In 2015, the Chinese government imprisoned five women for engaging in subversive activities. Their crime had been to hand out stickers opposing sexual harassment on public transport. Before that, several of the “Feminist Five” had been involved in a campaign called Occupy Men’s Toilets, protesting at the lack of public facilities for women. Not, you might imagine, incendiary stuff – but in China, feminism is seen as a menace to the state. President Xi Jinping portrays himself as a patriarch to the nation. State media has nicknamed him “Xi Dada”, or “Big Daddy Xi”, and if the state is a family with the father at the top, then women need to know their place.
Leta Hong Fincher’s book Betraying Big Brother tells the story of the feminist movement in China, and the women she writes about are operating in almost unimaginably hostile conditions. In the UK, the word “feminist” has become sufficiently anodyne that politicians line up to wear “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts. In China, “feminist” is used as a term of sexist abuse that’s so vicious many women hesitate to identify themselves with it. Without freedom of association and without a free press, China’s women’s movement has to be exceptionally nimble and creative. The arena for their ingenuity is often social media.
The major Western websites are banned, and the Chinese alternatives Weibo and WeChat are heavily monitored and censored (while researching her book, Fincher learned to save everything to her computer – if it was interesting, it would probably disappear from the internet within hours). That prompts creativity. When authorities banned the hashtag #MeToo on Weibo, one user came up with the idea of using the emojis for the Chinese words mi (rice) and tu (bunny). And for a while, feminism persisted under the pictograms – until that was rumbled as well.
It’s not just the resilience and resourcefulness of China’s feminists that amazed me. In Betraying Big Brother, for the first time in a very long time, Fincher convincingly presents the internet as a something good. For Chinese feminists, social media remains a way to get their job done, despite state-imposed constraints. In the West, feminism on the internet only seems to end up mired in ever smaller and more bitter internal arguments. The word “woman” itself is contentious enough online that many organisations avoid it altogether; a Wellcome Trust event recently plumped for the spelling “womxn” to be more “inclusive”.
This is not what was supposed to happen. At the start of this decade, breathless enthusiasm about the possibilities of a connected world appeared perfectly reasonable. “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere” by my fellow NS writer Paul Mason gathered up everything from British student radicals to the Arab Spring into what he called a “global progressive movement”. Mason explained that sclerotic establishment outlets, with their ingrained bias to the status quo, would wither into irrelevance as activists were able to tell their own stories – “truth moves faster than lies”, he wrote. It felt compelling at the time.
In feminism, the internet seemed to offer the promise of holding the powerful to account. When I first came across the site Jezebel, my favourite feature was the “Cover Lies” strand, which poured acid on the wild claims and mangled politics of women’s glossy magazine cover lines. Not only did these writers clearly think the glossies were as absurd as I did, they also read them as avidly. Twitter accounts such as Everyday Sexism enabled an outflow of truth-telling, as women shared stories of sexual harassment, catcalling and rape. We could not be ignored, surely, if we just kept on talking.
Today, in a world of Tommy Robinson “stans”, JC4PM Facebook groups propagating anti-Semitic memes, and Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, Mason’s thesis looks threadbare. The true is hopelessly outpaced by the fake, and the “international progressive movement” turns out to have been a figment: the internet has done at least as much for demagogues as it has for democracy. And feminism has done no better than any other once-hopeful social movement.
It turns out that women’s voices can indeed be ignored. Without a legislative agenda, reciting our pain to an unreceptive world simply becomes wound-dwelling. As print fades, blogs are no longer a chippy alternative to the media: they are the media. Jezebel retired “Cover Lies” in 2014, the same year that it published unretouched, and therefore unflattering, photos leaked from Lena Dunham’s Vogue shoot, making it roughly as feminist as a supermarket tabloid. Now, the “feminist” internet specialises largely in attacking “bad” women, and in tearing apart any campaign that commits the faux pas of being “problematic”.
Even apparent internet success stories for feminism turn out to have relied on old-school methods. #MeToo took off online but the Harvey Weinstein story that crystallised it took years – decades even – of investigative work by the New York Times and others. An online petition is worth very little without real-world lobbying to back it up. And so there’s a terrible frustration: we have freedoms that Chinese feminists must look on with wonder, and yet we fail to turn them into greater successes.
Perhaps it’s the very constraints of the Chinese internet that force feminists to see it as a tool, rather than an end. I am not suggesting we should be misty-eyed for totalitarianism, like acoustic music bores praising the wonderful invention imposed by a one-string guitar. Instead, the lesson to take from China’s feminists is that the best approach to the internet is to treat it as a hostile environment. Something that we must use, but something that we must be careful never to trust – because we can exploit it, but it will not save us.