Zhang Ling was dressed like a revolutionary from the Spanish civil war. With a long braid emerging from a scarlet beret and clad in trousers a colour she described as “communist red”, Zhang had driven her Honda from her home in upstate New York the night before, inspired rather than frustrated by hours of traffic jams: every passing car, she said, seemed to have been driven by a woman.
“Women occupy the highway now, and the city tomorrow,” she said.
Swallowed in a sea of pink hats, Zhang, a professor of cinema studies at the State University of New York, smiled when she saw American protesters raising banners with the Maoist slogan, “Women hold up half the sky.” But the reference saddened her, too; a flashback to the People’s Republic, where she had grown up, one where rosy-cheeked iron ladies had worked farms and factories alongside male comrades, until China took a turn toward capitalist individualism and away from (sometimes honoured and sometimes ignored) socialist ideas of gender equality.
Zhang was one of several dozen activists in China’s feminist movement who travelled across the country for the Women’s March on Washington to join millions of Americans as they took to the streets protesting Donald Trump, a day after his January 20 inauguration. Trump’s policies look destined to resonate far beyond America’s borders; millions of women’s rights advocates staged their own protests worldwide, in cities from Copenhagen to Riyadh. Mainland China, where protests are often harshly punished, was not among them. For Chinese activists living stateside, that presented an irresistible opportunity.
Many Chinese feminist activists appear to have taken Trump’s campaign rhetoric personally, as an extension of the “straight man cancer” (read: everyday sexism) so widespread, and so reviled, in China. Shortly after the election, prominent feminist Zheng Churan posted on Twitter an image of her looking sternly into the camera, holding a sign in English: “feminists are watching you”.
“Although we are far away in China, we have seen the news reports of you being constantly involved in gender discrimination,” Zheng wrote in an open letter posted to WeChat. “Just like cancerous cells, straight-man cancer spreads everywhere damaging feminist movements and undermining social equality. It is pervasive.”
Zheng knew well the dangers of patriarchal authoritarianism: the year before, she and four other high-profile activists – who would become known as the Feminist Five – were detained for months, before international outrage triggered their release. (None of them attended the Women’s March.)
Now, as promised, more than 30 mainland Chinese women living in the United States had organised over WeChat, a social-networking app massively popular in China, and travelled to the capital. Few of them had met in real life but almost all wore the same T-shirt, spelling out in bold Chinese characters, “This is what a feminist looks like.”
“I never had this kind of experience before,” said Huang Yuhan, a 29-year-old PhD student. Huang had come from Indiana, where she researches pop-cultural representations of the Cultural Revolution, and where she said she had become acutely aware of US-style threats to women’s reproductive rights. In China, too, female bodies remained politicised, though in an almost diametrically opposed manner. A few weeks earlier, many Chinese women had condemned their government’s offer to remove – free of charge – the contraceptive implants it had forcibly given to hundreds of millions of women as part of the (now-discarded) one-child policy while giving no public apology for having required the implants in the first place.
The biggest draw for Huang was perhaps the thrill, and catharsis, of partaking in her first large-scale protest.
“That’s also why I’m here: I want to see, to experience what it’s like to be in such a huge crowd. In China we don’t have that many demonstrations.”
Wang Zheng, professor of women’s studies and history at the University of Michigan, grew nostalgic about the battles of her youth as she overlooked the masses perched on a metal pole, clutching a “Keep Abortion Legal” sign. Now in her 60s, her last protest had been a pro-choice rally in Los Angeles in the 1980s; a time when she felt China was a beacon of egalitarianism compared with the United States. “For my generation, we are all feminists,” Wang recalled. “I always felt pity for those American women – they didn’t even have maternity leave.”
Growing up in socialist China, Wang had taken gender equality for granted, only to see it regress. To some Chinese activists, Beijing is now less interested in bringing women in the workforce and more interested in a return to neo-Confucian family structures, revealed in the popular notion that unmarried females older than 27 are “leftover women”.
The harsh treatment of Chinese feminists and the state-run effort to harden gender roles convinced Wang and others that they have something to offer their American counterparts.
Shortly after the election, Liu Xintong, a 26-year-old graphic designer based in New York, helped pen a note on a Chinese feminist Facebook page “to all Feminists impacted by Trump’s Triumph,” advising them to not “let the disappointment turn you against one another”. The day after the march, the page ran a message to readers that Chinese feminists had “put our bodies on the streets to amplify the brown, black, and beautiful voices”.
Liu said she felt “very privileged to be in DC. Imagine others in China doing frontline work – they are facing far more pressure”. With experience fighting an often repressive government unburdened by notions of free speech and assembly, the Chinese feminists offered advice via Facebook to US readers; “Don’t wait for the system to correct itself for you,” because “now we all have walls to tear down.”
While their turning up in Washington was intended to signal solidarity with US allies, it was also a message to President Xi Jinping’s administration, which had detained the Feminist Five for “disturbing public order” following “subversive” campaigns against sexual harassment on buses and for more readily accessible women’s bathrooms. The pictures of the group posing with a whirlwind of colourful banners outside Trump International Hotel – “Nasty Chinese women say no!” and, “Mr. President: sexism and misogyny is a disease; feminism is your cure” – were generously shared on Chinese social media.
Living overseas had been what Liu called a “feminist awakening”, allowing her to explore layers of her own identity – as Asian, a woman and queer, to name a few – in a country where dissidence was not a crime. Though Chinese opponents have sometimes dismissed China’s women’s movement as the result of foreign meddling and “external forces”, Liu saw feminism as engaging problems that had to be understood globally. “They always said democracy is a Western disease – that’s their way of wording their propaganda,” Liu said about the Chinese leadership. “But for us, we never think of feminism as a Western term.”
The night culminated at a Cheesecake Factory on the outskirts of the capital. Over dessert, amid applause, Lu Pin, a visiting scholar at Columbia University, stood up to announce the launch of a new US-based NGO, the Chinese Feminist Collective, which had just acquired legal status. She envisioned it as a support network for the next generation of Chinese activists, and a launching pad for activist initiatives back home.
“We need to create new front lines,” Lu said. “Even if we’re in the United States, we can still contribute to Chinese feminism: the topics we can freely discuss here, we may not be able to talk about in China.” With more than 328,000 Chinese currently studying in the US, Lu was optimistic that US-based advocacy could inspire at least some to advance feminist causes when they returned home.
In the meantime, Lu hoped they could share with Americans what they had already learned.
“The Chinese feminist movement has always progressed in this harsh reality,” she said. “Chinese people are very knowledgeable about how to fight a dictatorship.”