Activist Li Maizi on why feminism is “going backwards” in China

Li Tingting (R) awaiting for her partner (L) in 2015.
Li Tingting (R) awaiting for her partner (L) in 2015.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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Li Maizi (also known as Li Tingting) is a gay feminist activist. Those two identities were precisely what got her arrested in China two years ago.

The 27-year-old has been pushing for change since 2012, when she was a student at Changan University in China’s northwestern Xian province. She became a globally known activist when she was arrested two days ahead of International Women’s Day in 2015. Li and four other women—known as the “Feminist Five”—had been detained for 30 days on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after planning protests in multiple cities against sexual harassment on public transport.

Since her release, Li has traveled to different countries to share her stories about feminism in China. She spoke to Quartz by phone from London, after giving a talk at a university. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Why are you in the UK?

I think it’s important to let the world know about Chinese feminism, because China is a relatively closed country with its own communication tools. I feel like other people don’t care much about what’s happening in China. So I think doing some public education overseas can help people better understand Chinese feminism.  

I feel that students at the University of London generally had a good sense of public awareness, which is much stronger than in China.

In your speech, you said “I am a lesbian and an international slut, not very decent.” Why?

Being a lesbian is part of my life. Meanwhile, I am an international slut, because I am against any form of slut-shaming. In China, when a woman speaks of sex, she will be regarded as someone dirty. So “international slut” is a sarcastic name. Not only in China, but around the world.

So when you call me a slut, I am not only a slut, but an international slut.

Not everything went smoothly on this trip to the UK. You were stopped at the border and questioned.

Yes, I was questioned by some officers. They asked me, “What’s the purpose of this visit? What’s your next destination and what are you doing there?” I said, “I will go to New York and attend a forum organized by the United Nations.”

I didn’t feel well so I didn’t really want to talk. But then I heard the officer who questioned me say to another officer, “No visa.” I was like, “What the fuck?” I was kept at the border for half an hour until they came back and said I was free to go. I didn’t want to say anything more since I was afraid I might be deported.

I was never rejected for a visa application. I want to stress that I wasn’t prosecuted but only detained in 2015. I never committed any crime, you know?

You have been actively participating in feminism activities since college. What do you think of the Chinese government’s attitude toward women’s rights?

I think China’s feminism is going backwards, and it’s closely related to the regression in China’s political environment. China has been clamping down on civil rights, and the social atmosphere is becoming very sensitive, nervous. The power of the police has expanded. In this circumstance, no voices that are pushing for a better Chinese society are welcomed.

For example, many Weibo accounts (a popular social media platform) are silenced from time to time. Posts about feminism are censored all the time. Our Weibo account Feminist Voices (link in Chinese) has been silenced for 30 days since February. It’s like the government is “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” If you can scare a hundred by killing one, isn’t that great? 

My Weibo posts are also deleted all the time and get trolled. There are also times when my friends can’t see my posts on WeChat.

How about Chinese women? Is there a growing awareness of feminism among them?

Many Chinese women in modern times are becoming more critical of feudal practices. But they are politically inept and don’t care much about a lot of discrimination in this country. It didn’t occur to them that the government also needs to be involved in changing the situation.  

China is a country that adores authoritarianism. I’ve met some feminists who told me they liked Ivanka and Donald Trump, and said that Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a liar. In China, where most of your information is censored, one is subjected to whatever the government feeds you.

In general, I do believe our actions have brought about an awakening, but we have a long way to go in pushing independent thinking.

It seems that stability is more important than any human rights in China.

It’s hard to say how long this so-called stability can last. Put it simply, why do people strive for feminism? Because there’s undeniable discrimination. Feminism does not exist because of so-called Western influence, but China’s anti-foreign atmosphere will deeply affect its future development.

Will there be any further activity from the Feminist Five? 

I really don’t know what kind of organized activities we can have since they have all been forbidden since 2015. We are like guerillas, but growing like wildfire.

There’s a female student in a Chinese university. She made this slogan: “Anti March 7. We want our Women’s Day back.” (March 7, or “girl’s day,” was invented by Chinese university students because International Women’s Day on March 8 was seen as a day for working women.) This female student was criticized. I told her, “You are right, you are not wrong at all. Females don’t need to be coddled, we need rights.”