SPW: How do you see the connections between China and the rest of the world in terms of sexuality research and activism?
Pei: As I see it the connections are very weak China and the international academia. Language is a main problem. I can listen to English and I can talk, but I feel very difficult to express myself in details. Some of my colleagues, who are very good researchers, and whose work can affect a lot of people in China, cannot even speak a sentence in English. We are still very far from having closer connections with the rest of the world. Maybe it will be easier for younger researchers, if they finish their education overseas. But middle age scholars in China do not have those connections. This is why Ford Foundation is supporting Chinese scholars to go overseas in the recent years. I attended the CREA Institute and now I am here. I was able to think of many issues in the past few days, I feel proud of Yiping and of myself because this experience was a breakthrough for us. Usually when I have to work in English I would read from a paper, but now I am trying to express myself without a paper. The meetings made me think about my future and also about the lack of incentive for young women researchers that we experience in China.
As I am growing old, I am always thinking about my research, my life, my relationships and I consider very positive way the way the people in the SPW group is coping with these issues. Everybody is very active in academic and public advocacy and you still trying to do new things, in an independent manner. Everything was very new to me and allowed me to think of multiple positive ways to look into the future, maybe this is our future. And I keep thinking about how to make our voice to be heard in international academic spaces. Maybe we must strive to keep these connections alive with SPW and other groups, because both my colleagues and me need an international perspective.
My field of works is China. I do research on China, if I read English papers is always about China, when I meet other researchers that are doing Chinese studies, even when they are Westerners. This gave me the illusion that everybody knows China very well. But when I met you all, I finally understood that China is not so important, China is not so familiar. This allows me to analyze issues in China in connection to your analyses and experience. So the question is: How can I use international perspective to make us walk better?
Cai: I was thinking of what can be the value for Chinese scholars and activists to go abroad and attend international seminars and conferences. The first time I went abroad was in 1998 with a group of Chinese scholars to spend six weeks in UCLA Santa Cruz. That experience was really an eye opener for me as for the first time I met so many feminist scholars, doing research in queer theories; I met Judith Butler, Gale Rubin. Although, I couldn’t understand most of what they were talking about, I realized the amount of works implied in what they were doing. I realized the importance of being analytical. The same applies to the SPW meeting. The question is therefore: How we can use this to make our research and activism more substantial more grounded in our own realities. In the last few years I luckily had the chance to work with international organizations, I traveled a lot, met a lot of wonderful people that now are my peers. Most of these people were very interested in learning more about China, because there’s this big information gap. They always appreciate listening to you, even if your English is not very good, but people really appreciate what you have to say. I also feel humble in these situations, because I cannot represent China, I cannot speak for Chinese women, or Chinese sex workers. Yet people – quite unconsciously – think “Oh, if you are from China, can you tell us more about Chinese policies and politics”. I am always forced to additional research because I do not know about all policies in depth. So, I feel both grateful and humbled and always appreciate the outcomes of these exchanges.
SPW: Can you give us an example to illustrate what you just said?
Cai: For example, in the past, in China, the women’s human rights argument regarding health and sexual rights were a taboo. I was working as a journalist since 1995 and I remember the first article I published in Chinese mainstream media on sex workers and lesbian authored by a leading feminist scholar in the main women’s studies institute in China. She wrote a long article about the NGOs forum in the UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. I was her editor and divided the article in four sections to be published in sequence and the last one was about sex workers and lesbian activists. I got a warning from the censorship department. They didn’t give me a reason why I shouldn’t publish that article; they just said that it was not proper to be published. I was really intimidated since that was my first job and I thought I would lose it. But nothing happened after that warning and I even got a promotion after a few years. The episode actually gave me courage. It taught me that you have to keep testing the boundaries, because you never know where the boundaries are until you test them.
Today health and sexual rights are not such a taboo, and the same applies to HIV/AIDS. Human rights terms that in the past you couldn’t publish were introduced in the public discourse. Chinese activist started to work on these issues after they started to interact with global feminisms and other social movements. New debates are underway in China, such as the problem of compulsory and sex-selective abortions. LGBT rights are definitely the newest conversation underway and this year LGBT movements have promoted several events to celebrate IDAHO. The groups organized some events where hundreds of people participated, such as film festivals. This is a lot progress even when we cannot yet parade on the streets.
I want finalize saying I have really appreciated the value of being here these few days. Although it has been a short time, we have learnt a lot, especially from Latin America, which is a very rare interaction for us. I think that one main problem of Chinese intellectuals exchange with other countries, is that they are quite US-centric and intend to only look at US, not even Europe. It is very limiting. Ordinary Chinese, or even scholars are not usually interested in other countries, especially in developing countries, the world that is beyond Europe and US.