APRIL 5, 2015
BEIJING — The young Chinese feminists shaved their heads to protest inequality in higher education and stormed men’s restrooms to highlight the indignities women face in their prolonged waits at public toilets.
To publicize domestic violence, two prominent activists, Li Tingting and Wei Tingting, put on white wedding gowns, splashed them with red paint and marched through one of the capital’s most popular tourist districts chanting, “Yes to love, no to violence.”
Media-savvy, fearless and well-connected to feminists outsideChina, the young activists over the last three years have taken their righteous indignation to the streets, pioneering a brand of guerrilla theater familiar in the West but largely unheard-of in this authoritarian nation.
Now five of them — core members of China’s new feminist movement — sit in jail, accused of provoking social instability. One of the women, Wu Rongrong, 30, an AIDS activist, is said to be ailing after the police withheld the medication she takes for hepatitis. Another, Wang Man, 33, a gender researcher, was said to have had a mild heart attack while in custody.
Lawyers for the detainees, who include Zheng Churan, 25, affectionately known as Big Rabbit, say the women have been subjected to near-constant interrogation.
The detentions took place early last month on the eve of International Women’s Day as the women planned a public awareness campaign about sexual harassment on public transportation.
Now, as security agents from Beijing fan out across the country hunting down the volunteers who took part in the women’s theatrical protests, many young feminists have gone into hiding. “We’re so afraid and confused,” said one of them, Xiao Meili, 26, who recently completed a 1,200-mile trek across China to draw attention to sexual violence. “We don’t understand what we did wrong to warrant such a ferocious backlash.”
Despite government efforts to keep reporting of the crackdown out of the domestic news media, the jailing of the five women has not gone unnoticed here. Word has spread across college campuses, and more than 1,100 people took the risky step last week of adding their names toa petition demanding the women’s release.
Outside China, campaigners have used Facebook and Twitter to publicize the detainees’ plight, and Western governments have been issuing statements to protest their incarceration.
“If China is committed to advancing the rights of women, then it should be working to address the issues raised by these women’s rights activists — not silencing them,” said Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations.
From Morocco to India to New York, supporters have been posting images of themselves wearing masks that bear the photos of the jailed women. Because two of the detainees are lesbian and another is bisexual, overseas gay rights organizations like All Out have jumped into the fray, collecting more than 85,000 signatures and popularizing the hashtag #freethefive on Twitter.
As international attention to the women’s case mounts, some rights advocates see echoes of the public relations maelstrom surrounding the female Russian dissident group, Pussy Riot, whose members were arrested in 2012 for their protests against President Vladimir V. Putin.
Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said the five jailed feminists have drawn far more international attention than the scores of Chinese activists who have been detained during the previous two years of an intensified government drive against political dissent.
“Many people find it mind-boggling that the government of the second-largest economy and the world’s largest standing army is afraid of a group of women trying to draw attention to sexual harassment,” she said. “The combination of power and paranoia on display is very telling.”
Analysts say the effort to quash China’s nascent feminist movement represents a dismal milestone in the Communist Party’s war on grass-roots activism, a campaign that has gained momentum since President Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012. Unlike the government critics and political reform advocates jailed in earlier sweeps, the five detained women confined their activities to matters like domestic violence and discrimination against people with H.I.V. — issues that the government claims to have also embraced.
But rights advocates say security officials were evidently alarmed by the women’s skillful use of social media to organize volunteers, their links to foreign organizations, and the inventive protests and flash mobs that often drew favorable coverage in the Chinese media.
In contrast to the state-affiliated feminists and academics who have long dominated China’s gender-equality landscape, experts say the young mavericks prompted a seismic shift in women’s activism that yielded measurable results, including a landmark bill on domestic violence that is being considered by the national legislature.
“They have been very successful in using performance to provoke social dialogue on gender issues,” said Zeng Jinyan, a blogger who studies Chinese feminist activism. “I think we can call them the first modern, independent, feminist, grass-roots actors in Chinese history.”
Soon after coming to power in 1949, Mao Zedong outlawed forced marriages, prostitution and foot binding, and he introduced a groundbreaking marriage law that gave women the right to file for divorce. Women were considered equal to men, but only as a collective force for economic production, Ms. Zeng said. But in recent decades, as market economics took hold in China, unapologetic male chauvinism re-emerged, and with it, traditional notions of a woman’s role in the family. Women’s incomes have been falling compared with those of their male counterparts in recent years; just over 2 percent of Chinese women hold managerial positions; and all but two of the 25 Politburo members are men.
Many of the young activists, born in the 1980s and the coddled and well-educated offspring of China’s one-child policy, discovered in college that the Communist Party dictums on gender equality had become little more than window dressing.
Raised in China’s rural south, Wei Tingting, 26, is typical of the new brand of socially conscious women who have challenged the status quo. Soon after gaining a spot at the prestigious Wuhan University, Ms. Wei was drawn to feminist provocateurs in the West; during her sophomore year, she staged a production of “The Vagina Monologues,” drawing the ire of some male students, according to friends.
In 2012, as she, Li Tingting and another woman prepared for a Valentine’s Day protest against domestic violence in Beijing, she described the childhood trauma of watching men pummel their wives in public — including her own father. “People thought that women deserved beating,” she said, according to a video made at the time. “The worst thing is people tolerate it and accept it as a natural part of life, but no one believes beating a man is O.K.”
As a project manager at the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, Ms. Wei helped stage an annual AIDS Walk on the Great Wall, attended women’s conferences in India and South Korea, and started collecting footage for a documentary about bisexuality in China.
“She has so much passion and energy. You can find her at every event, whether it be about H.I.V., gender issues or bisexuality,” said Fan Popo, a filmmaker who made a movie about the staging of “The Vagina Monologues” and subsequently became Ms. Wei’s roommate after she moved to Beijing. “I would always joke that she has more film projects than me.”
In early March, Ms. Wei and the other detained women were preparing to stand outside subway stations and distribute stickers and leaflets to highlight the scourge of men who grope women on crowded trains and buses. But beginning on March 6, the police moved in, detaining nearly a dozen people in several cities. After a few days, all but Ms. Wei and the four others were released.
Lawyers for the women say the police have repeatedly flouted Chinese law. In addition to denying the women medication, the authorities failed to notify their families about the detentions, and in one instance, the police sat in on a meeting between Ms. Wei and her lawyer, Wang Qiushi.
“The interrogations have been exhausting,” Mr. Wang said by phone. “The police keep asking her the same questions over and over again and are pressuring her to sign a confession, which she refuses to do because she has not broken any law.”
The charge of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” carries a maximum five-year sentence in China, although it can be extended to 10 years if a defendant is convicted of organizing multiple public disturbances.
Officials at the Haidian District detention center where most of the women are being held declined to comment.
In the meantime, friends, relatives and fellow feminists are reeling. If the women are not released this week, it is likely they will be tried and convicted.
Mr. Fan, Ms. Wei’s roommate, said none of the women ever imagined they could be jailed for their work. He said that Ms. Wei had been doing laundry on the day she was summoned by the police and had left a load of clothing in the washing machine. “Clearly she thought she would be returning home in a few hours,” he said.