In June 2015, a restaurant declined to hire Gao Xiao as a line cook because of her gender. Men prepare the food, a restaurant employee told her; women only serve it. So Gao filed a lawsuit.
In the U.S., this likely would have been treated as a straightforward case of employment discrimination. In China, it earned her a visit from the police. Since the spring, authorities have threatened her, contacted her parents and harassed her landlord who, in March, evicted her from her apartment.
"My psychological condition wasn't very good," said Gao, a 27-year-old in Guangzhou who, like many young activists in China, goes by a nickname to avoid government reprisals. "Because there were so many obstructions; after launching the lawsuit I felt like I was under attack."
In recent years, a small number of Chinese feminist activists — most of them outspoken, social media-savvy women in their 20s — have used creative campaigns to protest strains of male chauvinism that run through contemporary Chinese society. Since 2012, they've "occupied" men's public toilets to protest unfairly sized female restrooms; donned faux blood-spattered wedding dresses to protest domestic violence; and shaved their heads to protest education inequality.
What several years ago began as a fringe movement has sparked a nascent feminist awakening — and authorities have responded by cracking down. In March 2015, likely threatened by the activists' independence, organizational prowess, and not least, popular appeal, police detained five of the movement's leaders (dubbed the "Feminist Five") for planning a campaign against sexual harassment on buses and subways. This provoked an international outcry; after several weeks, they were released.
But activists say that since then, feminism itself has become a "sensitive" political topic — authorities have begun treating them not as socially conscious youth, but as threats to state security.
Over the past year, Chinese authorities have tightened control over all aspects of society — they have detained lawyers and journalists, shuttered NGOs and passed laws making it more difficult to publicly criticize the government. But "you can't just lump [the feminists] in with a broader government crackdown on civil society," said Leta Hong-Fincher, a sociologist and author of "Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China." "That's definitely a part of it. But I believe there really is a unique threat to the government coming from this feminist movement."
It won't be easy to stamp out, she said — it's become far too popular. "When I was doing my [book] research several years ago, it was very demoralizing to time and time again run into these young women who were just completely blind to blatant sexism," she said. "But now more and more women are aware of injustice and inequality. That's extremely heartening."
In April, the Japanese cosmetics company SK-II released an emotional, four-minute commercial that challenged the crushing family pressure that many young Chinese women face to marry. The ad went viral in China, drawing widespread praise on social media sites.
That same month, security camera footage of a woman being harassed at a hotel in Beijing, in full view of bystanders, also went viral on social media, sparking a wide-ranging conversation about sexual violence and abuse.
"Another part of this is that the Communist Party has been for a long time very strongly promoting extremely traditional gender norms," Fincher said. "You look at the propaganda, the state media, it's strongly encouraging women to return to the home and have babies. The end of the One Child Policy is part of this as well. It's an attempt to address these very severe demographic crises — the shrinking of the workforce, the aging of the population, falling birth rates."
In China, women do enjoy a broad range of social and professional opportunities — more than 70% of women are in the workforce, about the same as the U.S. China has more female billionaires than any other country. Yet women remain scarce in leadership roles. In politics, only two women sit on the powerful 25-member Politburo; in business, only about 2% of Chinese women hold managerial roles.
Gao eventually won the lawsuit — the court awarded her about $300 in damages, a small sum, even by China's standards. She has found a new apartment, and now works at a bakery. Yet the restaurant management has not apologized, and Gao, dissatisfied with the case's outcome, has launched an appeal.
Many of her contemporaries say that since March, their lives have gotten harder. "All the street activities that we could do, we're not allowed to do anymore," said Xiao Meili, 26, the owner of an e-commerce business that sells feminist-themed merchandise. "And now, feminism is a sensitive topic. No matter what we do, they'll watch us very closely." (Xiao, also a nickname, was Gao's roommate until March, and was also evicted from the apartment for her activism).
Xiao has spent years advocating for gender equality. In 2013, she trekked 1,200 miles across China to draw attention to sexual violence (she called the project "Beautiful Feminist Walk: A Protest Against Sexual Abuse to Promote Women's Freedom"). She has directed a feminist drama inspired by "The Vagina Monologues." This spring, she crowd-funded about $6,000 to post an advertisement in the Guangzhou subway warning against sexual harassment.
Her activism has won her plaudits online, even in some domestic news reports. She has also experienced failures and setbacks — her girlfriend attempted to sue Sina, the Chinese company behind Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog service, for blocking accounts that include the word "feminism" in their names. Several courts refused to hear the case, and her girlfriend eventually gave up trying.
A small group of university student activists in Guangzhou has been "seriously harassed" in recent weeks, Xiao said. One student — a transgender activist — is being threatened with expulsion. She refused to give further details, to protect the students' privacy.
Last week, a group of activists took photos of themselves holding handwritten messages to protest the lenient sentence given to Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer convicted in March of sexual assault, and posted them online. Again, the images went viral.
Xiao Men, 24, an assistant at a law firm in Guangzhou and one of the campaign's organizers, said that although police have harassed her and her family several times over the last year, she plans to continue her activism. (Xiao also uses a nickname; she is not related to Xiao Meili).
Since she began her activism three years ago, she said, she's "learned many things — I've learned to acknowledge that I'm a feminist, and I feel empowered by that. It makes me feel like I have a voice.
"Sisterhood — this is something that I place a lot of importance on," she continued. "It's strong bonds among women, that's what keeps me going. We'll get a lot of pressure, and it will come from the masses, or family, or the government. But you can rely on your sisterhood to get you through."
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