Demonstrators in front of the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong last Saturday call on Beijing to release the five women detained as they were planning to distribute stickers highlighting the problem of sexual harassment on public transport. Credit Didi Kirsten Tatlow/The New York Times
Like a modern-day Leviathan scenting challenges to its rule, the Chinese state appears to have a new target: young women.On March 6 and 7, public security officials detained five women in three cities who planned to distribute stickers and leaflets on March 8, International Women’s Day, to highlight the problem of sexual predators on public transport.Li Tingting (also known as Li Maizi), Wang Man, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong and Zheng Churan were the faces of a new, young and fun feminism that was drawing support in China, and their detentions provoked an outcry. Supporters of gender equality demonstrated in New York, New Delhi and Hong Kong. Thousands of rights advocates around the world signed petitions demanding: #FreeTheFive! Chinese students signed a call: ‘‘Release the Feminists!’’Beneath the global noise, in China, a rich vein of intimidation has spread, affecting hundreds.A notice from the Student Affairs Office of a university in Guangzhou, posted on social media, read: ‘‘There are reports that students at 10 universities have signed a petition. Please ensure all institutes quickly hold activities to deeply penetrate student and classroom circles, investigate, and do educational and dissuasive work.’’The pushback had the effect of publicizing the petition. ‘‘If they hadn’t issued the notice, not that many people would have known about this,’’ wrote a student who posted it, who other feminists said was at the South China University of Technology. ‘‘Now the whole university knows.’’Students were called in for ‘‘guidance’’ meetings with university officials or teachers, a student at another university wrote in a social media message.‘‘Initially I didn’t think too much of it,’’ she wrote. Her philosophy professor supported the feminists, so didn’t go too hard on her.‘‘But others have had a different experience,’’ she wrote. ‘‘Students who were out of town were called back. I heard some were warned so severely they were frightened and in tears.’’Administrators told signatories they could receive a ‘‘bad mark’’ in their personal file, and prospects for further education and jobs would be affected.The students were ‘‘being used,’’ they said. The women were detained because they planned ‘‘a collective event that may have other motives.’’‘‘Ridiculous and frightening,’’ the student fumed. ‘‘Where do these ‘guidance counselors’ get the power to decide students’ futures?’’‘‘We’re not idiots. We have our independent personalities and ideas. Please respect us. Thank you.’’And, ‘‘We demand that all collective events be canceled, because they may all have other motives!’’Lawyers for the detainees, who were held on suspicion of ‘‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble,’’ say their clients are being maltreated in jail.The police took away the eyeglasses of Ms. Wei and Ms. Zheng. Ms. Wang was hospitalized with heart problems after interrogations continuing far into the night. Ms. Wu has been denied medication for her hepatitis.The detentions surprised feminists in China and abroad. Gender equality is a founding principle of the Communist state, which recently has pushed for a law against domestic violence.‘‘The government scares me,’’ wrote Ms. Zhu, an employee at a Beijing film company who asked that her full name not be used.‘‘Yeah, really gone backwards,’’ she wrote, adding that the government’s true goal is ‘‘to restore Confucianism.’’Confucianism has traditionally emphasized women’s subservience to male authority. In recent years, the Communist Party has flirted with Confucian-style morality as its own ideology sputters.Some diplomats and academics in China attribute the detentions to the state’s fear of social activism rather than opposition to feminism, noting that they came during the National People’s Congress session, when the state doubles down on ‘‘social stability.’’Either way, quite a few young women in China are asking why distributing stickers about gropers is a crime. Only the Leviathan really knows.
Reprinted from the New York Times