Feminist Five Made Into Martyrs in China
Heard anything from the Feminist Five—Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Wang Man, Wei Tingting, or Zheng Churan—lately? The women have been keeping a relatively low profile since being released from detention on April 13 by the Chinese government for their campaign against sexual assault. Even though they’re no longer being held, nearly all of their actions are still being closely scrutinized. While the Chinese government’s harsh censorship and repression may not be news, the latest case involving the Feminist Five highlights President Xi Jinping’s growing intolerance for civil discord and the doomed fate of activism in China.
The Feminist Five, as they have been nicknamed by international media, are just a handful of advocates in China working with various Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) from around the globe to expand the rights of marginalized populations within their country. The group’s campaign to end sexual assault was meeting success both in gaining attention and in support. Their attention-grabbing demonstrations and utilization of social media tools like WeChat helped them circumvent the filters of state censorship. However, their success in promoting their message is exactly what put the group in the Chinese government’s contempt.
Like his predecessors, President Xi Jinping has been wary of any public messages that haven’t come from his own administration. Recently, officials in his government have been working to push a bill into law that would put harsher restrictions on foreign NGOs whose interference they believe caused the downfall of the Soviet Union and spurred the Arab Spring uprisings. The government’s detainment of the Feminist Five on the eve of their planned demonstrations for International Women’s Day on March 8 can be viewed as an extension of Xi’s effort to solidify the government’s control over popular thought and public opinion.
Impervious to outcry from the likes of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his international counterparts from around the world, Jinping’s government held the women for nearly five weeks without bringing any formal charges against them. Likewise, their eventual release on April 13 can’t be misconstrued as a triumph of reason and liberty but instead seen for what it really is: an end to yet another episode of repression and censorship in the People’s Republic of China.
The impact of the Feminist Five’s detainment goes beyond the individual women it targeted. In many ways, their arrest serves as a watershed moment for the course of activism in China. By targeting the Five on the eve of their demonstration to promote women’s rights, the Chinese government made it clear that no effort – not even those to end sexual harassment or give women more public restrooms – is safe from scrutiny and censorship. Its choice to target the activists rather than address the societal problems they have brought to light also proves the Chinese government is more concerned with maintaining its own power than promoting the well being of its people. If governments exist to protect their people, what then can the current administration in China really call itself?