Young women are prominent in the “white paper” protest movement in cities and college campuses across China that was sparked by a fire in a locked-down apartment building in Xinjiang’s regional capital, Urumqi, but swelled to calls to end ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policies. To explain factors beyond frustrations over COVID restrictions that have driven so many women to the front lines of China’s largest mass protests since Tiananmen in 1989, Radio Free Asia spoke to Leta Hong Fincher, a journalist and scholar who has written two acclaimed books on Chinese feminism: Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China; and Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. The interview has been edited for length.
RFA: Looking at the dramatic Chinese protest videos circulating on social media, one thing that stands out is the number of women in the crowds–possibly even in greater numbers than men. How do you view that?
Hong Fincher: In the footage that I’ve seen, there are many cases where it’s a young woman who is taking the lead. Quite a few cases. So, for example, there at Tsinghua University, it began with a young woman who just a student standing there by herself holding a blank piece of paper. And the security guys were trying to get her to move and she wouldn’t leave. And then after a while, several other young women stood next to her. Then slowly, a crowd gathered. And then after a while, you know, there were hundreds of people chanting. That was just one example. But I just keep seeing a lot of videos where it’s a young woman who’s standing in the front and being extremely vocal, confronting the police, some even reading things. I mean, not just holding blank pages, but it looks like some of these young women have prepared statements to read to the police or read to the crowd. Based on what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t say that there are actually more women on the streets than men. But it is striking how many of the people who are on the front lines taking a leading role are young women in all different cities.
RFA: Is this a surprise to you? Beyond frustration over COVID restrictions, are there social, political, economic factors behind this outburst of protest?
Hong Fincher: There is no question that there is an enormous amount of pent-up frustration. When I think about the numbers of young women who are on the front lines and so passionate about speaking out, knowing full well that they could get into serious trouble for doing so…it makes sense to me, given that there have been many years of build-up to this moment.
Women are better educated than ever before in China’s history. But instead of applauding this accomplishment of women, the government has decided to actually see that as a problem and to impose new barriers for young women trying to get into universities, for example. There has been a huge increase in gender-based quotas for admissions to university programs because women tend to test better than men. It’s more difficult and there’s a lot more gender discrimination in the last 15 years in universities. And then also for college graduates, it’s much harder for young women who have just graduated to get a job. There is incredibly blatant gender discrimination in hiring. I’ve written a lot about this propaganda campaign that started in 2007, creating this term shengnyu, or ‘leftover women,’ to stigmatize educated, single women in their mid-to-late twenties and to shame them for being single and to push them into getting married and then having children. And then just in the last couple of years, China has dramatically changed its population planning policy. So it went from over 30 years of the one-child policy to two, and now as of last year, adopting a three-child policy. So now the government is pushing women not just to get married, but to have three children. But that is not working. The propaganda is really alienating the very women that it is targeting: Han Chinese college-educated women. If you look at statistics on births and marriages, they’re plummeting. And a big reason is that those women, at the very least, want to delay marriage and children. Women, more and more of them, are becoming very radical about their own personal life choices and declaring that they don’t want to get married and they don’t want to have children.
Are their any aspects of China’s long, strict COVID lockdown program that have fallen harder on women than on men?
Hong Fincher: That would be domestic violence. Of course, we have no way of knowing the true severity of domestic violence in China. The government is certainly not going to release any reliable statistics about this. But just based on what I have learned from feminist activists on the ground who have worked on this issue, and also looking at studies of domestic violence under lockdown in the rest of the world, under lockdown, domestic violence has increased everywhere, including the U.S., all over Europe–everywhere. So this is something that I have done a lot of work on in the past, and I can say there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that domestic violence has soared in China under these severe lockdowns. The intense stress and pressure created by these draconian lockdowns cause more violence. Violence happens anywhere in the world, but there are signs that that that violence is much more severe in China. And it makes sense that it would be, given that in so many cases, people are literally imprisoned in their homes. It’s almost three years now since COVID took off in January of 2020. And that’s on top of all of the other reasons for young women to be upset about gender injustice of all different kinds.
This very political feminist movement in recent years has resulted in a number of feminist activists being jailed and persecuted, and mass censorship of feminist topics on social media. In addition to that, there are just women who don’t want to call themselves feminists, but are standing up for themselves more and don’t want to be discriminated against. That has been a really significant social transformation, and when you add to that the last almost three years of these constant lockdowns that everybody has experienced to some degree, it’s just building up. That dissatisfaction and discontent is just mounting over the years, and it just reached a boiling point.
RFA: Your books cover issues such as the structural inequalities women face, the vitality of the Chinese #metoo movement, and the government response to feminist activism. Can any of this tightening be seen as flowing from President and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian rule? We note that the last Chinese communist Party Congress in October, significantly reduced the number of women in top CCP positions, a figure that was never high to begin with.
Hong Fincher: Things have worsened under Xi Jinping for women–for everybody. It is important to emphasize that the resurgence of gender inequality was happening long before Xi came to power. The brutal anti-feminist crackdown began under Xi Jinping, but I think that that probably would have happened under another leader as well. It’s just that the moment had arrived when there was a lot more feminist activism. I don’t think that the anti-feminist crackdown was initially only due to a certain thing. It’s just the misogyny that has existed for many years and an increasingly sexist turn by the Communist Party.
Going all the way back to Mao Zedong, perhaps his most famous saying was that ‘women hold up half the sky.’ Women within the Communist Party who were fighting in the revolution were given a lot more status, a lot more responsibilities–they were put to work. That was a deliberate Communist Party policy, and gender equality was enshrined in the new constitution of Communist China. That’s what makes this turn away from gender equality that was a defining feature of the Communist revolution in China, over the last 15 to 20 years, much more disturbing.
If you look at women’s political representation, it has been really dismally low for several decades, but even worse under Xi Jinping. If you look at the 20th Party Congress, it was the first time in 25 years that no woman was appointed to the Politburo. And in the past, it had been one or maybe two women in the Politburo. Of course, there has never been a woman on the standing committee of the Politburo. And at the Central Committee level, also, there’s exceedingly low representation of women.
Just looking at Xi Jinping’s rhetoric itself, there’s been an even more intense emphasis on women playing traditional roles of wife and mother in the home. Xi Jinping doesn’t even mention the importance of working women, the importance of women’s contribution to economic development. The propaganda that you see under Xi Jinping in particular is about traditional feminine roles as well as traditional masculine roles. And Xi himself-not only does he have a personality cult, I’d say that it’s a hyper masculine personality cult, where he has prided himself on being a family man and very strong (because) he stands up to the threat of so-called ‘hostile foreign forces.’ So it definitely does have to do with Xi Jinping.
RFA: You mentioned the risks involved for protesters. What price could these women end up paying if China responds harshly to the protests?
Hong Fincher: The state is not going to just jail all of the university students who take part in the protest. They are going to, by and large, I would imagine, rely on the universities themselves to take punitive action. I doubt that every single student taking part in the protest would be expelled. I think that would be too extreme because so many students participated. And in fact, there is a parallel, smaller moment in the #metoo movement. In 2018, there was a wave of protests at dozens of Chinese universities. There were so many who took part in #metoo on university campuses, where they were drawing attention to this epidemic of sexual and sexual violence and sexual harassment on university campuses. Some of the student leaders during that movement were punished by the university and interrogated. Sometimes they would bring in state security as well with those who were identified as more prominent leaders. But by and large, university students are treated with more leniency. I have no doubt that in one form or another, everybody who did take part in these protests is going to be approached, and spoken to, and at the very least, some of them, I’m sure, are going to be put in detention.