This past weekend, students and community members crowded into Room 129 of the Yale Law School for a panel on feminist and LGBTQ activism in China. The event was part of Yale Law School’s Rebellious Lawyering Conference, the largest student-run public interest conference in the United States. Organized by Siodhbhra Parkin, the star-studded panel included a number of Chinese feminist and LGBTQ activists.
Leta Hong Fincher, the author of the critically acclaimed book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, set the current issues surrounding activism in China in context. She explained to the audience that though China “was able to rely on the very rapid growth of its economy to keep people satisfied and quiet,” it could no longer do so. This is mostly due to the dramatic slowdown of the Chinese economy, and has lead to intensified government crackdowns on activists and anyone else who challenges its ability to “control the population at large.” Fincher argued that this year will be particularly politically unstable because of the upcoming 19th National Congress elections. These will decide the new leadership of the Communist Party of China.
She noted that “the entire authoritarian structure in China is extremely patriarchal.” By controlling women’s birth through population planning strategies, “the government survives on the subjugation of women.”
Liang Xiaowen, a student activist who co-founded an organization for lesbian feminists in China, described the increasing difficulty of mobilizing people. Though the Chinese government cared little about such movements in the past, it has since changed its stance, creating restrictions on media reporting of activists’ behavior. Across social media platforms, she explained, the government “hires a lot of volunteers to delete our messages from civil society.”
The minds of young people have become a battleground. Feminist groups that once inspired college-educated women to aid their cause have been failing to do so. Liang highlighted the reason for this, saying that the government has found ways to “harass” these women. For example, attending feminist events can result in officials notifying a student’s parents of their daughter’s involvement in supposed anti-government activities.
That said, feminist activists must carefully walk the line between provoking the government and spreading their message. Using art as a medium for expression is one strategy employed by feminist activists in China; in this way, they carve out more space in which to they might use their voices. In 2012, Liang organized a highly successful street demonstration in the form of performance art centered on the idea of occupying men’s restrooms.
Hou Ping, a lawyer and an LGBTQ and women’s rights activist, commented on the difficulty of balancing efficacy with safety from harassment. “There’s no simple strategy,” she said. “If you are high profile, the government will find you. But if you are low profile, no one can find you.”
Ping then describe some of the difficulties of funding a social movement in China. Activism, which is by nature unpaid, functions as a sort of hobby that is pursued only by those most passionate about the cause. As a result, activist groups are often a self-selected group of extremely motivated people.
“I do this work not because I know I will succeed,” Ping said, “but more because we have to.”
Though funding is difficult to come by, taking foreign aid to supplement costs can be detrimental to Chinese activist groups. “Activists are considered the proxy of developed countries,” Liang explained. Becoming marginalized or stigmatized “like human rights activists are” would prevent her group from being able to organize effectively, said Liang.
Lui Wei, a public interest lawyer who co-founded a lawyers’ network dedicated to fighting for women’s rights in China, added that accepting foreign aid can be interpreted as catering to foreigners’ interests; this helps strengthen the Chinese government’s negative portrayal of social movements. For this reason, Wei said, she believes that “[legal] cases are the best way to show our opinions not only to the court but also to the public.”
Being a lawyer in China, however, is different from being one in the United States. Wei described a moment she felt completely powerless while doing her job in 2008-2009. She was representing a young woman with a disability who was asking for compensation from the Chinese government. “I was being pushed over by the police,” she reflected. “If I can’t even protect myself, how can I protect other people?”
Wei also communicated concerns that even legal professionals were not able to exert substantial influence in society. “Sometimes as a lawyer, your voice will hardly be heard,” she said. A recent 2015 crackdown on human rights lawyers was one of many setbacks for her group. After the crackdown, it was difficult for Wei to find places to organize events as she was frequently turned away without reason.
Ping echoed Wei’s sentiment and mentioned that law school curricula do not include the logistics of pro bono work. In the field of law “it’s very rare to hear about a public service role,” said Ping. For example, before 2010, there were hardly any lawyers working on LGBTQ issues. There are now volunteers who do the job, but these are few and far between.
The challenges of activism in China extend beyond concerns of provoking the government. Unlike in the United States, where activism and organizing is a viable career path, activists in China must teach themselves how to do the same work. Ping noted that she had to “self-educate in activism work.”
Despite these limitations, Ping said, there is still a vibrant LGBTQ and feminist community in the country. Ping argued that high-profile court cases, like the same-sex marriage case, serve to trigger useful discussion, even from those who oppose it. Those who oppose it must voice their disagreement, and this gives more direction to activism work.
Using the arrest of China’s “Feminist Five” in 2015 as an example, Fincher pointed out that in a perilous environment like the one in China, “just to survive is a huge accomplishment.”
Lü Pin, a leading Chinese feminist activist for over 20 years, joked in Mandarin: “I agree that our first goal is survival… if we want to win in the end, we must outlive our enemies.” Though there is currently greater support for feminism than ever before, the government has intensified its attacks on core advocacy groups, who have been forced to move from a legal “gray area” to the underground. Activists are also getting younger and younger, said Pin, with some even organizing in high schools. This has been accompanied by a shift from centrally organized community activism to more diffuse, self-organized movements.
Pin emphasized that activism requires more than just righteous anger. To succeed, activists must have institutional training and developed networks. She usually finds it concerning when people say they are scared of radical activism, “but now I’m scared too because our society is so fragile we don’t know what it [radical activism] will lead to.” Changing her mind, she said that radical activism must be kept alive in their minds to know for what purpose they are fighting. “If we retreat temporarily, why are we even doing this?”
Government restrictions like banning news reports on feminist activities also tend to have a reverse effect. When asked how people mobilize people despite the high risks, Pin said that the risks burden primarily the core members of the feminist community. Those on the periphery may not even know of the risks because the media does not report on them. In this sense, media silence has led people to participate in feminist activities.
Ping, looking out at the crowd that had gathered there in the Yale Law School classroom, speculated that people were in the room because they were interested in the anti-authoritarian aspect of activism. This has become increasingly relevant since the 2016 US presidential election.
“The common enemy is authoritarianism, no matter where,” Ping said. Though democracy is “taboo” in China, Ping pointed out that “[activists] practice democracy within every small grassroots movement.”
Pin was more skeptical about democratic movements in China. She noted that democratic movements in China have often created many problems for feminist movements by bringing up useless questions such as whether human rights or feminist rights should come first. She mused that feminists needing to educate democratic movements “is a real waste of time for us.”