On November 25, which marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Bcome stepped on the Beijing subway Line 13 singing ‘Do You Hear the Women Sing’, a rendition of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’, one of the main and most recognisable songs from the musical Les Misérables and an anthem to freedom.
In order to raise awareness, the activists also distributed leaflets as they sang among commuters on the subway with titles such as “The ABCs of Feminism”, “20 Misconceptions about sexual violence" and “Resist verbal abuse." The videos were posted online.
As with most dissident voices in China, feminists have also found their way onto the Internet to pass on their message and mobilise other women for the feminist cause. With the main media controlled by the government and the market, feminists are marginalised and lack resources to access a wider stage where their voices can be heard.
“The most vibrant feminist organisations and female NGOs are currently very active online. They’re an online movement of feminist critique,” noted Wang Zheng, talking of the clusters in Beijing and Guangzhou.
Platforms like Sina Weibo, China’s biggest microblog, and video-sharing website Youku, are the main window to feminist actions scattered around the vast country.
Women’s Voice, which is run by the Media Monitor for Women Network, has one of the most influential Weibo on gender issues with over 25,000followers. The page is covered with general news concerning women, publications and reports as well as useful female-related links. Their channel on Youku, which is called FeminisTV, also has over 200,000 followers.
Beijing-based feminist group Bcome and Media Monitor for Women Network are two associations on the front line of online feminist activism. They publish useful information and newsletters online, they collect signatures and organise offline activities such as panel discussions, performances and even protests.
Bcome was also behind the performance of The Vagina Monologues by BFSU students. The organisers translated the play from the English script, took parts from past Mandarin versions, and created original scenes through a series of workshops they ran last year. At each workshop, they voted on the topic they wanted to stage, noted down their own experiences, and gave key words to the scriptwriters. "We wanted to localise the play as much as possible, so we added issues such as the obsession and anxiety over virginity," explains Ai Ke, one of the organisers.
After the script was ready, Bcome's committee organised shows at several universities around town, at Beijing's LGBT centre, at culture cafes, and at an art space where they performed to an audience of 400. They also performed it for a community of migrant sex workers ("This helped us better understand them and write a scene about their lives"). “The play is new, fresh and attention-grabbing," Ai Ke added. "It's not just a play, it's a tool for spreading feminism, a method for public education."
Scholars are somewhat divided as to the role of the Internet as a torch for the feminist movement. “There is no question that this is a platform for individual women to exchange ideas and express their desires for a better life but at the same time, we can see that through excessive government monitoring, the Internet is not providing a platform for real organised opposition that actually leads to meaningful social change,” said Leta Hong Fincher, a sociology PhD candidate at Tsinghua University researching on 'leftover women' (see page Leftover and left behind), noting the topic is highly debatable.
Living in the US and traveling to China every year, it is online that Wang Zheng keeps in close contact with the feminists on the ground while she is away. Wang as a history and women's studies professor at the University of Michigan. “These are strong, clear minded women who not only produce online mobilisation, they are also doing something very important which is to exert pressure on the ACWF,” said Wang, explaining they have found ways to circumvent official control. “The authorities watch them as they do with everybody who wants to organise group activities. But everybody knows about this, so we’ve found ways to go into the public sphere without causing very much political trouble,” the professor explained.
Using email listings and organising timely demonstrations are two such strategies. “These associations maintain their websites but for example, the newsletter by the is circulated only by email to a group of subscribers. Whenever they want to stage a protest in public space, they wake up very early. They go out, perform their protest by shouting slogans in front of a government building film it and they get out of there before the police shows up. Then they publish the video online,” said Wang.
Despite a relative level of mobilisation allowed by the virtual sphere, experts also point out the dangers of the Internet. In a presentation entitled “Impact of Internet on Chinese Women's Lives From a Gender Perspective,” Zhang Jian, professor of women’s studies at China’s Women University in Beijing talks of the dual impact of the Internet on women. It enlarges women’s social practice field, including creating far more occupational chances and much wider living space, because of its digitalisation, online behaviour and freedom. But it can also commercialises women in a bad way and allow them to be easily harmed in the conflict between virtual and social reality.”
The misogynistic backlash against the BFSU student’s project “My Vagina Says” has proven that the online audience can also be a vigilante mob that reacts heavily against bolder demonstrations of female sexuality. When the photos went viral, they were first received with a wave of woman-hating comments targeting the girls' looks and sexuality. "Seeing their faces, I've lost all interests in their vaginas" said one netizen nicknamed @Taoist_Mua; another wrote "These ignorant grandstanding tarts" @Baohulvsejiayuan; “Wouldn’t having an orgasm be what they want the most?" asked @shuxingxingdebide. Many people retorted their action had nothing to do with female empowerment or seeking gender equality. Then the problem spilled out of cyberspace while, according to some of the girls, there were some furious parents calling the university to complain. “Some of the girls had their parents calling and shouting at them on the phone: Why do I have a daughter like you? You are so deviant! My boyfriend’s parents called him to ask what was wrong with me?” recalled Xu Zihua.
Unfortunately, the list of nasty comments outweighed messages of support, setting out a campaign of painful shame for these girls. Western feminists and activists have coined the term "slut-shaming" to describe group attacks on women that take place both online and offline and prevent women from being full and active participants in the digital world. Thanks to the shield of anonymity covering the online world, it is not possible to know how many insults actually came from men or women.
New terms, campaigns and commentary that are derogatory to women are not uncommon. Around March and April 2013, a new word Chinese word emerged on the Internet: the green tea bitch (绿茶婊). As reported by Whats on Weibo, a website about trending topics on China’s biggest microblog site, netizens joined in a collective effort to formulate a suitable definition of what a ‘green tea bitch’ actually is. As a result, a short essay was composed – containing twenty-four different characteristics.
The Internet and microblogs are a double-edged sword, and it was quite clear that netizens are simultaneously keen on advocating for the general good, taking a peak at soft-pornography and policing the boundaries of gender behaviour.