China's Feminist Five & the freedom issue

by Kathleen Wang

Historically, women’s rights in China have waxed and waned. Before the Revolution of 1911, women both suffered torture and wielded power. The world saw Wu Zetian come to power as its first female emperor during the Tang dynasty, yet it also witnessed the rise in popularity of foot binding -- the practice of mutilating the feet of young girls -- in the Song dynasty, a torture-like fashion practice symbolic of women’s oppression. In the midst of World War II, Chairman Mao Zedong promoted communism, under which equality was emphasized and women gained more legal rights as well as more power in marriages, but also simultaneously experienced restrictions on personal liberties, including the infamous One Child policy. But all that was more than half a century ago, and now, under President Xi Jinping, feminism has taken on a whole new meaning. 

Ever since Xi Jinping came to presidency in 2013, China has seen an increase in the arrest of feminists, women activists, and women’s rights lawyers. Perhaps the most notable event came in April 2015, when a group of women known as the Five Feminists were arrested, ironically, on International Women’s Day, for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after planning a multi-city protest aimed to end sexual harassment on public transportation. In the wake of this scandal, 20 women were imprisoned for their work to promote women’s rights, including activist Wang Yu, who was arrested for her efforts to free the Five Feminists. 

These atrocious acts have not gone unnoticed. The arrest of the Five Feminists in April 2015 sparked both domestic and international outrage, prompting nationwide online protests, petitions, and Western social media blasts condemning Xi, including Hillary Clinton’s famous tweet calling Xi “shameless”.  Perhaps as a result of pressure from the international community and growing notoriety, the Chinese government ultimately released on April 13th the five feminists on terms of bail. However, according to CNN, the women are still considered “suspects in an ongoing investigation”, and will be under surveillance for a year with their movements and activities. The arrest of the aforementioned 20 female activists has likewise garnered international support, with UN ambassador 
Samantha Power’s #FreeThe20 campaign trending worldwide on Twitter. 

The detention of the women, as well as the subsequent arrest of female “political prisoners”, came at the same time as President Xi’s speech at the United Nation’s summit of world leaders on gender equality and women’s empowerment. In his speech, President Xi touts China’s record on women’s rights, claiming that “all Chinese women have the opportunity to excel in life and make their dreams come true”. Xi’s hypocritical actions generated a lot of raised eyebrows from diplomats around the world, with many American politicians blasting his inconsistency on social media. 
President Xi Jinping’s actions have not spoken louder than his words. In fact, China’s abysmal record on women’s rights, which is growing worse by the second, seem counterintuitive with the President’s words. 
As the New York Time reports, not only did President Xi lead the UN summit on women’s rights, but also promised to “reaffirm our commitment to gender equality and women’s development”. Yet, simultaneously, the Chinese government has arrested dozens of women’s rights activists in mainland China. Furthermore, in response to Hillary Clinton’s tweet condemning Xi’s hypocrisy, the Chinese state media retorted with its own strongly worded editorials accusing Clinton of bashing China. 

Clearly, if action and rhetoric progress in this same continuum, the world will not see a dramatic turnaround in women’s rights in China, at least in the near future. It is clear that the Chinese Communist Party will never embrace women’s rights. Yet despite all pessimism, in this dark tunnel we see something resembling a glimmer of light: the Chinese civil society has been fighting back, with interest groups such as the All-China Women’s Federation becoming more active in fighting for women’s rights. So although we ultimately cannot rely on the Chinese government to alert any change, China’s outlook for women’s rights may not seem utterly hopeless after all.



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