Written by Ling Tang.

The Chinese #Metoo movement has inspired more than 70 student-led petitions appealing for comprehensive anti-sexual-harassment measures on university campuses. Instead of considering #Metoo as a social movement that travelled from the center – the US – to peripheral China, its initial success needs to be contextualized as part of the larger picture of the development of civil society and feminism in China.

The Internet and the Civil Rights

The Internet entered China in 1994, when the economic boom started to overshadow the civil society movement crushed by the tanks in Beijing half a decade ago. As of June 2017, China has recorded 751 million netizens, comprising 1/5 of the entire global Internet users. The netizens are economic as well as political actors: their online activity ranges from shopping to online activism. The Internet facilitated the post-98 Weiquan civil rights movement, which asked for protection of rights enshrined by the existing laws rather than a reform. Another example of online agency was the successful case of the abolishment of custody and repatriation (C&R) system in 2003, thanks to the Sun Zhigang incident. It has shaped the Internet, media and legal systems into the civil right defense triangle. However, after 2003, the freedom of speech on the Internet has become more restricted under the name of cyber sovereignty, followed by decline of independent journalism and silencing and persecution of human rights activists. In overall, these state interventions have been fundamentally shaped by the fear of untamable civil society that could lead to unwanted reforms. In this context, the success of Chinese #Metoo is remarkable not only because it led to career suspension of prominent Chinese professors, but also because it managed to entice supportive feedback from the state media such as Guangming Ribao.

Bottom-up vs State Feminism

A plausible reason for this success is that the discourse between power and harassment fits neatly into the president Xi’s anti-graft reform. The sexual harassment cases, revealed in the testimonials of victims such as Luo Xixi, resonate with the president Xi’s anti-corruption campaign: “the abuse of personnel authority and abuse of executive authority overlaps”.  Feminism in itself is not perceived as a threat by the CCP, but the bottom-up approach that might lead to an untamable civil society certainly is.  For instance, two years after detaining the feminist five for their plan to distribute anti-sexual harassment stickers, the All-China Women’s Federation organized an anti-harassment campaign in the Beijing Metro. The ambiguity of the feminist campaign arises from the alignment of goals between the bottom-up feminists and the state gender policy, but is also being defined by the regime’s fear that, despite the shared goals, the bottom-up feminism could challenge state authority.

Association between feminism and the state started in the late Qing dynasty when the leaders of the Hundred Day’s Reform (维新变法) linked the oppression of women with the feudal oppressive regime which, in their view, led to social crisis in China. This reform has laid the foundation for both Marxist feminists and the Liberal feminists in pre-PRC era with aim to modernize China. However, with the establishment of the PRC, the state feminism embodied in the All-China Women’s Federation has since then become the only legitimate route for feminism, consequently outlawing the bottom-up approach.

The Economics and Academics of Gender Equality

The economic reform era is witnessing return of the highly gendered bodies as well as traditional values. However, the academic bourgeoning of gender studies also gave rise to a group of pioneering Chinese gender studies scholars. Politically, the fourth Congress on Women in Beijing 1995 fostered growth of NGOs, including the predecessor of FeministVoices, the most well-known feminist independent media and NGO that gathers young feminists. Furthermore, the 21st century is witnessing the coming of age of the only-child generation that enjoys their family resources exclusively regardless of gender. As the one-child policy had the unexpected outcome of improving gender equality, especially in providing tertiary education opportunities for women, it also helped cultivate a cohort of female university student activists, including some members of feminists in action (女权行动派) – such as the “feminist five” – and others who support gender equality. The young feminists gradually formed a loose community thanks to the traveling of a localized theatre play Vagina Monologues in the Chinese universities, as well as the social media apps. According to an activist in charge of a petition for the university anti-sexual-harassment system, most of the people who drafted petitions are connected online.

As the petition snowballing continues, the student wave, enriched by the #metoo movement, is moving beyond the young female group and is inspiring petitions among university scholars and female factory workers. In the struggle between the state acknowledgment and fear of these petitions, we see a glimpse of hope that the state is reconsidering its approach to gender equality.

Ling Tang is a junior research associate at the International Gender Studies Centre at University of Oxford. Image credit: CC by  surdumihail/Google Image.