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  • Good Girls Revolt:The future of feminism in China
  • Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (bio)

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In China, International Women’s Day is usually a candy-and-flowers-type affair. But in 2015, feminist activists in several major cities decided to use the March 8 holiday to publicly condemn unwanted sexual advances that occur on mass transit. They planned to hand out stickers with innocuous slogans like “Police: Go arrest those who committed sexual harassment.” But before the women could act, authorities detained at least nine of the organizers for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an ill-defined charge that’s difficult to contest. [End Page 18]

I had heard of a few of the activists before. I was vaguely familiar with their “Occupy Men’s Toilets” protest that advocated for more women’s restrooms and their demonstration against domestic violence that involved wearing wedding dresses smeared with blood. Distributing stickers seemed low-key in comparison. I was surprised that this is what landed the women in detention, especially since they hadn’t even carried it out.

Surprised, but not shocked: Ever since Xi Jinping became president in late 2012, the space for free expression in the country has been shrinking. The Chinese Communist Party seeks, above all, to maintain social stability. In the past, this meant the government was most sensitive to causes like justice for victims of 1989’s June 4 massacres or freedom for Tibet. But with Xi’s ascension, authorities have also been clamping down on rights lawyers, NGO workers, political reformers, investigative journalists, academics who don’t toe the party line, and activists for causes that had previously been safe—like feminism.

Four of the women were quickly released; the rest became known as the “Feminist Five” and remained in custody until authorities freed them on April 13, 2015. During their five weeks in detention, the Feminist Five drew international support. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a formal statement calling on the Chinese government to release the women, and officials in the United Kingdom and the European Union spoke out on their behalf as well. On April 6, Hillary Clinton tweeted, “The detention of women’s activists in #China must end. This is inexcusable. #FreeBeijing20Five,” with a link to a New York Times story detailing the women’s plight. (The second hashtag referred to 2015 being the 20th anniversary of the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, where Clinton had declared, “Women’s rights are human rights.”) Clinton wasn’t alone in her use of social media to show solidarity: Human-rights organizations, LGBTQ activists, and feminists around the world campaigned together under the hashtags #freethefive and #FeministFive.

Despite internet censorship and the curbing of free expression, people within China also voiced their support for the Feminist Five. Because the women had not actually been able to execute their protest, Chinese netizens argued that the government was undermining its own stated commitment to the rule of law, which would seem to prohibit preemptive arrest. More than likely, it was this domestic critique, not the international support for the Feminist Five, that pushed authorities to release the women. After all, the Chinese government has never demonstrated an interest in bowing to foreign critics on matters of human rights.


Watching the Feminist Five case play out, it seemed clear that the Chinese government had overplayed its hand, and was demonstrating the knee-jerk paranoia it sometimes exhibits in response to events that the vast majority of citizens would otherwise ignore. Women’s rights and gender relations are unquestionably important topics in Chinese society right now, but few favor the showy and sometimes confrontational tactics of the Feminist Five. As the women’s detention showed, taking too aggressive a stand can land someone in jail—even when the cause they’re working for is one the government claims to support.

My Chinese-language teachers and, later, colleagues in academia were often quick to point out that women’s rights had improved under the Chinese Communist Party. This was [End Page 19] true: The party had relied on women’s support in its rise...


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