This article is part of our series Global Feminisms. You can read an introduction to the series here.
The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing brought the dubious reappearance of tennis champion Peng Shuai. A year earlier, Peng publicly accused a former Chinese Vice Premier of sexual assault, then suddenly disappeared from public view, her name was blocked from online searches on Chinese websites. Concern from top athletes like Serena Williams turned global attention to China’s #MeToo movement.
Perhaps an unlikely digital success story given widespread internet censorship in the country, #MeToo rocked Chinese universities and workplaces in the spring and summer of 2018. After an initial post named a professor at prestigious Beihang University, students and alumni from more than seventy Chinese schools circulated petition templates demanding greater protections, overwhelmed censors with the sheer volume of posts on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, and replaced the offending hashtag with clever homophones—like the emojis for rice and bunny, pronounced ‘mi tu’—to evade deletion. Momentum reached beyond universities to the NGO sector, journalism, religious communities, and eventually politics, precipitating a severe crackdown by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The movement’s stubborn endurance in China owes a debt to young agitators whose activism provided kindling for #MeToo at great personal cost. It is also indebted to those working to navigate China’s legal and political systems; heirs to a more complicated legacy of Chinese state feminism. The rise of #MeToo is one more chapter in a Chinese women’s movement characterized by persistence and adaptability; one that has drawn on global links and offers a model for organizing in hostile circumstances.
Just before the outbreak of COVID halted international travel, I joined a colleague’s research trip to Beijing as part of a larger book project tracing the global spread of #MeToo, charting the rise of the movement in Sweden, Tunisia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil, and China (Awakening: #MeToo and the Global Fight for Human Rights, by Rachel Vogelstein and Meighan Stone). As a part of this research, we met with legal experts, NGO staff, journalists, and Chinese activists living in the diaspora. This revealed a sophisticated set of strategies that linked the movement and its aftermath to an international web of activism, and to previous moments of Chinese feminist action.
The most immediate precedents for #MeToo come from a generation of young activists that emerged in the 2010s and used performance art and online provocations to test the limits of state suppression. One of these activists, Li Maizi, told us about demonstrating in bloody wedding dresses to protest domestic violence and occupying men’s restrooms to demand more space for women’s toilets. Exemplified by the “Feminist Five”—a quintet arrested on the eve of International Women’s Day in 2015 for planning to hand out anti-harassment stickers—the creative actions of these women are examined in a recent book by Leta Hong Fincher, who argues they are seen as a unique threat by the CCP. Their disproportionate punishment at the hands of the Chinese state, she suggests, can be explained by a fear of the potential of a mass feminist movement to shake the patriarchal family system on which the state relies. Analysts we spoke with noted that the online conversations sparked by this wave of activism in the mid 2010s primed Weibo and WeChat users for discussions of harassment, domestic violence, employment discrimination, and sexual double standards; many of the issues that would reappear with the emergence of #MeToo.
Other key players in the #MeToo movement became activists long before digital activism took hold. During our trip we visited the headquarters of the QianQian Law Firm, which had taken on some of the most prominent #MeToo cases. As we spoke with its founder, Guo Jianmei, we heard her colleague arguing over the phone with the Shanghai police department about yet another young student who’d come forward with proof of her professor’s assault. The firm provided crucial pro bono services to victims, a practice Guo herself is credited with introducing to China.
Guo pointed to the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women, which she attended as a young lawyer, as the genesis of her career in women’s rights. As Lisa Levenstein writes earlier in this series on Global Feminisms, the UN conference and adjacent Huairou NGO Forum were a landmark moment in the history of global feminism. The event had an indelible influence on local Chinese women who attended, just as it did those who traveled from across the globe. “We heard of many new and powerful concepts in the conference” Guo told us, “and we also heard of the measures and strategies taken by other countries.” In particular, learning about how NGOs in other parts of the world lobbied to influence government policy was a revelation, and inspired Guo to found China’s first public interest law firm. QianQian Law Firm was one of a cohort of new women’s civic groups founded in the conference’s wake. Historians Wang Zheng and Ying Zhang explain how the 1995 conference gave legitimacy to the NGO model in China, and brought funding from international actors like the Ford Foundation to support Chinese women’s organizing outside the state women’s organization the All-China Women’s Federation.
After the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, there was a crack-down on independent organizing and Chinese women turned to an NGO framework. By pointing to the successes of NGOs elsewhere and playing on the CCP’s desire to connect China to a globalizing world, women took advantage of the space the UN conference created to adopt new organizational models that could collaborate with government institutions. The NGO model allowed activists to conduct gender mainstreaming trainings (a UN mandate which sought to assess the differential impact of policies on men and women that Chinese women localized to call attention to structural inequalities), provide services to domestic violence victims, and raise awareness around new concepts of gender equality beyond the socialist state’s—ideas the #MeToo generation would grow up with.
As well as young activists and independent NGO workers, we also met women working with state actors in order to institutionalize the demands of the #MeToo movement. A legislative process to consolidate and codify China’s civil law framework began in 2017, already underway by the time #MeToo exploded. But between the third and fourth drafts of the new Chinese Civil Code, a line was added to the sexual harassment regulation. This specified that universities are responsible for preventing sexual harassment on campus—a reflection of widespread student activism. In parallel, legal experts developed a handbook for employers on preventing sexual harassment, and worked with the Federation of Trade Unions to hold training workshops throughout 2019-20. Just as the digital #MeToo activists drew on a global movement with a shared vocabulary, these women used tactics and language from their counterparts around the world. They traveled to the United States to visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and university Title IX offices, translated sections from Japanese civil guidelines, and borrowed from Australia’s Human Rights Commission when finalizing the recommendations in the training resources for employers.
These inside agitators also draw on a long history of Chinese state feminism. Historian Wang Zheng’s work posits that from the earliest moments of the Chinese socialist state, women adopted a strategic approach to raising feminist issues within a party whose attitude toward women’s issues ranged from apathetic to hostile. Despite Maoist insistence that “women hold up half the sky,” and a proliferation of public imagery proclaiming gender equality, the All China Women’s Federation and its members faced threats of sidelining and political backlash from the CCP’s centralized core. Deng Yingchao—a key communist leader married to China’s first Premier Zhou Enlai—advised the Central Women’s Committee to “prepare for the right moment” and to employ a variety of subversive tactics to advance issues like housewives’ rights, a woman-friendly marriage law, and paid maternity leave. Though Chinese state feminists sometimes reproduced patriarchal language and frames, Zheng traces how the hidden agency of this early generation of feminists helps explain progress on women’s inclusion. Deng Yingchao’s own behind-the-scenes maneuvers at the 1947 land reform conference included convincing nineteen Central Committee representatives to raise women in their remarks, so the idea seemed to have broad acceptance rather than coming from her alone.
When the existence of the All-China Women’s Federation was under threat, women in the CCP adapted to new conservative currents, changing their vocabulary from that of women’s liberation to “women-work”; emphasizing women’s contributions to society rather than their oppression. Zheng argues this was a ploy to avoid being targeted in political purges. After all, in the post-revolutionary state, claiming ongoing oppression could be seen as an attack on the party for not delivering equality.
China’s closed political and civic space makes contemporary feminist organizing treacherous—several of the women we interviewed had been arrested or resettled permanently in the diaspora, even high-profile tennis player Peng Shuai has not been seen publicly since the Winter Olympics. Though China’s #MeToo movement has been largely silenced, its existence owes a debt to courageous activists, pro bono lawyers, and inside advisors alike. Each of their contributions was possible thanks to strategic choices made by previous generations to ensure the survival of the women’s movement in adverse times. As conditions for women’s organizing sour far beyond China, these lessons are particularly timely. From Brazil to Egypt to Poland to Turkey to Russia to the United States, creeping authoritarianism has gone hand in hand with backlash against feminist gains, and often targeted violence against feminist actors themselves. In a time of growing state suppression of feminism globally, there is much to learn from Chinese women working inside, outside, and alongside the state.
Rebecca Turkington is PhD Candidate and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge. Her dissertation research focuses on international women’s networks in colonial Tunisia. She previously worked on gender, security, and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She tweets @rcturk.