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Feminist movements challenge ‘China’s patriarchal dream’ | Chang Ping

A woman and her friend were eating at a restaurant when she noticed the man next to her smoking and intervened, but the man hurled insults at them and splashed them with some unknown liquid. The woman captured the incident on video and posted it to social media, where it immediately became a trending topic. As a result, the woman and her friend, as well as other friends who were not there, were severely punished; they were attacked by countless netizens, and their WeChat accounts were removed.

How did something so absurd happen? In China, as in many other countries around the world, it is neither legal nor ethical to smoke in public. Unlike many other countries in the world, however, only patriots in China can justifiably dissuade people from smoking in public. The attackers identified a photo the woman had posted on Weibo in 2014 showing her holding a piece of paper with the words “Pray for Hong Kong,” thus she was accused of supporting “Hong Kong independence.” Under closely scrutinized public opinion, “Hong Kong independence” is a crime worthy of death and is referred to as “Hong Kong poison.”

It was no coincidence that “historical issues” were unearthed. This woman is Xiao Meili, a well-known figure in China’s feminist activism. The friend with whom she had dined is Zheng Churan, one of the “Feminist Five” who received global solidarity after their arrest in 2015. The other women whose Weibo accounts were deleted are their fellow feminist activists.

In the early part of the last century, gender equality was one of the most important concepts of the New Culture Movement that challenged traditional Chinese ideas and cultures. It became the ideological foundation of the left-wing revolution and a slogan for social activism. After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gained power and re-established an authoritarian system, gender equality remained an important part of socialism both as an ideology and as a revolutionary tradition. After Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up, the unilateral economic reform disrupted some of the already fragile gender balance in society. When political power was integrated with capital power, the concept of patriarchy came back with vengeance.

Since Xi Jinping came to power, the patriarchal system has been further strengthened. His most famous remark on women’s development was “Full play should be given to the role of women in order to help achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Women play an active role in nurturing traditional family values…Women should take responsibility for youngsters’ education; boost the traditional positive virtues of the Chinese nation; and contribute to the social ethos.” In contrast to his predecessors such as Hu Jintao, who simply reiterated politically correct nonsense such as “constantly promoting new opportunities for development in women’s work and career,” Xi’s words have more practical significance and are part of his blueprint for the Chinese Dream. In this sense, the essence of the Chinese dream is the “Chinese patriarchal dream.”

At the same time, some of the women who grew up in only-child families and received a human rights education from the West have taken up various initiatives to promote gender equality. Their advocacy resonated widely among women and has posed a challenge to the “Chinese patriarchal dream.” Like dissident critics and human rights lawyers, feminists have become the target of official suppression. In public opinion, tacitly sanctioned and endorsed by the government, their advocacy of gender equality has been perceived as inciting “gender antagonism,” hatred of men, and destruction of family dynamics. Feminism has been called “women’s boxing.”

The leader of this online campaign against the feminist activists like Xiao Meili goes by Weibo user ID @子午俠士. According to reports, this man is a former police officer in Shaanxi where he was dismissed from public service for taking bribes and exchanging his power for sex. However, he has become a well-known patriot by using social media to dox, report, and online assault against “traitors” for years, attracting a large number of fans.

According to @子午俠士, Xiao Meili’s effort to dissuade men from smoking in public was not a one-off incident, but a conspiracy of “women’s boxing” and “Hong Kong poison” to turn the tables on the police for their inaction and to hold the political system accountable. The support the “Feminist Five” had received from the U.S. after their arrest became an additional crime. They were also found to have been in close contact with American journalist Leta Hong Fincher, who showed her support for Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow on Facebook and Twitter, thus aggravating the crime.

Many of Xiao Meili’s supporters are trying to prove that she does not support the independence of Hong Kong. Some want to make the case that women activists are even more patriotic. This led me to think that before the Nazis came to power, feminist movements in western countries such as Germany grew significantly and women were given the right to vote. At the same time, nationalism was on the rise and patriotism became a powerful word. Similar to today’s China, feminists are facing various accusations including wrecking homes and undermining masculinity. Under intense pressure, most women’s organizations in Germany at the time responded that feminism was beneficial to the family and that feminists were patriotic. These tactics may have helped feminists escape immediate oppression, but they did not prevent the Nazis from trampling on them. After Hitler came to power, he established a fascist regime with a male-exclusive top leadership.

Patriotism is nothing more than a patriarchal discourse. As the British writer Virginia Woolf declared more than 80 years ago, “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

(Chang Ping, commentator)

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