Academic and journalist Leta Hong Fincher came to Bryn Mawr in late October to speak about her new book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.
Hong Fincher’s first work, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, covered structural discrimination against women in China. Her new book examines the state of feminism in China from a much broader perspective.
Betraying Big Brother frames the feminist movement in China as a force with potentially global impacts. Hong Fincher contextualizes China’s fight against the patriarchy within the global #MeToo movement, while recognizing the Communist regime’s suppression of the country’s feminist struggles.
Hong Fincher began her talk with a quick introduction of the Chinese activists known as the Feminist Five. These women, who were arrested and jailed on the eve of International Women’s Day in 2015, are the focus of Hong Fincher’s latest work. While in jail for 37 days, the Feminist Five gained global recognition. Politicians—including Hillary Clinton—spoke out on their behalf and social media was flooded with #FreetheFive messages.
Hong Fincher then read from the first chapter of her new book. The descriptive excerpt detailed the experience of Wei TingTing, a feminist and LGBTQ+ rights activist who was one of the five jailed in 2015. The chapter highlighted both the struggles that Chinese feminists face as well as the sense of solidarity that unites them.
She then spoke about how the jailing of the Feminist Five, which occurred just as China's President Xi Jinping was hosting a meeting on women's rights at the U.N., highlighted the hypocrisy of the Chinese government.
“Inside China, it galvanized various groups or people. There was also a large global response,” she said. The release of the women after 37 days was surprising and unprecedented. “I believe it was because of this very strong outcry."
She went on to talk about the significant role that sexism and misogyny have had in upholding Communism in China. Drawing connections between gender roles as defined by the Communist Party’s propaganda and ancient didactic concepts, she situated modern sexism within a historical context of Chinese gender norms.
Much of her talk focused on analyzing the Chinese government’s suppression of feminist activism as a way to control women’s bodies. She noted that arrests and the censoring of feminist messaging on social media has not stopped the growth of the #MeToo movement in China. “In spite of all of these efforts to kill off women’s rights movements, there are so many ways that imaginative young women activists are able to get around the censorship. Today we see the momentum of the women’s rights movement. This is what is so astonishing to me,” she said.
By showing how activists have persisted in the face of censorship, Hong Fincher emphasized the necessity of feminism being a global movement. “It’s all about reaching out and finding like-minded women,” she told her audience.
Students at Bryn Mawr College have an increasingly pressing investment in a global approach to feminism. Non-U.S. residents make up 25 percent of the Class of 2021. These students come from 38 countries, and help bring diverse perspectives to the Bryn Mawr community.
In addition to the more traditional study abroad options that many Bryn Mawr students take advantage of during their undergraduate careers, students can also pursue a fully-funded master's program in Chinese Studies at Zhejiang University. Further, more than half of the courses that Bryn Mawr students take have significant international content.
Hong Fincher’s talk provided an insightful conversation on broadening the scope of feminist movements to achieve a global impact, an ambition that highlights Bryn Mawr’s commitment to global learning.
Hong Fincher left her audience with a hopeful message about self care and persistence. “Their friendships sustain them. They go out and eat together. They party together. It’s so important to take time to take care of yourself and to take breaks. The struggle, unfortunately, is not likely to end in our lifetime—certainly not in my lifetime, maybe in yours. But does that mean you have to be filled with despair? No! You can find hope and inspiration from each other.”