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‘The movement is clearly losing momentum’: Lu Pin on Chinese feminism

One of China’s leading feminist activists talks about Western media’s oversimplification of Chinese activism, premier Li Keqiang’s recent remarks calling for a ban on gender discrimination in the workplace, and why her influential platform Feminist Voices was shut down.

Lu Pin 吕频 is a leading feminist activist and thought leader currently based in the U.S. She has been working on women’s rights issues for more than 20 years. In 2009, she founded Feminist Voices (女权之声 nǚ quán zhī shēng), among the most influential communication platforms on feminist activism in China, which was shut down by the government on International Women’s Day in March 2018. In 2011, Lu Pin began working closely with other activists in developing a national feminist network to promote women’s rights. In 2016, after relocating to the U.S., she co-founded a new organization in New York to support the feminist movement in China, including the #MeToo movement.

In celebration of this year’s International Women’s Day, Lu Pin talked to us about how she became a feminist, the impact of the #MeToo movement, and how she sees the future of Chinese feminism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you first realize you were a feminist?

It was 2011, when I was working for a newspaper that had close connections with some women’s organizations and activists. At first, I participated in some of their events without publicly describing myself as a feminist. I learned a lot in a gender studies book club, where members gathered every month to discuss books and social affairs. There was one time when we had a discussion about why some people were reluctant to admit they were feminists. Inspired by the conversation, I later published an article in my newspaper on the topic. This experience brought me to the realization that I was actually a feminist, and the article prompted my colleagues to label me accordingly.

What were your early experiences in the contemporary Chinese feminist movement?

In 1995, the second year after I started working, I attended the [UN’s] Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. It was quite an experience for me, but unfortunately, I was unable to fully understand the significance of what happened during the meeting because of communication barriers. One year later, some colleagues established China’s first media organization focusing on gender issues, which was the precursor of Feminist Voices. I worked for them on a part-time basis for almost 20 years, and during my time there, I was deeply captivated by the topics they focused on and how they conducted their work, which was quite different from my day job at the newspaper. Most leaders at that organization were well-educated, successful women who devoted their spare time to this effort. Their social consciousness and pursuit of justice were undoubtedly inspiring, but later on I became disappointed by their lack of radicalism. To me, their activism was more on the conservative side, relying heavily on government support. That’s ultimately why we parted ways.

What happened to Feminist Voices? How has censorship impacted the work of feminists in China overall?

It’s been 10 years since I started Feminist Voices in 2009. At that time social media was not yet the phenomenon it is now. Since starting Feminist Voices, I’ve tried different ways to share information and conduct conversations with readers, which at the early stage meant emails and text messages. It’s undeniable that the proliferation of social media greatly boosted its influence, but the reason why Feminist Voices was censored was not because of its function as a media publication, or because of any particular article we published. Rather, the forced shutdown was due to its role as a platform for strategic organizing. Simply put, it had the potential to mobilize people and spark movements by wielding its power. For Feminist Voices, the ultimate goal was not to keep people informed, but to encourage people to take action. There are so many feminists in China now that it’s impossible for the government to crack down on everyone. So, they figured that the most effective way to curb collective activism was to take down the core leader. I personally don’t think any other entities can replace Feminist Voices, and I am contemplating other possible means to organize large-scale activities.

How do you view the impact of #MeToo in China? Where do you think it will go next?

No one can foresee the future of Chinese feminism at this point. The movement is clearly losing momentum, though some people refuse to admit it. We’ve passed the pinnacle of the #MeToo movement, where Chinese feminists achieved unprecedented success. The #MeToo movement brought the public’s interest in Chinese feminism to an unprecedented peak, but the buzz is gone and the energy has been exhausted. While people are still talking about women’s issues on the Chinese internet, I don’t know how soon the next wave of collective activism will take place. The #MeToo movement left some legacies that are beneficial to Chinese feminists. First, victims who came forward often told their stories in a feminist voice. Intentionally or unwittingly, they created a coherent narrative that features many feminist terms and ideas. Second, in order to get their voices heard, they organized people through various means. And the ability to organize is key to a movement. Third, the #MeToo movement led these victims to understand what role the Chinese government plays in placing women in a vulnerable and disadvantaged position. Some of them didn’t intend to challenge authorities, but over time they realized that they had to because the central government is the biggest agent and defender of China’s patriarchal society.

What do you make of Li Keqiang’s remarks earlier this week calling on the Chinese government to pass regulations banning discrimination against women in the workplace?

This is no doubt a form of progress. People ask me why the Chinese government made such a move during a time that I feel is extremely difficult for Chinese feminists. My answer is that this example of progress was achieved through concerted efforts from Chinese feminists, who deserve all the credit. It’s clear that the government will never make beneficial changes spontaneously. Rather, it only reacts to people’s demands in a very passive way. From time to time, we activists feel pessimistic about the future. We have no idea when changes are going to happen and even if they will come at all. This news serves as a great reminder that even though the results of our work are unpredictable, there is value in everything we do.

The Chinese government is now facing mounting pressure from various sources to address gender inequality in the country. They are concerned about an array of issues including social stability and falling birth rates. If they want more women to conceive, they have to make progress in realizing gender equality.

What can you contribute to Chinese feminism while you are in the U.S.?

When I came to the U.S. in 2015, my first task was to help my Chinese friends in detention [the Feminist Five]. At that time, I encountered some young people who were passionate about feminist movements in China. What I’ve been focusing on throughout is building communities, where people sharing common interests in helping Chinese feminism can meet each other and do something. I know we are not at the forefront, and since I am based in New York [state], it’s difficult for me to meet all of them. But I’m doing my best to share information with them through lectures and workshops. I’m adopting a less radical approach and I’m aware that people here can’t devote as much effort as their peers in China due to a variety of reasons. But essentially, my objective is to establish a network.

What are some of the challenges you face advocating for Chinese women’s rights from the U.S.?

Living in the U.S., I am confined by geographical boundaries. Meanwhile, there is a practical side to the problem, which is that I need to make a living here. I’m constantly trying to stay in touch with communities in China and keeping close eyes on what they are up to. I’ve noticed that many Chinese activists here have had to shift their focus from political activism to personal needs, but I don’t want to be one of them. I am aware that my friends in China have suffered and sacrificed a lot to work with me. Our relationships also forced them to face serious threats to their safety. That’s why they always deny their contact with me, which is totally understandable on my end. I am grateful for them.

The Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, a comedy show on Netflix, recently did an episode about censorship in China and Chinese feminism. What do you make of it? What do you think of Western media’s coverage of Chinese feminism in general?

That episode is significant for Chinese feminism. It helped us get the message out to an English-speaking audience. For activists, a vital part of our work is sharing information with the public. We need to get our voices heard first. And we have to come to terms with the fact that our messages will never be perfect. It takes time to polish our words. For me, Western media’s coverage of Chinese feminism often seems superficial, but I don’t think it’s their fault. It’s a process of learning and improving. Only through more and more communication can the problem be solved.

 

“News outlets in the West tend to portray Chinese feminists as victims of government suppression. I won’t deny that this is a fact, but using this angle to tell every story about Chinese feminism is boring and actually oversimplifies the situation.”

 

While Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj is essentially a comedy show, the way it talks about Chinese feminism is very much like other news outlets in the West, which tend to portray Chinese feminists as victims of government suppression. For example, most articles about the #MeToo movement in China tend to focus on how the government tried to silence victims who spoke out. I won’t deny that this is a fact, but using this angle to tell every story about Chinese feminism is boring and actually oversimplifies the situation. One question they never touched on is why feminist movements still exist in China despite consistent crackdown from the government. They have a tendency of looking at Chinese problems through the lens of politics, but need to understand that oppression is never the core incentive for activists. In China, there is a wide spectrum of protests. Some are political, and some are not. I am not saying that I am afraid of being labeled as a dissident. My point is that you can’t generalize Chinese activists and associate all of them with politics.

What does a feminist look like?

Today, images of feminism are more diverse than ever. You’ll find that feminists are flawed human beings and there is no ideal version of feminism. This is reality. As Roxane Gay points out in Bad Feminist, “feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.”

There are intense debates inside the feminist community about many subjects, such as how to define feminism and identifying the right approach to take to realize gender equality. We can’t ask everyone to get behind one idea because people are entitled to have different views. You can’t impose your opinions on others. For example, I know some feminists who don’t pay attention to broad politics and only focus on gender discrimination in their daily lives. I disagree with them. But at the same time, I understand that they are my allies in this movement. Debating and negotiating is a stage we need to go through before reaching our common goals.


If you are interested in learning more about women’s empowerment in contemporary China, check out the SupChina Third Annual Women’s Conference, an event to be held in New York City on May 20, 2019. Information and early bird tickets are available here.

Siodhbhra Parkin and Jiayun Feng

Siodhbhra Parkin is Executive Director of What’SUPChina, a nonprofit organization affiliated with SupChina. Jiayun Feng is an associate editor at SupChina.

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