Many friends and associates of the five feminists detained on March 7 are still in hiding, but one was willing to meet for an interview on March 16. She thinks the best we can do to support the prisoners and their cause is to spread awareness of their situation in China and abroad. The fact of their detainment has been widely reported in the international media, and the EU and USA have made official statements, but so far little analysis has been offered, so this interview focuses on questions such as: what is unique about this case? Why were these individuals targeted? Why, in the Xi regime’s crackdown on civil society in general, does it seem especially afraid of feminism?

Chuang: You said that every year during the “Two Sessions” some people are detained (抓), but you never expected it to happen to [these women]. Because the action [they had planned]3 didn’t seem very threatening?

Anon: Actually I don’t think it’s even related to the action itself. Every year during the Two Sessions… it’s as if the government is expressing some kind of will [意愿] by detaining people. It’s not [targeted] at which [particular] action is done at that time, but at the combination of many actions done at other times that attracts attention, that makes [the authorities] think they should be detained. But these five people all basically do gender equality [work]. Along with a couple other things — for example Wang Man is interested in poor people, and Wei Tingting is interested in bisexuality… But mainly what they do is [promote] gender equality. In China, “male-female equality” is a basic national policy! [laughs] All along they’ve been calling [their work] “popularizing the law” [普法]: “Our country has this law, here are the details, everybody can use this law to protect themselves…” They’ve never said they were going to oppose some law or something. And their actions have always been rather moderate [温和]. They rarely go organize protests. Most of what they do is training workshops for women, LGBT groups, etc. Or go to the street and do performance art. All rather innocuous things. So it’s hard to believe that they would be the ones to get detained. I always thought that HIV [activists] would be detained before gender equality people.

C: One analysis is that this is related to the feminist petition to cancel CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. What do you think?

A: There’s definitely some relation, but I don’t think it’s as big as [some] imagine. It’s occurred to me before that some gender equality people would get arrested during Xi’s Jinping’s administration. Because in 2013, when Xi had just assumed office, at that time I was in Guangzhou with [some of the people now being detained] organizing a training workshop for college students, also related to gender equality. That was the most difficult [狼狈] workshop I’ve ever done. We had arranged to do it in a hotel. We had 30-some people, and as soon as we tried to enter, we were kicked out. So we tried three other hotels. None were willing to let us in… And this was very similar to the present situation: all the students from Guangdong were phoned by their fudaoyuan [political counselors]6, who told them [not to participate], and five or six actually [decided not to participate], and afterwards the school kept [harassing] them. And at the time the Guobao [secret police]7 followed us around all day… So already at that time it occurred to us that Xi’s assumption of office might be a disaster for gender equality.

C: At the time I asked someone about this, and she thought it wasn’t that the authorities were specifically targeting the topic of gender equality, so much as it was part of a general crackdown on civil society. You disagree?

A: For [several] years now [the NGO that organized that workshop] has organized at least ten workshops every year, most unrelated to gender, and that was the one they chose to suppress… LGBT-related activities have also been targeted, especially in Beijing. Last year around June 4, at least twenty LGBT-related events were forced to be cancelled…. Even watching films together wasn’t allowed.

C: Were all these events organized by the same people?

A: No. [lists several groups that organized different events; all the events had in common was their focus on LGBT-related issues…] Now in NGO circles, people say “Oh you work on LGBT issues, so you’re [politically] sensitive [i.e. at risk].” That’s what my colleagues say. It’s scary…

C: So you think the Xi administration’s crackdown on civil society is especially targeting both LGBT and feminist activities?

A: Yes. Ever since he assumed office, Xi has been emphasizing “traditional Chinese family values.” So we can see that Peng Liyuan [Xi’s wife], who was an extremely successful artist, but ever since Xi assumed office, the image of her as a housewife repeatedly appears in the media. Same thing goes for CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala: it continually emphasized “family, family, family…”

C: I heard that shortly after Xi assumed office, he gave a speech praising traditional womanhood, or something like that?

A: Yes, and he said something similar recently, I just read today. I’ll look it up and send it to you…

C: What was the gist?

A: Basically that [we] should abide by [坚守] traditional Chinese culture, that women should put their natural work to good use in the home [女性要在家庭中发挥她的本质工作]… put their value into play [发挥她的价值].

C: What is a woman’s “natural work”?

A: Housework of course! [laughs]

C: He used that term?

A: Yes!

C: That’s interesting, because it immediately links gender to labor. You know, one analysis of why there has been a global resurgence of patriarchy over the past few years, renewed efforts to push women back into the home, is that this is related to capitalist crisis: that capital can no longer absorb so much labor through the wage relation, so it deals with the “surplus population” by pushing people back into unwaged forms of labor, such as housework. Do you think that makes sense for China?

A: I’m not sure… I don’t think we can analyze this without mentioning the “boys’ crisis” [男孩儿危机] that everyone’s been talking about for the past few years. [laughs] They think that females’ gradual advancement in school, work, etc., constitutes a “crisis” for boys.

C: Because they think if women want to pursue their own careers instead of getting married, that makes it harder for men to find wives?

A: That’s one aspect. Also they simply think that it’s abnormal for women to be more successful than men. For example, the college entrance exams: now among college entrants, girls have gradually gotten up to 51%. From the minute the 50% line was crossed, many education authorities [教育学家] started saying: no. This means that our education system has problems. We’re being too good to girls…

Likewise in the CPPCC, to this day there’s not a single woman. In the National People’s Congress, women make up only 20-some percent of the members. Yet they’ve already started to say that too many women are participating in politics.

C: Who says that?

A: Just look in the news. Many members of the CPPCC have openly said that this is a problem. Similarly, in 2013 or 2014 one member of the CPPCC, surnamed Luo, said that women should not go to graduate school. And he is a university professor himself, a doctoral advisor! It’s terrifying.

C: What’s his rationale?

A: He thinks that if women go to graduate school, men won’t want them! They won’t be able to get married.

C: Sounds more like an old-fashioned father than a professor or a politician.

A: In China, everyone is worried about girls not getting married [嫁不出去的问题]! [laughs] Everyone is worried about whether men can get wives. It doesn’t matter whether [the women] want to get married or not.

C: So this isn’t related to economic factors? Is there a question of women’s competition with men for jobs? Because that seems to be part of the issue in other countries where women have been under attack.

A: I think there’s a difference. First of all, China has never discouraged women from working [outside the home], because the government never allows labor-power to be wasted. China is trying to maintain rapid economic growth, it needs to use all the labor-power at its disposal, so it never tells women not to work [outside the home].

C: So they’re told to work both outside and inside the home.

A: Yes, and also that their wages/ salary be lower than men.

C: Why do government officials care about this?

A: Well… If women’s status got higher than that of men, where could men vent their anger [发泄]? When outside [the home] a man receives heavy stress, he needs some way to relieve it, otherwise he’d start thinking “I want [political] reform, I want revolution, I want to overthrow the government,” etc. [laughs] If not, then he needs another outlet. And right now the outlet is to push all the housework onto the woman. And if you get angry you can resort to domestic violence. If you beat your wife, no problem, no one will punish you… It may be a way to maintain social stability. If I want a country to be stable, to have less riots [暴乱], we know that if [people] want to have reform, men may be a relatively neutral force [?? – 中间的力量]. It’s more difficult for women to foment a riot. If you want to avoid that kind of riot, just redirect men’s stress onto women. This is an easy way for a state to maintain a semblance of stability. [Discussion of domestic violence, Li Yan…] 

C: So your analysis is that the main factors behind the arrests are patriarchy and the goal of maintaining social stability?

A: Yes. At first I didn’t think it was so serious, but looking back, these arrests must have been organized well in advance at high levels. Because on March 6, when Maizi and Wei Tingting were detained, we all thought it was nothing special. Because we in this trade [i.e. gender-related NGOs] are often interrogated and then released within 24 hours…

C: Were they the first to be detained?

A: No. The first was a student at Renmin University, who was detained on the 6th… But the university isn’t allowing us to contact her… But she was [also] the first to be released… Her surname is Yu…

C: I had thought that Da Tu was interrogated for over 10 hours on the 6th.

A: Da Tu and Rongrong – [Da Tu] in Guangzhou, [Rongrong] in Hangzhou – at first the local police put them under house arrest [软禁]. Da Tu was detained in a hotel. Rongrong wasn’t in Hangzhou, she had gone out of town, and as soon as her plane landed in Hangzhou, she was arrested… At first I thought that the local police in Guangzhou and Hangzhou had no idea what was happening. They were good to both of them – they even let them use their cell phones to contact us. They thought they could go home for dinner… But… it must have been late on the 7th, because I didn’t see the news until the morning of the 8th – suddenly [police] came from Beijing and took them away. That was when we realized that the situation was extremely serious. It occurred to us that the Beijing police may have searched Maizi’s computer and found something, and used that to detain Da Tu and Rongrong. Because it wasn’t until then that they sent [Beijing police] to Hangzhou and Guangzhou… So if [the police] hadn’t planned this in advance, it doesn’t make much sense…

C: You mentioned something about 24 hours?

A: Within 24 hours, there are two [legal] requirements: one, [the police] must contact family members [of the detained], but none the family members of the detained have been officially contacted. So that part is absolutely illegal. And the second part is that [the police] must find evidence for the crime [the detained are alleged to have] committed, and only after that can they apply to the Procuraturate [检察院] or the Public Security Bureau for permission to detain [the prisoners] for two weeks…

C: Is this sort of illegal detention common?

A: In China, yes.

C: So what is unusual is that the prisoners aren’t lawyers, and that the action they had planned wasn’t anything that would disrupt “social stability”?

A: Yes. That’s why they haven’t issued any official documents. Last year, several lawyers were detained, and no matter whether it was convincing, at least some kind of official document was issued. For example Chang Boyang and Pu Zhiqiang were both charged with “Picking Quarrels and Provoking Trouble” [寻衅滋事 – the crime for which at least one of the Women’s Day Five was charged orally, although no documents have been issued].

C: What about that paper with that charge written on it that’s been circulating on WeChat?

A: The police didn’t write that. Da Tu wrote that after the police told her what the charge was, and her parents put their thumb-print on it, but it’s not an official document… Likewise, Li Maizi’s lawyer said that although the police presented a warrant when she was detained, the warrant didn’t have her name on it. Or a date. It was blank…

C: So why do you think they’ll be detained for 37 days?

A: According to the law, if you detain someone for 2 weeks and can’t find what you’re looking for, the longest you can extend the detention is 37 days.

C: But hasn’t all of this been illegal?

A: Yes, but if they keep them for over 37 days, I wonder how civil society would respond…

C: So what do you think all this signifies? Is it mainly a matter of the Xi regime’s crackdown on civil society in general, or does this signify an attack on feminism in particular?

A: I’ve been wondering why there’s no official document. I wonder if this might indicate some kind of internal debate. We can’t assume that government [officials] are all of the same voice… A typical example was the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was detained last year and has yet to be released. The police have submitted their indictment to the Procuraturate twice now, but it was rejected both times, because it’s too ridiculous [扯]. So this time, during the “Two Sessions,” it may be that there is someone, or a group, who thinks that gender activists should be stopped, but it’s also possible that when it gets to a higher level, it’s impossible to produce a credible indictment.

C: So you think that’s why they haven’t issued any documents yet?

A: That’s one possibility. A second is that, if they issue a document, it should have some degree of credibility, and that might cause even more problems for the government.

C: How so?

A: Because that way everyone would know that the government is specifically targeting this group: people interested in gender, or young activists, or NGOs. In any case, it would be a clear signal. So the response would be much bigger.

C: So at this point the target hasn’t been officially clarified?

A: At this point the lawyers are focusing on legality: you haven’t issued these documents, etc. But no one has stated that the government is targeting a specific group of people…

C: On my WeChat feed this guy – a self-described “Marxist” no less – replied to my repost of Xiao Wei’s article, saying that in all this discussion [about the Women’s Day Five], no one has discussed which crimes they’ve been accused of, and whether they’re guilty. He said that if they committed some crime, they should be prosecuted.

A: This perspective is extremely common in online discussions [about the prisoners]…

C: Also, some people think this detainment is mainly because of [the prisoners’] association with [the NGO] Yirenping.

A: But only 3 [of the detained] work for Yirenping.

C: In the past, crackdowns on NGOs tend to focus on those receiving funding from abroad. Is that an issue in this case?

A: Possibly. Because Yirenping receives funding from abroad, practically every week the police interrogate them. And they know exactly where the money comes from, who the members are, etc… A few months ago, the US Consulate invited Yirenping to an event [茶话会], and that day, several [Yirenping staff who had planned to attend] were “invited to tea” [i.e. interrogated by the secret police]…

C: Were all the organizers of the [March 7] event arrested?

A: No. Originally some of them set up a WeChat group with over 20 people for planning the event.

C: Were all the arrested in that group?

A: Yes. The police must have used that to trace them. But I don’t know why only some of those 20-some people were detained… It may be that the Beijing Guobao [secret police] had already planned to arrest them and just took advantage of this opportunity. Or it might have been a coincidence, because at first they arrested that student [from Renmin University] – that may have just been a matter of meeting a quota, and then they realized that she was connected to these other people [more well-known activists].

C: So the [planned March 7] event was open to anyone who wanted to participate?

A: Yes. Originally people such as Li Maizi set up the group just as a springboard for ideas to do something related to sexual harassment that weekend, and then they came up with a plan and started publicizing it everywhere, and anyone interested was welcome to participate. So there was definitely well over [those original] 20 people who planned to participate…

C: So how do you think this relates to the petition to cancel CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala?1

A: It’s definitely related, but not directly, because the main people who initiated that petition weren’t arrested. And none of arrested played a big role in that campaign. It was mainly associated with [an organization called] Feminist Voices [女权之声], and the only person from Feminist Voices who was detained was immediately released…

C: What about “Feminist Action” [女权行动派] – I’ve heard it’s not an organization, so what is it exactly?

A: You could say it’s a call to arms [号召]… When we do an action, we use this name in order to be more convincing, or to give people a sense of participation. Anyone who agrees could be considered a member.

C: The “Feminist Action” WeChat feed says they’re dissolving or something?

A: Some of their central members are concerned for their safety, so for now they’re no longer using that name. Basically everyone who works on gender [in China] is in hiding. They’ve cut off all communication, they can’t be found… [And they plan to stay in hiding until after the prisoners are released…]

C: As far as solidarity actions, I know about the petitions, postcards, and photos, but what about protests? I know some people went to the detention center the first day or two – are they still there?

A: Yes, some local women from Beijing, including some people from the countryside – acquaintances of Maizi. But I don’t think this is a good way [to support the prisoners]. Because in the past there have been so many cases: as soon as you go to the street with a banner, you get arrested…

C: So what should we do?

A: I think the best we can do is to get the word out, let more people know. I think one reason the state still hasn’t made a statement or produced any documents is that they don’t want people to know about it. This is how the Chinese government deals with a lot of issues: by pretending they don’t exist… So many of our friends are focusing on writing about this and getting the word out.

C: What do you think about the statements by the EU and the USA? Will that help or hurt?

A: It’s hard to say. If [the main reason for the arrests] was to “maintain social stability” [维稳], then these statements are a bad thing… Because China’s budget for maintaining stability is extremely high. They have to spend this money, and how do they spend it? By continually “inviting people to tea” [interrogating them], continually detaining people for [the legal maximum of] 24 hours. If that’s the goal, then these statements will only make matters worse… Because [the police] wouldn’t have a way out, they would lose face… They’re less concerned about suppressing a particular action than about meeting quotas [for arrests and expenditures]…

The police sees the feminists and thinks "This looks like a good place to arrest people"; in his pocket is a quota for the number of people he's supposed to arrest.

The police sees the feminists and thinks "This looks like a good place to arrest people"; in his pocket is a quota for the number of people he's supposed to arrest.

C: So the more people protest, the more they get to detain?

A: That’s part of it. The other is face. They would need to come up with an excuse to charge the prisoners.

C: But earlier you said that if they charged them, they would attract more attention and make it clear that they’re targeting feminists or NGOs.

A: But it might be like Pu Zhiqiang: the police have submitted charges [to the Procuraturate] twice, and although they were rejected, he’s still in detention over a year later.

C: So you think those statements [by the EU and the USA] might pressure the police to come up with a charge and extend their detention?

A: I think it’s possible. A lot of my friends are worried about this… Another think is that only Li Maizi has been allowed to see her lawyer, but not the other four.

C: Why?

A: It might be because the lawyer representing the other four is Wang Qiushi, [whereas Maizi’s lawyer isn’t so famous or controversial]. Wang Qiushi has represented a lot of NGOs before…

C: So although you think the statements [by the EU and USA] may pressure the police to charge [the prisoners] and extend their detention, in general the main thing we should do is to get the word out?

A: Yes – in China and abroad.

C: Then I hope this interview helps somehow…


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