Leta Hong Fincher’s latest book explores the online and offline cultures of censorship, surveillance and control in which Chinese feminists bravely operate
“Far too often the role of women in resistance movements is overlooked, but it is critical that we bear witness to the persecution of feminist activists resisting authoritarian repression in China” – Leta Hong Fincher
When re-reading George Orwell’s 1984 in tandem with Leta Hong Fincher’s latest book Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, the prophetic veracity of one passage from 1984 in particular stood out to me. An excerpt from a banned book secretly studied by the protagonist, which reveals the true story of Orwell’s fictional authoritarian regime, reads as follows: “Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.”
In her book, journalist and scholar Leta Hong Fincher gives an impassioned and moving account of the modern women’s rights movement in China, drawing chilling parallels between Chinese statecraft and the policies of the Orwellian ‘Party’. She encourages international solidarity with the Chinese women fighting for social justice within what is also, she argues, a fundamentally patriarchal authoritarian society. Hong Fincher thus opens up a critical discussion of women’s oppression in China and in doing so articulates a more nuanced understanding of the inequitable structure of Chinese and global society at large.
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Using the Chinese government’s detention of the so-called ‘Feminist Five’ on the eve of International Women’s Day in 2015 as a point of entry, Hong Fincher fleshes out the coming-of-age stories of these five activists and deconstructs the systemic biases against which they and their sisters continue to fight. Imprisoned for simply planning to hand out anti-sexual harassment stickers during the Women’s Day celebrations, the Feminist Five were catapulted into the international spotlight, and the hashtag #FreeTheFive went viral on social media platforms around the world. Throughout the often-harrowing narrative, which combines emotive personal interviews with shocking statistical data, the author pays special attention to the importance of visual metaphors in performance art protests that have brought China’s feminist activism into the public eye.
Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China presents a bitter indictment of a regime for whom maintaining inimitable power repeatedly comes before the health and happiness of its subjects. The Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, which was orchestrated by the Chinese government and to this day has not been formally acknowledged by the Chinese Communist Party, forms a critical touchstone throughout Hong Fincher’s account. Against an agenda of historical erasure which, through programmes of both propaganda and censorship, avoids unfavourable representations of the party, Hong Fincher refuses to let this terrible event slip far from the reader’s consciousness. It is arguably the absence of this brutality from an entire generation’s consciousness that has led to the apparent fearlessness of the young activists today as they face up to the government. At the same time, the scar left on older citizens by the crackdown makes intergenerational mobilisation difficult, as parents fear for the safety of their rights-conscious children.
The above-mentioned excerpt from 1984 captures something of the culture of censorship, surveillance, and control within which Chinese feminists are forced to work. In an account of her 37-day imprisonment posted on WeChat (under a pseudonym), one of the Feminist Five Wei Tingting wrote of her “joy in betraying Big Brother” as she sung defiantly with her feminist sisters through the cell walls that separated them. It is this brave and hopeful sentiment from which Hong Fincher’s provocative title emerged. It informs the daring, joyful tone that punctuates the book when the author writes of landmark legal victories for domestic abuse victims, and Chinese women’s stubborn optimism in the face of an overwhelmingly entrenched culture of misogyny.
Much of Hong Fincher’s research is drawn from the online worlds of Weibo and WeChat, where she analyses both sexist and feminist discourses. The term “feminist” is a politically sensitive keyword in China and subject to strict censorship. When the #MeToo hashtag reached Mainland China it was quickly blacklisted. Chinese netizens combined the characters “mi” and “tu” which translates to “rice bunny” in order to evade censors and continue the discussion. In the same cyberspace swathes of men habitually hurl sexist abuse at prominent women who express themselves online, without punishment. In a case Hong Fincher describes in her chapter focused on the internet, upon posting content about her enjoyment of single life, the abuse one woman received ranged from violent threats of gang rape, to being labelled a “traitor” to men telling her “No wonder you can’t find a husband!” Each variant expresses the same intimidating message, one that many women receive consistently both online and in normal life: fall back in line quietly or suffer consequences.
However, Hong Fincher’s central thesis makes the compelling case that the burgeoning feminist movement poses the single greatest threat to the Chinese Communist Party, an organisation which has held on to power since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. She also insists on the importance of interconnecting social justice movements in China, namely the fights for women’s, the LGBT community’s, and worker’s rights. In a country where trade unions are banned and humanitarian NGOs subject to intense scrutiny, Hong Fincher considers the feminist network’s historic rallying around striking workers and LGBT issues to form a crucial part of its mobilisation of support, and consequently an amplification of its threat to Party rule. She argues that the extreme scrutiny self-proclaimed feminists and rights campaigners now face is a symptom of a nation-wide fragile masculinity calcified into government policy, which relies upon the subjugation of women (and workers) for the ideological and economic stability of the nation.
When the nation is envisioned as one “big family” (it’s literal translation from the Chinese word for nation: “Guójiā”) women are treated primarily, in the author’s words, as “biological vessels for the delivery of babies”. On top of putting pressure on Chinese women’s already fragile reproductive rights, this functions to stigmatise single women, the gay community, and anyone calling for women’s equality, particularly in the male-dominated workplace, which is still overtly hostile towards women.
Hong Fincher considers Xi Jinping, China’s “strong-man ruler”, and the hypermasculine cult of personality he has built up around him to exert a particularly sinister influence. She points out that for the first few years of Xi’s presidency he was even called “Big Daddy Xi”, not a far cry from “Big Brother”. Propaganda produced under his leadership encourages young educated Han Chinese women to get married and have two babies before they reach thirty, preferably while still in education, creating harmonious families of “high-quality stock” to strengthen the national body. Hong Fincher previously explored the related media tactic of demonising unmarried women in her book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, published in 2014. Despite suffering traumatic physical and emotional abuse at the hands of men throughout their lives (including male family members, those working for the state security services and even the lawyers employed to defend them), the women under discussion in Fincher’s book can still find joy in betraying the patriarchal and heteronormative vision of national unity promoted by their government.
Hong Fincher emphasises visual protest as a key form of discursive action employed by Chinese feminists. She does not linger on the history of this art form in China, but it is worth noting that, since the 1980s, performance has been used by artists to express dissatisfaction with modern society at large, state their individualism, and assert freedom from external constraints. It is no wonder the practice is regarded with suspicion by the government. Hong Fincher writes that in 2012, there were as many as a hundred feminist activists regularly engaged in performance art denouncing gender inequality across the country. Performances can further function as a statement of bodily autonomy, a right which the state has long stripped from its female citizens. Hong Fincher reminds us of the mass sterilisations (called “forced acts of mutilation” by another critic) conducted under the one child policy, which preceded the current two child agenda.
In 2017, when local officials refused to display an anti-sexual harassment advert in Guangzhou’s subway stations, 24-year-old Zhang Leilei took to the streets to respond through performance art. The campaign for the ad was led by Zhang’s girlfriend and other feminists, sick of the daily harassment women were expected to tolerate on their commutes. Talks had stalled when officials would not accept even the most watered-down depiction of the abuse.
In the book, Hong Fincher writes that Leilei: “…started a new anti-sexual harassment campaign on Weibo with the hashtags #WalkAgainstSexualHarrassment and #IAmABillboard. She dyed her hair bright pink to attract the attention of young people and posted daily photos of herself as a “living anti-sexual harassment ad,” walking around Guangzhou wearing on her torso the final design rejected by transport authorities: an innocuous-looking cartoon of a small cat reaching up to stop a big pink pig’s arm on a subway, saying “Stop!” in a speech bubble. It carried the same slogan as before: “temptation is no excuse. Stop the groping hands.” Leilei was told by local police to stop her protest and threatened with eviction from her apartment if she did not comply. However, through her protest, she managed to connect with women all over the country and influence public opinion with her eye-catching performance and online petitions.
Throughout the book, Hong Fincher is at pains to emphasise how extraordinary a feat mobilising support for women’s issues is in a security state like China. With this immensely powerful body of research, she has shown that although there is a long struggle ahead, the very fact that their voices have not yet been silenced is a victory of mythic proportions for these women that will inspire generations of feminists to come.