China’s Feminist Awakening


BEIJING — I didn’t think much of it when the police took away five of my friends and fellow feminist activists in early March for planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transportation in Beijing. Similar arrests had happened to all of us before, and we were always let go after a few hours of interrogation. But when my friends didn’t come home that evening or the following day, I realized it was different this time. Given that I had planned and participated in many activities with them, I worried that I could be the next target and be forced to provide “evidence” against my friends. So, I fled Beijing and went into hiding.

The arrests sparked nationwide online protests and petitions by young people, especially university students. We hadn’t expected that the international community would also react so strongly: Human rights organizations and Western leaders, such as Hillary Clinton, voiced their condemnation. The domestic and international pressure led to my friends’ release after a month of detention. Of course, it didn’t help that the police also failed to gather any concrete criminal evidence against them.

I’ve since returned to Beijing, but this incident prompted me to examine my own activism and question whether I have made the right choices. When I was growing up in the 1990s in Sichuan Province, I found many cultural traditions and practices puzzling. At home, I addressed my mothers’ parents as “waipo” and “waigong,” or “outside grandma” and “outside grandpa,” because I was told that my father’s family mattered more. In school, my teachers held higher academic expectations for boys than they did for girls because they believed boys were smarter than girls.

While applying for college, many universities openly excluded girls from majors such as marine engineering and geological exploration, and lowered admissions standards for boys who chose to study foreign languages and broadcast journalism, which historically attract girls. I constantly saw want ads that either excluded women or specified that women applicants needed to be tall and attractive.

Many took this entrenched discrimination for granted, but I didn’t. As a sophomore in college, I became interested in feminism and began reading Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” and other famous feminist works. I enjoyed watching foreign movies that depicted women championing social justice and gender equality. Like a nearsighted person with new glasses, I began to see clearly, and many of the things that puzzled me growing up were explained by feminism.

In the fall of 2011, I met Li Tingting, one of the arrested activists. Ms. Li, who had campaigned for women’s issues for several years, introduced me to a circle of like-minded women and a whole new world of activism.

My friends, most of whom were born in the 1980s and ’90s, and I have had a good education and we could easily find “nice” and “stable” jobs. Our parents have always exhorted us to live normal lives and not to poke our noses into things that don’t concern us. But instead of pursuing lucrative corporate positions, getting married and having children, we choose to become full-time women’s rights campaigners.

In China today, women face widespread discrimination at work; many companies refuse to even hire women. Sexual harassment is commonplace. Domestic violence is pervasive. According to a 2013 multi-country study conducted by the United Nations, more than 50 percent of Chinese men have physically or sexually abused their partners.

Some friends advise us to advance our cause by “quietly” lobbying the government or by pushing for changes within the system by becoming government employees. But in a country where the government still exerts tight control over ideology, those inside the system rarely find the courage to speak up.

Many women before us have taken the accommodationist route, but little has changed. Strong public pressure is necessary. We cannot afford to go about our campaign quietly.

Since public protests and demonstrations are banned, we rely on a unique platform — performance art — to challenge social conditions. We’ve taken our message to the streets and subways and fought for a safe public space for women.

The first public performance project I took part in targeted rampant domestic violence. Donning bridal gowns splattered with fake blood, we marched down a crowded Beijing shopping street, carrying signs that read “Love is not an excuse for violence” and urged residents to be vigilant against domestic abuse. Through the “Occupy Men’s Toilet” campaign, we called attention to a more mundane issue: the unfair ratio of male to female toilet stalls in public places. In another action, we shaved our heads to protest discrimination in college admissions.

And last year, I trekked more than 1,200 miles, crossing 55 cities to raise awareness about the high rates of child sex-abuse in China’s schools. The government, rather than fixing the system and punishing the perpetrators, simply blames the victims.

Our presence on the streets and in the media appears to be influencing decision-making. In recent years, several universities abolished their discriminatory admission policies. Beijing is said to be building new toilets for women, and some universities are converting toilets to increase the ratio for women. The top legislature is considering a domestic violence law.

Our actions have irked some chauvinists, who have threatened and harassed us on social media. The police have warned us against the evil influence of “hostile forces” in the West and began monitoring our phones and email.

The arrest of my five friends, which occurred in the days before International Women’s Day, showed that the government has become scared of a group of young women because of our ability to mobilize a large network of supporters. They were incarcerated on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” even though the event was still in the planning stage and our past activities were carried out peacefully. The police punished my friends to intimidate other social and political activists.

In the near future, even though we may have to adjust our strategies to cope with this tough environment, we’ll never give up. We hope the international community will not either.

Feminism was never a taboo topic in China because our messages were consistent with those of the government, which calls itself an advocate of women’s rights. But all that changed with the arrest of what the media dubbed the “Feminist Five.” In an unexpected way, the police helped create more public interest in feminism in China.


See Ya!

Hey everyone! I’m going back to China during summer break and since we cannot log on to the wordpress in China so I guess I’ll see you guys this September!

My flight is in 12 hours and it will last for at least 18 hours!! Okay good luck to me and hope you all have a sweeeeeeet summer!

Don’t forget to leave me a comment! Bye!

Where to start? Where to end?

From my recent research about feminism in China, I see some limits under China’s economic, political and social modernization. Some feminists say that there are less feminists in China because China’s traditional culture tells women to be virtuous, gentle and soft. It is an important reason, but we are in modern society now, there must be some more important limits except the “tradition” — China’s political law and economic system.

As I mentioned before, the law in China says that if the forst child of a couple who live in the countryside is a girl, then they can have have another child. However we all know China’s “planned parenthood” or “birth control” limits that every couple can only have one child no matter the child is a boy or a girl (unless the child is disable). For couples in urban area, it is unfair. Also, why they can have the second child if the first one is a girl, not a boy? Or both? Is is a discrimination to girls?

Socialists tell us 64% Chinese are peasantry, the grain produced by them is feeding the whole China’s people. the government allowed parents in countryside have two babies because there is a lot of farm work in countryside, and if a couple only has a daughter, the daughter probably cannot finish the manual work. A boy will be needed in their family to lighten the girl’s burden. It is true but we ignored one problem — in general, a girl cannot be stronger than a boy. However the basic distribution method among the world is, more pay for more work, less pay for less work. This rule is disadvantageous for women. The characteristic of women is careful, considerate, care about details. There is no way that women can work as much as men. I think if we are pursuing the real equality between men and women, the first thing we want to do is to change the way they are distributed. More work doesn’t mean better work, why we cannot change the distribution method as “more pay for better work”?

There are more girls challenging the traditional Chinese women’s figure. Manly girls, leftover ladies, and green tea bitches are some example. Manly girls tell us girls are not weak, we can do things independently and survive better than men. Leftover ladies tell us age is not important for women, it changes your beauty but inside you are still the proud girl who never gives up. Marriage is about happiness, not about age. Green tea bitches show us they are the master of their vagina and they have sex based on their own opinion, not men’s. Although in some Chinese’s eyes these girls are being criticized, but these adorable ladies actually changing the feminism in China.

China now is the America about 15 years ago. We can see the feminism’s future in China, it is rising.

Feminism in China: Risky, But Rising


This summer I taught a course on American education policy at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China, with 55 undergraduates, mostly women, who were smart, inquisitive and surprisingly bold.  Despite the lack of support for women’s rights in the country, several of them identified as feminists, and many chanced government backlash by writing about wanting more rights in education, marriage and employment in the course’s online discussion board and on social media sites such as Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter.

During my three weeks there, I found that under China’s economic, political and social modernization, the most profound change may be the burgeoning number of feminists. While feminism as a widespread and cohesive political movement has yet to arrive in China, young college women are getting out their messages of gender equality on the Web. For example, last year at the prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University, 17 female students  promoted an upcoming performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues by holding up signs that read “My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom” and postedphotographs of themselves with the signs on Chinese social media.

In 2013, after the Women’s Legal Research and Service Center revealed widespread gender discrimination in college entrances that left women who scored much higher than men on the gaokao (the all-important national college admissions test) out of the top institutions,  some young women shaved their heads in protest and posted their photographs on social media platforms.

Twenty-something college students are also getting offline and staging protests in public areas. This past spring, just before I arrived in China, six topless women stood on a roadside in Guangzhou displaying signs that called for female equality. Similarly, activists occupied men’s toilets in a Guangzhou park to demand more public toilet stalls for women.

It’s not just college women who are risking taking action. Urban pockets of Chinese women are following Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra of “leaning in” or, in the Chinese translation, “taking one step forward.” Following the release of the Chinese version of Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, “lean-in circles” have sprung up in Beijing and other large cities with well-educated, ambitious, striving women. One young woman in my summer course explained how there were a handful of these circles in Xi’an, mostly comprised of students and young professional women. She didn’t think that they were doing anything that would be censored by the government, but one can never be sure, she warned.

All of this is remarkable because gender discrimination seems to be increasing in China since economic reforms began in the late 1970s. Alicia Leung, a researcher on the women’s movement in China, argues that gains made by women in China are limited by the patriarchy. As shown in the2009 work of Lily Harper Hinton [pdf], then a postgraduate researcher at Victoria University of Wellington, women’s wages in China have lost ground to men’s. Their rights to marital property were reduced in 2011, leaving most of China’s assets in the hands of men. Only two women serve on the Politburo, and the party’s central committee of 200 officials now has less than 5 percent women, a figure lower than during Mao’s reign.

The feminism of Chinese women is also remarkable because being a feminist in China is risky. Women’s rights activists are pressured, harassed and punished by the government, especially if their activism involves collective action, public protests or is seen by the ruling Communist Party as threatening social stability. The Party often shuts down group demonstrations and places strict enforcements on the Internet.

Clearly, isolated protests by college and urban women and growing global recognition of Chinese women’s activists do not necessarily equate to the rise of women’s status in China.  Significant improvements in that status will require changes in attitudes that are deeply embedded in the country’s culture and history. But the young women I taught are ready for that challenge. They reason that time and the Internet are in their favor. Because things are changing so quickly in China, and globalization has already placed China in the world’s view, they believe that a large-scale wave of feminism is inevitable in their lifetimes.  Of course, they hope it is sooner rather than later.

As the international community remains highly attuned to the economic and political rise of China, we should also watch and cheer for feminists who are pushing against the country’s entrenched gender inequalities and misogynist leanings. And let’s help them by publicly opposing the Chinese government’s restriction of online communications, because that is their lifeline for activism. The students in my upcoming fall courses in Arizona will freely debate issues about social inequities, including gender discrimination, online. Shouldn’t Chinese students have the same right?

Top: Chinese versions of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues have been performed in the country for more than 10 years.

Jill Koyama, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. She is coeditor of U.S. Education in a World of Migration: Implications for Policy and Practice.

Where are China’s feminists?

Employment rates and wages for women are dropping

On a chilly January evening, three women sat in a restaurant in Beijing’s posh Sanlitun neighbourhood, lost in thought as they gazed at their half-finished plates of organic pasta. Fashionably dressed and in their midtwenties, Allison, Yolanda and Maggie are the organisers of “Lean In Beijing,” a women’s professional development group named after the best-selling self-help book by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and one of the world’s most influential feminist voices.

In her book Sandberg urges women to pursue their careers rather than allowing themselves to fall victim to gender biases in the workplace or at home. Her message has found a passionate audience in the US and abroad. There are now over 14,000 “Lean In Circles” around the world, where women meet to keep one another focused on their professional goals.

The Beijing circle, which was founded last summer, received a big boost in September, when Sandberg visited the city to promote the Chinese version of her book, and more than 800 fans flocked to hear her speech at Peking University. Just a few months later, however, the organisers are worried that the energy is already faltering.

“We have circles in several universities in Beijing,” said Allison. “But the problem is, no one is willing to lead them.”

“If I were them, I would not want to lead either,” Yolanda said. “They [the students] are thinking: ‘I have so much on my plate already. I don’t know who you are, and you expect me to lead a group?’ ”

Feminism as a coherent civil and political movement has never arrived in China. Among the majority of Chinese women, even white-collar professionals who face the kind of career challenges Sandberg addresses, her message of female selfempowerment can sound distant, even out of touch. There are a number of native factors, such as China’s cultural tradition, its corporate environment, and a weak civil society, that make it difficult for feminism to take hold here.

There is little question that Chinese women would benefit from such a movement. A study in 2010 showed that China’s urban employment rate for working-age women stood at 60.8 per cent, down from 77.4 percent 20 years earlier. Women’s wages as a proportion of men’s also dropped from 84 to 74 percent between 1995 and 2007.

The reasons for this shift are complex, but one crucial factor is rising wage levels for middle class jobs, which make it easier for a family to live on a single breadwinner’s income. The result is that there is less immediate need for both the husband and wife to work, and so more women have opted out of the workforce, since they are still expected to do the majority of the housework and childcare at home.

As Communist ideology recedes in present- day China, traditional gender roles have regained sway. “The whole of society is telling you, why do you need to be so successful as a woman?” said Yolanda, who works in a hospitality company. “In China, feminists are seen as weirdoes.”

Rigid corporate culture allows little room for change, especially inside China’s stateowned sectors, which attract the top graduates. “I can’t negotiate my salary, it’s decided by my hours,” said Allison about her job at a state bank. “My boss doesn’t encourage us to take initiative. It’s better to take orders.” This image of women as passive and subservient is reinforced in state-owned newspapers and television. Instead of encouraging women to pursue their career, Chinese media throws around words such as “left-over” women, stigmatising educated women who are in their late twenties and still single. “Left-over women should pay attention to their own shortcomings,” reads an article in a provincial Chinese newspaper. “Successful men and women need to conform to the standards of good husbands and wives.”

Many Chinese women, internalising social expectations, decide early on that they would prefer a less intense domestic lifestyle to the cut-throat competition in the professional world.

“In China, many tell themselves: ‘Well, [Lean In] is not the kind of life I want anyway,’” said Maggie, the third organiser at the Lean In meeting. Allison agrees. “We want to spread the idea of Lean In to those who are ready for it,” she said. “If they are not, it’s very difficult to force it onto them.”

Still, there exists a cohort of women who have achieved dazzling professional success, especially in business. China has “more self-made female business billionaires than any other country in the world,” according to Newsweek. These individuals range from real estate moguls to restaurateurs. Though they may not view themselves as self-styled feminists, as many western female business leaders such as Sandberg do, they have nonetheless overcome China’s societal and institutional obstacles to become symbols of hope for aspirational women.

The Lean In leaders are still optimistic about the future. “I believe feminism is an unstoppable trend in the long run,” said Allison. And her confidence recently received a further boost. In early January, a 23-yearold woman won an out of court settlement after she filed what is believed to be China’s first gender discrimination lawsuit. A recent university graduate from Shanxi province, Cao Ju was turned down from a job at a private tutoring firm only because, as she was told by the firm, “the position requires a man.”

Instead of accepting the injustice, as many other female job seekers have done, Cao decided to find a lawyer. “I believe I am qualified for the job,” Cao told a Chinese newspaper. “I am female, and that should never be a problem.”