The detention of the “Feminist Five” in 2015 appeared to mark the first time that the Chinese Party-state regarded feminist activism as “political” in the sense that it posed a threat to CCP hegemony. These young women, with their social media presence and performance art creativity, represent a distinctive approach to organising on behalf of women’s rights than characterised that in the 1990s, surrounding the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, when non-governmental organisations were closely connected to the statist Women’s Federation while also forging transnational connections. The “Feminist Five,” as leading voices of a new “generation” of feminist activists, have distinctive and often self-reflexive links to transnational feminisms, even as they pursue new forms of “identity politics.”
The FWCW generation of Chinese feminists employed tools and tactics derived from the “global” in order to create new forms of organisation and action in the Chinese context; they introduced terms such as “sexual harassment,” “domestic violence,” and “(social) gender” to their scholarly and activist writings and projects and self-consciously created “non-governmental organisations.” These urban women also importantly worked often on behalf of rural and migrant women, thus seeking to broaden their activism to wider sets of marginalised women in China than themselves. And yet these activists often also sought to reclaim, in the words of Li Xiaojiang, who is widely credited as the founder of post-Mao women’s studies in China, a type of “female subjectivity” that contained the potential to individualise the causes and solutions for women’s unequal status in ways that ultimately were quite compatible with the general privatising tendencies in a “socialist market” China. Many NGOs engaged in “projects” (xiangmu) that provided psychological counselling or job training in ways that both were utterly essential for improving women’s lives, including those in the countryside, and often also created greater collective gender identities; they also indeed did not do much to challenge the deeply patriarchal structures that pervade both Chinese society and global neoliberalism. Feminist politics in China thus in many cases transitioned from the Mao-era state-led “women hold up half the sky” collectivist discourses to what in many cases were individualised and privatised forms.
And so a younger generation of feminists, sometimes self-consciously critical of the older generation, engages in new forms of activism—scholars point to their use of activities such as street theatre and performance art, social media, and “impact litigation” as distinguishing them from the FWCW generation of NGO activists. This new generation is also returning to translating “feminism” as nüquanzhuyi rather than nüxingzhuyi, which among other things is regarded as putting a greater emphasis on women’s struggle for rights. In many ways, these young feminists are creating a salutary reconstruction of Chinese feminism’s approach by placing it more firmly in the realm of the political. They are acknowledging the limitations of the FWCW-era activist approaches which sought more cooperation than confrontation with the Party-state, while also in some cases seeking to use the legal system to allay discrimination against some of China’s most marginalised groups.
Yet there are continuities between both the FWCW generation of feminists and contemporary activists, as well as between the Chinese socio-political reaction to new feminist activism and ongoing anti-feminism around the world. In this sense, while the FWCW generation of feminists were buoyed by their transnational contacts but also needed and desired to find ways to negotiate the “global” and the “local,” so too the new generation of activists have found support from the transnational even as they are facing the Xi Jinping regime’s distrust and repression of aspects of “global civil society.” Fighting sexual harassment is a cause connecting the two generations of activists. Attention to the concerns and tactics of the NGO activists of the 1990s and early 2000s reveals that they too talked of “human rights” and in some cases employed the legal system to push their agenda, even as they were more closely tied to the Party-state than the new feminists seem to be. The state’s crackdown on these new feminists has a number of likely causes—the general suspicion especially of foreign-connected elements of civil society in the Xi Jinping era, a notion of a “Chinese Dream” that also promotes patriarchal Chinese traditionalism, and the public and confrontational style of some of these activists’ approaches. A transnational “Free the Feminist Five” social media campaign perhaps contributed to their ultimate release, and feminism seems to have growing support at least among young, urban women in China. These young women’s emphasis on issues facing urban women, particularly sexual and body politics, is of course essential; and yet I wonder to what extent they engage in activism on behalf of their rural counterparts in the ways that the FWCW generation often did.
Thus, a complicated relationship continues between Chinese feminists, the Party-state, and “the transnational.” It seems more essential than ever that feminists in China negotiate the “local” skilfully, in terms both of diagnosing the sources of gender inequality as well as in finding means to appropriately challenge unequal social, political, economic and cultural structures; it also means arriving at ideas of the “local” that is inclusive of the multiplicity of marginalised groups in China. But feminists worldwide should seek to avoid the pitfalls of what Nancy Fraser terms “misframing,” which essentially means pointing to domestic sources of what really are transnational problems. This also relates to strange convergences between China and the neoliberal West in terms of ongoing statist and right-wing attacks on feminist activism. In all cases, feminist activism must seek to negotiate between the imperative for certain forms of “identity politics” while also grasping the deeper, in many cases economic, reasons for the marginalisation of women and also continuing to connect feminism to the importance of civil and human rights for all and indeed ultimately to genuinely democratic forms of governance.
Sharon R. Wesoky is Professor of Political Science at Allegheny College, USA. She blogs at runningwhilesmokingcoal.blogspot.com and tweets at @shazchina. Image credit: Free the Five campaigners.