Xiao Meili, 24, of the Feminist Youth Action Group, began Meili’s Women’s Rights March from Beijing on September 15, 2013. She and her fellow marchers walked along the National Highway 107, passing through Hebei, Henan, Hubei, and Hunan to Guangzhou. According to Meili, participating in the march was a means of expanding women’s freedom and opening the space for women to thrive. Along the way, the marchers promoted gender equality and advocated for reform for the handling of sexual assault cases. She sent letters of suggestion to county and city governments, education bureaus, and public security bureaus, asking them to make government information available to the public. She also carried out advocacy activities to engage the public and the authorities on gender related issues. I joined her for a day in October 2013, and participated in this women’s rights march as a fellow marcher.
A Divided City
The arrival of high-speed rail has greatly transformed China. I arrive in Hebi, Henan by high-speed train at 9:30 a.m. on October 23. Standing at the magnificent new station, in front of an imposing plaza, I cannot help but feeling deeply moved. The train ride from Beijing to Hebi took a speedy two and a half hours. Covering the same distance, Xiao Meili and her comrades have already been walking for 38 days.
I am to meet Meili at the post office near the old train station. While urban growth has spurred the development of high-speed rail, it has led to the neglect of the old Hebi train station. The plaza in front of it is unexpectedly lifeless. There are just a few travelers scattered about in the waiting room, while rickshaws come by in twos and threes to drum up customers. The hustle and bustle of days past are only dimly evident through the peeling oil paint on the signboards of the surrounding restaurants, which are, for the most part, already out of business.
Next to the post office – which I now see is no longer in operation – I find Meili carrying some documents and looking travel-worn. She is more tanned and thinner than when I last saw her the previous summer, when we organized a workshop for women living with HIV. The abandonment of the post office is just one of the many inconveniences encountered on the Women’s Rights March. Maps simply have not been able to keep up with China’s rapid urban development, which means that Meili and her friends often end up on unexpected and pointless detours.
After the failed attempt to mail her documents, Meili decided to return to the hotel with her companion Fang Xiaoxiong to straighten out their luggage and find an alternative post office on the road. They are staying at a typical family-run inn with old-fashioned decor and narrow staircases. When there are customers, the residence is an inn; when there are no customers, it is simply the owner’s home. I chat with the thirty-something owner. It is her first time encountering the term “feminism.” “I support women’s rights,” she says, “The moment I heard about it, I decided I supported it!” The day before, she was chatting with somebody online, who said that her way of speaking was “aggressive” and “un-ladylike.” To this she responds, “Why do I have to speak like a lady? Exactly how are women supposed to speak?”
During this conversation, Xiao Meili and Fang Xiaoxiong come downstairs. They appear before me armed with masks covering their faces, hats covering their ears, bodies covered with jackets, feet shod with athletic shoes, and carrying massive backpacks. Their were ten marchers in the very beginning but this number has waxed and waned. The past few days, Meili counted among her followers only just Fang Xiaoxiong, an animation director from Beijing who had already walked with her for almost a month and lost 12 kg.
The post office had moved to a luxurious European-style building on the two-way, eight lane Qibin Avenue. To ensure that the requests for government information disclosure are received by the government, Meili and her partners either deliver the messages directly to the relevant departments or send a registered letter. When they see the “Women’s Rights March” sign on Meili and Xiaoxiong’s backs the post office employees’ attitude is cold and indifferent to their mission while the women laborers chatting outside provide a stark contrast: they follow them and warmly invite them for refreshments in their homes.
Sitting at the table, long out of practice of writing characters, I begin the task Meili has assigned me—filling out forms with addresses for the Hebi city government, education bureau, and public security bureau. Two letters for each department. One of the letters to be delivered to the government administration and education bureau is “Suggestions for establishing protocols to prevent and deal with sexual assault on campuses and preventing further harm”. Another to be sent to the Public Security Bureau is “suggestions for responsibly and effectively investigating sexual assault cases and protecting victims, particularly protecting the privacy and dignity of minors.” On the back of the letters, she has attached the signatures of 34 Hebi residents collected that morning.
Meili’s Journey Into the Dust Storm
By the time we finish sending the letters, it is already noon. According to our map app, the next stop, Qi county, is 19.8 kilometers away. If we add in the distance to a hotel, we will have to travel over 20 kilometers. As it takes about an hour to walk 5 kilometers for the average person, a 20-kilometer journey should take about 4 or 5 hours. But this is not the case.
Meili plans to march for six months, walking between 15 and 30 kilometers a day. On the first day, she did not pace herself. On the second day, she was unable to move her legs. They now take ten to fifteen-minute breaks on the road for every one or two hours walked. Moreover, since this is a long journey, they have to carry all their stuff on their backs and therefore, cannot walk as fast as they would normally do. Previously, for a similar action protesting discrimination against people with hepatitis B, activist Lei Chuang walked from Shanghai to Beijing while dragging a suitcase behind him because he had a shoulder injury at the time. He was robbed at knifepoint. While it is safer and more convenient for Meili and her fellow marchers to carry backpacks, it does not make them faster. Therefore, they average only about 3 kilometers per hour.
We turn off of Qibin Avenue to the national highway 107, the main artery of the Women’s Rights March. From Beijing to Guangzhou, it stretches over 2,200 kilometers. As we get on the highway, cargo truck after cargo truck zips past us, kicking up clouds of dust so thick they block the sun. Meili says, “If I were to do it all again, I would definitely, definitely, not choose National Highway 107. For those traveling on foot, the 107 is a hell-hole of dust. Even if you wear a mask, at the end of the day, the insides of your nostrils are still black.” That said, all the roads of China’s north are like this. A few days later, I was back home and washed the coat I wore during the march. A layer of black immediately surfaced on the water. Seeing this, my mother assumed it was the dye running from the cloth.
Another challenge of being on the road is finding restaurants and bathrooms. The marchers often cannot find places to eat. The day before, they were unable to eat until 3 in the afternoon. They occasionally come across small kiosks and vendors full of all kinds of counterfeit and low-quality wares such as Maijie sports drinks, Yili milk, and Master Shuai instant noodles [Translator’s note: These are all counterfeit products with names that either look or sound very similar to the originals: 脉劫 màijié wants to be mistaken for 脉动 màidòng，依利 yīlì as 伊利 yīlì、and 康帅傅 kāng shuàifù as 康师傅 kāng shīfù]. A few days ago, they ate 5 yuan noodles that ended up being fake. Not wanting to waste much, Meili managed to eat half a bowl, while Xiaoxiong had to spit out the bite she took.
Today they are lucky. Four or five kilometers outside of Hebi, they find a small restaurant that looks ok. Because all the support for the march comes from individual donations, Meili and Xiaoxiong often shared a plate of vegetables to save money. Today, however, I foot the bill and we eat to our heart’s content—three dishes and a soup, altogether 60 yuan.
After our meal, they fall asleep at the table. I ask the owner of the restaurant for the bathroom. He points to a narrow alley not quite a meter wide, just enough room for one person to squat. This is one of the goals of the Women’s Rights March: to look out for the discriminatory practices, both big and small, directed at women by public spaces in China. Meili points out that more thought needs to be put into the design of public facilities, such as increasing the number of bathrooms so that women do not have to wait in such long lines and adjusting the height of handrails in buses and subways so that women can use them more easily. But let us leave behind the topic of toilets and march forward. As before, the road and unchanging landscape stretches out before us with no end in sight. The omnipresent dust combines with the smoke from the burning fields, having just been reaped of the fall’s barley harvest. There is nowhere to hide. It is even worse than the smog capital that is Beijing. I have never seen anything like it.
However, in Meili’s eyes, the journey is not so monotonous. Amidst the trash along the highway, we occasionally spot cotton plants, which always puts Meili in high spirits. She takes pictures with her camera and plans to draw a picture. Later, she posts a sketch on her Weibo account [translator’s note: @美丽的女权徒步, which means Meili’s Women’s Rights March] with the note, “Along National Highway 107, you often see small patches of cotton. Little sparrows often fly in groups from the willows into the cotton fields. I had never seen real cotton growing outside before. I didn’t know the plant was so small; the cotton bolls are smaller than eggs. If it weren’t for the dust making them filthy, they would be really cute.”
Xiao Meili’s real name is Xiao Yue. When I first met her in 2012, I asked her about the origin of her internet handle, Xiao Meili. She said that with this name, people can call her “mother”—“beautiful mother,” but I call her “beautiful friend.” [translator’s note: Such terms of endearment are common in online communities.] Therefore, Meili’s Women’s Rights March is also ‘A Beautiful March for Women’s Rights’. Lü Pin, one of the first marchers, said a name like Meili manifests women’s bodily autonomy and sexual independence. [translator’s note: Lü Pin is a prominent feminist activist and head of the Beijing-based Media Monitor for Women Network, an NGO promoting gender equality in media and women’s communication rights] Due to her position within feminist circles, Lü Pin was given credit for the idea of the march. She was quick to correct them, explaining that the Women’s Rights March was all Meili’s idea.
Night falls just as the marchers reach the border of Qi county. They drag their heavy feet along as they dodge the various passenger buses and commercial trucks running red lights. Usually at this time, they still need to walk several more kilometers to find a place to stay in the county town, for reasons of both safety and convenience (mainly, locating a post office the next day). Most importantly, they need to be able to collect signatures the next morning. By the time they find accommodation near the bus station in town, it is already eight at night. After drinking some porridge, Xiaoxiong lies on the bed and immediately falls asleep. Meili says she will wake up in a bit. Surely enough, Xiaoxiong wakes up around ten and does chores with Meili: updating Weibo, washing clothes, and mending the holes in their pants.
County Town Public Participation
It is eight o’clock in the morning on October 24th, a cold and windy day in Qi county. In the two hours before hurrying to the next stop, Zhengzhou, Meili, Xiaoxiong, and I attempt to drum up public participation in the town by collecting signatures from its residents. Meili’s first target is a middle-aged woman eating breakfast with her son. She first talks to the woman about the frequency of sexual assaults on campuses this year and explains that she hopes the government can establish measures to prevent and address the situation. Then she asks the woman to sign her name on the back of the letter. This kind of campaigning, having to repeatedly give explanations and requests, is extremely difficult. The woman responds tersely, “This needs to be addressed by the central government. If they deal with it, I’ll sign.”
The original plan was to deliver the requests and letters of suggestion directly to the county and city governments along the way. Previously, when they arrived in Zhuozhou, Hebei, they attempted to get signatures on the letters of suggestion for the first time and they managed to get nine residents to sign. At the time, Lü Pin, wrote, “For the residents in the middle of their busy days, perhaps it was the first time that encountered the words ‘women rights,’ perhaps it was the first time they had an opportunity for public participation.” This kind of participation teases out “the average person’s fear, indifference, and pessimism, and emboldens them to assume and exhibit responsibility for their autonomy, and allow the prevention and handling of sexual assault to become local movements.”
Lü Pin’s observations are very sharp. Most people feel fear, indifference, or pessimism toward public participation. Meili says the elderly are almost never willing to sign their names. Having lived through the Cultural Revolution, they refuse to participate in any public events. There are also a great number of people who claim to be illiterate when they are asked to put pen to paper. But after persevering, there will inevitably be a breakthrough. To the people who make excuses, Meili says, tell me your name, I will write it for you. On this particular day, Meili does not give up on the Zhengzhou woman who wants to involve the central government. Meili turns to the woman’s elementary-school aged son and begins talking to him instead, asking him about school. The mother is finally moved and agrees to sign. Her son also carefully adds his own name.
It is difficult work, but once you have the first name, you can get a second, and then a third. Meili explains, if she can change people even a tiny bit, the march will be worthwhile.
Afterword: How the Feminist Youth Action Group Connects Policy to the Public
Xiao Meili’s Women’s Rights March will continue for six months. As one of several performance art-centered actions by young feminists in recent years, it has attracted the attention of the media and public at large. However, some are concerned that such actions do not actually result in changes at the level of policy. It is also hard so see how they can, in the short term, realistically address problems such as domestic violence and sexual harassment, two of the myriad of problems that currently affect Chinese women. At the end of November, I took this question to Guangzhou based Ke Qianting, associate professor of gender studies at Sun Yat-sen University. She believes that in order to effect change at both the political and personal level, the number of feminist activists must not only increase, but also involve the general public, establishment insiders, and social organizations.
Ke points out that although student feminist activists have staged advocacy actions in various parts of the country, their numbers are still very small compared to the rest of society. In order to spark more extensive change in society’s values, increasing the numbers and diversity of the participants is needed. To make more noise and carry out more actions, the present Feminist Youth Action Group (青年女权行动派) [the women’s rights group that Xiao Meili is a representative of] is not nearly enough.
But in today’s China, if one wants to influence policy, apart from skillfully using the media to exert pressure through public opinion, making information available to the public, and other such methods, what’s more important is to be in contact with internal channels in order to influence members of bodies that have legislative power, such as the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference representatives. We must change their minds through advocacy, because among the government’s current developmental priorities, topics concerning gender are not considered pressing or important. Although difficult, it is essential that more people persist in trying to establish interaction with the government within the framework of the system. Feminists commanding the relevant resources and skills should make this the focus of their work.
As for solving the difficulties that women face in their personal lives, more social organizations [Editor’s note: the term ‘social organization’ (社会组织）is commonly used to refer to NGOs in China] should be established at the local level. Currently, the number of local governments contracting out social services is enormous. For example, many neighborhoods in Guangzhou have comprehensive family services centers that have annual budgets in the millions. Nevertheless, they are unable to solve the domestic violence problems in their respective localities. Responding to individual cases is not necessarily the goal of feminist advocacy groups, as they work with small staff and limited funding. They often have a budget of just a few tens of thousands of yuan; they can be considered successful if they manage to spark some public reflection, discussion, and participation. Individual cases can only be addressed by an organization serving the community, such as a comprehensive family services center working to promote family harmony. However the majority of them are not able to solve the problem of domestic violence because they do not reflect on deeply entrenched gender inequality; in such an environment where there is a lack of gender consciousness, it is difficult for effective working strategies and methods to appear. For this reason, local-level social organizations still need to repeatedly, without end, raise consciousness through gender-training so that gender is given due consideration within the thinking underlying organizations and social work. Only then can they properly respond to the needs of society.