Poster for the 1959-movie Song of Youth, which marked the 10th anniversary of China's Communist Party

Poster for the 1959-movie Song of Youth, which marked the 10th anniversary of China's Communist Party

The main predicament hindering the emergence of a feminist movement in China is that there are neither enough feminists nor enough support for them, either on an official or civil level. The feminist community agrees that change towards gender equality will be slow and arduous.

Scholars and analysts have a more pessimistic stance, noting that activism is constantly being undermined by the political status quo. Grassroots feminists and students are more optimistic; as they see some progress taking place thanks to their actions. They do agree though that, regardless the direction the feminist compass turns in, it will have to do so pointing out a unique course born in China. 

“Revolutionaries are long gone. China has changed,” professor Wang noted. Between the bureaucrats who hold leadership positions because they are with the Communist Party, and a younger generation who lacks a sense of collective struggle, Wang has no hopes of seeing women reclaiming their lost rights in the near future. “Most women in power positions, namely with the ACWF, no longer belong to the generation of women fighting for social justice and equality, they’re not leaders because they’re activists; they’re bureaucrats,” said the teacher, admitting that the few good feminists with the ACWF can’t pull strings from within an association which has lost its credibility.

“Meantime, young women have been profoundly affected by individualism and capitalist consumerism; they have no sense of collective goals or struggle,” explained the historian, saying that individualism is at its highest time. “Many of them believe it’s easier to climb the social ladder or to marry a rich man. Happiness is determined by the number of goods you can consume,” she added.

The Bald Girls, a group show by female artists Li Xinmo, Xiao Lu and Jiny Lan, has been described as "the first-ever feminist exhibition in China." The exhibition was held at the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2012.

The Bald Girls, a group show by female artists Li Xinmo, Xiao Lu and Jiny Lan, has been described as "the first-ever feminist exhibition in China." The exhibition was held at the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2012.

“A localised process [of feminism] must emerge,” said Zhang Zenglin, a student activist from China Women’s university, noting that the theories she is studying were first developed in Western countries. “Surely, China can learn from the West and its experience, but we can't translate and transfer those realities word for word. China doesn't share the same political system, social status or economic level. I think Chinese feminism needs to find its own way,” concluded the student. 

After shaving her head to protest against domestic violence and equal access to university for female students, Xiong Jing is optimistic about the growth of feminism in China. “Some people call us radical because some of our activities are quite controversial. But I see that as a positive sign, asbefore, nobody talked about female issues,” said Xiong, who works for the Women Monitor for Media Network NGO.  

For better or worse, the feminist agenda is still taking place outside the official sphere of control, noted Xiong. “The political environment has become worse in the past year with more activists getting arrested. But women’s issues are not considered human rights’ issues and therefore are not so sensitive, so we actually have some room to demonstrate.”

However, the young feminist has no illusions about the pace of change when it comes to female rights in China. “We know we can’t change things overnight. Actions like occupying male toilets may seem like a small thing to do, but it is specific and might just be planting the seed of something that will grow larger." Xiong was referring to a campaign calling for more public facilities for women. In February 2012, Beijing students occupied male cubicles in facilities near Deshengmen to make sure that women waiting in line could use the facilities first. The initiator of the movement, a female college student in Beijing who alerted for the unfair ratio of male to female toilet stalls, has later received a formal response from the local government that banned her from traveling away from the capital and limited her ability to organise. 

"Despite the obstacles, more and more young people are joining our activities and this gives us good reason to believe that, despite the political environment, feminism can grow as a civil movement in China."