportation.

The fact that these young women—detained in three different cities on the eve of International Women’s Day—have still not been released suggests a disturbing escalation of Chinese government paranoia about public demonstrations and a chilling environment for Non-Governmental Organizations and non-profit groups. At the end of January, the Communist Party Politburo announced new national security guidelines, warning of “unprecedented security risks,” saying that “the country must always be mindful of potential dangers,” according to Xinhua News. Apparently the “potential dangers” to China’s national security now lurk in the country’s fledgling, feminist movement, which has sprouted against a backdrop of rising gender inequality and retrograde gender norms. And just as Rebecca Karl says, women who repudiate those gender norms often face a vicious backlash.

Yet if the Chinese government thinks it can stamp out a feminist uprising by jailing a few women’s rights activists, it should heed the words of Li Maizi, now in detention: “We want to challenge and deconstruct power, to build an equal society…We want to attract and create more and more feminist activists, so we don’t just want a few people to lead this movement,” she told me in 2013. Judging from the hundreds of students in Guangzhou who signed an open petition in support of their detained sisters, another petition signed by female, Chinese lawyers, and other messages of solidarity from Chinese workers, these women’s rights activists may have already succeeded. In criminally detaining some of the movement’s leaders, the government might just have provided the spark that was needed for a large-scale, feminist awakening in China.

When I first crossed the Pacific in the mid-1980s, there were some obvious contrasts between China and America relating to gender that reflected positively on China —most of which have since lessened or disappeared. One was the complete absence in China then, but not now, of advertisements that used sexualized images of female bodies to sell products. Another had to do with leadership in institutions of higher learning. In the U.S. then, but not now, very few women held top administrative posts in top universities or colleges, while Fudan, where I was based in Shanghai during the 1986/87 academic year, was headed by Xie Xide, a female physicist. One contrast that remains has to do with International Women’s Day. Then, as now, International Women’s Day got much more attention in China than in America. This enduring contrast, though, now has a deeply ironic side to it, since feminist activists were arrested just as the holiday was being marked this year.

For those who like looking backward, this is not the only irony worth noting relating to the current state of gender equality—or, rather, lack thereof—in China. Consider the ironies of a century-long view. In 1915, China witnessed the launch of Xin Qingnian ("New Youth"), an influential progressive periodical whose early contributors included future founders of the Chinese Communist Party and the great iconoclastic writer Lu Xun. One thing these New Youth authors tended to agree about was that China needed to free itself from the stifling hold of a set of patriarchal ideas and practices that they associated with Confucius. Ironically, as New Youth's centenary arrives, we find China run by an organization that some contributors to that publication helped to create, but which, curiously, has shifted since the 1970s from vilifying to celebrating Confucius.

Looking back 70 years rather than 100 also highlights a contemporary irony. In 1945, an international war and a domestic one began, which pitted the Nationalist Party of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek against the Communist Party of Chairman Mao. Every March 8th during this Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), both of these organizations would celebrate International Women’s Day, but they would do so in dramatically different ways. The Nationalists—the first major Chinese political organization to claim that Confucianism, modernization, and revolution could all go hand-in-hand—used it is a day for stressing the importance of women contributing to society by playing traditional roles and exemplifying traditional virtues. The Communists, on the other hand, used it as a day to emphasize the need for complete equality between the sexes.

The Chairman beat the Generalissimo in the end, of course. And yet, in spite of how fond Xi is of quoting Mao, the situation relating to women’s rights is one of many ways in which it can sometimes seem now that China’s leaders are as likely to draw from the Generalissimo’s playbook as from the Chairman’s.

Rebecca Karl well articulated some of the aspects of feminism specifically that are likely factors in this case. But this seems to be as much about broader Communist Party paranoia over any type of organized opposition, which is seeing the hammer brought down harder and on more people than it has been in decades.

When I met Li Maizi, one of the feminists now being detained, she recalled in 2012 being harassed and detained for several hours at a time for her quirky demonstrations. But back then there was a certain nuance to how “stability maintenance” officers tried silencing her. In addition to the threats and detentions, they also buttered her up with compliments, a fancy dinner, and even offered her a cushy government job if she stopped her activities. But now we seem to be seeing stability maintenance ditching these carrots and doubling down on the sticks.

Recently, I spoke with a Chinese news assistant for a Western newspaper in Beijing who lamented that it’s becoming hard to get comment on certain stories. “Everyone we used to call up for a quote is in jail,” she explained. “The Party has long grabbed anyone with rebellious political views, and now it has finished grabbing the ones with modest views. Now it’s coming for anyone who speaks at all.”

But this approach to silencing dissent is a dangerous one for the Communist Party. It risks alienating more and more segments of Chinese society; and people today, especially youth, generally speaking, are becoming less fearful of speaking out when they see obvious wrongs being committed. This was perhaps best illustrated by the Southern Weekend protests in early 2013. Leta Hong Fincher smartly pointed out how this case is already serving as a catalyst to wake up more feminists, but I might take it a step further.

These days you don’t have to challenge the Communist Party’s fundamental legitimacy (something that doesn’t tend to resonate with most Chinese) like Liu Xiaobo to receive a long prison sentence. The line of what sparks harsh repression is encroaching into causes that encompass more sympathetic and relatable figures. Last year, members of the New Citizen’s Movement were given lengthy prison terms after pushing moderate causes like official assets declaration. Now these women with an even less controversial agenda are facing the same charges. It begs the question: how far it will go? But one doesn’t have to look back far in world history (and even Chinese history) to see that escalating repression and creating high-profile martyrs doesn’t tend to be a long-term recipe for keeping people on your side. In its efforts to snuff out any whiff of dissent now, the Communist Party risks planting seeds that could sprout into even greater opposition later.

These are dark days not just for feminist activists but for anyone who wants to publicly express or gather support for views that are not closely aligned with Xi Jinping's agenda.

Even activists who appear to be in lockstep with the Party's current objectives— such anti-pollution documentary producer Chai Jing and Xu Zhiyong who campaigned for officials to disclose their wealth —are being censored, intimidated or locked up.

I am listening to a recorded interview with Datu (as Zheng Churan, one of the detained five, likes to be called) when I receive the invitation to respond to the five feminists’ detention on ChinaFile. In the interview, Datu talks about collecting data from 100 cases of child sexual abuse after hearing about six schoolgirls being sexually abused by principals and government officials in 2013. A group of young (semi-) activist feminists like Datu have been loosely networked across China to do performative/artistic protests for gender equality since the early 2010s. Using their bodies, theater, music, poetry, improvised performance, and symbolic actions in public spaces, they challenge social convention and legal terms. They rewrite women’s roles through artivism (art + activism), addressing policy change to advance women’s interests. They carefully describe their movement in public expression and action in politically harmless terms. They have initiated a wave of modern, independent feminist activism in China.

These feminists choosing cultural forms as a means to express themselves, results from the state's increasing control on social activism and collective action and its potential to foster civil association. The five feminists' detention reminds us that:

  1. The state is not buying the de-politicization strategy of grassroots organizations. As long as a network, group, or organization’s capacity expands, it will be placed under stricter controls. The closure of the Liren Village Library program and the Transition Institute (two practical, grassroots NGOs), as well as the detention of their staffs, are results of this state-civil society relationship.
  2. The state’s agenda and its stability maintenance system vary in practice among grassroots level government officials. More than 10 feminists were detained, and in several cities. But only five of them remain in custody, all in Haidian in Beijing’s university district. The others were released. The detention is due partially to an overreaction by the state to an anonymous online call for public street protests against air pollution. In China’s political center, during the National People’s Congress, Beijing Haidian district authorities prefer to control anyone who has the ability to act on the street.
  3. These young feminists are very creative and capable in their advocacy work around the country, especially in mobilizing university students. They successfully provoke debates on gender equality in university admissions, employment, the available number of public restrooms, etc. They effectively push the public to engage in dialogue on broad gender topics both on social media and in mass media, networking in China and with the global community. They managed to effect several policy changes just over past few years. Feminists are targeted at this stage, for the other independent NGO actors and campaigners in most fields are either jailed or have been relatively silenced since the start of Xi Jinping’s presidency. A netizen recently said on Wechat: “When there are no men to detain, they will detain women; when there are no women to detain, they will detain children.” Even depicting themselves as politically “harmless,” these feminists are targets of attack by various stakeholders. The state is the most powerful one.

The women’s rights movement in China grew out of some of the same social and political upheavals that produced the Chinese Communist Party. For a long while the two seemed to be fellow travelers. Many intellectuals involved in the anti-Confucian May Fourth Movement of 1919 (like some of the major thinkers behind the Hundred Days Reform of 1898 before them) believed that women’s rights were central to China’s ability to become a modern nation. This theme was reflected in some of the most outstanding literature and art of the first half of the twentieth century, in the short stories of Lu Xun, for example, or Shanghai films like Goddess (1934).

As Professor Karl points out, during the Mao years, there was great attention to both the ‘rhetoric and reality of gender equality’ in the workplace. She notes that this was at least partly driven by economic necessity, and there was little official attention to equality in the domestic sphere. Although there was certainly a disconnect in the Maoist era between propaganda and reality, the propaganda presented an official version of an ideal world in which women’s labor and contribution to the revolutionary enterprise was valued as highly as men’s. Exposure to heroines like The White-Haired Girl (an opera, film and ballet before its best-known version as a revolutionary model opera) or the protagonists of the Red Detachment of Women (based on an all-female company within the Chinese Red Army that was founded in 1931) or even just posters of women working on high-tension power lines or building bridges encouraged a girl to dream big, to have ambition, to think of herself as equal.

Today, the combination of the practices of a highly patriarchal Communism Party that has aligned itself with Confucianism and, as Professor Karl writes, an economy ‘restructured around a pure profit motive’ have helped to create a society that actively, insidiously and pervasively acts to discourage women from even dreaming big in career terms.

Today, Chinese popular culture (including magazines, films like Tiny Times and television shows like If You are the One among countless other examples) promotes a very different ideal world, in which beauty has a market value and a good marriage is one in which the man is rich and educated enough to look after wife and family. International Women’s Day is an excuse to advertise cosmetics—and arrest five young women who would dare to challenge the status quo.

That there are still young women who are not afraid to call themselves feminists is inspiring. That the government cannot tolerate even symbolic and relatively light-hearted efforts to confront and redress the extreme gender inequalities of today is disheartening.

On International Women’s Day on March 8, just one day after the feminist activists had been detained, Xinhua News published an article titled “China Speeds Up the Enactment of an Anti-domestic Violence Law to Relieve ‘Society’s Hidden Pain.’” The article says that the enactment of such a law is a response to women’s rights activists’ “long term appeal.” In February 2013, American Kim Lee, who went public with her well-known Chinese husband’s abuse, made Chinese legal history when she was granted a divorce on the grounds of domestic violence. In November 2014, Guo Jing won a landmark sex-based discrimination case in which she sued a cooking school in Zhejiang province for rejecting her job application on the basis that “the school only wants male employees.”

We can consider these recent incidents as steps forward in the Chinese women’s rights movement. They also fit well into Xi’s agenda of “comprehensively governing the country according to law.” The issue here is that these “steps forward” have all been taken by the state. None of the five detained feminist activists are associated with the All-China Women’s Federation, the government-affiliated women’s association responsible for promotion and protection of women’s rights and welfare, or any other government- sponsored organizations. This is not the Chinese government’s first clampdown on grassroots feminist activities. Ye Haiyan, a prominent activist for sex workers, has been detained more than once. Many feminist activists have been asked to “drink tea,” a euphemism for being summoned for questioning by the police.

On the one hand, the Chinese government is making some effort to advance women’s rights. On the other hand, it is cracking down on women’s rights activism. This shows that the Chinese government at its core not only wants to control every aspect of the society, it also wants to monopolize social progress. The message: Rights can be granted, but you are not allowed to demand them, especially not outside the confines of the channels approved by the state.

In March of 2002, students from Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou published an article online called “Listening to V’s Monologues,” describing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. The author deliberately used only the letter “V” in her article. The letter stood for “Victory over violence,” “Valentine’s Day,” or “Vagina” instead of saying vagina directly in Chinese. A year and a half later, on December 7, 2003, during the first performance of The Vagina Monologues in China, an actress uttered the Chinese word for “vagina” (yindao) without any euphemism. The play was directed by students and faculty at Sun Yat-sen University and marked a moment of bluntness somewhat uncommon in Chinese plays, movies, and books. Tickets sold out quickly. Since then, The Vagina Monologues has been performed many times throughout China. In 2013, a group of photos were shown on the Internet by Beijing Foreign Studies University students. In the pictures, college students held banners reading “My vagina said_____.” Although it’s been 10 years since the first showing of The Vagina Monologues in Guangzhou, many Chinese netizens still consider the photos “radical.”

Some feminist ideas that are not as “radical” as those in The Vagina Monologues are more welcome. In 2013, author Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book Lean In was translated into Chinese as Take One Step Forward (xiang qian yi bu). Sandberg even traveled to Beijing to promote her book. In many universities in Beijing, readers of Lean In had set up “Lean In circles” to discuss the book’s message. Well-educated women have already learned to strengthen their position in the workforce. Indeed, Chinese society is getting used to the existence of women leaders, bosses, and Ph.Ds.

However, President Xi Jingping’s administration seems to misunderstand the rise of women’s power in China. During President Xi’s meeting with the All-China Women's Federation in February this year he still emphasized conservative values in defining the role of women. For instance, he stressed women’s roles in shaping “family values,” “taking care of elders,” and “educating children” in Chinese society.

Despite President Xi’s conservative views on the role of women in Chinese society the recent crackdown on five well-known feminist activists has less to do with “feminism” than it does with “activism.” The government does have some agenda to protect the rights of women. For instance, the State Council’s Legislative Affairs Office published the draft of the proposed Anti-Domestic Violence Law in December of 2014. Internationally, the government is trying to promote its commitment to gender equality. On March 9th, Chinese officials announced at the United Nations headquarters that the Chinese government and the U.N. will co-host a Global Women's Summit in September. While these steps forward prove there is a feminist awakening happening in China, the Chinese government might need to rethink the overlap between feminism and activism and to speed up its reforms on gender inequality.

I’ve spent hours in the back room of a Chinese police station. I have been interrogated, asked the same questions again and again by multiple police officers, have had my words recorded, been denied access to my lawyer and told to stop posting things on my weibo account…all this because I chose to report a crime (my ex-husband’s brutal violence). So, I shudder at the thought at what my friends, being held in Haidian police station are experiencing now that they have been accused of “picking quarrels”.

I will leave the historical and political implications to those more academically inclined. I want to bring the issue of this inexcusable detention into the realm of the personal. Sexual harassment and domestic violence are cancers in any society. In China, they undermine the very stability that the government pursues at all cost. These young women are bringing attention to these problems with unprecedented humor and intelligence, sparking the dialogue that is so desperately needed, dialogue that can pave the way to a “cure.” Instead of being lauded for their efforts, they are rounded up and detained as subversive criminals and enemies of the state.

Is the Chinese government pro-sexual harassment? Supportive of domestic violence? Of course not. Just this past week I was contacted by domestic and international media to weigh in on the “milestone” of the announcement that China’s first comprehensive anti-domestic violence law would be released for a first reading in August. I refrained, because “announcement of a first reading” is cold comfort to the thousands of Chinese women who shared their experiences with me. Should they find the courage to walk into a police station seeking help, they have no more legal recourse today than I did three years ago.

However, what they do have is heightened public awareness that violence against women is wrong, that excuses of “culture” or tradition justifying this behavior are going the way of foot-binding. I am often given credit for causing this shift in attitude. I’ve even been labeled as a “hero for Chinese women,” but I chafe at this undeserved title. The real heroes are the brave young women who donned bloody wedding dresses, collected signatures, sang and danced in front of the courthouse during my divorce trials, all to keep attention on the issue of domestic violence. They are the real catalyst for positive change. They are the force that inspired me to keep going and now they have been forced into silence. Why?

I think these women strike real fear into a government that is struggling with the problem of how to manage increased public awareness on all sensitive issues. From the environment to women’s issues, the appearance of progress is increasingly failing to satisfy the growing numbers who yearn for the real thing. Anyone willing to make the leap from yearning to taking action is going to be seen as a threat.

A decade ago in Beijing, I met an old-school Chinese feminist working with rural migrant women. She started with simply telling them they were people, equal to men, with rights of their own. Sometimes she had to work to convince women this was true. Ten years ago, that concept of basic equality was still radical in parts of rural China.

In the past decade, millions of rural and poor women have improved their lives through work and education. Days of shocking inequality and abuse might seem far away, but layers of deeply ingrained sexism permeate Chinese society.

There is nothing close to equal representation in government for Chinese women. When the current regime took power, there was no perfunctory nod to women’s rights. Now amid the elimination of dissenting voices, we’re seeing something even more troubling.

The country’s most important decision-making group, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, is made up entirely of men. Only two members of the wider, 25-member Politburo are women. If a woman had joined the Standing Committee in Xi Jinping’s government, she might have advised against arresting women’s rights leaders ahead of International Women’s Day 20 years after Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women.

The arrests are not shocking given the current state of things in China, but rather in keeping with the tone Xi has set—limited tolerance for critical voices and dissent. This is part of a bigger pattern beyond women’s rights. Yet it’s still galling that women who were calling for an end to sexual harassment on public transportation are considered dangerously critical voices in China today.

The top-down tone of misogyny has real implications and activists like those recently arrested are the people who can push for real awareness and necessary change.

By many measures, women have lost ground in China. Women earn on average 40 percent less than men—a figure that has risen steeply since the days of state-owned enterprises and guaranteed jobs - and face widespread discrimination in hiring.

At home, women are still expected to do the lion’s share of household work, and that includes raising children. At work, sexual harassment and abuse are routine.

Today’s problems are thankfully far removed from the cruel days of foot binding and forced marriage. They are still important. Silencing those who want to live and work free from assault and harassment, to earn a decent living and make their own choices, serves nothing but the status quo. China’s women deserve better from their leadership.

Although China’s revolution significantly improved women’s position in society, it ultimately failed to balance the power between men and women. The social transformation, no matter how seemingly dramatic, hasn’t wiped out the male chauvinism so deeply rooted in our culture that it leads to gender asymmetry.

Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up policy also caused setbacks for women as the government surrendered some of its responsibilities to the market.

In the past three decades, the income gap between men and women has widened. The latest official statistics suggest that urban women make income that is only 67.3% of what urban men make. Women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make.

Female graduates have a much harder time finding employment—especially now that jobs are no longer assigned by the government. Maoist style equality has been replaced in the workplace by open sexism. On China’s many employment websites, one often can spot job advertisements that exclude women for no good reason or specifically request good-looking women. One salesperson’s position demands “a pretty woman with height no less than 1.7 meters.” Such blatant discrimination occurs because people think it is perfectly alright to assign work on the basis of gender.

Some private companies try to avoid employing women of child-bearing age and sometimes sack them once they become pregnant. It is feared that the relaxed family planning policy which allows only children to have a second child may make some companies even less willing to hire young women.

Women’s representation in all social activities has decreased in the reform era as state support and intervention has dwindled.

In the face of growing problems Chinese women have started to take the matter into their own hands and are putting up a fight.

Before The Forth Women’s Conference was held in Beijing in 1995, there were no autonomous NGOs in China. There was only All-China Women’s Federation, an umbrella organization with a nationwide network. It is supposedly responsible for promoting the government policies for women and protecting women’s interests and rights.

Inspired by the conference, self-organized women’s NGOs started to emerge, providing legal aid, helping sex workers, or dealing with issues such as domestic violence.

I first met Li Maizi, one of the five detained women, on a bitterly cold day in February 2013, outside the Chaoyang District Court where we both waited anxiously for the verdict of American Kim Lee, who had filed for a divorce against her abusive Chinese husband. Shortly after arrival, Li put on a blood-stained wedding gown. I realized Li was one of the three young activists who had gone out in the Beijing street to protest against domestic violence one year earlier on Valentine’s Day.

In recent years, I’ve noticed increased activism. In 2012, a dozen women in Guangzhou queued in front of a toilet to protest against the lack of public toilets for women. In November 2013, ten university students, wearing giant paper pants over their winter coats, staged a demonstration in front of a local government building in Wuhan, to protest against an invasive gynecological exams imposed on women applying for civil service jobs. Earlier in that year, 20 women across the country shaved their heads, silently expressing their anger against the discrimination in admissions standards at universities. Some universities set higher standards for entrance examination scores for female students. In 2014, I marched for a week in central China with a young feminist friend. She walked all the way from Beijing to Guangzhou, in protest against child sex abuse.

I do believe that such activism has made a difference. Child sex abuse has gained plenty of attention in the media; Guangzhou authorities have promised to build toilets for women and a new comprehensive law against domestic violence will be enacted in August this year, partly thanks to the push by activists such as Li Maizi.

Activism is a sensitive word in China, like any activity that is not sanctioned by the government. More than once, due to her daring acts, Li has been “invited for tea” by authorities. Such intimidation hads’t stopped her.

The latest detention of five activists probably was the reaction of some officials lower in the hierarchy responding to the general political tightening up and lessening tolerance towards dissent in any form. But will these women’s fate put off activism by others? No. Never! More and more young savvy Chinese women have realized that rights will not be bestowed upon them. They’ll have to fight to get them instead.

I have been a longtime observer of the feminist movement and Chinese politics. Discussing the relationship between the two might be seen as detrimental to the five wrongly imprisoned women at this time. But first, almost every time rights activists are detained, their relatives and friends all hope to play down the political overtones of the case, and beg the authorities to release the detainees or lighten their punishments. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort ever happens. Second, I hope that through reading my observations, readers will gain a deeper understanding of the contribution that women’s rights activists have made to democracy in Chinese politics, more clearly apprehend their dangerous plight, and give them more support.

After Xi Jinping took power I wrote a series of articles expressing my worry that his Chinese Dream spelled a setback for women’s rights. This has no precedent in the articles I’ve written over the past two decades. For the sake of simplicity, I only quote from several articles I published in English. In this essay, I call him out for patriarchal ideas with regard to his use of the phrase “not man enough” in reference to the breakup of the Soviet Union: “Xi's comment should not only be rejected by women's rights groups, it should also rightly embarrass his peers in politics who have some understanding of power relations. Patriarchy has made a comeback in Chinese society and is helping today to strengthen authoritarian rule.”

When “First Lady fever” took over the Chinese Internet, many people were speculating about what changes the image of Peng Liyuan as a “First Lady” akin to America’s would bring to China. In this article I argue: “The "first lady fever" in China is only the result of a mix of patriarchal attitudes, political entertainment and consumerism. It is euphoria created to fill the vacuum left by political repression. It looks backwards, instead of to the future.” I also analyze the tragic story of another woman who might have dreamed of becoming “first lady,” Gu Kailai:. “This is the fate of a woman who chose to wed herself to a system that encourages power without constraint.”

The detention of women’s rights activists did not begin with these five women. Countless women have lodged appeals to fight for their rights, taken to the streets, even immolated themselves, and been brutally suppressed by the authorities. In November 2014, when I was attending a meeting of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, I heard a Chinese government official publicly swear that activists attending the meeting would not be targeted, but soon afterward women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan was detained. In this article I argue, “What Ye Haiyan and other women’s rights activists are fighting against is precisely the same culture of rape.”

Immediately afterward, several women’s rights activists were banned from leaving the country to attend the meeting, and they adopted a creative form of political protest. In this article I quote one of the protestors: “This is a gesture. I want to tell our government that we will not stop the struggle.” “Human beings can choose not to give in so easily. We can create new space, and new ways for protest."

After the five activists were detained, I wrote in this article, that says that “Xi's China Dream may be better described as a ‘Dream of a Patriarchal Empire,’ in the way it exhorts women to promote family virtues and cultivate good family traditions.”

I’m not saying that these five women protesting sexual harassment at the bus station will definitely be arrested by the authorities. Even by the logic of those within the system, this kind of detention is ridiculous. However, I am certain that under Xi’s “Dream of a Patriarchal Empire,” human rights activists of all sorts, including women’s rights activists, will be persecuted mercilessly.  (Note: This contribution was translated by Austin Woerner — The Editors).

As a photographer and someone who observes China more than analyzes, I’ll simply try to reflect on some of the things I’ve seen. Firstly, in line with many comments already made—I see these as tough times in general for anyone involved in civil society or activism. At the same time, I don’t think that the rolling back of gender equality can be pinned so simply on the government.

I’ve witnessed blatant and sometimes gut-wrenching gender inequality in China since I first travelled here ten years ago—from the evident inequality in education and job opportunities to more hidden sexual harassment at work and domestic violence.

Perhaps one reason for the backwards slip in gender equality is that a purely state-backed feminism is vulnerable. As Rebecca Karl points out, an improvement in gender equality in the Mao era was awarded, in part, because the idea was exploited for productive purposes. But in the current market economy, which often fails to provide social welfare, there are other roles required of women.

Dayan Li has already pointed out Xi Jinping’s debatable comments at the All-China Women's Federation this year. To add to this back in 2013 at the 11th National Women’s Congress, Wang Qishan, a Standing Committee member pronounced: “(Women) are also expected to make new achievements and contributions to promote harmony in families and society by carrying forward the fine traditions of respecting the elderly, loving the young, being frugal and properly bringinsg up children”

With state-feminism already backsliding it’s sad to watch attempts to squash this budding independent movement.

Of course, gender equality is a much wider societal problem, and I don’t think the government can be or is fully responsible for dictating trends. The attitude toward gender equality in Chinese society in general is discouraging. A year or so ago some young female students I know from Beiwai University received a nasty public backlash after photos of them promoting a performance of The Vagina Monologues landed (sans context) on Weibo and in local media. They faced widespread, ugly, misogynist trolling. These young women never meant to be the face of feminism; they were simply performing a university play and exploring gender issues. Instead of being empowered and debating issues, many of the girls involved were crushed and silenced. One student who was documenting the backstory of the performance had to quit once the issue hit the media, as none of the cast wanted to talk about their experience or be filmed any longer.

While for urban women the situation seems bleak, according to my own fairly frequent trips to the countryside, I’d say that overall I've witnessed huge advancements. Even in the time that I’ve lived in China it’s clear that women in the countryside leaving for jobs in the cities have gained greater economic and social independence.

Back in the city, certainly among the young students I most often contact—the biggest complaint I hear is that they feel caught between societal and family pressures to conform to both conservative gender roles and new expectations. On the one hand, they've invested heavily in education and feel a pressure to succeed career-wise, but as soon as they start building their career they are pressured to marry and settle down—they are caught in both sets of ideals and it's stressful trying to achieve both.

Yaqiu Wang’s point is important. The government attempts to lead everything, including social progress, since the Mao era means gender equality has been given rather than taken. And this centrality of the state prevents society from reflecting about society itself. Ultimately gender equality is something that both the state and society need to take on so it’s a shame that the government is hindering the discussion.

That said, this attempt to stifle seems to have instead gathered to their cause widespread exposure and sympathy. Let’s hope so.