Detained feminist activists in China spark worldwide support, new questions

By J.M. Wong and Shuxuan Zhou

Top row from left to right: Wu Rongrong and Wang Man. Bottom row: Zheng Churan, Li Tingting and Wei Tingting. (Screen grab from Sky News broadcast report)

While there was a once a time when China’s women were applauded for holding up half the sky, the celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) in China today is a far cry from the rhetoric of gender equality of its past socialist era.

This was reaffirmed when, on March 6 and 7,  police arrested at least seven women for demonstrating against sexual harassment taking place on public transportation in Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing.

Of those arrested, five remain behind walls at Beijing police headquarters: Li Tingting, 25; Wei Tingting, 27; Wang Man, 32; Zheng Churan, 25; and Wu Rongrong, 30. The activists, who were planning to distribute stickers and posters on IWD, were reportedly arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Wang and Wu have both been hospitalized, Wang for a heart attack triggered by prolonged interrogation, and Wu, for chronic liver pain exacerbated in detainment without medication.

But why crack down on these women, and why now? Was this a clampdown on feminists in particular, or on all forms of activism and NGO work by the Xi Jinping regime? Was this an attempt by the police to meet arrest quotas, or was it part of a deeper probe? Last week, police allegedly raided Beijing offices of Yirenping, a public health NGO that all five women detained were associated with. 

In the absence of a clear arrest motive on the part of the government, social media and activist circles in China have been fraught with anxiety and fear.

Known among activists in China, these feminists had found each other through bold and creative actions illuminating women’s issues in contemporary China.

Li Tingting (also known as “Li Maizi”), a domestic abuse survivor who had grown up in a working-class family, gained prominence in China’s activist circles with a 2012 toilet justice campaign and Valentine’s Day action that same year. On Valentine’s Day, she used wedding gowns stained with fake blood to draw attention to violence against women.

Wedding dresses
A 2012 Valentine’s Day demonstration with Li Tingting (AKA “Li Maizi”) on the far left. (Photo from “Free Chinese Feminists” Facebook page)

Li, who self-identifies as a lesbian activist, has been outspoken about her sexuality, seeing it as intricately tied with anti-patriarchal organizing.

I realized that if gender discrimination can’t be wiped out in China, then there’s no lesbian movement,” Li said in a China File interview conducted earlier this month.

Sidestepping the regulations against protests, Li and her friends intentionally focused on performance art as a way to express their views.

Zheng was known for her commitment to workers’ struggles.

The latest was her support of a strike conducted by female sanitation workers who labored around universities in Guangzhou.

Many of these women were former villagers who had been displaced by the expansions of these universities and the rapid urbanization of the Pearl River Delta region in Southern China.

A former student of Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, Zheng volunteered her time as a photographer for the striking women workers, helping publicize their struggles through her savvy social media network.

When Zheng and other feminists were arrested, many individual workers and workers organizations took on immense risk to publicly express their support.

86yo supporting Chinese feminists
Eighty-six-year-old Huizhen Jia from Tianjing, China, holds a sign that says “Release Feminist Sisters Now! ” (Photo from Free Chinese Feminists’ Facebook page)

Alongside these courageous expressions of support by workers, social media in China has been rife with updates about the Chinese feminists.

Xiaola, Li’s partner, who was with her the night of the arrest, wrote a widely distributed letter appealing for the return of her partner on her birthday. Xiaola’s letter is a bold declaration of same sex love and unrelenting affirmation of Li’s activism.

At Seattle’s International Women’s Day celebration on March 8, women and trans people of color shared the censored posters the Chinese feminists had initially intended to distribute before the police cracked down on them. 

Seattle International Women’s Day demonstrators, including authors J.M. Wong (second from the left) and Shuxuan Zhou (fourth from the left), stand in support of the five women detained with the posters and stickers they intended to distribute. (Photo courtesy of J.M. Wong)

Activists in Seoul, New York, New Delhi, Hong Kong and London have also conducted vigils and actions to support these women.

As members of the Pacific Rim Solidarity Network (PARISOL), a Chinese/Chinese-American group building grassroots power in Seattle and across the Pacific, it is crucial that we stand in solidarity with our sisters in China who are demonstrating courageous resistance.

Sign a petition calling for the release of  Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan and Wu Rongrong.