SPW: What about challenges? Pei, what are the main challenges for research in sexuality in China? What are the main obstacles? What are the opportunities?
Pei: I think the most important challenge in terms of research is the difficulty in accessing governmental funding. Today the government has a bulk of resources to support high education. In our university such as other universities, local government and central governments have invested much on research, but not on sexuality research. So, if you are engaged in sexuality research you must re-package your proposal to make it look as something else. This is why HIV research has become so popular. But although most of my colleagues do HIV research, they actually want to explore sexuality issues.
SPW: What about gender research, does the Chinese government support it?
Pei: Yes, but mostly you must focus your gender research on marriage issues. The Chinese government considers marriage so important that all gender research funds are channeled to marriage related subjects, or family related research. If you present a proposal for any other gender related research, including labor market no one will sponsor you. There are some gender research centers, but when applying for funds you must name your research as marriage research. This is how we study other subjects such as, for instance, gender aspects of internal and international migration, we frame the research in terms of migrant wives or wives of migrants. Governmental agencies apply a very restrictive frame in this case. As you see, the public wants to talk and experience sexuality; researchers want to do to do direct research on gender and sexuality, because there are so many novel phenomena happening in daily life. What is interesting also is that today reporters and journalists are constantly trying to grab researchers to make interviews and speak on TV and many researchers have become public speakers, public intellectuals specialized on sexuality. I myself have become a reference for public debates. But there are still many funding restrictions.
The appeal is sexuality is very high because every day something happens that calls the public attention. For example, twenty boys raped a girl collectively or a man imprisoned six women as sex slaves; he made rooms in his basement and imprisoned these six women for six years. These are subjects we can easily address in public debates. But it is practically impossible to talk about sexual pleasure or explore more positive views on sexuality. On the other hand you can also think that when people’s attention is captured by sexual violence, it is maybe the case that this is triggered by some kind of erotic interest there. I always think about that. Maybe one day we will be able to do some research in relation to this aspect, but not yet.
Cai: One first challenge I want to address is that, as activists, we tend to be over critical of our governments of many institutions. Yet we usually are not so critical about ourselves. And I do think we also should critically reflect about our own activism regarding sexuality. For example, I do think that social movements are also fraught with sexual and gender normativity, including feminist movements. For example, normally when feminists advocate for a law to prevent gender based violence, they always presuppose that this family will be heterosexual, or that the relationship is defined by a registered legal contract. And as we do know, this is not always the case. The same sex relations also experience violence and a large number of people may be in relations that are not “legal marriages”. In other words feminist activists can also be caught by conventional ideas and mentalities. This is very frequent in China where patriarchy is so deeply embedded in the culture. Quite often intervention or solution are solely focusing on “men who have another woman outside the marriage”. People seldom think that there is a main problem with marriage system itself, or that men should take responsibility. What is the sanction that may prevent men betraying their wives? Instead they tend to blame the women: the wife, because she didn’t perform as required by the culture; and the other woman, because she accepted to be a mistress. The public discourse on gender issues tends to simply repeat patriarchal descriptions, even when is articulated by people concerned with gender equality.
And second main challenge is funding. This is twofold. One is related to the ways people operate in relation to donors: you do not define your own agenda; you simply follow the money, wherever money is and start doing the donor’s agenda. You do research on HIV/AIDS, or on migrant communities related to HIV/AIDS, or on commercial sex workers, because there’s money to it. And most often these are projects initiated by the international agencies. It can also be domestic violence, man engagement in preventing gender-based violence, or something else. You are all the time running after the available money and it may happen that suddenly you will realize that you do not know anymore why you are doing what you are doing. You have forgotten that you were engaged in activism. You are now a NGO professional. It is not coming anymore from your commitments, from your beliefs. You do this because you are paid. The second aspect, in the case of China, is the lack of governmental funds especially for NGOs. Pei has already explained how difficult it is to get government funds for research. But it is even harsher for NGOs because they are constantly controlled and surveilled because there is the fear that the international funding may lead people to take positions against the government. Especially in the last two years it has been extremely difficult for NGOs to access even international funding. Not to mention bureaucratic obstacle as it is very difficult for NGOs to get a formal legal status.
The third big challenge is how, as advocates or activists, we can confront the challenge of consumerism and commercialization. As I see it, in China we are torn between being allied with the State, or to be allied with the markets.
For example, the State is interested in family planning policy and marriage and, of course, these days governmental officials also use a human rights discourse when they talk about providing better services for women who need family planning service or in relation to domestic violence prevention. When you work on these issues you may start thinking that you and the State are talking the same language, but very quickly you will realize this is not the case. While you are concerned about the rights of people, the government is concerned about indicators and how to reduce the imbalanced sex ratio (the decreasing number of women that result from son preference and gender selective abortions). Or else, when you talk about sexual pleasure, freedom, liberation you may feel like you are simply being manipulated or exploited by the market. You may become a spokesperson if a festival to say how wonderful and important it is to control your own bodies and sexuality, but in fact they are not really interested in rights. They are really interested in profits. This often makes us feel bad inside ourselves. More than often we get confused about where are our enemies, where are our friends, where are our allies.
SPW: Is there in China a more autonomous activism, such as people gathering together even when they have no funds to talk about rights and sexuality and gender in the web, in the universities? We are thinking of movements that are not really dependent on funding…
Cai: Yes, today the Internet really provides a new alternative space for people to talk even if they’re not meeting face to face. There is a huge community using the Internet and social media. Especially for people that don’t have other organizing tools, for example people living with HIV/AIDS, sex workers and the transgender community, they are among the most active users of the web. Because they don’t have other access to the mainstream media, they don’t have space at all to say what they have to say. But once again it is double edged. For instance, some sex workers may also use the Internet to find clients and this may give the government more arguments for further web control. But we must not throw the baby with the water. We must recognize the possibilities and potential of these new web spaces, and not give the authorities the power to decide what is right, what is wrong, what is to be censored. We should also defend the web space working for us, not serve the interest of the capital. On the other hand there’s much more space on the Internet than on the mainstream media. If people are looking for information regarding sexuality, definitely it’s not helpful to read the newspapers or watch TV. They go for the Internet. Maybe in responding to Pei’s observation that middle age people do not go to sex festivals we could think that they are not there because they find what they need on the web.