Overseas Chinese feminists draw inspiration from ‘white paper’ movement back home

Chinese women studying overseas are increasingly working with allies from other backgrounds – including Uyghurs.
By Jane Tang for RFA Mandarin
2023.03.08
Overseas Chinese feminists draw inspiration from ‘white paper’ movement back home Protesters march along a street during a rally for the victims of a deadly fire and to China's harsh COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing on Nov. 28, 2022.
Credit: AFP

Stymied by strict censorship and the fear of political persecution at home, Chinese women are finding allies in the international feminist movement, as well as standing with Uyghur women activists overseas.

Xiao A, a Chinese millennial currently studying in Munich, said she has recently been involved in activism alongside women from Germany, Iran, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Somalia and Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group targeted by the Chinese Communist Party for mass incarceration, surveillance, forced labor, forced marriage and religious persecution.

“As a Chinese woman living overseas, I feel I need to let the rest of the world see Chinese and East Asian women [clearly], by breaking stereotypes of silence or resignation [around women from those cultures],” Xiao A told Radio Free Asia in an interview for International Women's Day.

“[We want to] change explicit and implicit discrimination that we face in academia, in the workplace, and in life generally,” she said, adding that she has been particularly inspired by recent waves of protests in Iran by women and girls protesting mandatory veiling and other forms of discrimination against them under an authoritarian regime.

“When our sisters from all over the world are standing strong, and people all around the world are applauding the courage of Iranian women [in protesting the veil], neither I nor the tens of millions of other Chinese women should stay silent, pretend not to see, or wait for someone else to step up,” Xiao A said.

Getting ready for this year's International Women's Day events, Xiao A feels that she is truly experiencing the meaning of the day for the first time, compared with the anodyne and sentimental rhetoric that official media and propaganda channels typically put out every March 8.

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A woman holds a blank sheet of paper as demonstrators protest the deaths caused by an apartment complex fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China, on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, in Irvine, California, on Nov. 29, 2022. Credit: AFP

Situation inside China

Since the detention of five feminists – Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man and Zheng Churan – as they planned a public campaign against sexual harassment on public transport ahead of March 8, 2015, activists say the situation for women's rights activism inside China has continued to deteriorate under ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

While feminism is seemingly discussed everywhere on social media, systemic misogyny persists in China, according to a March 2021 essay by feminist writer Mimi Yana, who blamed "the continued presence of misogyny and social stigma, intensified authoritarian controls over every aspect of our lives, as well as government censorship that silences the most active and outspoken.” 

“These things set hard limits on how creative and critical the feminist movement can be, and divide the women’s rights community,” she wrote on RFA’s affiliated site, WhyNot.

For Xiao A, watching the “white paper” anti-lockdown protests that were sparked last November by an outpouring of support for the victims of a fatal lockdown apartment fire in Xinjiang’s regional capital Urumqi, was a difficult experience.

“I felt very sad and powerless,” she said. “So I hope to do something [for this year’s International Women's Festival], and if my compatriots overseas see it, maybe that'll make me feel less lonely. If my sisters in China see it, that would be better still.”

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Feminists [clockwise from top left] Wang Man, Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong and Li Tingting were detained by Chinese authorities in 2015 as they planned a public campaign against sexual harassment on public transport. Credit: AFP photos

Prisoners of conscience

On the eve of International Women's Day, the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation projected images of Hong Kong’s female political prisoners onto the exterior walls of a skyscraper in New York, listing the days they have lost their freedom. 

One of the prisoners is journalist, Ho Ching-lin, who has been imprisoned for more than 700 days on charges of conspiring to subvert state power. Others are former legislative council member, Claudia Mo; former vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, Chow Hang-tung; and former members of the student organization Scholarism, Yanni Ho and Agnes Chow, who have been imprisoned for more than 500 days on other charges under the Hong Kong national security law. 

Additionally, on Wednesday, 25 human rights groups, including Human Rights in China and PEN America, jointly called on the Chinese government to release Cao Zhixin, Li Siqi, Li Yuanjing and Zhai Dengrui – the latest group of Chinese female conscience prisoners arrested for participating in the white paper movement protest. 

Hong Kong has the highest ratio of female prisoners in the world, including a large number of female political prisoners, the youngest of whom is only 14-years-old, according to Huiying Ng, policy and advocacy director of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation. 

“This white paper movement is very different from previous protests. In addition to being a protest mainly of young people, the participation of women is very admirable,” said Zhou Fengsuo, the head of Humanitarian China. “The courage and love they have shown are what people should have in a normal society.”

The writings of Lu Xun

Generation Z student Li Xinyu has been taking part in a forum in New York on Chinese feminism with a few other women, titled “After Nora Walks Out,” a reference to a famous 1923 essay by late Chinese literary giant Lu Xun.

“In his famous feminist speech ... influential Chinese writer Lu Xun raises his concerns about the future and the impasses of women who have awakened with a gender consciousness in a society that is not ready for their emancipation,” the forum description reads.

“After almost one hundred years, the theme of his speech seems still relevant to the gender issues and feminism in China today,” it says, citing ongoing “systematic discrimination against women in households and workplaces” across the country.

“I’ve been interacting a lot more with international students here [in New York] since I went to some gatherings linked to the white paper movement last year,” Li said. “I’ve begun to pay more attention to activism focusing on human rights and women's rights in China.”

“The white paper movement served as a late awakening for me, and I realized the kind of role I could play as a Chinese student overseas,” she said.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is keen to point to its support for gender equality, on paper at least, including the incorporation of women’s rights into the country’s constitution in 1954. Late supreme leader Mao Zedong’s slogan, “women hold up half the sky,” still makes an obligatory appearance every year on International Women's Day.

Yet the country ranked 102nd out of 146 countries and territories in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2022, a significant fall from its 63rd place in 2006, while the most recent political leadership lineup under Xi Jinping at the 20th party congress in October 2022 revealed no women at all in the 25-member Politburo, breaking with a two-decades-old tradition that at least one woman would sit on the high-ranking body.

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Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in protest against strict COVID-19 measures in Beijing, Nov. 27, 2022. Credit: AP

Women under dictatorships

For Germany-based millennial student Deng Lüxing, that’s just not good enough.

“This is why we have to stand up,” said Deng, who will be marching in a demonstration for equal rights on March 8, and who says she too was deeply inspired by the white paper movement and the protesters who have been subsequently detained or silenced, the majority of them young women.

“It’s not just about the women protesters who were suppressed after the white paper revolution,” Deng said. “It’s also about the chained woman in Jiangsu, the Tangshan attacks, the family planning policies and divorce cooling-off period under the Chinese Communist Party.”

“We need to keep a close eye on women living under dictatorships; repression is an important topic,” she said.

Growing social awareness and feminist consciousness among younger Han Chinese women, largely as a result of the white paper movement, is having a spillover effect for Uyghurs, too, according to Ipar Can, a 20-year-old Uyghur student studying in Germany.

“They would come to me and ask how they could help out, and what initiatives I was working on,” she said. “I felt so grateful.”

“I love interacting with them and doing activism with them,” she said. “The more people can stand together, the better.”

For her, though, it's not all about March 8.

“It’s important to have our voices heard, no matter what day it is, but International Women's Day is a great opportunity to spread awareness,” she said. “I want people to know about the persecution Uyghur women are suffering locally: forced birth control, sexual violence, and all of that,” Ipar Can said.

For Xiao A, there is plenty of common ground with women from other backgrounds.

“I think what we have in common is that we love life, and are unwilling to resign ourselves to our fates,” she said. 

Translated by Luisetta Mudie and Victor Sun. Edited by Matt Reed.

Names have been changed throughout to protect the identities of interviewees.

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