|Demonstrators in NYC showed their support for Feminist Voices © Jun Chen|
On 20th February 2017, the main social media account of a prominent Chinese women’s organisation, Feminist Voices, was shut down for 30 days. The group had publicly shared their support for the women’s strikes in the USA planned for March 8th, by posting a link on their Weibo* page. They were not calling for Chinese women to strike, they were simply showing their support for anti-Trump demonstrations occurring elsewhere.
|Feminist activist Li Maizi, who spoke in London on 7th March © Li Maizi|
But China strictly prohibits political resistance and public demonstration of any kind. They received a message stating, ‘Hello, because content you recently posted violates national laws and regulations, your account will be banned for 30 days’. This prompted waves of support from women the world over, with images pouring in from overseas Chinese women who attended demonstrations, but nothing has changed the fate of Feminist Voices’ public platform.
Hearing this news, I checked on my own web presence. A piece I wrote for a major Chinese media platform had vanished with no explanation. Just days after its publication on 13th February, the link my editor had sent, and that I’d shared with family and friends, stopped working.
I had interviewed a wonderful woman writer whose recently released debut novel deals with themes of migration, class, and gender inequality through the lens of sex workers in Shenzhen, southern China. I was not aware that the content of our interview might be regarded as even remotely incendiary. I’d struggled over edits and pitched numerous publications. In the end, all that hard work got me was a blank screen and 404 error message.
Recently, I volunteered to help organise a public celebration of women to be held just days after International Women’s Day. We lined up novelists, poets, storytellers, actors, comedians, and activists who wanted stage time. We found a handful of organisations to provide free information. We decided to fundraise for an NGO supporting transgender teens in southern China. We arranged sponsors, a venue, and a poster. We invited guests.
Just six days before the event was due to take place, we got a message from an LGBT rights activist and founder of Beijing’s LGBT Center, who was due to take part in the panel discussion. Her lawyers had been contacted by police, and recommended we use caution, if we chose to proceed at all.
Her last attempt at speaking at an IWD event was met with suspicion, too. She got phone calls from the authorities telling her not to go to the 2016 Beijing Literary Festival event she was billed for. When she showed up, she was threatened by police at the door and decided not to risk arrest. A year earlier, five young feminist activists were detained for five-weeks without being sentenced, because they’d planned to hand out fliers about domestic violence on public transport.
She and other Chinese participants had the ovaries to forge ahead, hoping to ensure the event would happen if they could. They are well versed in the consequences of addressing sensitive issues in public. But as a bunch of foreigners, we couldn’t be sure of the repercussions for ourselves, our guests, or the cause we believed we were supporting. Ultimately, we had little choice but to cancel, while hoping that bowing out now provides us space to come back stronger another day.
The scariest thing about censorship is that it’s so covert. There is no reason given, no apparent logic behind censorship (only a vague sense of clamping down ahead of political events, such as the ‘Two Sessions’ annual congress in March). Feminist Voices were told they’d broken Chinese law, but not told how. My article had disappeared without a trace, the editor promising to ‘look into it’ before going silent. The authorities had not explicitly told us to cancel the event, we’d not been contacted directly (we didn’t event know which of the vast array of ‘authorities’ we should appeal to). The vague threat that we’d been ‘found out’ was enough to scare us into compliance.
The difference between the cancellation of our one-time event, or the disappearance of my one-time article, and the plight Feminist Voices represents for feminism across China, is obduracy. The majority of that handful of foreign women dabbling in women’s rights activism will leave China, sooner or later. They have the choice to leave censorship behind them. Chinese Feminists, in and outside China, however, will continue to face persecution for their beliefs and risk fates far worse than censorship if they push the envelope too far. Their futures can only lead towards assessing their role in the battle for gender equality against their personal safety.
* Chinese state-owned microblog platform akin to Twitter, which is blocked in China
The author is from Norwich, UK and is currently based in Beijing, China, where she teaches English Literature at a state university, and writes about gender and culture in contemporary Asia. Her writing has featured in various media outlets in China and the UK. Read more at www.zhendegender.com
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