Not long ago Séagh told me that they wanted to set up an English-language website on Chinese feminism and invited me to write this piece. I felt really honoured. I have had the idea of building a website like this for a long time. I never thought that Séagh happened to be thinking the very same thing.
Looking back at the story so far, I have been just a tiny part in the vast tides of Chinese feminist movements. In 2012, we started promoting feminism in China using activist methods. At that time we worked with the media to launch a series of feminist actions such as 'Bloody Brides', 'Occupy Men’s’ Toilets’ 'Bald Girls Oppose Student Enrolment Discrimination’. We also showed our solidarity outside the court rooms with women who had experienced domestic violence and so on.
Our activities went well and were met with a lot of interest. We were the stars of mainstream media. Through our actions, the country’s female toilets started receiving expansions. In 2016 authorities issued the new “Public Toilet Design Standards,” affirming the hard work of feminists. In 2013 Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beijing Language and Culture University, and Beijing Second Foreign Language University equalised admission criteria for male and female students across a number of language courses. Before this, men could enter those courses with lower marks than women. When these three universities were making this announcement, they also admitted the former policy demonstrated suspected gender discrimination. Between 2012 and 2013, we showed solidarity outside the courtroom with Kim Lee, who had experienced domestic violence multiple times. In the end domestic violence was written into the divorce judgment.
However in 2015 the Feminist Five were detained and this led to a very difficult time for the feminist movement in China. Firstly, our actions had been completely politicised and became politically sensitive. Secondly, the Chinese economy was rapidly developing and gender issues had become increasingly unimportant. Thirdly the whole political environment was tightening up and an unprecedented increase in law enforcement power was also taking place.
Under such circumstances, the forms of activism we had used before were no longer viable. We had no way of continuing those previous forms of feminist street actions on a large-scale. Instead, we adopted online action and a few small-scale offline actions to expand our activities.
However, the Feminist Five incident was also a turning point. For one, it was the first time that the world noticed that China had feminist activism. Secondly, a young generation of Chinese feminists had emerged, gone out onto the international stage, and smashed the Mao-era imaginings that global society had had of Chinese feminism. Thirdly, Chinese feminists began paying attention to topics of discussion about feminism across the world; they were no longer isolated within the context of China and were now working to build up sisterhood between feminists of every country.
As such, the Feminist Five received the sustained attention of foreign media. We used our actions to maintain solidarity with the whole world; opposing sexual assault in the United States, supporting the pro-choice movement in Ireland, opposing Trump’s misogyny and so on.
So, our difficulty lies in the increasing domestic restrictions of the activism approach, which causes activism to become completely impossible in China. Activism is a global form of advocacy, but this form of common language is disappearing for us in China right now. What is replacing it is a feminist activism with distinct Chinese characteristics. It is much more difficult for international audiences to understand and keep up with compared to activism like that of the 'Bloody Brides' and 'Occupy Men’s Toilets'.
The obstructions we are facing right now are not only language barriers, but also the government’s Firewall and the difference between political systems domestically and overseas. If we want to overcome these obstacles, we need to link our domestic feminist activism more closely with those in the English-speaking world.
We need something that is both timely and accurate in order to maintain these kinds of connections with the world and ensure global awareness of China’s feminist movement. Moreover, we need something that allows us to seek co-operation and advance the possibilities of sisterhood.
For these reasons, I think this website is just that kind of initiative. This website can be an important base for connecting feminists in China and those around the globe. It can let Chinese feminist voices be heard throughout the world. Understanding the current situation of China’s feminist activism is where the change begins. (Translated by Séagh Kehoe and Luoluo).
Li Maizi is an activist for women's and LGBTQIA+ rights in the People's Republic of China. She was one of the Feminist Five who was detained on the eve of International Women's Day in 2015. She tweets @LiMaizi.