In the era of the Chinese digital feminist awakening, feminists in China have utilised social media to fight against traditional socio-cultural norms. Despite its limited tangible political influence, digital feminism has proven surprisingly durable against government censorship. In this article, Yingxue Wu discusses the development trajectory of the movement, the tensions that have emerged and the expectations for the advancement of gender awareness in China.
As the term “feminism” becomes increasingly popular in the Chinese public digital sphere (Liao, 2020), the debates arising become an important means for grassroots movements to build their collective resistance (Yang, 2020). By reflecting on the development trajectory of Chinese feminism, this article evaluates how the nature of feminist activism changed from the era of Maoist communism to that of capitalism. Through the years, digital feminist activism has expanded to allow progressively more participants in collective initiatives and has achieved unprecedented progress despite governmental repression. Digital feminist activism can achieve limited legislative change due to the hostile political context; Nevertheless, it challenges the enduring hegemonic gender relations by expanding public participation on gender issues in the social domain. Therefore, it can foster the development of feminism by engaging the public and promoting gender awareness in China.
The historical trajectory of Chinese feminist movements
Feminist activism channels a shared demand for change into a powerful call for accountability, to end impunity and amend legislation that upholds systematic sexism. It has also followed an indigenous, localised path with Chinese socio-political characteristics.
In the Maoist era, political communism placed a greater emphasis on gender equation rather than equality, a practice known as "masculinising the feminine" (Min, 2007, p. 180). Depriving women of their femininity and individuality was perceived as instrumental to achieve communist political goals (Liao, 2020), legitimising the socialist regime ideologically as well as forcing women to join socialist production (Xin, 2012). In this stage, under the dogma of the Marxist Theory of Women's Liberation, the promotion of gender equality rested on governmental action. The state, and the Party-led All China Women Federation (ACWF), were the sole actors to administer the women's movement (Hou, 2020). At the time, women’s organisations in China led top-down gender policies and lacked substantive interactions with the public (Wang & Driscoll, 2019).
In the 1990s, during the transition from a communist system to a liberal market (Chen, 2012; Lu, 2011), female identities were rediscovered as materialism flourished, and Western post-feminism grew prevalent in Chinese feminist discourse. As the country abandoned top-down gender policies, the momentum for grassroots feminist movements grew to form a larger and organised non-governmental mobilisation, which then led to the pursuit of gender rights (Li & Zhang, 1994). Political engagement hence shifted from institutional authority to non-official stakeholders.
The unprecedented impact of digital feminist activism
With the emergence of the Internet in the 2000s, the distribution of online material by ACWF and other predominant NGOs sparked the diffusion of digital feminism in China. After 2010, as digital platforms like Weibo and WeChat gained popularity (Hou, 2020), activism boomed with the diffusion of personal stories. The phrase “the personal is political” emphasises how individuals (Hou, 2020) can become the main vectors for political initiatives through visibility in the digital world. The evolution of main actors constituted a paradigm shift, from state-levied gender policy to feminist NGOs, and then to individual feminism in the digital discourse (Wang, 2018, p. 261). On November 13, 2012, Xiao Meili, a well-known young feminist activist, shared a photo of herself on Weibo with her naked chest to campaign for legislation on domestic violence (Hou, 2020).
Scholars have shown great interest in the Chinese digital feminist awakening (Wu & Dong, 2019). For example, Htun (2012) asserts that independent movements worldwide have a long-term influence on the formulation of policies tackling violence against women, as they foster the international normative institutionalisation of feminist principles. Thanks to two-decade-long campaigns, China adopted the Domestic Violence Law, a turning point in women’s legal protection (Feldshuh, 2018). The social understanding of women’s rights and needs transformed, shaking the sensibility of the conservative population, and igniting heated debates. Hashtags are now created to show women’s resistance to patriarchal orders, sexist beliefs, and misogynist voices (Peng, 2020).
Flaws of digital feminist activism in China from a global perspective
Firstly, the effectiveness of digital feminist activism in improving equality is widely questioned. Han (2018) alleged that digital feminist activism does not contribute to social change but exacerbates the problem of misogyny online. New feminist discourse perceived as radical has led to a surge in polarisation in social media, assigning pejorative overtones to feminism and unveiling the precariousness of progress (Liao, 2020).
Secondly, academia also investigates the extent to which intersectionality is considered in feminist initiatives. Yin and Sun (2021) argue that heavily hierarchical gender structures cannot be overcome merely through digital tools. Participation is limited to educated, city-based women, while working-class women in rural areas are marginalised and underrepresented, revealing the shortcomings of technology in solving structural inequalities (Yin & Sun, 2021). This mirrors the challenges faced by international hashtag activism. An activist in Iran claims that #Metoo is mainly concerned about white, educated women (Tafakori, 2020), while African American women face fights that require different initiatives, such as anti-racist, anti-capitalist frameworks addressing third-world struggles (Bhandar & Ziadah, 2020). This casts doubts on the legitimacy and effectiveness of digital activism in promoting rights, given technology’s limited representativity and accessibility.
Lastly, although the popularity of feminism follows China's engagement with the global ideological consensus (Hayward, 2018), there is an evident tension between China’s technocratic policymakers and bottom-up discourses and ideas that emerged in feminist activism. Unlike in political environments that protect individual expression, the development of digital feminism in China is repressed by online crackdowns. According to Evans (2021), the CCP’s censorship of feminist content stifles the progress of grassroots activism. Censorship largely weakens the effectiveness of discussions on social media, especially after influential #Metoo voices were silenced online in 2018 (Yin & Sun, 2021). Peng (2020, p. 25) discusses the CCP’s surveillance over both Internet infrastructure and Internet services and finds that only minimal criticism of the establishment can be expressed under the current monopolised control of social platforms. The precariousness of digital access demonstrates the vulnerability of individual speech on political struggles, and the far-reaching consequences of Internet censorship.
Assessing the value of digital feminist activism under censorship
According to the comparative analysis of gender equality policy of Goetz and Jenkins (2018), in democratic systems, feminist activism shapes policy by creating and fostering civic alliances, which in turn interact with government agencies, putting pressure to amend unjust laws. However, Yang (2020) illustrates the disparity between digital activism in China from feminist activism in the West. Within an authoritarian regime, democratic political tools like demonstrations and assemblies are discouraged as methods of civil engagement. His remarks echo the work of Rajan (2018), who writes that activists from the global North evaluate feminist struggles from the global South with a Western-centric lens, that revolves around democratic values and often presents an ethnocentric bias. Due to such divergence, Western-based perspectives can be inadequate to evaluate feminism in China’s own socio-cultural setting.
It is important to note that, unlike in democratic social systems, the political influence of activist movements in authoritarian regimes is non-immediate and indirect. Due to the lack of institutionalised channels, the relevance of collective online activism is ambiguous and untraceable in the advancement of legislation, even in the absence of censorship. Compared with radical equality activism with direct political intention in the West, Chinese women show their appeals in the digital feminist sphere in an apolitical way (Chang et al., 2018).
Although digital feminist activism has limited political influence in China, its contribution to the growth of feminism in the cultural sphere, through the extraordinary rise of gender-focused debate, cannot be disregarded. Yang (2020) writes that, in spite of political scrutiny, the cultural space provided by social media becomes an important tool for grassroots movements to build their collective resistance. This argument echoes the stance of Peng (2020), who highlights the role of social media in empowering women and explores the unprecedented achievement of youth-led urban feminism in encouraging debate about women’s struggles against traditional socio-cultural norms. The impact of digital activism is captured by the increasing online interactions on gender issues. For instance, there were over 85,000 participants and 424,000 submissions campaigning for the amendment of the proposed Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests (Forward Looking Think Tank, 2022). This degree of social engagement reveals that, although feminism and pro-change activism are structurally suppressed in China, there is a significant and enduring social endeavour to challenge hegemonic gender hierarchies.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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