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    How Internet Prejudice Threatens Feminist Progress

    The scornful spread of online terms like “grassroots feminist” prevents Chinese women from influencing policy.

    As Donald Trump’s star rose in the lead-up to the American presidential election last year, a well-known Chinese blogger on gender issues who goes by the nickname Gu Yingying posted an article on microblogging site Weibo. The piece, titled “The Malicious Distortion of Ivanka Trump by Chinese Grassroots Feminists,” criticized the view that Ivanka’s popularity in China is mostly due to that fact that she embodies the idealized image of the “perfect woman” in the country’s highly patriarchal society. 

    Labeling supporters of this view “Chinese grassroots feminists,” or “zhonghua tianyuan nüquan,” Gu stated: “If they continue putting out … tragic stories and ferocious attacks, and refuse to discuss workable, step-by-step improvements, Chinese grassroots feminists will not be able to play a particularly positive [social] role.”

    Gu’s article exemplifies online debate over gender issues in China. It also touches on a particularly highly charged issue among China’s feminist community — namely, the pejorative usage of the term “grassroots feminists.” While tianyuan, which I have translated here as “grassroots,” originally referred to something rural or rustic, in this case it derogatorily refers to dyed-in-the-wool, stubborn, militant feminists who refuse to countenance alternative viewpoints. To add insult to injury, the character quan in the word for “feminism” is often replaced with a homophone meaning “dog.”

    In recent years, variations of these terms have been applied by Chinese netizens as a means to disparage the feminist community. Some have used the terms to describe radicals who combine fervent calls for female empowerment with a contemptuous attitude toward men. In this sense, “grassroots feminists” can be compared with the English term “feminazi.”

    But more often, the meaning of “grassroots feminists” is ambiguous. Online searches return forum pages littered with people who remain unable to nail down its true definition despite habitually using it in vociferous gender debates with fellow web users.

    The use of such disparaging terms has incurred the wrath of certain groups of Chinese feminists, who have denounced them as “the stigmatization of feminism, used to attack women who want to break rules imposed on them by men.” Those who criticize militant feminism frequently claim that they only oppose “grassroots feminists” and not “real feminists,” evidently in an attempt to distinguish between the two groups and show a certain level of solidarity with women in general.

    Moderate feminists have been quick to condemn the use of the term “grassroots feminists,” saying that a phrase so loaded with negative connotations will inevitably discredit the entire Chinese feminist community, discourage public interest in feminist activities, and further marginalize existing feminist causes, turning activists against one another.

    The conflict between feminist advocates and their detractors is a manifestation of China’s increasingly polarized political discourse. While writers like Myra Marx Ferree, Louise North, and Carolyn Bronstein have provided ample evidence of feminism’s predominantly negative portrayal by Western media outlets, comparatively little attention has been given to how this phenomenon plays out in China. Yet just like our Western counterparts, Chinese media have historically been hostile to the country’s feminists, portraying them and their organizations as aggressive, antagonistic toward men, and sexually unattractive.

    The plethora of barbs aimed at feminism indicates another social issue: the fact that China lacks a widely used linguistic repertoire for discussing gender issues in an informed, sensitive way.

    The Chinese feminist movement is a cause taken up almost exclusively by a cohort of internet users. Mainstream media largely ignore feminists and their organizations, let alone the range of individual positions that exist within such a broad church. Rarely, if ever, do formal news reports contain the Chinese words for “feminism” or “feminist.” Indeed, according to research conducted by Sun Yat-sen University researcher Yang Yuke, the earliest reported usage of the word “feminism” in a news headline appeared as late as 2000, and between 2011 and 2014, the three most widely circulated newspapers in Guangzhou — a southern city of some 13.5 million people — included the word “feminism” in fewer than 350 articles. Where it did appear, Yang noted that the word was frequently associated with socially undesirable qualities such as emotional instability, aggression, lack of empathy, and an aversion to family life.

    By ignoring the role that nongovernmental organizations have played in strengthening social justice for women in China, some of the country’s media have effectively silenced any social movement based on gender equality. A recent case involving a 17-year-old girl illustrates this point. The girl, who turned to a Guangzhou-based NGO called New Media Women Network, had been sexually assaulted by her father.

    Despite the efforts made by Li Sipan, the head of the Women’s Network, to provide assistance to the girl, she eventually turned to the police. When her story was reported on by local media, little was made of the role Li played in rescuing her from an abusive parent. Instead, Li was cast as unprofessional and unprepared, in contrast to the heroic role of the authorities.

    As Ferree asserts, silencing feminist voices in the media is a kind of “soft repression” of gender-based movements — in other words, employing nonviolent means to eradicate oppositional ideas. By doing so, feminism becomes an alien notion to the general populace, and feminist activists are systematically excluded from public discourse. This is exactly what happened to Li and her organization.

    These days, the internet gives women more opportunities to participate in the discussion on gender issues and provides a larger space for feminist organizations to advocate their ideals and values. However, our prolonged neglect of feminist perspectives in both media and education has deprived the average person of the appropriate terminology that feminists tend to use. As a result, feminist discourse either appears convoluted, incomprehensible, and pretentious, or leaves itself open to being co-opted by individuals in a half-baked way, without their understanding the full force of feminist issues.

    Yet the most concerning aspect of the emergence of pejorative labels like “grassroots feminist” is that they divert public attention away from policy-oriented debates and direct it toward the mindless mudslinging of feminists’ supposed radicalism or moral deficiency. The depiction of feminists and their practices as fundamentally confrontational may also prevent those who aspire toward realizing gender equality from recognizing the common ground they share with Chinese feminist activists. Even worse, stigmatizing the sometimes-unconventional practices of Chinese feminists — such as advocating the occupation  of men’s toilets by Guangzhou’s female university students in 2012 — weakens the power of feminist organizations at a time when they are trying to influence government policy. 

    To paraphrase the words of American historian Laurel Ulrich, well-behaved Chinese women are unlikely to make history. Feminist activists who aim to challenge our country’s deeply ingrained patriarchal system — one that has survived for thousands of years — are also seldom regarded as upstanding, contributing members of society. In reality, however, the disobedience displayed by Chinese feminists is a tactic designed to highlight the severe gender inequality that plagues our society. The vast majority of these actions are non-threatening and do not deserve to be vilified by casual online backbiting.

    Editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: A woman dances by the Huangpu River, Shanghai, Nov. 7, 2013. Yang Shenlai/Sixth Tone)