Chloe Lim reviews Leta Hong-Fincher’s second book on women in today’s China.
Leta Hong-Fincher, Betraying Big Brother: the Feminist Awakening in China, (Verso Books, 2018), 288pp.
Academic and journalist Leta Hong-Fincher made an impressive debut some years ago with her first work, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Zed Books, 2014). Leftover Women was an illuminating read detailing the systematic disenfranchisement of women by the Chinese Communist Party. Hong-Fincher’s second work, Betraying Big Brother, picks up naturally where Leftover Women left off, beginning with the arrest of China’s “Feminist Five” on the eve of International Women’s Day, 2015.
On March 6, 2015, the Chinese government arrested Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, Li Maizi and Wang Man, five women accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” All these women had done were hand out stickers in subway stations against sexual harassment, as part of their campaign against domestic violence. The consequent uproar, and the blatant hypocrisy of the Chinese government (Xi Jinping was scheduled to host a United Nations summit on women’s rights in New York), resulted in the newly dubbed “Feminist Five” being released after a harrowing 37 days.
Where Leftover Women contended with relatively specific issues such as the propaganda campaign shaming “leftover women” and the redistribution of property wealth to men, Betraying Big Brother contends with the state of feminism in China as a whole. It is a far more urgent piece of work, painfully aware that Chinese women are fighting a losing battle against a deeply misogynist government, in a society that appears determined to rob women of safety, wealth ownership, reproductive rights and more.
Previously unknown figures, the Feminist Five quickly became leaders of the stubborn, growing movement for women’s rights in China. Each of them detail, in interviews with Hong-Fincher, their own experiences of domestic and sexual violence – the title of Chapter 4, “Your Body is a Battleground” serving as a poignant reminder of just how much feminist “awakening” is dependent on female pain and suffering. It is a coming to activism that, as Hong-Fincher goes on to relate, is dogged by even more turmoil, not least of which is the harassment and violence meted out by the police.
That being said, Hong-Fincher makes clear that Weibo and access to the internet have proven to be crucial tools in galvanising support for activists like the Five. Even as censorship in China remains notoriously unforgiving (Betraying Big Brother reminds us of the crackdown on internet freedom after the riots in Xinjiang), support for women’s rights on Chinese social media persists. Examples include the creative use of the homophone ‘mi-tu’ (‘rice rabbit’) as a hashtag to dodge censors on Weibo, as well as the galvanising of over 8000 students and alumni from 70 universities in signing #MeToo petitions. Not only is the use of social media despite censorship impressive, it also reinforces the necessarily global nature of feminism – #MeToo reached women all around the world because of social media. Betraying Big Brother asserts that it is because of global connections and transnational activism that women are increasingly able to stand in solidarity against patriarchal regimes – as the founding of the Chinese Feminist Collective in New York, detailed in the book, shows.
Unlike Leftover Women, Betraying Big Brother does not primarily rely on numbers and statistics to make a convincing argument. Instead, the pain and terror experienced by Chinese feminists, their first-hand accounts of imprisonment, harassment and abuse at the hands of the CCP, provide more than enough proof of Xi Jinping’s misogynist regime. However, the overall impression given by the book is one of female persistence, as shows of female solidarity both within China and worldwide (particularly over the internet) confront the relentless crackdown of any breed of “subversiveness” by Xi’s regime.
The incredible audacity of China’s leadership in attacking women who were simply giving out stickers is thus outlined in its full outrageousness before being explained by Hong-Fincher. She traces China’s historical approach to gender equality in Chapter 7, and points out “the profound irony of Chinese authorities persecuting women’s rights activists today” since
the very origins of China’s Communist Party in the early twentieth century lay in the revolutionary dream of women’s liberation, with the publicly celebrated principle that women and men are equal.
The deep ironies in the CCP’s treatment of women, from enlisting female labour during collectivisation to encouraging women to give up their jobs in the twenty-first century, is all traced in Betraying Big Brother to the Party’s foundational prioritisation of economic growth and “political stability” in the form of party-held power. Hong-Fincher provides a sweeping history of modern China’s history, tracing how the ascension of Deng Xiaoping to power in 1976 began sweeping reforms leading to rocketing gender inequality. Along with sharp declines in female labour force participation, the CCP’s eugenics programmes encouraging women, especially educated urban ones, to create “high-quality” children, paint a picture of a dystopian society not unlike Margaret Atwood’s fictional worlds.
Such severe gender inequality might have taken decades to establish, but glimmers of hope appear with the resistance put up by human rights lawyers as well as Chinese women in the Taiwanese and American diaspora, amongst others. Noting such examples, Hong-Fincher strikes a careful balance between documenting the genuinely dire circumstances that activists face in China, as well as the commitment that those activists have towards a more equal society.
This book is a crucial one, broadening the discussion around global #MeToo and focusing on what such a movement might mean to Chinese women – that is, one-fifth of the world’s female population. Even as feminism received a boost from #MeToo, the world is seemingly becoming an increasingly dangerous place for women (one only need look at America, the Philippines, and so on). It is crucial reading for understanding what contemporary feminism looks like, from a non-Eurocentric, Chinese perspective. Betraying Big Brother feels heavy and potent with the evidence upon which it reports, and its arguments urgently need to be heeded. Sadly, for many women in China, it is perhaps already too late for feminism to save the day.
Chloe Lim is a writer and graduate student at the University of Oxford researching English Literature from the 20th century to present. She specializes in trauma studies and diasporic fiction.