Feminism's 'Extraordinary Moment' In China Right Now, And Why The Government Sees It As A Threat10:41
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In this April 18, 2015, photo, Chinese women rights activist Li Maizi poses for a photo in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this April 18, 2015, photo, Chinese women rights activist Li Maizi poses for a photo in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Author Leta Hong Fincher (@LetaHong) joins Here & Now's Lisa Mullins to discuss her new book, "Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China," and why Chinese feminists are being detained, surveilled and censored for actions like putting up stickers in subways against sexual harassment.

"There's this huge confrontation now between the agenda of the government, which is pushing a very traditional gender norm,” says Fincher. "But then you have this enormous upswelling of particularly educated young women who are pushing back in every way.”

Interview Highlights

On the history of the ‘Feminist Five,’ the focus of her book

“These five women became known as the ‘Feminist Five’ after they were jailed in 2015 for planning to celebrate International Women's Day, and it wasn't just those five women. There were a lot of women in different cities across China who were planning to hand out stickers about sexual harassment on subways and buses, but before they even carried out their plan, the police in all of these Chinese cities just carried out a sweeping round of arrests and focused on the five women — the Feminist Five — brought them to Beijing and detained them for 37 days, before there was a huge global outcry that resulted in their release.

"The reason why the arrest and jailing of these women just galvanized so many in the feminist community inside China, and globally, is ... because all they wanted to do was to hand out stickers."

Leta Hong Fincher

“The authorities were kind of feeling around for something to charge them with, and in the end, it was something akin to ‘disturbing the social order.’ But the reason why the arrest and jailing of these women just galvanized so many in the feminist community inside China, and globally, is ... because all they wanted to do was to hand out stickers, raising awareness about sexual harassment.”

On the motivation for the Feminist Five, as well as other Chinese women’s rights activists, for speaking out

“Among the Feminist Five, quite a few of them had suffered abuse in their personal lives while growing up. For example, Li Maizi herself spoke about quite severe physical violence at the hands of her father from a very early age, and her uncle. Some of the other activists had also encountered sexual abuse.

“And it wasn't just these five women. A lot of the women who … have been involved in the Women's Rights Movement have personally been victims of sexual assault or very severe domestic violence, and that has given these women an intense sense of personal commitment to fight back.”

"The rhetoric at the time was very much that women can do whatever men can do. And so, even today, you see the legacy of that early communist era."

Leta Hong Fincher

On Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party’s previously-stated goal of gender equality

“In the early communist era, there were a lot of changes brought about for women.

“Even though women still had to assume the double burden of working in the workforce and then taking care of children and cooking in the home, the fact is that the Communist Party mobilized women and said that they assigned them jobs, either in the cities or … in the fields, and so that brought women out of the confinements of the household, and so female labor force participation was really the highest in the world in the early communist era.

“The rhetoric at the time was very much that women can do whatever men can do. And so, even today, you see the legacy of that early communist era, because China's female labor force participation is still relatively high compared to a lot of other countries. Although, it's really falling dramatically with the onset of market reforms. But now, in the last couple of decades, you've seen a huge resurgence of gender inequality.

“With the dismantling of the planned economies, so many women have been laid off relative to men, and the gender gap is rising exponentially in so many ways, and that's a big part of why this feminist movement has grown, is because of that dissatisfaction with this huge gender gap, that women have to put themselves behind men. And so, many young women today feel that that's really profoundly unfair.”

"Sexism and misogyny and the subjugation of women -- pushing women to return to these traditional roles of dutiful wife and mother -- all of that is at the core of what I call China's patriarchal authoritarianism."

Leta Hong Fincher

On why the Chinese government feels threatened by advocates of feminism

“On the face of it, I mean, what these women are doing is actually in line with the Chinese government's expressed belief in gender equality. But if you look at the bigger situation of China now, the economic growth, the economic miracle of the past few decades, is basically over.

“The workforce is shrinking, and birthrates are falling and the population is aging drastically. So the government has decided that it really needs to try to boost birth rates, and it's very aggressively pushing particularly educated young women into getting married and having more babies.

“But the message of feminism is completely opposite to what the Chinese government is trying to do, because these young feminists are telling other women, ‘No, you don't have to get married, you don't have to have babies if you don't want to.’ But in many ways, I believe that sexism and misogyny and the subjugation of women — pushing women to return to these traditional roles of dutiful wife and mother — all of that is at the core of what I call China's patriarchal authoritarianism.”

On the tactics the Chinese government is using to push women into getting married and having more children

“It's doing a lot of different things. First of all, there is very aggressive propaganda that is telling women that they have to hurry up and get married and have babies before they turn 30; otherwise, if they wait too long, then their babies will have birth defects. And so I've seen, for example, People's Daily articles, which is official Chinese state media, that women in college shouldn't wait to get pregnant. They should seize on their so-called best childbearing years.

“Then there's also policies. So, the much-publicized, so-called one-child policy recently ended, so China officially now has a two-child policy. It's been encouraging or trying to push particularly Han Chinese couples to have two children. But in spite of this really dramatic policy change on population, the birth rates still fell last year, and this poses a huge crisis for the Chinese government as it looks to the future.

“There's this huge confrontation now between the agenda of the government, which is pushing a very traditional gender norm, pushing women into the home to become baby breeders on the one hand, but then you have this enormous upswelling of particularly educated young women who are pushing back in every way, and so what is unfolding right now is just an extraordinary moment in China's history.”

On the internet’s role in the Women’s Rights Movement in China, and how activists circumvent government censorship to share their message

“More and more women went online and were sharing their stories.

“This is what is so fascinating, because, in spite of the intense internet censorship — which has become incredibly sophisticated — these women, they're so imaginative that they find ways of circulating their message and getting around the censorship.

“Just to give one example, there is one activist who when the hashtag ‘MeToo’ was being very heavily censored, this one young woman came up with the idea of using [the emojis] for rice and bunny, which is "mi tu" in Chinese, which sounds like ‘MeToo.’ And so that was one way that they were able to get around the censorship for a while.

“They're continually playing this game of cat and mouse and coming up with new ways to get around the censorship … It goes to show you that just as much as the Chinese government has been very effective in controlling the free flow of information through heavy controls on the Internet, that in this era of global connectivity, where there are also a lot of young Chinese people who leave China ... they're constantly communicating individually with their friends back home. And so, it's very, very hard for the government to completely shut that communication down.”

This segment aired on October 8, 2018.

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