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Crossing the River

by Chang Che

On 15 July 1907, Qiu Jin, a cross-dressing feminist revolutionary, was beheaded by the Manchu government for subverting state power. After her death, she became a martyr for the nationalist movement that was seeking to liberate China from foreign invaders. Jin’s peculiar combination of patriotism and feminism can be found in her writings: ‘Chinese women will throw off their shackles and stand up with passion; they will become heroines. They will ascend the stage of the world, here the heavens have mandated that they reconsolidate the nation’. For Jin and her fellow revolutionaries, the key to China’s self-determination was the liberation of all women.


Jin’s tomb now lies in a dappled region of West Lake, an iconic landmark in the city of Hangzhou; its prominent display attests to her place in Chinese history. In March 2018, the New York Times wrote her a belated obituary. ‘More than a century after her death, many Chinese still visit her tomb’, writes Amy Qin: they go to ‘pay their respects to the woman now embedded in the national consciousness as a bold feminist heroine’. Jin’s protest song ‘Demand Women’s Rights’ is still sung by Chinese feminists today.


Perhaps this is why recent news of China’s feminist crackdown induces a pang of irony. Following a mass of #MeToo stories on China’s social media platforms and the detainment of anti-sexual harassment demonstrators, the Chinese Communist Party has construed the activist’s actions as anti-patriotic – one was accused of ‘betraying’ China and allowing herself to be used as a tool of ‘hostile foreign forces’. On the Internet, government censors blocked the phrase ‘anti-sexual harassment’ and removed accounts sharing women’s stories of sexual assault. Comments on feminist blogger Li Yuan’s social media account called her a ‘traitor’ and falsely accused her of being in possession of an American passport. In May 2017, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published an announcement warning that China was being attacked by ‘Western feminism’. By equating feminism with Western-style reform, the state cloaked an endemic problem in the language of treason.


Beyond the government smokescreen of a Western cultural invasion is the history of China’s bold feminist patriots. Historians Dorothy Ko and Wang Zheng highlight Qiu Jin’s contributions to the egalitarian rhetoric in the nationalist movements of the early 1900s. Organised by a group of young intellectuals, this period – known today as the May Fourth Movement – saw a series of revolutionary campaigns directed toward liberalising the nation in response to Western imperial powers. May Fourth male reformers such as Jin Tianhe and Liang Qichao, two of Jin’s fellow revolutionaries, saw the liberation of women and the liberation of China as two sides of the same coin.


Half a century later, the egalitarian ideals championed by Qiu Jin and her fellow nationalists became cornerstones of China’s constitution. In the first two decades of its rule, the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, saw the ‘equality of women and men’ as central to its revolutionary vision. During his tenure, Mao banned forced marriages, abolished polygamy, opened university places for women and made birth control widely available. He once famously declared that ‘women hold up half the sky’. By the 1970s, the Chinese government touted the biggest female workforce in the world, suggesting that while Chinese feminism has certainly interacted with Western ideas, the current government’s portrayal of feminism as anti-patriotic belies its indigenous roots in Chinese history. In reality, women’s liberation and patriotism have historically gone hand in hand.


How did a government that once extolled its feminists as a symbol of national pride suddenly turn against them? The change stems from the Communist Party’s failure to adhere to its own ideological principles. Since China’s first embrace of private enterprise in 1979, the party has based its legitimacy on its promise that China would forge a ‘uniquely Chinese path’ (zhong guo te se) in opposition to Western democracy. The party referred to its political ideology as ‘socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ (zhong guo te se she hui zhu yi). The phrase was at once an honest recognition of the failed Soviet model and a pledge to build a new system, one that was sensitive to China’s unique cultural and historical circumstances. Deng Xiao Ping famously described his innovative economic reforms during the period as ‘crossing the river by feeling for the stones’. The system was a sandbag of market capitalism mixed with heavy state control.


This ideology continues to draw political allies. Defending China from the calls for democratisation in the South China Morning Post, Chi Wang, president of the US-China Policy Foundation claimed, ‘China lacks any history with democracy or true representative government’. Wang’s main argument was that a country’s history informs what political systems are feasible for that country. In support of his claim he referenced China’s extended period of dynastic rule and, reaching as far back as Confucius, recalled that the wise tutor’s teachings were ‘inherently undemocratic’. A unique China, according to Wang, must derive its political power from within its own cultural and historical institutions.


Over time, however, the government has proven that the vision of China’s self-determination – once admirable in the face of Western hegemony – is an empty promise. The ideology of ‘socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ rested on the assumption that the state would be guided by the specificities of China’s sociocultural history. Nevertheless, decades of political crackdowns have demonstrated that such attention to specificity was never on the cards. The government suppresses any and all threats to its rule, regardless of the opposition’s cultural authenticity.


When a spiritual movement known as Falun Gong took the country by storm in the late 1990s, the Communist Party banned the practice and jailed thousands of its practitioners. Yet Falun Gong was a movement born out of Chinese soil with apolitical intensions. Founded in northeast China in 1992, it draws from China’s long tradition of meditative practices and preached the virtues of truth and benevolence. By blindly suppressing ideas without regard for their traditions, the party has rendered its ideology vacuous, and its claim to legitimacy dubious. Noting China’s new state of ideological destitution, Evan Osnos writes in his new book Age of Ambition that China no longer has a ‘single unifying doctrine – no ‘central melody’ – and there is nothing predestined about what kind of country it is becoming’. Absent of a ‘uniquely Chinese path’, what constitutes patriotism in China has become a moving goalpost.


The Communist Party now relies on blind loyalty and subterfuge to fill the ideological void. This year’s crackdown on feminist activity falls on the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. Recent state media coverage remembers the period as ‘a great patriotic and revolutionary campaign’. Xi has also recently advocated for the movement to be taught in schools in order to ‘motivate young people to make unremitting contributions to national rejuvenation’. Gone from the history books are Qiu Jin and her fellow revolutionaries. Stripped of any moral substance, the movement has become a pure weapon of propaganda. Its message is simple: just as people loved our country then, so too should you love your country now.


Xi is a masterful manipulator of history. In one of his first speeches as president, he corralled blind patriotism by introducing the idea of a Chinese revival: ‘the greatest dream of the Chinese people in recent times has been to realise the great revival of the Chinese nation’. The ‘Chinese Dream’ – both an invocation of past greatness and statement of future ambition – evokes a nostalgia that eerily recalls the Trumpist slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. Nostalgia can be a powerful ideological tool, used to whipping groups of dissatisfied people into an unreflective emotional fury. Xi's slogans suffered then from the same problem Trump's does now: exactly what his government planned to ‘revive’, other than the idea of ‘greatness’, remained unspecified.


In this context, recent feminist activism is more than a battle for equal moral standing. By soliciting a strong reaction from Xi’s government, the feminists have spotlighted the irony of Xi’s celebration of May Fourth patriotism, the insincerity of his promises for a ‘uniquely Chinese path’ and the hypocrisy of his anti-feminist censorship in a country with a history of feminist patriots. By jailing feminists activists to consolidate state power, he has inadvertently raised a new crisis of interpretation. As the party begins to mine its past to justify its future, the wayward feminists stand in its way, presenting an alternate path: one paved by the national icon Qiu Jin and the May Fourth nationalists. Today, China’s political future depends more on a battle of ideas than of arms.


The act of employing history as a weapon to question authority has a potent antecedent in the West. One of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s most novel contributions to philosophy was his use of history to challenge rather than legitimise political authority. In The Origins of Inequality, Rousseau challenged the predominant 18th century view that inequality was a fact of human nature. He argued that humans were equal in the state of nature, and that inequality had arisen contingently through artificial developments. A century later, Frederick Nietzsche would formalise Rousseau’s interpretation of history in a method known as the ‘genealogy’. Michel Foucault, an avid reader of Nietzsche, would later make his name by deploying the method in critique of modern political ideologies.


Rousseau’s view of the past is quite distinct from the one proffered by Xi and Wang. For the latter two, the past is a blueprint for the future: China’s past demonstrates the impossibility of democratisation and the source for a ‘uniquely Chinese path’. For Rousseau, history does not constrain us but opens us up to new possibilities; what one sees in the past is the malleability of human behaviour and the endless conditions that can enable human prosperity. The revival of feminist activism in China today offers the same Rousseauvian lesson. Challenging the present Communist narrative of history, the feminists offer an alternative vision of patriotism borne from the same history, one where loving one’s country is synonymous with a commitment to feminism. On the account of Rousseau and the feminists, what makes China ‘unique’ is precisely its endless capacity for change and reinvention.


As Western movements such as #MeToo have made their way into countries like China and Japan, it is easy to imagine that liberal ideals originate in Western democracies, and are then exported outwards. Some commentators argue that China’s feminism will be yet another example of failed westernisation. Accordingly, Keith Richburg of the Washington Post predicts that the feminist movement ‘will be stamped out like so many promising movements before’. Leta Hong Fincher, in a book on the Feminist Five, concedes that the activists ‘were extremely unlikely’ to ‘realise an end to authoritarian repression in the years to come’.


But grassroots movements are more than the sum of their actions – they are also a set of radical ideas. In an autocracy highly protective of its own state ideology, the recalcitrance of those ideas can be more consequential than their ability to bring about revolutions. The Chinese feminists are distinctive in this way: their actions draw credibility from the Chinese history that had become a propaganda tool of the Communist Party itself. As the party’s relentless quest for political legitimacy rely more and more on its interpretation of the past, the war of interpretation waged by the Chinese feminists may be more challenging for the state apparatus than any physical confrontation will ever be.


CHANG CHE reads an MPhil in Political Theory at New College. His favourite philosopher is Zinedine Zidane.

Art by Abigail Hodges