November 10, 2021   5 mins

For two decades, Chinese feminism — influenced by Western cultural norms — was unheard of outside academic circles. The only reference to women’s rights had been Mao’s mantra that “women hold up half the sky” or General Secretary Jiang Zemin’s proclamation in 2000 that “men-women equality is a basic national policy“. But in the past five years, everything has changed.

Two months ago, Xianzi (real name, Zhou Xiaoxuan) lost her fight against the Chinese media establishment. She had only intended to prosecute Zhu Jun, a prominent TV host, for an alleged sexual assault. But in the court case that followed, she found herself on the receiving end of the full force of the Chinese TV network and the legal establishment. Somewhere in the middle, she also managed to rekindle a feminist movement that the Chinese state is struggling to contain.

The initial incident occurred in 2014, when Xianzi was a 21-year-old intern at the Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV, and was sent to interview Zhu in his dressing room. As one of the most recognisable TV hosts in the country, Zhu regularly presents the annual New Year TV spectacular, the most-watched TV show in the world. He is also a leading member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the Chinese state. He is, suffice it to say, a figure with not inconsiderable political weight.

During that interview, Xianzi alleged that Zhu sexually molested her and that she was only able to escape his clutches when someone came to the door. The next day, she went to the police, who told her that she shouldn’t slander such a prominent personality’s reputation and threatened her parents’ jobs if she persisted. Her case lay dormant until, empowered by the burgeoning #MeToo movement in 2016, she felt that her only course of action was to write a 3,000-word essay about the incident online.

Immediately, the tables were turned when Zhu accused her of libel; of sullying his illustrious 20-year career. He denied all charges and launched a counterclaim for “smearing” his good name. In the ensuing court case — where much of the defence evidence was deemed inadmissible — he was cleared with no case to answer. Immediately afterwards, Xianzi announced that her battle had been “an extremely arduous and glorious journey” and she intends to appeal. The following day, the Chinese state responded in the only way it knows how: by closing down Xianzi’s social media accounts.

Xianzi had posted her original article on Douban, a social media platform in China that has increasingly become a forum for radical feminist voices. Such chatrooms have been allowed to flourish by a Chinese state happy to platform discussions that highlight the failings of the West and the superiority and stability in China. These forums are acceptable, that is, until Chinese activists begin to turn the conversation inwards.

As a consequence of Xianzi’s case, the state has become increasingly worried about the potential for “extremism and radical political and ideological thoughts” conveyed by feminist discussion groups. In April, for example, Douban closed a number of feminist channels, such the popular magazine forum “Feminist Voices” under the innocuous charge of “violating relevant laws and regulations”.

But even in China, even though it is difficult for them to express themselves or to find representation against the Party machine, activists continue to organise. In order to circumvent the ever-menacing presence of the state monitors and censors, Chinese netizens use codes and abbreviations to disguise their intent, often becoming memes in the process. For example, the phrase “rice bunny” in Chinese (mi-tu) is a homonym for #MeToo.

Similarly, the “6B” movement (the letter stands for “bu” meaning “no”) is a new feminist community that unites around a lifestyle encouraging no marriage, no child-bearing, no boyfriends, no romantic relationships with male partners, no accommodation to married women, and no sexist brands. Adapted from a Korean network of radical feminists, the addition of the “4T” hashtag in online discussion forums represents the refusal to accept mainstream sexual depictions of women, female beauty, religion, and fan culture. (“T” stands for “tal” meaning the removal of corsets.) It is an enigmatic mixture of bra-burning and Mao’s Four Olds campaign (the authoritarian Cultural Revolution slogan demanding the destruction of old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs).

Chinese radical feminism, then, seems to be a mash-up of Seventies US feminism and Chinese statist fundamentalism — something which President Xi is learning to exploit, subverting the conversation to suit his ends. When Chloé Zhao became the first female Chinese woman to win best director at the Academy Awards for Nomadland, her film was blocked in China and all references removed from the internet because she once said nasty things about her country of birth. Within a matter of days, however, the Party machine recognised her popularity, and used her status as a woman to criticise the lack of diversity within the Hollywood cinema industry.

But this kind of culture war is a dangerous game for China. Ever keen to expose the travails of the West in order to show up America’s decadence and political malaise, such campaigns only bring attention to its own shameful record on women’s rights: while the UK enacted its first legislation on domestic abuse in 1976, China only did so in 2015.

Xi, of course, is well aware of this. And in response, #MeToo cases in recent years have been used by the state media to demonstrate how the Party is rooting out vulgar elements and maintaining order. At the moment, two going through the courts — one of Kris Wu, a Canadian-Chinese singer who has been arrested in Beijing on suspicion of rape; and another of an Alibaba executive accused of sexual assault — are being publicised in order to “rectify” behaviour that the party considers damaging to its vision of a healthy and stable society.

Similar exposures of the excesses of machismo corporate culture have recently been revealed with young women bringing charges of sexual abuse against a series of executives of the taxi-hailing company Didi, and luxury drinks brand, Moutai. Immediately the Chinese Communist Party released a statement: “we must work together to establish rules for celebrities’ words and deeds, keep the influence of capital in check, curb the barbaric growth of pan-entertainment, strengthen industry self-discipline, and urge entertainers to establish correct professional values”.

But in reality, this only happens in select cases, and it is hard to marry the CCP’s recent statement with the rest of its actions. Take the current case of tennis player Péng Shuài, who has accused former Chinese vice premier Zhāng Gāolí of rape. Last week, her identity — even as a former World Tennis Organisation Number 1 doubles player — was wiped from the Chinese internet. She has effectively been erased: China’s censors are clamping down on any show of support. Even the hashtag #tennis has been banned.

Yet even this hasn’t silenced debate. It has just created more imaginative ways of sharing the criticism. One Douban social media post shared the story using proxy tennis and political characters, Serena Williams and former U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence. It too was taken down soon afterwards.

Will China’s censors win this game of cat and mouse? It’s hard not to imagine that Beijing is increasingly concerned about the possibility of Chinese students returning from abroad and introducing the West’s subversive gender-critical militancy at home. Still, as long as the Party is seen as the arbiter of justice and can portray individual cases as random aberrations, it can be controlled. And if Chinese feminism follows the American model’s shift towards divisive identity politics, this will only become easier.

But whether the Chinese state can maintain supremacy under sustained cultural assault remains to be seen. The Party this year stressed its role in “coordinating protection of women and children with economic and social development”. But in the face of cases such as Gāolí’s, it seems only a matter of time before such claims are called into question.

Austin Williams is the author of “China’s Urban Revolution” and director of the Future Cities Project. He is course leader at Kingston School of Art.