People in rainy street

Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China by Leta Hong Fincher

By: Straton Papagianneas

In this book, Dr. Leta Hong Fincher (Leftover Women) documents the conflict between the Chinese government’s unprecedented crackdown on young feminist activists and the emergence of a broader feminist awakening that is beginning to transform women in cities across China.

Betraying Big Brother can be seen as the next instalment in her work on women’s issues in China. In her previous book, Leftover Women, she focused on urban, middle-class women who are pressured into marrying by both the State and their families. Through their stories and by analysing Chinese law and practice, Fincher argues that there is a resurgence of gender inequality happening in China.

This reviewer is no expert on women’s or gender issues. However, Fincher’s book is eye-opening in how it explains case by case, example by example, how the odds are stacked against women in Chinese society at every turn. To discount this is to be maliciously ignorant. In that regard, Fincher’s books are the perfect introduction to broader issues of women’s issues while simultaneously giving specialised insights in Chinese legislation and policies.

Fincher starts with the stories of the Feminist Five, five Chinese feminist activists who were arrested in March 2015 for planning to commemorate International Women’s Day in multiple Chinese cities by handing out stickers drawing attention to sexual harassment on public transportation. The first chapter recounts this arrest and instantly points out the undeniable irony of Xi Jinping co-hosting an UN summit on women’s rights around the same time. Immediately – and she does this excellently throughout the entire book – Fincher interweaves these feminist activists not only with a larger movement, but also with Party-legitimacy. She argues there exist patriarchal underpinnings to Xi’s authoritarianism – he views patriarchal authoritarianism as critical for the survival of the Communist Party.

In the following chapters, Fincher builds her case as she writes how the arrest of the Feminist Five galvanised a larger movement. Through the power of the internet, the feminist cause reached and inspired countless women not only across China but also the world. Fincher shows she’s an excellent recounter of facts and builder of timelines. Often, it is easy to get lost in a grander narrative, yet Fincher succeeds in guiding the reader by providing personal and tangible stories of oppression and discrimination, featuring countless Chinese women who have to put up with an inherently hostile society every day. These personal stories function as anchor points throughout the book.

Fincher connects feminism to other movements such as worker’s rights and human right’s lawyers. In the 6th chapter, she also argues for the case that “there can be no economic justice without gender justice.” Anyone familiar with Party legitimacy issues will realise that economic justice, basic human rights, and feminism make an explosive threat to the Party’s continued existence. As Fincher maintains, feminism has the ability to connect the grievances of other marginalised groups together. It challenges the Party’s capacity to control its population through its favourite tactic of “divide and conquer”. In this sense, it is an explicit threat to population control as a measure to stay in power.

When checking China Labour Bulletin’s database of protests in China, one could think that Communist China is at the brink of collapse. However, many of these protests are very local. It is claimed that few people outside of the immediate geographical vicinity in fact care about these protests. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) has arguably destroyed most of China’s social cohesion. It robbed more than a few future generations not only of sentimental value, but also of any sense of belonging to larger community beyond the family, and perhaps the village or town. Moreover, decades of economic growth at all cost and a culture of getting ahead at each other’s expense have ripped many people of their moral compass (this is a recurring theme in Yan Lianke’s work, which was recently featured in a fantastic contribution in The New Yorker.

The beautiful (or threatening) aspect of feminism is that it almost automatically transcends the local. A recurring feeling among the personal stories is the desperation and isolation. The discovery of feminism is often described as finally finding a connection to something larger: “the feminist movement is about every day concerns and building a community…”. Aided by social media, women are able to reach out to each other across provinces. A woman in the cold barren city of Harbin can feel incredibly connected with a sister in the hot swampy city of Guangzhou. Add the significant participation of women in worker’s protest and one understands how feminism is perceived as a threat to the Party.

Fincher’s argument is significantly convincing and rigorous and a valuable contribution not only to feminist scholarship but also for scholarship on China in general. Territorial integrity and China’s economy might be more obvious aspects of legitimacy-considerations, but misogyny and women oppression are just as important. When researching legitimacy-building by the CPC, these more subtle and abstract considerations are often neglected.
However, following David Easton’s approach to regime legitimacy, legitimacy can be seen as a multi-dimensional and dynamic collection of various sources that consist of various zones, which are then expressed in tangible policies. Together, they contribute to the net sum of regime legitimacy. The zones should be seen as inter-dependent and dynamic – one compensating for the other as it weakens, one zone morphing into another, etc… Misogynist policies and propaganda are in and of themselves tangible contributors to the larger zone of patriarchal authoritarianism, which is then part of more abstract “population control”.

Fincher rightly points out the many current structural issues in China. Aside from the economic downturn, which has been an important contributor, legal and political (liberal) reforms have long ago come to a stalemate. These zones were especially important in the first decade of the 21st century. The party has intensified its patriarchal and misogynist tendencies to compensate for this weakening.

By putting personal stories of women in a larger context of history, misogynist policies and laws, as well as state oppression, Fincher makes Chinese patriarchal authoritarianism tangible. Her argument that it also contributes to party legitimacy is robust and worthy of further academic research. Fincher succeeds in making her work easily accessible. This is incredibly important as issues like this do not deserve to be confined to dense academic work. It deserves to be read and talked about – not only to understand better the plight of women in China and across the world, but also to better understand legitimacy-building in an undemocratic China. In this regard, Fincher’s work is extremely valuable.

Stone Statue

The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy

Study Group Review of Daniel A. Bell

The first pick of our newly started Study Group was Daniel A. Bell’s “The China Model”. The Reading Group aka the China nerd book club, aims to read a book on or out of China – both fiction and academic – every six weeks. We already failed on this deadline for our first round, but things can only get better, can’t they? If you have reading suggestions, please send a mail to Julia to name your choice! We discuss the books we’ve read over Discord three weeks after picking them. That talk is open to anyone who wants to join – again, write to Julia to be added to the group.

“The China Model” was probably not the best book we’ll read this year, but the topic is at least highly controversial: What advantages does the China Model – which for Bell means democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle and meritocracy at the top – have over the democratic version of choosing political leaders?

Anyone at home in the political sciences has probably heard of political meritocracy at least once in their introduction to political thought, where meritocracy was most likely reduced to the idea of very smart men aiming to find a way to stay in power for as long as possible. What lies at the heart of meritocracy, i.e. the question of how to choose “capable” leaders, especially in times in which social mobility is finally starting to erode in its understanding of being something natural you only have to work hard for and implications of gender, race and class are being taken into stronger account – is barely tackled by Bell. Instead, he first gives an overview of the limits of democracy, criticizing amongst others that lobbying groups and the voting population can assert great, and to some extent, unfair amounts of influence on policymaking, while the interests of those not yet eligible to vote (due to age or citizenship) aren’t as well represented within the political marketplace. This leads us straight to one of the biggest analytical problems we discussed with regards to Bell. He is using a minimal definition of democracy – one person, one vote – to compare the political system of one country only – the US – to a highly ideal type of meritocracy as it could be in China. Now it didn’t take Trump for most to guess that there had to be a serious flaw in a political system that does not consider clear water an essential human right. In fact, most of the critique Bell employs against democracy cannot be easily conferred to other democratic states. But the idea obviously is interesting; in times in which populism threatens democratic values from within, one starts to wonder what we would have to do to get rid of the demagogues populating political discourse in a number of European states, too.

Is meritocracy the answer? According to Bell, yes, but only in parts and only if we stupid democrats (as in people that consider themselves democratic, not the US political party) could finally get a hold of ourselves and get over this whole ‘one person, one vote’ thing. The democratic voting system is in Bell’s view an obviously idealistic construct which has been proven wrong by voters choosing “incapable” leaders (and from the voting community itself –  if you believe that being born in any given country on this world is just sheer dump luck instead of a reason of pride, Bell’s claim is rather hard to discount given recent election results in most established democracies). While he admits that the political system in China and the US system share some negatives – the existence of political factions, increasing class and social divides, not enough women in politics – Bell is convinced that the Confucian tradition of China goes hand in hand with meritocracy.  He does not consider his argument to be invalid even if China is also facing some other problems not seen in most (Western) democracies (as in corruption and we probably shouldn’t be looking to closely at what the CCP does in Xinjiang). Now, most of us at Mapping China are not historians but most of us also share a healthy suspicion against any white authors going on and on about thousands of years of Chinese history coupled to the claim that we need to understand Chinese history to understand modern China. Nonetheless, history and Confucian tradition is where Bell derives most of his reasoning for a meritocratic rather than a democratic rule in China ). The reading group unfortunately failed to decide whether Chinese meritocratic history has intrinsic value for China today (as said before, we are not historians), but Bell appears to be nit-picking Chinese history for his arguments. We’d like to hear more thoughts on this though!

All in all, we enjoyed discussing Bell’s book, especially because it doesn’t give easy answers to the original question Bell poses at the beginning: if there is no democracy in China, how will its political system look like? Bell himself doesn’t help because he ends his argument before going into depth on how China can make sure to employ structures that will really choose the virtuous leaders he is envisioning. The other question that Bell discussed both implicitly and explicitly – whether or not democracy can learn from meritocracy – is also not easy to answer. On the one hand this is because Bell completely disregards any features of democracy apart from elections. On the other hand, he does not talk much about how political discontent among citizens could reach the top leadership or how the interplay of democratic features at the bottom without involvement at the top could play out. Last but not least, Bell is obviously much concerned with a highly state-centrist way of working that is big on rightful authority and less interested in perspectives of citizens. This has earned him some harsh criticism of being a mouthpiece of the CCP and of mitigating the history of political violence in China. That he received the Huilin prize in 2018 – awarded for promoting Chinese culture abroad – is definitely not surprising. Yet, with a little more realism regarding a broader definition of democracy, a little more fairness in terms of the comparison between an ideal type and real conditions and a little more detail on China’s meritocratic system as it is and as it realistically can be, we would have all benefitted more from reading Bell than we did. Some of his criticisms of democracy hit home though, especially referring to uninformed voters. Ignoring the classist sentiment, the question does remain how we as a voting population can organize ourself to increase the flow of information to everyone and make choices that not only benefit us, but also the non-voting population, such as future generations and people with no voting rights, or in other words: How can we become responsible enough to not need a meritocratic leader to make decisions for us?