Given the limited right to assembly in China, a mass feminist movement that confronts the Communist Party is unlikely to materialize, argues historian Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. But fragmented and incremental pushes for women's rights will continue for years to come, and they will be no less revolutionary for being quiet.

In China, International Women’s Day is usually a candy-and-flowers-type affair. But in 2015, feminist activists in several major cities decided to use the March 8 holiday to publicly condemn unwanted sexual advances that occur on mass transit. They planned to hand out stickers with innocuous slogans like “Police: Go arrest those who committed sexual harassment.” But before the women could act, authorities detained at least nine of the organizers for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an ill-defined charge that’s difficult to contest.

I had heard of a few of the activists before. I was vaguely familiar with their “Occupy Men’s Toilets” protest that advocated for more women’s restrooms and their demonstration against domestic violence that involved wearing wedding dresses smeared with blood. Distributing stickers seemed low-key in comparison. I was surprised that this is what landed the women in detention, especially since they hadn’t even carried it out.

Surprised, but not shocked: Ever since Xi Jinping became president in late 2012, the space for free expression in the country has been shrinking. The Chinese Communist Party seeks, above all, to maintain social stability. In the past, this meant the government was most sensitive to causes like justice for victims of 1989’s June 4 massacres or freedom for Tibet. But with Xi’s ascension, authorities have also been clamping down on rights lawyers, NGO workers, political reformers, investigative journalists, academics who don’t toe the party line, and activists for causes that had previously been safe—like feminism.

Four of the women were quickly released; the rest became known as the “Feminist Five” and remained in custody until authorities freed them on April 13, 2015. During their five weeks in detention, the Feminist Five drew international support. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a formal statement calling on the Chinese government to release the women, and officials in the United Kingdom and the European Union spoke out on their behalf as well. On April 6, Hillary Clinton tweeted, “The detention of women’s activists in #China must end. This is inexcusable. #FreeBeijing20Five,” with a link to a New York Times story detailing the women’s plight. (The second hashtag referred to 2015 being the 20th anniversary of the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, where Clinton had declared, “Women’s rights are human rights.”) Clinton wasn’t alone in her use of social media to show solidarity: Human-rights organizations, LGBTQ activists, and feminists around the world campaigned together under the hashtags #freethefive and #FeministFive.

Despite internet censorship and the curbing of free expression, people within China also voiced their support for the Feminist Five. Because the women had not actually been able to execute their protest, Chinese netizens argued that the government was undermining its own stated commitment to the rule of law, which would seem to prohibit preemptive arrest. More than likely, it was this domestic critique, not the international support for the Feminist Five, that pushed authorities to release the women. After all, the Chinese government has never demonstrated an interest in bowing to foreign critics on matters of human rights.


Watching the Feminist Five case play out, it seemed clear that the Chinese government had overplayed its hand, and was demonstrating the knee-jerk paranoia it sometimes exhibits in response to events that the vast majority of citizens would otherwise ignore. Women’s rights and gender relations are unquestionably important topics in Chinese society right now, but few favor the showy and sometimes confrontational tactics of the Feminist Five. As the women’s detention showed, taking too aggressive a stand can land someone in jail—even when the cause they’re working for is one the government claims to support.

My Chinese-language teachers and, later, colleagues in academia were often quick to point out that women’s rights had improved under the Chinese Communist Party. This was true: The party had relied on women’s support in its rise to power before 1949. After assuming control of the country, it had worked hard to uproot the “feudal thinking” of Confucian patriarchy. The first major piece of legislation the new government passed was the 1950 Marriage Law, which, among other things, ended underage marriage and decreed that both parties must freely enter into marriage, putting an end to arranged unions. The Communist Party also strictly enforced an existing ban on footbinding, a painful process that had never been practiced in many parts of China but had become a symbol (both in the country and abroad) of the oppression of Chinese women in traditional society.

During the Mao Zedong era (1949–1976), state policies promoting gender equality had meant that women enjoyed marked improvements in opportunities for education and employment. Still—as in the United States—they were considered responsible for child care and household duties, which resulted in many women working a “second shift” at home late into the night. Propaganda posters depicted women laboring in fields and factories, parachuting from planes, and driving tractors. These were idealized images, but they encouraged women and girls to dream big. Though, unlike in the U.S., the goal of such feminism wasn’t personal fulfillment, but rather serving the country and continuing the communist revolution.

While a significant change from gender relations in pre-1949 China, these policies were state-directed and top-down, not open for discussion. As Chinese author Zhang Lijia, born in the mid-1960s, explained to me, “Mao declared women [had] been liberated . . . [so] it wasn’t regarded as an issue.” The government told women that equality existed; therefore, it did.


In my early years in China, I often wondered how deeply the concept of nan-nü pingdeng (male-female equality) had really taken root. As my language skills improved, I was able to read the “help wanted” signs posted in the windows of Beijing’s shops and restaurants and realized that they were often startlingly specific, noting whether the business wanted a male or female worker and stipulating certain age, height, and weight ranges. Academia—hardly a bastion of gender equality in the United States—seemed completely dominated by men; the only place I knew of with no line for the ladies’ room was a Chinese academic conference.

In conversations with my young Chinese-language teachers and graduate-school classmates, I noticed how grimly determined these women in their early-to-mid 20s were to get married as soon as possible rather than risk the label of sheng nü, or “leftover woman,” which could be slapped on a single woman as early as the age of 27. As sociologist Leta Hong Fincher has shown, the All-China Women’s Federation—the party organization responsible for promoting the rights of women—has actually taken the lead in demonizing the country’s “leftover women,” using an extensive propaganda campaign to warn singletons that failure to marry by one’s mid-20s will have severe social and emotional consequences. For years, the federation’s website included anti-leftover women articles such as one criticizing women who put off marriage to seek advanced degrees. The author lamented that by the time those educated women were ready to settle down with a partner, they had become “old, like yellowed pearls.”

And the Chinese Communist Party itself, the party that had relied on women in its march to power and whose leaders cheerfully recite the tired Mao-era slogan, “nü ren neng ding ban bian tian” (“Women hold up half the sky”), provides a terrible example for its citizens to follow. No woman has ever ascended to the elite Politburo Standing Committee, the small cabinet that effectively runs the country in concert with the president. This pattern of under-representation ripples down through the entire political system.

In addition, for three decades, China’s One-Child Policy was enforced by a small army of government workers who monitored and controlled women’s fertility. This led to widespread sex-selective abortion and a dramatically skewed sex ratio; in 2014, roughly 116 boys were born for every 100 girls. Although the policy was modified in early 2015, government oversight of reproduction remains firmly in place: China now has a two-child policy.

There are some bright spots. Although women can’t necessarily climb the party ladder to power, they fare better in the private sector; a 2015 survey by the Hurun Report found that two-thirds of the world’s richest self-made women were Chinese. Despite a preference for boys, Chinese daughters are by no means neglected. Rates of female education have risen steadily in recent decades, and since 2008, college enrollments for women have exceeded those of men so much so that the government has implemented quotas designed to level the ratio. And China’s export-oriented manufacturing sector, which propelled the country’s economic growth between the early 1990s and late 2000s, was powered by young women who left their rural homes in search of jobs in coastal factories. Through their time as migrant laborers, many of these women achieved financial self-sufficiency and a level of social independence that likely would have been impossible had they remained in their hometowns.

As I moved between China and the United States and talked with women in both countries about school, jobs, family, money, men, sex, kids—the common topics of conversation for 20- and 30-something women everywhere—I realized that despite the advances in the past half-century or so, the status of gender relations in both of my homes frustrated me. China seemed to have more institutional barriers to female advancement, as well as a greater emphasis on marriage, but in the United States, my peers struggled by not being as closely linked to their families, especially when it came to child care. In China, where people retire earlier than in the U.S., it’s common, if not expected, that grandparents will move in with their children to help babysit, freeing both parents to work without the imposition of day care costs. While these issues were frequently discussed in American media and popular culture, for a long time I felt like Chinese women were not paying as much attention to them. Female friends and colleagues occasionally expressed anger at societal expectations—such as the call to marry early—but never showed significant interest in fighting back against them. Where, I wondered, were China’s feminists?

I’ve now realized that I was looking at the country through my American Third-Wave feminist lens and searching for an organized feminist movement that, due to China’s limitations on free assembly and free expression, was never going to manifest. I was also mistaken in thinking that the absence of such a large-scale movement meant that nothing was changing. During my decade-plus of experience in China, I’ve witnessed a transformation in the way young women approach the world and speak about their place in it. Having grown up in an increasingly globalized country, and often having spent time abroad, many Chinese women are pushing for change—though few embrace the in-your-face tactics of the Feminist Five and their activist colleagues.

“Now women have taken the matter into their own hands,” Zhang Lijia told me, referring to the increasing amount of feminist activity in the past few years. Rather than accepting the government’s interpretation of gender equality, as they were forced to do during the Mao era, women are working to achieve their own versions. Some of this takes the form of what 1960s American feminists called “consciousness-raising,” via group discussions of books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In or Chinese-American author Joy Chen’s Do Not Marry Before Age 30, which encourages women to know themselves before they commit to a partner. Small group conversations might not translate into large-scale, unified political action, but they can bring women together and encourage dialogue about the shared challenges they’re facing at home and work.

Other women have pursued change through legal means: The first lawsuit alleging gender discrimination in employment was filed in 2012 (the plaintiff reached an out-of-court settlement with the company two years later), and the first court victory in such a case was achieved in 2014. Filing a gender-discrimination lawsuit is not yet a widely pursued or accepted action; both plaintiffs used pseudonyms for fear that identifying themselves would harm their future employment prospects. Additionally, the imprisonment of activist lawyers and the unwillingness of Chinese courts to take on controversial cases pose obstacles. But a few examples of success in seeking institutional change through the courts can inspire other women to consider the same strategy in the future.

Even pop culture and advertising are gradually shifting. When Japanese cosmetics company SK-II commissioned a short documentary about the emotional pain suffered by China’s “leftover women,” the video went viral and opened up a largely sympathetic discussion about the place of unmarried women in Chinese society. Many online commentators remarked that the short film had brought them to tears. “It’s really so moving,” one posted, noting that although the video was clearly marketing SK-II’s products, he or she hoped to see more such advertisements, “and then the social environment might change a bit!”

None of this, to be sure, is easy. Chinese women who seek change are often fighting a trifecta of institutionalized discrimination, societal pressure, and family expectations. But the fact that many are pursuing their goals in the face of these challenges is a sign that the mood is different than when I first moved to China in 2005.

In arresting activists like the Feminist Five or limiting the space for NGOs to carry out their work, the Chinese government is damaging its own cause. If it is truly concerned about ensuring social stability, the protests of a small number of activists shouldn’t be so alarming. Rather, the real threat to stability is the dissatisfaction of millions of women who face state directives and community expectations concerning their employment, marriages, and reproduction.

Given the limitations on assembling a far-reaching social organization in China, it’s unlikely we will see a mass movement where women file an avalanche of gender discrimination lawsuits or unite against planned-birth policies. Instead, we will see fragmented and incremental change, the type that can continue for a long time before anyone realizes there’s been a shift. A few more female Communist Party officials here, a few less early marriages there—these aren’t the actions that will get anyone thrown in jail, but they’re no less revolutionary for being quiet.