Keith B. Richburg, a professor and director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong, is a former China correspondent for The Washington Post.
Almost a decade ago, in a hardscrabble mountain town in the remote Chinese province of Hubei, a 21-year-old woman named Deng Yujiao became an early, unwilling symbol of pervasive sexual violence against women by powerful men. Deng, a high school dropout, had a job giving pedicures at the seedy Dream Fantasy City karaoke and bathhouse in May 2009, when a local Communist Party bigwig came in with his cronies and demanded “special services,” a euphemism for sex. When she refused, the official slapped Deng’s face with a wad of money, pushed her onto a couch and climbed on top of her. Deng reached for the only weapon she had, a three-inch knife, and stabbed the big man in his neck, chest and stomach. She called the police as the official bled to death.
Deng was charged with “intentional homicide” and strapped to a bed in a psychiatric hospital. She might have stayed there, or been swiftly tried and executed, had her story not found its way to the Internet, where she suddenly became a national heroine. Fearing social unrest, authorities released Deng and allowed her to relocate to another province.
Deng came to mind recently as the #MeToo movement exploded in the United States, rippled across the globe to Asia and finally reached China — where it has run smack into a great wall of official repression and cultural obduracy. Some see this burgeoning women’s movement as a turning point that is already rattling the pillars of China’s patriarchal, authoritarian regime. Researcher Leta Hong Fincher, in her new book, “Betraying Big Brother,” writes that for the first time since 1949, “organized feminist activists independent of the Communist Party have tapped into broad discontent among Chinese women and developed a level of influence over public opinion that is highly unusual for any social movement in China.”
But my 30-plus years of following China have made me skeptical of the ability of any single grass-roots movement to meaningfully change the way the country does business. Since the massacre of pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Falun Gong movement assembled 10,000 practitioners in Beijing in 1999 before the government sent tens of thousands of adherents to prison or “reeducation” camps; factory workers staged labor strikes; farmers protested land seizures; and, in 2011, fed-up villagers in the small Guangdong village of Wukan took over their municipal government. All these actions were contained or put down by force. (Groups like the Tibetans and the Uighurs, set on resisting ethnic Han hegemony, have fared far worse.) In every case, the backlash meant mass arrests, restrictive new laws and an increase in the surveillance state. The various movements always remained isolated, unable to form linkages and metastasize into broader alliances for change.
To me, the #MeToo movement seems destined for the same fate.
It is undeniable that #MeToo has had an impact in China. About two dozen prominent Chinese men — including university professors, journalists, the head of a charity organization and a popular host on the government-run CCTV television channel — have been toppled by accusations of sexual harassment and abuse.
But the government has also stepped up its familiar tools, including its ubiquitous censorship, to try to squash the movement before it gets too far off the ground. Terms including “#MeToo” and “anti-sexual-harassment” have been intermittently blocked by China’s censors. Meanwhile, the country’s clever online activists are finding creative ways around the Great Firewall. Some have been posting emoji of a rabbit eating a bowl of rice; “rice bunny” in Mandarin is pronounced as “mi tu.”
Writers, journalists, activists and veteran China watchers lately have offered widely divergent predictions about whether this fledgling movement for women’s rights represents something more lasting or is merely another stirring that will be ruthlessly suppressed. Fincher, whose first book, “Leftover Women,” explored the problem of gender inequality in China, shows her optimism about the current movement in “Betraying Big Brother” by giving her latest work the not-so-subtle subtitle “The Feminist Awakening in China.”
Fincher focuses on the story of a small group of female activists known as the Feminist Five, who have been hounded by the authorities for innocuous acts such as trying to hand out stickers on International Women’s Day. She argues persuasively that the activism the five awakened is already challenging the authoritarian state, with more and more women taking control of their bodies and rejecting “China’s patriarchal institutions of compulsory marriage and child rearing.”
But even Fincher concedes that the feminists she writes about “were extremely unlikely to realize their dreams of justice or see an end to authoritarian repression anytime in the years to come.” One reason is that China’s communist takeover in 1949 did not so much overturn the traditional patriarchal culture as reinforce it. Officially, at least, communist doctrine holds women as equal, and under the party’s rule, forced marriages were banned, university places opened for women, birth control was made widely, publicly available, and the long-standing “one-child policy” was premised on the notion that a girl was equal to a boy — opening new opportunities for women.
In reality, entrenched cultural attitudes persist. Young women still face intense family pressure to marry early and give birth to a family heir, or be considered “leftover” after their prime childbearing years. Images of women mainly as sex objects still permeate popular culture. And the “mistress culture” — powerful men keeping multiple extramarital paramours — remains prevalent.
On the political level, women remain conspicuously absent. The seven members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee are all men. Among China’s top 63 ministerial-level positions, only four are women. And among the appointed 64 top provincial-level positions — the party chiefs and governors, who are typically groomed to become central-government leaders — only four are women, if you include Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. There are female governors of Ningxia, Guizhou and Inner Mongolia, areas not exactly known as steppingstones for those with ambition to climb the ranks.
Women have fared far better in the private sector, with private enterprise offering a path while government and party work has been blocked. There are seven female entrepreneurs among China’s 100 richest people. The Global Gender Gap index lists China as 100th out of 144 countries, with women outnumbering men at universities and in the professional and technical sphere, but men still dominating in parliament, in ministerial jobs, and as company senior officials and managers.
Fincher views Chinese authoritarian repression almost entirely through a feminist lens and argues that gender oppression is crucial to the Communist Party’s control. By her analysis, President Xi Jinping is not just a strongman but the paternalistic head of an extreme “hypermasculine personality cult” whose continued hold on power is premised on the subjugation of women.
By this analysis, subjugation of women is one of the regime’s central props. “The Chinese government wants women to be reproductive tools of the state, obedient wives and mothers in the home, to help maintain political stability, have babies and rear the workforce of the future,” Fincher writes. The “backlash against feminism” is thus the reaction of a government “terrified at the prospect of emancipated women rising up.”
But in a system premised on total authoritarian control, it seems that any organized group would be considered a threat. For those in power, the subordination of women can hardly be called more crucial to survival than the suppression of ethnic minorities in Tibet or Xinjiang, of Christians or labor rights activists, or young people marching for democratic elections in Hong Kong. And in a country where culture long predates ideology, it seems unlikely that even a collapse of communism would lead to a new era of gender equality.
More likely, I fear that this new feminist movement will be stamped out like so many promising movements before, including the early online activism that brought stories like Deng Yujiao’s to life. I learned about Deng while researching a book idea about how Internet activism had emerged as a serious threat to Communist Party rule in China — or so I thought. The Internet revolution that I believed I was witnessing was quickly crushed after Xi came to power and launched an unrelenting crackdown on the online space. That “revolution” was snuffed out, just like every other popular uprising over the past 30 years.
If feminist activism is any more lasting, it will defy the odds, and history.
By Leta Hong Fincher
Verso. 248 pp. $26.95