Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with US University of Michigan Gender Scholar Wang Zheng
First posted on China Change Blog on April 11, 2015
“You must know the global picture of women to understand the international response to the detention of the five feminists in China.”
PROFESSOR WANG ZHENG SPOKE AT THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTE IN WASHINGTON, DC, ON APRIL 3, 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: @LETAHONG
Professor Wang Zheng (王政), of the University of Michigan, is a scholar whose research focuses on the modern and contemporary history of Chinese women and gender, and Chinese feminism in the era of globalization. Since 1993, Professor Wang has been working with Chinese domestic feminist scholars to promote feminist scholarship and establish courses in women studies and gender studies. She has also participated in the feminist movement itself in China over the years. On April 3rd, Professor Wang gave a speech at Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, about the recent arrest of the five Chinese feminists (starts around 48:00). On April 7th, the editor of this website talked to Professor Wang, further discussing the Chinese and global background of the incident and how it will impact the women’s rights movement in China.
YC: (Yaxue Cao): In your speech at Brookings, you hinted that you had known beforehand these young feminists’ action plan on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Do you know them?
Wang: They are either my students or the students of my students.
YC: Oh, how so?
Wang: In 1989, when a group of Chinese PhDs or PhD candidates studying abroad attended an academic conference, we said, since we were all interested in women’s studies, we hoped to foster the development of feminist scholarship in Chinese universities, given that feminism and gender studies had already been well established in American higher education. At the same time, we also hoped to help the west to learn about changes in China in this area. We wanted to be this bridge. So we founded Chinese Society for Women’s Studies (海外中华妇女学学会), and I was one of the founders. In 1993, we applied and received a grant to hold seminars and training in partnership with Chinese universities and research institutes
PROFESSOR WANG ZHENG (FAR RIGHT ON 2ND ROW) TAKING PART IN A CHINESE FEMINIST FORUM AT NANJING UNIVERSITY, 2014.
on women. We also translated and published many titles of feminist scholarship. In 1999, I went back to China to work there. Working with colleagues in China, we initiated programs for women and gender studies, and the participants included government officials, China’s Women’s Federation, the China Social Science Academy, and the university faculty and students. In China, women’s studies can be traced back to the 1980s, but it was suppressed following the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989. But after that, seeking ways to return to the international community, China hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women. To host the Conference, there must be a NGO forum, and China had to accept that. So the Chinese government gave a special pass for NGOs on women’s issues. So along with the Fourth World Conference on Women, NGOs on women’s issues began to flourish in China. It was against this backdrop that our Society worked in China legitimately and smoothly.
YC: How many members does the society have?
Wang: Over 100 scholars. The number fluctuates. It’s not just us who came from mainland China; it also includes scholars from around the world who study Chinese women’s issues. After returning to China in 1999, my Chinese colleagues and I secured a big grant from the Ford Foundation to train teachers in colleges. Our objective was very clear: we wanted to establish this field of scholarship to produce knowledge and to become interconnected with the international field. Speaking of interconnection with international scholarship, one of the most disconnected areas is feminist scholarship. We charged no fees for our training, and more, we disseminated large volumes of feminist translations and textbooks.
At the beginning, we held five-day training sessions, and we covered many people and many schools. In 2002, we partnered with China Women’s University (中华女子学院) and Hong Kong Chinese University and launched a three-year program. And later, China Women’s University became the first higher education institute in China to offer an undergraduate degree in women’s studies. After I began to teach at the University of Michigan, I still went back to China every year, and I established a base in Fudan University in Shanghai, the Michigan-Fudan Joint Institute for Gender Studies (密歇根大学-复旦大学社会性别研究所) where we offer courses during the summer. A number of feminist activists, not the ones who were detained, attended my classes. I know very well one of the five detained feminists who at one point attended my class.
YC: Wu Rongrong, one of the five, is a graduate of China’s Women University. Nine were arrested initially, and I think there must be a lot more feminist activists out there. So the feminist activism has been closely related to feminist studies in China, right?
Wang: Right. They are the generation of feminists who grew up during a historical time when feminist discourse had been disseminated and making tremendous impact in China, centering on the two documents of the Fourth World Conference on Women – the Beijing Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action, the implementation and the review. And these are the key documents of global women’s rights, and gender, which is a feminist concept, is the core concept of these two documents. Comparing global feminism with the work of the Women’s Federation (妇女联合会) under the auspices of the Chinese government, there are commonalities in both ideology and practice, but the difference is significant.
YC: As such, feminist studies and practices in today’s China are closely tied to the Fourth World Conference on Women held in 1995 in Beijing, and they are part of the global women’s rights movement. Specifically, how did you learn about these young women’s action plan for International Women’s Day?
PROFESSOR WANG LECTURES AT NANJING NORMAL UNIVERSITY IN 2010. ONLINE PHOTO.
Wang: Through WeChat. We are all in a WeChat group. I taught a lot of students in China over the years, and my students in turn have students, and we have a very big network. In addition, I’m also a participatory observer as a historian of Chinese women’s rights. Some of my earliest students have long become influential organizers. Among them, there are lawyers, professors, journalists, students, and they are very effective action-takers. Some work in public, and others prefer to stay less visible. They have different strategies. Before they were scattered in smaller WeChat groups, for example, the students I taught last year had their own WeChat group. But last July, after the sexual harassment case of a Xiamen University professor, an anti-sexual harassment WeChat group was formed to facilitate interaction and discussion. They are very capable women. They launched a signature campaign before Teacher’s Day (September 10) to mobilize university faculty and students, and they wrote letters to the Ministry of Education. All of these were done on WeChat. The young activists, including the detained five, did an enormous amount of work among college students, disseminating pamphlets telling them what to do when they are sexually harassed by their teachers. So, this year, approaching the International Women’s Day, people in the group asked: What do we do to mark International Women’s Day this year? Lively exchanges ensued. These young activists said they were going to be distributing leaflets against sexual harassment on public transportation, and everybody cheered them: Great, that’s a creative idea! Then all of a sudden, the news came that they are taken by the police. At first, people in the group didn’t think it was anything serious. “Probably just drinking tea,” they said.
[“Drink tea” refers to police summons for interrogation, an extralegal practice used by Chinese security police to intimidate dissent and social activism. – the Editor]
YC: I didn’t think it was serious either at first.
Wang: Then they were brought to Beijing, and that’s very serious, something different altogether. I was puzzled at first: why are they detaining people in Guangzhou if it was related to the Two Sessions in Beijing? When they were brought to Beijing, everyone realized something was wrong. Their laptops and cellphones were also seized. We couldn’t get in touch with them anymore, and the police can read all of our WeChat conversations.
YC: WeChat is watched and monitored closely anyway.
Wang: So people in the group stopped talking, knowing that the police will be reading whatever they said. At a time like that, I felt I had to speak up. So I did. Through WeChat, I wanted to shout out to the police. The detention is so stupid. When you detain feminists on the eve of International Women’s Day, you not only trample over the basic national policy of gender equality, you also provoke the international feminists. So I wrote and wrote, hoping that they would be sensible and release the five. Of course they don’t give a damn to what I said. Others in the group became nervous, “Teacher Wang, stop talking, the police are watching.” I said, “I know. I’m talking to them.” The detention of the five drove others underground, because the police had intended to arrest more, not just these few.
YC: Why did the Chinese authorities do this? What’s their thinking?
Wang: They want to smash Yirenping (益仁平). Yirenping is a NGO [that promotes rights for the disabled, workplace discrimination, etc.] These young feminists are affiliated with Yirenping where they have a group working on gender equality. The authorities probably don’t want to make too big a splash by arresting the head of Yirenping, so they detained these young women to send the message. They succeeded in terrifying Yirenping. Once these young feminists were detained, everyone working at Yirenping knew this was about Yirenping. But the police are so ignorant, and they have no idea what a force the global feminists are.
YC: They also raided Yirenping’s Beijing office. And Beijing police investigated feminist activists who took part in the Occupy Men’s Room (“占领男厕所“) campaign a few years back. But the Chinese authorities are probably surprised by how big a global response they caused and how fast it occurred.
Wang: That’s because they are ignorant. These male Chinese officials have not an iota of an idea about the women’s rights movement and organizations around the world. Nor are they informed about the international situation. In their mind, these young feminists are less than nobody, with no power and no impact.
Let me give you the global picture. You must know this picture to understand the global response. March 9th to 22nd, for two weeks, the United Nations’ 59th Commission on the Status of Women met to assess global progress for women 20 years after the Beijing Conference, and in attendance were more than 1,100 NGOs and a total of 8,600 representatives from around the world. Thousands marched in New York City on March 8, 2015, in support of women’s rights and gender equality, and there were already signs in the march calling for the release of the five. On March 9, the UN Chinese delegation announced that, in September, China will co-host the global women’s summit with the UN. Xi Jinping will be visiting the U. S. in September, and he will be giving a speech at the summit. These were arranged and prepared a long time ago, and the stage has long been set. The detention of the five is like lighting a match and throwing it on a pile of firewood. China barbarically detains feminists who campaign against sexual harassment, meanwhile on the world stage, China is co-hosting a women’s summit with the UN. No one can disregard such incongruity. So before the two-week conference was over, feminist leaders from around the world, not just the U.S. but also India, South Korea, and many other countries, organized protests in front of the Chinese embassies. World women’s rights leaders stood in front of the UN headquarters, holding signs that read, “No Release, No Summit.” Therefore, whether or not Chinese authorities release the five activists will determine how Xi Jinping will be greeted during his US trip. There will be consequences, but the Chinese patriarchal leaders have had no clue.
YC: This Monday, April 13, is the deadline for prosecutors to decide whether or not to formally arrest the five. If all five, or four, three, or even one, of the five are formally arrested, what do you think international feminists and women’s rights organizations should do? What can they do? In your speech at Brookings, you urged Americans in the audience to contact the American government, contact President Obama, asking them to pressure the Chinese government. But if you ask me, in my own experience as an activist over the last two years or so, I have come to placing less and less hope on the American government. Instead, I feel there is a lot that NGOs and civil society can do to effect change. For example, this time, I think the most effective and impactful action would be to boycott the global women’s summit in September.
Wang: They are already taking actions and doing a lot of things. They are already asking among themselves: What leverage do we have? I just told you the global picture.
MASKED ACTIVISTS POSE ON A SUBWAY WITH TEA CUPS. BEING “INVITED TO DRINK TEA” IS A COMMON EUPHEMISM CHINESE AUTHORITIES USE FOR BRINGING ACTIVISTS IN FOR INTERROGATION. CREDIT: CHINA FILE.
YC: You touched on this the other day when you said China’s political climate is uncongenial to NGO activism, and you talked about the apolitical strategy of the Chinese feminists. Dr. Leta Hong Fincher used the word “merely” several times to emphasize the apolitical nature of these young women’s activism.
Wang: I have worked with Chinese colleagues on women’s rights for over 20 years from 1993 to the present, and I know very well that every feminist in China understands where the line is. As I said, benefiting from the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Chinese authorities gave special tolerance to NGOs on women’s issues. So there are anti-domestic violence organizations, there are gender development groups, and there are organizations that help women in countryside to fight poverty. A lot has been done, but the work must limit itself within the boundaries of protecting women’s equality as defined by Chinese law, and never get involved in the so-called sensitive issues. Chinese women’s rights activists have been very vigilant against such involvement.
YC: This is exactly my question. The Chinese feminists, or any Chinese citizen for that matter, think they know clearly where the boundaries are and are careful not to step over them. The feminists in your WeChat group obviously didn’t think these young women were crashing the limits when they proposed action plan against sexual harassment on public transportation. So ultimately, it still comes down to the question of political rights and civil rights. There is no escaping it.
Wang: I wrote a lot on WeChat, and I said the detention busted the bottom line. These young women didn’t organize a political party, nor are they against the communist party, nor did they engage in separatism. They did not do anything that can be accused of threatening your regime. They were defending women’s rights safeguarded by the law. It is a turning point for women’s rights in China when these activities are outlawed.
YC: Is this what you meant when you said, in your Brookings speech, that the detention of the five changed the field of feminism in China?
Wang: Yes, “field” in the same sense of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. From the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 to the present, we have strictly limited our discourse and actions to address the social and cultural inequality in a patriarchal culture, and we have never had anything to do with the issue of regimes. Now they say, “No, you can’t do this either, no more talking about gender inequality and discrimination.” Now, even the words “women’s rights” become prohibited.
YC: You have been engaged in women’s rights education in China for so long and you have many interactions with Chinese universities and organizations. Going forward, what kind of impact will the detention of the five have on NGO work to promote women’s rights?
Wang: Can’t go on anymore. These women didn’t even go on the street yet. They were only planning it when they were apprehended. In universities, when many students made calls to release the five, the administration and student counselors found each of them and intimidated them: What did you do on Sunday? Cease these activities! So, white terror everywhere.
YC: This is promoting women’s rights in a big iron cage. The Chinese feminists might have felt that they enjoyed a special freedom, but now they see the barbaric and brutal reality where every Chinese citizen, man or woman, is denied of basic political rights. You are the director of the US-China Gender Studies program, and you have a partnership with Fudan University. How will this event affect your teaching and research in China?
Wang: If these five young women are tried and sentenced, if the Chinese government decides to follow their course to the end to wipe out these feminist activists, then I’m prepared to be arrested too next time when I return to China. Of course I’m an independent scholar and all I have done is speak out. They have been censoring the news to prevent people from knowing what happened. Then my task as a scholar is to inform the public. This is my responsibility, because I believe you are wrong to arrest these women and you are wrong to suppress the news of their detention. If you think you are doing the right thing, why are you trying to hide it? Since you are sneaky about it, I have to speak up. To me, the logic of this is very simple.
YC: Will they cancel your programs in Chinese universities?
Wang: They may, but it doesn’t matter. For all the work I have done in China since 1993, I have not taken one penny from the Chinese government. I applied for and received grants from various foundations to do my work.
YC: There, you are the “foreign force” and must be driven out.
Wang: They can’t say foreign funding is foreign force. The Chinese government entities receive far more money from foreign foundations than Chinese NGOs. I can tell you all about it. To say I’m “foreign force,” I tell you, I am still a Chinese national with a passport of the People’s Republic of China.
YC: I remember someone did a study and concluded that foreign charities, such as the Ford Foundation, give most of their money to Chinese government programs than to civil groups and NGOs.
Wang: Yes, as a grantee of the Ford Foundation, the project officer once said that a lion’s share of their money was given to government programs or government-sponsored programs. So the Chinese authorities are being disingenuous, very disingenuous.
YC: Even if they don’t arrest you when you go back, they probably will interrogate you.
Wang: Oh, interrogation is nothing.
YC: Have you been interrogated before?
Wang: I have organized many international seminars in China. In Fudan for example, I organized three large-scale ones. The police came every time, not interrogating me but my Fudan partners. They would say, “Give us the complete list of attendees,” and they would review it. Last time they told us one of the persons on the list was not allowed to come. Everything I did in China had been under their surveillance. I’m an academic and I didn’t do anything they could construe as illegal. But the problem is, you don’t have to break the law for them to arrest you. If they want to criminalize you, they will find or create charges against you. They can do that and they have done that. So I’m prepared.
YC: My sense is that the detention of the five is part of the broad suppression of public-interest NGOs in China since last year, especially NGOs receiving foreign funding. Do many women’s rights NGOs in China receive foreign funding?
Wang: Of course, they all have to, because nobody in China gives you money to do what you do. Besides, wealthy Chinese are not doing such charity work. All they do is indulge in extravagance. Are there public-interest charities in China? Very few. Domestic NGOs all have to apply for funding from foreign foundations.
YC: So in the end, it’s all about the Chinese government’s suppression of civil society. They can take money from left and right, but if you do, you are colluding with foreign forces.
Wang: Right, they alone are the ones who decide the rules of the game.
YC: My last question. The Chinese women’s rights movement has purposefully separated women’s rights from the underlying political rights, but with the persecution of the five feminist activists, the Chinese government now has politicized it, perhaps even politicized it internationally. Is this a promotion of the Chinese women’s rights movement?
Wang: It is. Before there was the illusion, now there is no more illusion. That’s why I keep saying the government is stupid. These young women represent a big section of the population – college students and beyond. This generation grew up in the last twenty and thirty years, most of them not keen on politics. But they are being politicized by this event. Any young women who have had experience of sexual harassment would be angry, and this will raise their consciousness. These young feminist activists have been using performance art as their choice of action, because they have little influence in the system, in academia, or in media. They can only draw attention to issues through performance. That’s why I said their detention is their most successful performance to date, and the police are their prop. It’s going to be a grand performance, impossible not to be.
1 Billion Rising
Feminists all over the World
The Association for the Advancement of Feminism
Twitter hashtags: #FreeBeijing20Five #FreeTheFive
Meet the 5 Female Activists China Has Detained, April 6, 2015.
Taking Feminist Battle to China’s Streets, and Landing in Jail, April 5th, 2015.
Supporters of Detained Feminists in China Petition for Their Release, April 1, 2015.
Lawyer’s Account of Second Meeting with Li Tingting, March 25, 2015
US Foundations Boost Chinese Government, Not NGOs, Yale Global Online, 2012.
(Translated from the Chinese transcript by Yaxue Cao)