Gender Equality in China (Loreli Interview)

Cas Sutherland, whose work we first showcased last September, is a model global citizen. Dedicated to the cause of gender equality and h*#man r*ghts, Cas keeps involved in activities around Beijing and greater Asia, blogging at Zhendegender.com

You are a professor here in Beijing. And you blog about feminism, mostly in a Chinese context. You interview fascinating female movers and shakers. Does this sound about right?

Yes, I am lucky to teach at a progressive Chinese university. I see roomfuls of young, mostly female, students every week, and I get to talk to them about issues that are meaningful to me, in the hopes of instilling the student with an understanding of the nuances of the world both in and outside China. I think I learn just as much from them as they do from me. It really is a two-way learning process.

I usually frame my work as blogging about gender, which includes feminism but encompasses a range of other issues too, including LGBT and women’s health issues. All of these issues interact, which is where we get intersectionality (or intersectional theory) – a contemporary feminism that examines how various cultural and social categories (such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc.) intersect.

I’ve been writing about gender and women’s issues for a few years now, but only recently has my focus turned specifically to China and Asia. Living in China does not necessarily make it easy to write about China, and the women’s rights movement here is controversial and highly political. This makes it a fascinating and necessary topic to write about, but also holds potential dangers for anyone openly involved. The project is pretty new. So far I’ve published interviews with Chinese writers and activists, who are already in the public eye, but I’m planning to feature interviews with people from a wide range of backgrounds. My only problem now is getting around the language barrier.

bloodyweddingdress
Li Tingting (or Li Maizi), Xiao Meili, and Wei Tingting raising awareness of domestic violence.

How do you follow feminism in China, and even other parts of Asia (such as Burma)? How do you keep up-to-date?

Coming to Chinese, Burmese and other Asian feminisms as an outsider means a lot of background research was involved to build a base of knowledge. Having intelligent young Chinese students and friends is a huge source of information and inspiration. Most of my research I do simply by talking to people with similar interests – engaging with people on a topic that they enjoy is my favourite way to learn and to challenge my own ideas. I’m also part of a large group of Beijing-based Feminists, who arrange regular meetings to discuss various issues.

Attending events about related topics has been very useful too. For example the annual Bookworm Literary Festival and the regular events listed on Legation Quarter invite experts, both foreign and Chinese, to speak on contemporary Chinese issues. Many events about China will touch on gender relations in some way, whether or not the event is specifically about a related topic. If I’m curious about the way gender relates to the topic, I will ask. I’m one of those people who sit at the front and always ask questions!

If you were to look back on this time in history 50 years, what would you say is happening with females in China right now?

From my perspective, now is a time of major change. Feminism has gained serious momentum in the past 5 or 6 years, and a specifically Chinese feminism is emerging. Women’s rights issues are more widely regarded as important; issues surrounding women’s health are being taken more seriously and sex education is making progress in schools. LGBT rights have moved forward with the announcement that gay conversion treatment is illegal, and the first hearing given to a gay couple demanding their relationship be recognised as under marriage.

That said, progression continually comes face to face with deep-set traditional values that seem to have little grounding in contemporary life yet hold an established place in Chinese culture. Sex-selective abortion continues in its prevalence (13 mil. per year, 60% are unmarried women) and insubstantial (4 months) maternity leave is forcing women to leave their jobs. A large wage gap prevails in a majority of jobs and women’s education is stigmatized (Female PhD students are viewed as a third gender). Gender equality will continue to be a problematic issue with such a huge gender imbalance in China.

What are the latest major achievements and deeper challenges to feminism in China at the moment?

One of the latest achievements to gender equality in China is the domestic violence law, which came in at the end of 2015. It basically means that the police are obliged to intervene when they get reports of domestic violence, where previously the authorities were instructed not to interfere in peoples’ private lives.

Another ongoing controversial issue is the arrest and detention of the Feminist Five in March 2015. The day before International Women’s Day last year, seven campaigners were arrested for planning to distribute fliers about sexual harassment on public transport in Beijing and Guangzhou. Five of them – Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Li Tingting (known as Li Maizi) – were detained for 37 days. They quickly became a vanguard for women in China.

A year later, they went back to the site of their detention to have their one-year bail revoked and to collect their belongings. Three of them went back with their lawyer, but the case against them was not dropped. This means that they could be prosecuted at any time in the next four years.

These young women are not the type to balk at the threat and their detention kick-started an unprecedented era of widespread feminist activism across China. However, the on-going political opposition to the women’s movement, and the dangers associated with it, could be a major obstacle to the future of Chinese feminism.

You use this phrase ‘global feminism’ – what’s that all about?

I think it is pretty clear by now that feminism is making waves the world over. Here in China, not only is there a burgeoning curiosity to learn about the way feminism operates in the west, but China is claiming feminism as its own. While the label ‘feminist’ means a person who believes we must work toward gender equality, women and men in the UK are experiencing very different challenges to gender equality than those faced by people in China, Burma or elsewhere in the world. While labels can be useful, feminism means different things to different people. I see feminism as a tool for change – it must be applied in new ways in different contexts, and however much we support one another, we cannot fight other peoples’ battles for them.

I use the phrase global feminism because disconnects between western feminist strongholds and developing world feminism can often be misconstrued. There is no reason a western feminist ‘we’ must set the agenda for a developing world feminist ‘them’. Chinese activists are navigating the way toward gender equality using a contemporary Chinese feminism, on their own terms. Nonetheless, Chinese feminism still embodies the principles by which feminists around the world are bound together.

xiao-tie-header
Super-badass activist Xiao Tie

I read on your blog that a super-badass feminist Xiao Tie may be in some sort of trouble. What gives?

She is indeed a total badass. Thirty-year-old bisexual LGBT activist Xiao Tie is the director of Beijing’s LGBT Centre and one of Beijing’s most prominent young figureheads. Her campaigns for LGBT rights have gained international attention, most notably those protesting ‘gay conversion’ treatment, that is still a widespread problem in China. The authorities are aware of those facts. I don’t think she is in immediate trouble, but she has been prevented from attending events (ie. a discussion of Women’s Rights in China at The Bookworm’s Literary Festival this March) with the threat of detention. This threat could be realised at any time, so she has to monitor her every interaction, whether in public on or social media.

Xiao Tie is among a group of young activists of both sexes who campaign for gender equality and LGBT rights. The ‘Feminist Five’ and their allies are prominent figures in the press (both national and international) and are thus potential targets for the authorities, wumaodang (the fifty cents party) and criticism from Chinese citizens. They are fully aware of this risk, but they are not likely to stop working towards what they believe is right for the country.

Is the Chinese word for ‘feminism’ as stigmatized in Chinese as in English? 

This is a really fascinating and complex topic that I actually covered with my students this week. There are two Chinese words for feminism, sometimes used interchangeably. Both hold somewhat different connotations as each emerged in a specific historical context.

An early translation was 女权主义 ‘nuquan zhuyi’ (women’s power or rights + ism), denoting a militant demand for women’s political rights reminiscent of the earlier women’s suffrage movements in the West and in China. It has distinct militaristic connotations.

The women’s movement later took a very different direction, and the identity of Chinese women thus came to be defined by state organisations, like the ACWF (All China Women’s Federation), exclusively in terms of an official discourse on gender. Use of the term ‘feminism’ was rejected and ‘forbidden’ within this discourse from 1949.

Feminism returned to China during the 1980s, and the new translation proposed in the 1990s was 女性主义‘nuxing zhuyi’ (femininity + ism), which emphasises gender inequality rather than women’s rights, and is seen to have a richer set of cultural and political meanings than the earlier term.

The word feminism is stigmatised in the west because it connotes previous incarnations of feminist thought that have since become less popular. Thus the need for naming developments in feminist thought in ‘waves’. Second wave feminism – the bra-burning era – is part of the reason contemporary feminism is often treated with such reticence. Fourth wave feminism (which is where we’re at now), encompasses intersectionality (or intersectional theory) and operates on the basis that feminism can and should work for every – and I mean every – individual within their own unique social context.

My students tell me that女权主义 ‘nuquan zhuyi’ holds connotations closer to second wave feminism, and女性主义‘nuxing zhuyi’ is probably closer to fourth wave feminism. It depends who you talk to, but from what I understand, ‘nuquan zhuyi’, the stronger of the two, is used much more often, whether colloquially or among writers and feminist thinkers, even though the word is not recognised by the Party.

How can we [any reader] help the situation?

First off, get informed. Learn about the nuances within gender equality movement wherever you are in the world – by reading, attending events, asking questions – and challenge your existing views by talking to people about theirs. Second, go to events and support the cause – whether it is a charity event at the LGBT center, an discussion run by Lean In Beijing, or an event that gives you the chance to talk to experts about what more you can do. Many of the organisations will take donations and are eager to find volunteers. You can even by a Chinese ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt from Xiao Meili’s taobao page.

This interview was originally published on Loreli on 12th May 2016.

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