Feminist Voices in China: From #MeToo to Censorship

Feminist Voices in China: From #MeToo to Censorship

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Women and Women's Rights


Human Rights


from Asia Program and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Though Mao Zedong once famously claimed that “women hold up half the sky,” under Xi Jinping, women have little space to express dissenting opinions and even less for organized action. In 2015, the Chinese government arrested five feminist activists and jailed them for thirty-seven days. More recently, Chinese authorities have blocked mentions of the #MeToo movement, pressuring women into silence both online and in real life. Despite government pressure, however, the feminist movement in China continues to gain strength. University students, feminist activists, civil rights lawyers, labor activists, and online warriors are prompting an awakening among China’s educated, urban women. Journalist and scholar Leta Hong Fincher, founding editor of Feminist Voices Lu Pin, and Chinese activist Liang Xiaowen share their views on the feminist movement in China and discuss how a new feminist consciousness has found expression through #MeToo.



ECONOMY: OK. I’m Liz Economy. And I’m the head of the Asia Studies Program here. I’m delighted to welcome everyone to today’s lunch discussion, “Feminist Voices in China: From #MeToo to Censorship.” There are many reasons that I am excited about today’s session, not least of which is because I was able to persuade my colleague and friend Rachel Vogelstein to come up from Washington, D.C. Rachel heads our women in foreign policy program. And so I’m very pleased that she’s able to bring her substantial expertise to bear on this afternoon’s discussion.

But I’m also excited because we spend a lot of time here at the Council on Foreign Relations focused on the big issues of the U.S.-China relationship, right? The U.S.-China trade war, South China Sea issues, the Belt and Road initiative. But I’ve always believed that in order to understand China, you have to look on the ground to get at the political and the economic and the social forces that are transforming the country. And I think China’s feminist movement stands at the center of these very dramatic forces, whether we’re looking at human rights issues or generational change or technology or state society relations. And certainly by virtue of the fact that it’s quite well-connected to the global feminist movement, it also says a lot about China’s place on the world stage. So I look at this session as a real opportunity to get inside China, to understand, and to learn about one of the great historical forces of change.

And we could not ask for a better and, frankly, more superstar-filled panel to help us understand this movement and its implications. And that is my queue to turn it over to Rachel, who is going to chair this session. Thank you.

VOGELSTEIN: Liz, thank you very much for your partnership on our discussion today and for that helpful framing of our discussion.

We are very privileged to host three women today who are really on the front lines of China’s women’s movement. First, Leta Hong Fincher is a journalist and one of the leading voices writing about women’s activism in China today. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Betraying Big Brother: The Rise of China’s Feminist Resistance, which will be published this September. Leta, welcome. We are also very pleased to host Lu Pin, who is the editor-in-chief of Feminist Voices, a media agency that she founded in 2009. Feminist Voices has become perhaps the most important channel for advocacy for women’s issues in China, and has a social media following in the hundreds of thousands. She is a former journalist and has spent more than twenty years advocating for gender equality. And we are also delighted to be joined by Liang Xiaowen, who is a leader in a rising generation of young feminist activists in China. When she was still a student, she co-founded a feminist organization in China, and has continued her fight for women’s rights.

So welcome to each of you. It’s a pleasure to have you at the Council. Just a reminder that our discussion today will be on the record. I’ll begin with a few questions for each of our panelists, and then open up the discussion to all of you. Thank you very much. Yuan Dee (sp) thank you for joining us. She will be helping to translate for Lu Pin. Thank you very much for doing that.

So, ladies, why don’t we start by asking you just to give us some context on the contemporary women’s movement in China. In your forthcoming book, you argue that feminist organizing poses a unique threat to the Chinese government. So what do you mean by that? And why is the government so threatened by the burgeoning feminist activism in China?

FINCHER: Is this working? Yes. Thank you.

First of all, I’d like to thank the Council on Foreign Relations and thank Liz Economy and Rachel Vogelstein in particular for inviting us here today. I’m really thrilled that an institution that’s focused on U.S. foreign policy is looking at China’s feminist movement. I think that this is an incredibly resilient, transformative movement. Not enough people are paying attention to it. And getting to your question, I think that I would rephrase it in that the Chinese government perceives a large-scale feminist movement to be a unique threat. I don’t want to suggest that these young feminist activists themselves are a real threat. But it really is fascinating to see just over the last three years in particular, since 2015 when the Chinese government jailed five young women in their twenties to early thirties, merely for trying to hand out anti-sexual harassment stickers to commemorate International Women’s Day.

I must apologize, because I have a cold now. So I’m so sorry, but I have to take a sip of water.

But that event, on March 7 and 8 in 2015, really shocked not just people within China, but also the global community. And it sparked a huge global outcry. And there were major world leaders, notably Hillary Clinton tweeted that the Chinese government must release these young women. And I think that that really caught the government off guard. So after thirty-seven days of detention, the government just—it looked as though these activists were on course to actually being criminally prosecuted and sent to jail. But the government made the unprecedented move of just releasing them. And I really believe that the global outcry played a strong role in that.

Now, since then it’s been very interesting to see, the government has tried to basically wipe out this movement. Just a few months ago, they banned the Feminist Voices, which was founded by Lu Pin. They banned it the night of International Women’s Day. And this was the most influential feminist social media alt-platform and social media account ever in Chinese history. And then they also banned the WeChat account. And yet, in spite of all of these steps by the government to try to target the heads of the feminist movement, we see it is so extremely resilient. If you look at the #MeToo movement in China, it is still going on. It’s happening in provinces across China. At first it was centered on university campuses. But now, just in the last few days, it’s spread to the media sector, to the NGO sector. So what is happening is really incredible.

VOGELSTEIN: It certainly is unprecedented. And I want to build on the government’s crackdown that you just mentioned and, Lu Pin, ask you about that. You know, as the founding editor of Feminist Voices, you are the leader of perhaps the most influential publication on feminism in China. And on the eve of International Women’s Day last year, the Chinese government temporarily shut down your site. So talk to us a little bit about how you and others have handled the backlash and the crackdown, the censorship by government.

LU: Last year—in December of last year the platform Feminist Voices was temporarily suspended by the government, with the excuse that we posted some—we posted a struggle—we posted a content on struggle of feminists. But after—one month later, you know, we restored or come back, with the help of—help from domestic—help from domestic China and abroad, and the world. But what happened this year in the midnight—in the midnight after the International Women’s Day, our platform was blocked—totally blocked. Totally blocked.

So according to—respecting your questions, I know it is—it is hard to understand—for people to understand why feminism is so sensitive in China. Actually, I agree that we have no clear political agenda. I mean—I mean, we are concerned about women’s rights, social rights, economic rights, rather than political rights. But the problem is the—it’s not us to draw the red line. So generally I understand the reasons that—why we are targeted.

The first is because we criticize the existing system. So which means we are challenging the authority of the—of the government. And secondly, we have the—we hold the potential power in the—we have the potential to organize and mobilize the people, which is dangerous. Which is unwelcome by the government, because the government believes it should be the only force organizing the people. Yes. And secondly, when the public space collapsed, I think feminism is already the last distance force in time. So we cannot—or, so we can—I think what happened—what happened in this March—in this March is inevitable.

VOGELSTEIN: I wonder if I can follow up on that and ask, you know, when we think back to the crackdown on the so-called Feminist Five that Leta referenced earlier in 2015 through what happened last year with the government shutting down Feminist Voices, the website. The question that I have is, you know, has the government succeeded in silencing the women that they’re trying to silence? Can it succeed? Can the government succeed in this crackdown?

LU: I think the government can block our platform, but it cannot stop people from pursuing feminist thought, yeah. I believe that women in China is awakened, especially young women—the young generation. And so what have—what is happening in China now is that now is that #MeToo campaign has reached a new wave now, yesterday and today. So I think—yeah, I don’t think our government can succeed to stop us, to stop our movement, because of—because our community won’t give up.

VOGELSTEIN: So I want to build on the young feminist movement you just referenced and, Liang, pull you in to ask you about your experiences as a young activist and a leader in the movement, starting with your days as a university student. Tell us what campus activists and young leaders in China are focused on today, and how has the rise of the #MeToo movement specifically influenced the activism of this rising generation of leaders?

XIAOWEN: Is this working?


XIAOWEN: So I cannot say that I am a leader right now, because there are so many feminist activists, young women, in China that are initiating their own #MeToo movement in China. And this is incredible. And I’m not in China right now, so I cannot say that I am a leader.

But when I was in the university back in 2012 and 2014, I was a very active feminist activist in China. And I participated in a lot of activities. And back then, I can say that while there are not a lot of—no police has come to me or the school counselors would not talk to me because I joined an activity to protest against discrimination of the educational ministry or the disproportion of restrooms between men and women. I participated in these campaigns. But the schools won’t talk to me because of that. But right now, in this year, in 2018, when the—inspired by #MeToo movement in the U.S. Chinese students are initiating—were initiating their own #MeToo movement, starting when one woman stood up and spoke up about how she was sexually harassed by her university supervisor.

Starting from that, more than seventy—more than eight thousand students from over seventy universities wrote their—wrote letters to their alma mater to ask for anti-sexual harassment mechanisms. This is a huge movement because so many people joined this—joined these campaigns. And it’s really interesting, because before this movement whenever we started a joint letter campaign we tried to, like, drag people in. We tried to persuade our classmates to join. But in this movement, alumnis, they are the stars of this—these letters. And whenever there were an undergraduate student who hasn’t graduate wanted to join, people are actually aware of the danger of being harassed by their schools, by the local police. They are aware of that. Still, the students who haven’t graduate wanted to join. And the alumnis will try to protect them by—like, with different measures.

So it’s really touching. And it was in March. And since then, every time—since then, like, every month there will be a new campaign going on, a new event. Not event, but a new incident. Like, somebody will be reported to sexually harassed his students. And then different WeChat groups are formed to talk about this. People talk about these ongoing events nonstop. And at first, they are just discussing. And then right now, it’s, like, seven months later, in July, people are starting to organize how they are going to push this movement ahead. And I don’t think this is a small issue, because young women are organizing together. Not only fighting sexual harassment, but they are fighting against a power relation behind sexual harassment. So this is really inspiring and very empowering for me and for everyone in China.

VOGELSTEIN: I wonder if we can ask each of you to comment on the potential of the #MeToo movement to spread. You referenced the—even the activities in the last few days. You know, there’s been a lot of attention on the activity that sprung on campus, Liang, what you were just referencing at universities across the country. Do you think the movement will move from the urban, educated university context to factory floors and to other populations as well? What do you think is the potential for this movement to spread and grow beyond the population it’s already reached?

LU: I mean, in last—in last few days some well-known people, well-known guys were revealed—were revealed before the public because of their abusive behavior. Some of them are well-known activists who are working in public interest, et cetera. Some are well-known journalists or intellectuals, yes. People are shocked, and also inspired. We realize that for the first time that the structure of our society is—it’s so—it’s so. Yeah, we realized—people realized the truth, that the inside—of the internal structure of our society. And people realized that they—this society—the structure—the structure of this society must be changed.

So the movement is continuing—keeps going on. And I believe in next few days, more abusive people—more abusive—famous people, famous abusive—more abusive record will be revealed—will be revealed and exposed, yes. So I think the—

VOGELSTEIN: Leta, what about the reach of the women?

FINCHER: Yeah. I have to say, I’ve been really quite astonished by the tenacity of this movement. And I use the term movement quite loosely, because you sort of have a political feminist movement which is more around a core of very committed, extremely well-organized young activists. And Lu Pin is actually certainly an important part of that core political force. But then radiating out from that, it just resonates with the message of feminism, the message that women no longer want to tolerate being sexually harassed every day with—and having absolutely no recourse. Women are—across China, millions of women, tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of women, are beginning to wake up to the fact that, yes, they can actually stand up and demand equality. And this is not necessarily related to the political feminist movement, but it’s happening all at the same time.

And so the #MeToo movement, which really began more in university campuses, that itself was also astonishing. Because you have to remember, historically when you look through China’s history—revolutionary history—that revolutionary change always began on university campuses. If you look back to the 1989, the massive pro-democracy uprising which ended with the Tiananmen massacre. That began at university campuses. Going back to the 1949 communist revolution, that was also feminism, the principle of gender equality, was a core rallying cry for that revolution to mobilize millions of Chinese women to join the revolution. And going back further, to the turn of the century with the republican revolution and the overthrow of the Qing empire, feminism, the idea that women’s rights are important, that was a core tenet of the revolution back then.

And that, I think, is key to understanding why the Chinese government today sees feminism as a threat, has made the term feminism politically sensitive, it has cracked down on the internet, intensifying censorship of all feminist accounts with regard to expanding beyond university campuses. Very recently Weibo also shut down an influential website for factory women’s rights because factory women have also begun to stand up and say: Hey, I don’t want to just go to work and be sexually harassed by my superior. And so that website was just recently shutdown too.

The potential—I think nobody understands better than the Communist Party leaders the massive revolutionary potential of a large-scale feminist movement. When millions and millions of women begin to realize that they can actually stand up for themselves and demand justice, then the government has a big problem on its hands. And it’s going to be very, very hard for the government to just squash this, because unlike all other social movements—virtually all other, certainly since 1989—this is so broad, it’s so widespread. It resonates with half the population. How are they going to—they can’t imprison half the population. (Laughs.) So this is why I believe the feminist movement is potentially the most transformative social movement in China, at least since 1989.

VOGELSTEIN: Liang, your thoughts on the potential reach of this movement, and in particular the role of technology as you think about the number of young activists who have gotten involved.

XIAOWEN: Yeah, that’s what—mmm hmm. Well, when it comes to reaching to a more, like, urban, like, rural area women or factory workers, I think it’s—this is a limitation, not about—not only about technology, but also about, like, censorship. Whenever an article was—well, first of all, mainstream media has very little help in this movement, because they can receive bans from the government that they cannot talk about any kinds of this campaigns. So when there are few reports from the mainstream media, it’s very hard to reach outside of the group, which is not very active on social media, because social media is a very—is a very—is, like, the most useful tool that we’ve been using to organize people and to spread the news. And we use social media to organize, to talk—to discuss about our next steps, and to spread the news what’s going on currently and about feminist ideas about anti-sexual harassment. But the censorship is stopping us from getting the news even wider, because a piece of article can be deleted instantly within twenty-four hours. So, yeah.

VOGELSTEIN: So great potential to organize through technology, yet a lot of limitations in terms of who actually access.

XIAOWEN: Yeah. Especially actually young women activists, feminist activists. We don’t have a lot of resources. So social media is a very good tool for us to use little resources but reach very influential in fact.

VOGELSTEIN: In China and elsewhere in the world we see a lot of organizing by young people on this issue.

Well, I’d like to open the discussion to your questions. As a reminder, our conversation is on the record. Please raise your placard, state your name and affiliation, and we’ll get to as many as we can. We’ll start right over here.

Q: There we go. Seema Mody with CNBC.

I was just curious, with the current political environment in China being in the spotlight more than ever now—I work for a business news channel, so there’s not one hour we don’t reference China and what’s happening on the trade front. But even last night, President Xi in South Africa giving much more of a globalist speech, similar to what he gave in Davos. Given what’s happening now, which China being in the spotlight, does that in a way put pressure on the government to, in a way, embrace this current feminist movement? I mean, is there a chance that the government will have to change its stance? Do you see any signs of that happening in the future, given the global attention it’s under right now?

LU: Sorry, I’m speaking in Chinese. (Speaks in Chinese.)

INTERPRETER: So I will translate for Lu Pin.

LU: (Through interpreter.) I have no hope for my government because fundamentally it’s a very patriarchal government structure. We have—we have differences with our government on the ideology level. And those differences are in terms of how we conceive women’s role in the house, at home, in front of the state, in the government. It’s related to how our government’s development model is—whether this kind of development is built on abuse of women or not. Our opposition to this kind of development model that is abusive to women is fundamental at its core and is intertwined with Chinese government’s development in terms of economics and politics. And there’s no way that I can see feminist movement will be part of a patriarchal system—a patriarchal government. Every step of patriarchy society our governments have backed in front of feminism, we see there is a fundamental shift and a falling apart within the patriarchal system. So I don’t think the government will do anything to step back.

But I don’t—but at this dark age, I still see hope in our society. At all those different moments, the Chinese society will always see hope as people resist and fight back. In this society that we constantly look for opportunity to make change, I think feminism is one of the most front—one of the most revolutional power at the front line.

VOGELSTEIN: Leta? Liang?

FINCHER: Oh, did—sure. I mean, I would just—I thoroughly agree with Lu Pin. I mean, we haven’t had—there is so much to talk about. And we haven’t even begun to talk to about the ways in which China’s authoritarianism is essentially extremely patriarchal and based on misogyny. And so I think this is something that a lot of international development organizations don’t understand, or refuse to address, because they may have meeting with senior Chinese leaders and say: Well, these are all the ways in which we think that you can help women’s rights and promote women’s participation in the workforce, because it will be good for your GDP growth, for example. But what these people don’t understand is that sexism and misogyny is the core underpinning of China’s authoritarian rule. China’s leaders depend on the subjugation of women in order to sustain the Communist Party, in order to enable it to survive.

And they’re at a really critical point now. They’re approaching the length of the Communist rule in the Soviet Union. And so this is one of the reasons why the Communist Party recently—particularly with Xi Jinping announcing the abolition of term limits for the presidential rule. That they are actually doubling down on authoritarianism and cracking down on civil society even more than ever before. But particularly with regard to the women’s rights movement, that’s a very complicated challenge. At the same time, China is very concerned about its global image. This is one of the reasons why I believe they released the Feminist Five in 2015 and recently they agreed to release Liu Xia. And that was because of sustained public pressure, combined with committed government intervention and negotiations on the part of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.

And so I very firmly believe that all world leaders need to keep up pressure because the Chinese government does care about its image. It wants to—actually, I just read Liz Economy’s op-ed in The Wall Street Journal about how for the first time China’s talking about itself as becoming the next superpower. Well, if it wants to become the next superpower, it needs to abide by certain global international norms. One of them is that it doesn’t just randomly throw anybody in jail whenever they voice opposition. So those are things that the Chinese government are going to have to grapple with. And with regard to feminism, it’s going to be very tricky because the government cannot just lock up all of the feminist activists, because there are too many of them. And so there are going to have to be ways in which it dose try to accommodate a little bit, at least cosmetically. But fundamentally, I don’t see the government—I mean, there are so many issues about why gender inequality has been increasing so dramatically in recent years.


XIAOWEN: I think the Chinese government will not change its stance, because just like the Russian government they are both inherently homophobic and misogynic. Well, I can give one example based on the #MeToo movement in China. Whenever students are protesting against this issue and trying to pressure their universities to address or to punish the teacher or the supervisor who have been sexual harassed his students for a long time, the wording of the universities are very—well, very—I don’t know, unique? They don’t say sexual harassment directly. They try to turn it into something else. Whenever they try to address this issue, they say there are inappropriate teacher-student relationship in this accident. Or they will say, there is some issue of this teacher. It’s the moral of the teacher that is wrong.

And they try to—yeah, they are doing some—they are trying to build a sort of mechanism. But it’s not focusing on anti-sexual harassment mechanism. There is no accountable commission. There are no supporting system to try to encourage students to speak up. No supporting system to prevent from victim blaming or—yeah. There are nothing like that. So you can see maybe the Chinese government will try to improve women’s benefits, but in terms of women’s rights as long as we cannot—we can never hold the government accountable, as long as they refuse to change how their system works, I don’t see it’s possible.

Also, yesterday when the #MeToo movement finally arrived in the NGO sector in China, women spoke up about how they were sexually assaulted by very famous people. There is one journalist. She reported a very famous reporter from CCTV. A very—the most—the government media. And the news are—were deleted instantly. So you can see, maybe the mainstream media, social media, will report #MeToo movement in NGO sector. But when it comes to power, when it comes to the government, the party, the news are instantly deleted. So I don’t think it’s going to change.

FINCHER: Could I just add one more point?


FINCHER: Because I really want to emphasize how extraordinary it is that there are so many brave women in China who are speaking out about being sexually harassed or assaulted. If you look at how the #MeToo movement became viral in the first place—I mean, it was sparked by an African-American civil rights activist in 2007. But it didn’t go viral until The New York Times and The New Yorker did these incredibly in-depth investigative stories about Harvey Weinstein—a very powerful, Hollywood producer. And then there were all these famous household name actresses that everybody in the world knows about saying: Yes, I was sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein.

So you had to have—that was this incredible act of the free press. So the free press, combined with a functioning legal system, the rule of law, and freedom of assembly and freedom of speech—none of which exist in China. So there are no media organizations that are reporting, by and large, on these cases. They all want to be—they’re all going to be squelched at the very beginning. There’s intense internet censorship. So it’s not even—these #MeToo accounts may not even last for twenty-four hours. Sometimes they’re deleted within a few minutes. And yet, in spite of these extraordinary obstacles, the passion and commitment of women, and the bravery of these women who are then subjected to a deluge of incredibly misogynistic abuse, not to mention also often approached by state security agents are universities.

A few months ago at Peking University, China’s most famous university, this young student, Yue Xin, was harassed by the Communist Party advisor on campus, who came into her dorm room in the middle of the night and demanded that she delete everything on her computer, because she was organizing some #MeToo action on campus. And then she was threatened with possibly being charged with subversion for bringing up the case of a young girl who committed suicide after being sexually assaulted twenty years ago. So when you see these cases emerging in China today, you have to understand the backdrop of the fact that there’s no press freedom, there is intense internet censorship. There is no rule of law. There is no freedom of assembly. And there is essentially no public freedom of speech.

And yet, these women are—and girls—are so impassioned and so committed that they get their message out in spite of these tremendous obstacles. And that is why I think this #MeToo movement and the feminist movement is going to be very, very, very hard to squelch.

VOGELSTEIN: Amy, please.

Q: Pleased to get another set of freedoms in that catalogue. In the U.S., the feminist movement has been so intertwined in the last few decades especially with questions of reproductive rights. And the context in China for that is so different. And I’m curious about how feminists in China theorize and think about how reproductive rights and control of that fits in with the larger idea of feminism there.

LU: (Through interpreter.) There are a huge context difference between U.S. and China. China has a family planning system, which some of you know as one child policy and now is two child policy since 2013. So since 2013, the government seemed to shift from controlling women’s reproductive capacity to encouraging women to reproduce more children. And then I heard that in 2019, there family planning policy will change again. So there are some places in China right now that are really starting to encourage a woman to do more childbearing. And so that’s a different shift.

But what we were sad to see is that all the damage it have done to women in the past, due to the one child policy or family planning policy has not been addressed at all by the government. So at this moment, all the women are very aware of the fact that even the government now is encouraging childbearing, but it will be a new wave of government’s abuse against women’s reproductive rights. During the one child policy era of China, I see that the government and the patriarchal society’s family system have kind of conflict with each other. For example, the government want control its population, but the patriarchal family institution are more—wanted to have more child.

But from now on, I can see a coalition building between the patriarchal government and the patriarchal family system, because from now on they’ll go similar in terms of women’s reproductive rights. But we can see that a lot of women are aware of what is happening, or what is going to happen to their bodies. And they are refusing to use their body and reproductive capacity to fulfill the government’s goal. During the one child policy era, it’s very difficult for feminist nongovernmental, like, civil groups to work any—to work with women at all. It’s hard for those NGOs and civil rights organization to work with women or work against one child policy.

After the two-child policy change also in the future, we see more opening and possibility to work with women on these family planning issues. So our first step is to reveal what have done to women, to reveal the—

FINCHER: Conspiracy?

INTERPRETER: Conspiracy? Thank you. Thank you, everybody.

LU: (Through interpreter.) To review the conspiracy of the government’s evil planning.

FINCHER: Can I just add, again, some background? Which is that one of the reasons why the Chinese government is so set on subjugating women is because basically it views women purely as reproductive tools of the state. And so that was true under the most draconian period of population planning, with the one child policy, and it is equally true now that it recognizes it has a severe demographic problem with the aging of the population, the shrinking of the workforce, which is going along with the decelerating economic growth. So where are future workers going to come from in China? The Chinese government is certainly not—there’s no evidence that it’s entertaining the notion of increasing immigration for more workers. And so what it wants to do now is to push women into having more children.

And that’s very obvious, just even in the last couple of years, with the easing of the one child policy. Officially we have a two-child policy now. The propaganda in—just in the last year alone has really be ramped up. It’s scaremongering, telling women that they have to hurry up and get married or they’re going to miss out on their best childbearing years, which the government believes to be in the late—by twenty-nine—by age twenty-nine. So there have been some—I’ve been looking at some of the propaganda that you see in Xinhua News and other related state media. There are even articles telling college-age women who are only eighteen to marry and have children while they’re still in college and trying to present this as an attractive option.

That seems to be failing—utterly failing, because women are simply more aware of what they want. They want more. And they want to control their bodies more. So if you look at the birth rates, the birth rates are falling. This is a huge problem, in the eyes of the Chinese government. And so it keeps experimenting with these new pro-natalist policies, but I don’t believe that they’re going to have a lot of success, although there’s no question that the family pressure is going to intensify—pressure from parents and elders within the family pressuring their daughters to marry and have children. I’m personally concerned about possible abortion restrictions coming, which would be a complete turnaround from just a few years ago. And we haven’t really seen it yet, but I’m concerned that that is something that we may see in the next few years.

XIAOWEN: Yeah. And also, just want to add that, yes, the government wants more children from a traditional family, because traditional family’s obviously a very—is a way of the government controlling the society. So when they are—they are—when there is a possibility that they will lift the birth ban completely in 2019. We are still unknown if—because the government has been encouraging the same model of family, between one man and one woman. So single women, just like Leta’s last book has been talking about, single women, families between two men, families between two women—this family models are not encouraged. And so when birth limits may be lift—may be lifted, single women cannot—like, they cannot even have their first kid within paying fines, without being punished by the government. I just want to add this point.

VOGELSTEIN: Mmm hmm. That’s important—an important one. We’ll come right over here.

Q: I’m Sharon Hom with the NGO Human Rights in China.

I wanted to first make a quick comment, and then I wanted to see if Lu Pin and Xiaowen might want to jump in on this question about strategy, given that this is an open discussion so you may not. But I thought I’d try to use the opportunity to try to add some deeper understanding for everyone on what I think are very, very sophisticated, nuanced, strategic adjustments being made by the—all the different participants.

The context for the feminist movement I think both domestically and globally are radically different than anything that’s ever been before. There’s a continuity with the past, but I think it’s radically different. And for the domestic picture, you know, there’s nothing better than Liz Economy’s really superb book, The Third Revolution. (Laughter.) She didn’t pay me to say that. But I think it lays out better than anything that’s now out there of the real picture in beautifully written, cogent writing. But really clear, really informed, with no punches pulled. And, you know, what the domestic context is. And it’s broader. And of course, it includes the patriarchy, but the political, the everything, the ideological—that’s the context for the domestic movement.

Globally, I wanted to pick up on, Seema Mody, your question, and then Leta, your comments about, you know, global international pressure. China has said very clearly—we don’t need to speculate will it abide, what will it do. It is very clear what it has said internationally. And it has very—Xi Jinping and the regime says we need to keep this in line. It is very clear. They said: We are not a rule of law country. (Speaks Chinese.) We are ruling the country by law. And make no mistake, it has nothing to do with due process. It has nothing to do with none of that. But they’re not even claiming it. So everyone should just get off that base. They’re saying: Not rule of law.

Secondly, not development. So Lu Pin said this development model is not going to work for women. That development model’s not going to work for anybody. But China has said very clearly last year: We do not accept development with a rights-based framework. That means, it said very clearly: We don’t accept the rights of those who are being affected to participate. They said that officially, clearly, repeatedly, at the U.N. and other places. So I think it’s—and then with human rights, when we talk about freedom of expression, freedom of association, China has said: We don’t buy that. We are advocating our own model. So, yes, China’s on the world stage. But China’s on the world stage to shape it and change it. That is what it’s doing.

And if you look in the business sector, the string of apologies of huge Fortune 500 and global companies saying: We’re sorry. We’re sorry for insulting you. That maps everything. You can see the collapse. And the EU, in terms of international pressure—the EU-China alliance now on trade, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, wrong strategic thinking, I think. So there’s really—I am just saying that to say the challenges these women activists are facing domestically and the challenges they’re facing globally to generate support. Having said that, this is my observation about how come and how they’re surviving and being so—it’s not just persistence, and of course it’s a lot of courage, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of grit, a lot of spirit.

But this is what I think is happening strategically, and it would be good to hear a little bit more about that. First, I think it’s a decentralization. It’s building a strategy, but it’s decentralized. At the same time, it’s networked. Very creative, different ways to network. That’s why it’s surviving, because it’s very, very creative. Thirdly, there’s lots of censorship, but they’re leveraging the seven hundred—over seven hundred million people online. One billion cellphone accounts. Ninety percent, I think, are accessing the internet via their cellphone. They are premier mistresses of using social media. So, yes, Xiaowen said it goes down in five seconds, but they’ve got followers. They’ve got accounts with millions—hundreds of millions. What do they care? It’s down, it’s reposted already.

So I think some of that strategy—and I think a lot of the feminists are not talking about now. They’re saying now strategy, medium-term strategy. And when we were talking to them we said, well, what do you mean, like, medium? And they said, three to five years, five to seven. That’s medium. And then they’re thinking long term, because Xi Jinping is thinking long term. Xi Jinping is talking about 2050. So these young women—thank God they’re young—you know, and they’re saying, we’re talking 2050 too. So I just want maybe to open up, if you want to say a little bit more examples of the kind of strategy that I think we see.

VOGELSTEIN: Any reaction to the role of decentralization or technology that was just referenced?

LU: (Through interpreter.) I totally agree. I think it’s something that the contemporary movement is facing right now, is we need to decentralize or use more guerilla strategy to fight against authoritarian regimes. And this kind of operation or organizing structure also is real—like a realization of our own democratic strategy or what we think is democracy, because we don’t have one only leader at home. But I need to add one more thing, though. This phenomenon also showed that feminism movement in China is very underfunded and in need of resources. Because we don’t have enough resources, and that’s why we have to rely on every individual’s participation. But even under this kind of harsh condition, or, like, decentralized condition, any movement also needs some core leadership. What I mean is that angry people need a plan to transform their anger into action. But this plan is not just come out of blue. It need to be planned and you need to broadcast it.

VOGELSTEIN: I’m going to come over to Paul for a final question and response from each of our panelists. Please, go ahead.

Q: Hi. I’m Paul Steiger with ProPublica.

I want to ask, what is the attitude of younger men, particularly university-educated men? Do they line up with the patriarchy or do you see some indication of support from these portions of the men in China?

VOGELSTEIN: Thoughts on the role of men.

XIAOWEN: Yeah. They’re supporters. And that’s good. (Laughter.)

VOGELSTEIN: Well said.

FINCHER: Yeah, can I—yeah. (Laughs.) I’d also like to say that, yeah, for my first book, Leftover Women, which was based on my Ph.D. thesis about gender roles and real estate, the purchasing of marital homes, I interviewed—men were actually half of my qualitative study sample. And I was pretty struck by how progressive a lot of young men were in China. So when we talk about—or, at least, let me say—when I talk about China as, or the Communist Party, as being fundamentally pushing patriarchal authoritarianism, I don’t mean that all men in China are super sexist. Actually, a lot of them are not. In fact, I’m quite impressed by how open-minded particularly young men are.

And a lot of people who have signed #MeToo petitions on university campuses are actually men. And some of them may be gay or otherwise sexually non-normative. Some of them are straight. And so it’s the younger generation in China that they really give me hope. In spite of all of these incredibly repressive measures that are newly imposed by the Chinese government, the younger generation of activists and how they continue to find room for their activism amid this ever-shrinking space for civil society, is really astonishing to me and gives me a lot of hope.

VOGELSTEIN: Lu Pin, final word? OK. Well, it is clear that there is much work ahead for the women’s movement in China. But there’s no doubt that our discussion today reminds all of us what’s at stake. On behalf of Liz Economy and the Asia Studies Program, and the Women in Foreign Policy Program, we want to thank you all for being here today for this insightful discussion. I also want to mention that in the Women in Foreign Policy Program, we are launching a new initiative to evaluate the global implications of the #MeToo movement. So we hope this will be the first of many conversations. We hope to move to Latin America, the Middle East, and North Africa, across the world. And so we hope you will be interested in participating with us. If you’re not already on our email list, please come and see me so we can add you. Once again, please join me in thanking our speakers for sharing (everything ?). (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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