An Oral History of Wang Xingjuan

About the interviewee: Wang Xingjuan, born in 1930, began her career in reporting and editing. In 1988, she retired and began to devote her attention and energy towards women’s empowerment. She set-up the Women’s Research Institute, an NGO aimed at studying social problems faced by women, under the China Academy of Management Science. In 1992, under Wang’s leadership, the organization opened China’s first women’s hotline, and has since opened various other hotlines with focuses on elderly, legal counselling, domestic violence and other issues. In 1995, they organized the NGO conference of the World Forum on Women’s Issues. In 1996, the Institute left the China Academy of Management Science and registered with Industry and Commerce as the Beijing Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center, henceforth focusing both on research and practical activities. They launched a social work model focused on intervening in local communities to solve domestic issues in Tianjin. The new model is now actively used across China’s provinces and cities, and to date 82-year-old Wang remains active in women’s empowerment.

Interview Date and Location: Office of the Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing, July 30th 2012.

The road to women’s studies

I have always been working on cultural issues. In 1949, before even graduating from university, I went to Nanjing to join in the liberation of the city. After the liberation of the city by the Third Field Army, there was a shortage of political cadres in Nanjing, so I left the University of Nanking and joined the Nanjing Xinhua Daily as a junior reporter and started my career as a journalist. Two years later, I transferred to the Beijing-based China Youth Daily. After the cultural revolution, I joined the Beijing Publishing House, where I compiled books regarding current political theory.

My interest in women’s rights was triggered by a study of teenage girls. In 1984, Guangdong ‘s Publishing House invited me and my old comrade-in-arms, Lou Jingbo, to write a book named “necessary reading for teenage girls”. It was well received by parents and people were even queueing up in some of Guangzhou’s Xinhua bookstores to buy the book. I realized there were no other books tackling this topic, so in 1986 I, along with 2 friends, co-published a volume named “Modern Women” with the Sichuan People’s Publishing House. This 20-book volume covered all aspects of life: marriage, family, work, studies, dressing, etc. and it proved to be a success, winning several book awards. We even had to reprint various editions. In 1985 the All-China Women’s Federation wanted to start a magazine named “Marriage and Family”, and I was invited to serve as a deputy editor to bring in editing expertise. The chief editor was a secretary from the Secretariat Department of the China Women’s Federation in charge of the Marriage and Family Research Society. Her role was mostly nominal, so most of the work was done by me and another jurist. We had to publish every week, so we took turns being in charge of the final product on a fortnightly basis. This experience proved transformative in shifting my focus from not just young women but also marriage and family.

Back in the eighties, women issues were intricately linked to social development. After the disbandment of the Gang of Four, the state began to reform, to open up, and the reform of the economic and political system became both an opportunity and a challenge to women. National transition from the planned economy to a market economy meant that we had to follow the rules of the market. During the Mao era, five people ate portions meant for three; and five people did the work that three could do. We were not wealthy, but neither were we unemployed or hungry. After the implementation of a market economy, there was a focus on efficiency. Two people had to do the work of three in order to earn money. Therefore, factories had to let go of the surplus of employees and in 1988 the State Council passed a pilot system in 13 provinces to optimize labor – that was when we first heard of the word ‘laid-off workers”. Since women were often in disadvantaged positions, 60 to 70 percent of laid-off workers were women. That generation grew up in the post-49 China, and received an education that inculcated them with the belief that active workforce participation was an important facet of women’s liberation. It was hard to accept that they were now newly unemployed. Their loss of economic status also affected their social status and their position in the family. While working for the “Marriage and Family” magazine, I was asked many questions: why did women find it harder to find jobs despite a growing economy? Why did social development come with the sacrifice of a generation of women? They kept asking me: where is our way out? I couldn’t answer these questions. For that entire year, all the issues of the All China Women’s Federation official publication “Women of China” discussed the future of women after the events of 1988, which was meant to tackle exactly these questions.

In 1988, the world of women’s rights also faced another social problem: that of participation in politics. At that time, the government put into practice a reform of the electoral system, from party committees and government to local committees of the CPPCC and local People’s Congresses, switching from the former single-candidate elections to multi-candidate ones. Before, there were five people for five positions and all you had to do was trace a circle. Now, for five positions they give you seven names among which you have to choose five. With this reform, a lot of female candidates were eliminated and in many provinces and cities, there was not even one female to be found in any of the four governing bodies (Party, government, People’s Congress, CPPCC). Sinceit was the custom to praise each candidate’s accomplishment before the election took place, men were always seen as the ones with the richest experiences, therefore, everybody chose male candidates. Women were destined to cultural, educational and healthcare jobs, which anyone could undertake.

That year, “Women of China” also published a series of debates regarding women’s participation in politics. The core of the discussion was to know if the decline of women’s participation was due to women‘s lack of skills, or because they were discriminated against. The two major problems were ostentatious in 1988, but not a single organization tackled them. Within the All-China Women’s Federation, only the Chinese Research Society of Marriage and Family existed. I thought that since I had already retired from my job, had time on my hands and was interested in researching women’s issues, I could establish a non-governmental women’s research organization to study contemporary issues, and help these women seek a brighter future.

Therefore, in the February of 1988, I convened a meeting of ten to twenty women working on women’s issues such as Xie Lihua, Tan Shen and Liu Bohong at my house, to explore the possibility of building a non-governmental women’s research organization. It was extremely well received. We brainstormed for an entire day, and for lunch I treated everyone to noodles. The meeting gave birth to China’s first non-governmental women organization, and we affectionately remember this meeting as “the noodle conference”.

From research organization to hotline

In October 1988, the Women’s Research Institute was established. It was affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Management Science (hereafter referred to as the “Academy”), which was also a grassroots organization. Thanks to Chen Yun’s networks, and under the leadership of the State Scientific and Technological Commission, the Academy managed to be affiliated to the State Council under the State Commission for Economic Reform. At that time, we held activities as a secondary unit of the Academy. We had an independent bank account, and were able to register as a non-profit public service organization with the help of the Dongcheng district Scientific Commission.

Since we were a grassroots organization, we did not receive government funding and had to raise funds independently. Of the 20,000 yuan in start-ups costs needed for setting up the Women’s Research Institute, half were of my contribution, and a few friends helped with the other half. We applied to the Soros Foundation for funds and they granted us 5000 yuan to carry out a survey on female employment rates. These were all the resources we had in the early stages of our enterprise.

When the State Council passed a pilot system in 13 provinces to optimize labor, we selected cities such as Shantou, Hangzhou, Shenyang and others to carry out our interviews with laid-off women in order to understand better their current situation and feelings. Through this study, we realized that if women did not improve their working skills and establish a mentality of financial independence, they would not remain competitive and their employment situation would get worse. At that time, many initiatives such as “laid-off steam buns” and laundry cooperatives started to appear, exemplifying the fact that women had left the industrial production system to be sent back to housework and small street vending.

Despite understanding the problem and having a solution, we still needed to get more attention and publicity. Women’s issues were relatively ignored by the public at the time, it was not like today’s “free lunch” ((program launched by the journalist Deng Fei which goal is to provide each primary school student in Chinese rural areas with a free lunch)) which managed to instantly get government attention and quickly resolve the issue. Then, even the Women’s Federation did not care about the issue of laid-offs women workers. Once, a Ford Foundation project officer asked me, “I’m being frank here, but do you think your research can save women? Do you think this kind of research is useful?” I was taken aback and realized I had not think about that. I began to calculate how many journals we had sent the results of our research to, how many women would be able to read it, and among those who read it, how many could be influenced by it, and I realized that there were not enough.

Therefore I began wondering how to combine research and public service. I realized that we could not be too academic in our writing and studies, and leave them on a piece of paper. We had to find a channel by which we could allow our research to serve women, let them understand that society could not regress to the period before the reforms and opening up, that there would never be a communal system again, that society would never be as protective of women as it was before. You have to keep up with the times; you have to stand up for yourself; to find your new place in society.

We were a grassroots organization, we didn’t have money and we couldn’t help employ women or provide them with the finances to maintain themselves. We could, however, nudge and urge them to be more self-reliant and realistic. So how did we achieve this? I thought we could create a hotline, which only required a room, a telephone, and a dedicated group of volunteers to pick up the phone. We could achieve significant outputs with minimal inputs.

I had an american friend whose Chinese name was Jiang Lin. She said that she knew a small foundation in the United States, The Global Fund for Women, and asked if I wanted to apply for a grant. I agreed and told her we wanted to open a women hotline. She helped me write the application. In 1992, our project was accepted and we received a $10,000 grant, half of which we could use immediately. At that time, the Women’s Research Institute did not have a bank account allowing it to receive foreign currencies, so I opened a personal account to receive the grant money. The Foundation was in-turn mainly sponsored by the Ford Foundation, and each grant was very small, from 10,000 USD to 20,000 USD, and were specially designed to help start-ups, such as those without foreign bank accounts.

After receiving the money, I went to Beijing Normal University and Peking University’s departments of psychology to convince their party branch to help spread the word that we were recruiting volunteers. We recruited more than fifty volunteers for our first batch, and on September 2nd, 1992, we managed to open China’s first women’s hotline. At that time, some people said that Chinese women did not have the habit of using telephones, and there was no way our hotline could gain traction. But against their predictions, the hotline was immediately a great success, the phone went ringing all day long, even overseas Chinese phoned in. Perhaps because of the newsworthiness of its novelty, many media outlets published stories about it. The Xinhua News Agency mentioned it in a new segment and it went on the 7 o’clock news on TV, which helped us gain overnight publicity. In the past it was different from now, today there are hundreds of hotlines, the Maple Women Hotline is no longer a scarce resource. Because we were the earliest psychological counselling hotline, we soon needed to open more lines, so we opened one line after the other, until we had sixty-seven lines.

In terms of volunteer training, we required volunteers to have psychological knowledge, technical skills, and knowledge of the concept of gender. Then it was not even known as “gender”, that term was only brought up before the convening of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Then we called it “women consciousness”, or “female consciousness”, and emphasized that the hotline’s main aim was to urge women to be independent and self-conscious. In the second of two women hotline training handbooks, we discussed gender issues, and all are supervisors had attended trainings on the concept of gender. By 2001, all our training material for volunteers had a special section on the concept of gender.

The World Conference on Women’s Crisis

The Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) was held in China in 1995. The FWCW played an important role in promoting the development of the women’s movement in China. Typically at UN meetings, one part is a formal conference hosted by the UN which governments from around the world participate in; the other part is various non-governmental forums held by civil society organizations from around the world. The UN grants observer status to a few well-known NGOs; these NGOs can apply to speak at the conference of governments to express the views of the NGOs. Our Women’s Research Institute was granted this honor – the first batch of China’s non-governmental women’s organizations to be recognized by the UN Economic and Social Council and allowed to send two observers to attend the governments’ meeting.

This was a distinguished gathering of the women of the world; over a hundred countries sent delegations to attend the meeting. The Chinese leaders at the time, Jiang Zemin and Chen Muhua, personally attended the conference. The governments’ meeting was held in Beijing proper; the non-governmental forum was put in Huairou County [on the outskirts of Beijing].

China’s NGO Forum, led by the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), formed China’s NGO forum organizing committee. A total of more than 50 Chinese non-governmental forums participated in the Huairou activities. Most of the non-governmental forum organizers at the FWCW meeting were not real NGOs; they all had a government agency behind them. For instance, behind the National Association of Women Legal Workers was the Ministry of Justice; behind the Association of Women Entrepreneurs was the Ministry of Commerce. Only the forum organized by the Institute had no ministries or commissions behind it.

The NGO forum organized by the Institute was called “Women’s Groups and Social Assistance.” We faced a series of setbacks securing approval for this forum because we proposed to assist vulnerable groups and one topic was victims of domestic violence. At that time, some in the leadership of the ACWF did not recognize the existence of domestic violence. They claimed that being beaten was an exception, that the status of women in China was very high, so there was no domestic violence. So after I reported this topic, one of the leaders, without naming me, criticized me during a meeting, saying: “Some people are trying to stir up trouble, claiming that we have domestic violence.” I sat there feeling so uncomfortable that every sentence seemed to be directed at me.

So how was the topic approved in the end? During preparations for the FWCW, the government issued the first “Outline for the Development of Chinese Women,” which referred to preventing domestic violence. The outline was legalistic, the government acknowledged the problem; how could the ACWF deny it? The ACWF gave permission for the Women’s Research Institute’s forum to include a discussion on domestic violence, and made the Association of Women Judges organize a forum specifically focusing on domestic violence. Another reason was that in 1990, the ACWF and the National Bureau of Statistics conducted a nationwide survey on the status of women which found that 30% of women suffered from domestic violence. The data was there and could not be ignored.

The FWCW’s NGO Forum in Huairou lasted two weeks. Our forum was only two-and-a-half hours long, everyone spoke very concisely. They only gave us a small room but there were so many people, even the corridor outside was full with people standing. It was quite impressive.

It doesn’t rain much in Beijing in late August and early September, but that year it rained constantly. It was cold and wet. A lot of people attending our forum got sick. But worse than that, there was a storm of controversy.

The FWCW, saw an important influx of foreign journalists in China. The state issued an internal notice forbidding casual meetings with reporters and banning foreigners from going to organizations to interview people without approval. Because the Academy of Management was a non-governmental organization which had cut ties with the Economic Reform Commission after 1990, the notice never reached me. We received a number of visitors, many through the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) who we worked with. A UNDP leader called to say that a group of reporters wanted to do interviews, so I told them to come. A lot of reporters came and after interviewing me they did not show me the articles before they were published abroad. I don’t know whether or not they included negative reports on China. I didn’t say a single word against society or the country. Whether or not the Western media misrepresented my position, creating confusion, I still do not know. But it attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security.

Particularly important was the fact that the U.S. women’s delegation was headed by then first lady Hillary Clinton. After her arrival in China, she asked to visit the Institute to see the women’s hotline. This ignited a storm. It just so happened to coincide with the crisis over the Taiwan Straits; China-US relations were extremely tense. When she visited China that time, not only did national leaders not meet her, but even the President of the All China Women’s Federation, Chen Muhua, did not see her; newspapers did not report on her at all. In this political environment, Hillary proposing to visit the women’s hotline alarmed senior ranks.

The White House called the Institute, said they wanted to come to assess the security environment and Hillary Clinton wanted to visit the women’s hotline. This phone call alarmed me. I said, I’m afraid this has to go through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The other side hung up. I immediately reported the news to the organizing committee of the NGO Forum.

But the catastrophe had already begun. The deputy director of the Institute was summoned to Zhongnanhai twice and asked what kind of organization the Institute was. What kind of person is Wang Xingjuan? Why does Hillary want to see her? The Academy of Management, which the Institute was under, was also interrogated. The calls from the Ministry of State Security were incessant, and even the Academy of Management was criticized.

The NGO Forum Organizing Committee of the ACWF had decided that some organizations could receive foreign NGOs as guests, and it was best if they provided a meal. The Institute was given permission to host and the Ford Foundation funded part of the reception costs. We planned the reception and booked a meal at the Capital Hotel. But the Beijing Municipal Security Bureau told us we weren’t permitted to go ahead with the reception. I said that this had been decided by the NGO forum organizing committee. They replied that it didn’t matter who had decided. There was nothing I could do. I agreed to cancel the event. They also said I could not meet Hillary Clinton or attend the reception at the U.S. Embassy. In fact, during the FWCW, it wasn’t just Hillary – other countries’ women leaders and first ladies also wanted to visit the Institute. But the Security Bureau said I couldn’t meet any of them and had to stay in Huairou and not return to Beijing.

The next day as soon as I arrived in Huairou, the cell phone rang. The phone didn’t even belong to the Institute, it was lent to us by a volunteer. The phone call was from one of the staff at the Institute who told me to hurry back because the Security Bureau wanted to see me. I had no choice but to rush back. This time, the Security Bureau gave us permission to let foreigners visit the women’s hotline. But if, during a visit, someone shouted any slogans, we would have to bear all the political responsibility. I agreed. I trusted that our foreign friends would not do such thing.

On September 5th, more than 40 Chinese and foreign representatives visited our hotline in the Di’anmen Junior High School. We introduced the women’s hotline, answered questions, and then dined together. The event went smoothly from start to finish, nothing happened.

But this was also a violation of discipline. After the FWCW, I came under heavy pressure. The Di’anmen Junior High School asked us to move, but there was nowhere where we could afford the rent. The Academy of Management Science broke off our affiliation. This meant we couldn’t use their name anymore. The Dongcheng District Science and Technology Commission didn’t want to be responsible for us, so we lost our legal identity as a non-profit. For the hotline to survive, for the organization to have the protection of the law, I had to go to the outer suburbs and register as a commercial organization. It was the end of November 1996, the flowers had withered and the trees were bare. Only the red leaves remained. I thought, we want to be like autumn leaves; the colder it gets, the darker the color. So the Women’s Research Institute was renamed the Beijing Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center. I was the first person from an NGO to register as a commercial organization.

At the time, a lot of people told me that even if you devote your entire life to revolution, you might still fail in the end. It’s not worth dying for a political issue. You should just close the hotline, go home and write your book. I had considered that before, but when I sat in front of the telephone, listening to women eager to pour their heart out, I could not make that decision. I felt deeply that although it was only a small women’s hotline, women needed it for their grief, to give them support. I decided that as long as the government did not stop me, I would keep it going. They would need a reason to shut us down but I never said or did anything against the country, and never revealed any state secrets. After retirement, I never went into the party journal room – people of my level are allowed to see certain party publications. Since they couldn’t find a reason to stop me, I was going to keep on doing it. I’ve been educated by the Party for years. There are limits when you meet foreign reporters. I know what you can and cannot talk about.

I had a word to describe that period of time at Maple: precarious. It could have come to an end at any time. But I always believed the cause of the controversy was because NGOs were a new phenomenon in our country. I founded the first non-governmental women’s organization in China, a lot of people did not understand it; it was likely to produce doubt and denial. As long as the government truly understood that everything we did was beneficial to society, there would be no misunderstanding. So I adopted a plan to introduce our work to various organizations. My hard work eventually paid off. On October 17, 1997, the director of the Petition Office of the Beijing Municipal Political and Legal Affairs Commission, Zhang Junqun, met me and said, I’m meeting you today on behalf of the leadership. What you have done for the public good is beneficial to social stability and unity. The Party supports you, the government supports you, you can rest assured and do your work with confidence. He also said that with Reform and Opening Up, there’s nothing wrong with using foreign investment to carry out public welfare work.

After this conversation, the FWCW controversy basically came to an end and we had a more peaceful environment to do our work. But the repercussions of the controversy continue more than 10 years later. We still sometimes encounter feelings of distrust towards Maple. Most noticeably, Maple has been running for 24 years working for the benefit of society and women, and has received affirmation from many sectors of the community as well as a lot of awards. But we’re still not able to register as an NGO and have a legal identity. I believe this is because of the controversy.

Looking back at how it played out, when Hillary Clinton wanted to visit, I think it wasn’t the Institute or even me that she wanted to see but the Chinese women’s hotline. She is a feminist who has always been concerned about women’s development, had heard about the Chinese women’s hotline and wanted to see it. In 1995 she wasn’t able to but in 1996, Sino-US relations eased and President Bill Clinton paid an official visit to China. Hillary came along too and visited the Shanghai Women Cadre School’s Wei Er Fu Women and Children’s Hotline. She finally got her wish.

We are still flourishing, and I think that we are like maple leaves: the heavier the frost, the stronger our color, the bigger our obstacles, the greater our spirit. After this event, I called us “Red Maple” (红枫).

Involving communities in domestic problems  the birth of the “Half -Sky Homeland” model of women’s equality

After we had more or less settled the problems brought about by the FWCW, Red Maple went on to do a great deal of ground-breaking work. The most important project we pioneered was to establish a model of social organizing for women: “Half-sky Homeland”.

While answering the hotline, I discovered a new problem: many women were telling me that after their rights had been violated, they had nowhere to complain to. In the past, when their husbands had been violent, they would report the issue to their own work unit or their husband’s work unit, and the unit would look into the matter, and give some advice. Now, their work units didn’t want to have anything to do with the problem; and when the women turned to the neighbor committees, even they would just try to make excuses for not getting involved.

Why was this happening? I felt this was a problem worthy of further investigation, therefore I organized a group to look into over four hundred individual cases of domestic violence that we had received through the hotline in the past three years. We conducted in-depth research by analyzing the data, and discovered that the changes in the way society was managed had brought about these new problems.

Before China’s Reform and Opening Up, our work units took on the role of social organizations. The work unit took care of all the matters of its workers’ lives from birth to death, from allocating housing to providing childcare. After the reforms, work units were stripped of their social roles, and these roles were given to the local neighbor committees. The problem was, these committees were not aware of the effects of the social reforms, and had not taken their new duties into account. This is what led to the phenomenon of abused women not being listened to on either front, by their work units or by the local committees.

We compiled and published the results of our research as a book: “Who looks after domestic issues in local communities?” On the basis of our study, we designed a model of social work for women, Half-sky Homeland. Taking the problem of domestic violence as its starting point, this model reflected our people-oriented approach. Using the principles of gender equality as its foundation, the model’s basic aim was to safeguard women’s rights and raise the position of women in the household. Finally, the model brought psychological and legal help to the community by setting up a hotline for counseling and another for legal advice.

This project gained the financial support of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Ford Foundation. I originally wanted to launch this project in Beijing, but the Beijing Municipal Women’s Federation said that the project financing and planning could be handed over to them to be carried out by their experts, without the help of Red Maple. This was clearly not appropriate, and our funders did not agree to the plan either. As a result, I sought to launch the project in Tianjin. At that time, the chair of the Tianjin Women’s Federation was a lady called Wang Zhiqiu, whom I had known from the early stages of the establishment of the Women’s Research Institute. Then, the Institute had just started up a women’s leadership training program, based on research done into women’s political participation, and was proving hugely popular. Zhiqiu had asked me to train the local female cadres in Tianjin. In those days, the Institute was operating from a tiny, six-meter-square office in a primary school. When we received her, we could only sit in the doorway – there was no space for us to even sit in the room together.

As a result of this interaction, I contacted her again and told her: “I have a project with a strong principle underpinning it: to promote a people-oriented, women-focused outlook. I want to use all our efforts to train people in having this outlook, to reinforce it again and again in changing the thinking of local government, female cadres, and residents alike. On the basis of this consensus, we can establish a support network for combatting domestic violence. Do you support this idea?” In those days, society tried to tell abused women: “Family is everything; for the sake of your children, just bear things a little.” But my method was different: I was an advocate for gender equality, I wanted to raise the position of women in the household, to raise women’s awareness of themselves as free agents, in order to end domestic violence.

Zhiqiu answered firmly: “I accept.” So from 2001 to 2005, Red Maple worked with the Tianjin Municipal Women’s Federation to launch the experimental “Community Intervention in Domestic Problems” project in Hongshun Lane Street, Hebei District, to promote the Half-sky Homeland model we had designed. After this project had been launched, we put our main focus on gender equality training for local government officials, local police, female cadres, neighborhood committees, and residents themselves. We ran three consecutive training sessions for the Hebei district court judges. At each training session, the court president or vice president would come with their team. Once, a female vice president came. The first time she came, she disagreed openly and didn’t take in our principles. But she came a second time, bringing with her all the female judges of her court. This way, the trained local cadres built a common belief, recognizing the importance of establishing gender equality and of combatting domestic violence. So when abused women filed domestic violence cases in court, the court would stand on their side; when they went to the police, officers would educate and restrain the abuser. The community-built multi-agency support network successfully fulfilled its function of protecting women’s rights.

After 2005, this support network model continued to spread to other communities, where it was very successful. Households became more harmonious, and a new atmosphere emerged in the community. 80% of all household and neighborly conflicts were solved within the local community; everybody felt they were responsible actors within the community, and that community matters were their matters too. The Tianjin municipal government paid particular important attention to our model, and at the end of 2007, convened a city-wide general assembly, demanding that in three to five years’ time, Half-sky Homeland be established in every one of the city’s three thousand localities. By early 2012, the city achieved full coverage of the program, and started to advance it into the suburbs. In Tianjin, Half-sky Homeland became known as “the new cornerstone of harmony in Tianjin”. Chairlady Peng Peiyun of the Third Plenum of the China Women’s Federation, as well as Gu Xiulian, and Chen Zhili, all highly praise Half-sky Homeland. They believed it is an excellent showcase model for the China Women’s Federation, worthy of promotion across the country.

In the wake of our success, a dozen local women’s federations across the country wanted to learn from the model of Half-sky Homeland, but did not contact me – rather, they went directly to Tianjin to learn from the original model. In the meantime, the Tianjin Women’s Federation had changed leadership: Zhiqiu had stepped down, and a new Chairperson was in place. They used the power of local experts to implement the training. This model now belongs to Tianjin, and has nothing to do with me. From my point of view as a grassroots organization leader, when I think of the fruitful results of my efforts to advance ground-breaking gender equality principles in China, to integrate them into a localized model of community organization, to benefit over ten million Tianjin citizens with such great success, and to promote the building of a harmonious society in Tianjin, I know my work has not been in vain – and I feel an incomparable sense of pride and honor.

Red Maple’s Successor

When I set up the Women’s Research Institute, I was already 58 years old, and retired. Because of this, from the time I founded the Institute, I started looking for someone who could work with me and become my successor. However, 24 years later, I’m still looking. Over these years, we’ve changed staff many times: directors, deputy directors, assistant directors… Some have been kind-hearted and public-minded, but did not have the necessary expertise.

Because the Institute was set up as an institution intended for research, its leader needs to have strong research abilities and theoretical awareness in order to design new projects, and refine them into executable, sustainable and marketable brand-names. After the Institute was renamed the Red Maple Women’s Counseling Center, its purpose became more focused. A leader must not only have research ability, but also have expertise in psychological counseling. If you did not understand psychology, it was very difficult for you to become a strong core leader of the organization.

Do not look down upon civil society organizations; although they exist at the margins of society, are often not taken seriously, and provide basic working conditions, it is not a simple matter to lead one effectively. First of all, such a leader must be highly sensitive to public interest, have a strong will, not care about personal gain and loss, and be prepared to endure both isolation and resentment. In addition, such a leader must be able to deploy a diverse range of tactics, in order to overcome challenges, and to bring together an empowered team of people. Not only must one be at the forefront of one’s academic field, but also have the ability to fundraise the organization’s expenditures.

Speaking of fundraising: finding funds is really a life-and-death issue for a civil society organization. Each year, large numbers of such organizations are born and then die out. A major reason they die out is because they have not found sufficient funding to sustain their activities. A very famous public interest figure once advised me: “Looking for an all-rounded competent and upstanding leader is very difficult. It’s better to find someone who can understand business operations to help you fundraise. Civil society organizations should also follow the example of corporate organizations in running their affairs. Red Maple has funding, how can you still worry about not finding enough professionals to come and work for you?”

I thought that the advice made sense, so I tried employing some entrepreneurs and executives from the corporate world as directors of Red Maple. But the result was not satisfactory. From the moment we took on corporate figures as leaders, Red Maple suffered year after year of financial deficits. The reason was very complex: it had to do with our different philosophies. Although people with business backgrounds did come to Red Maple to serve the public interest, their hearts were really set on making profits. In order to make profit, they may have ventured away from the public interest ethos of Red Maple, and distorted our path. In addition, it was not easy for business people to change roles when entering the public interest sector. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people who have worked in the corporate world for a long time display particularly corporate characteristics when interacting with others, and such characteristics can often leave a bad impression when faced with the compassionate personalities of public interest sector people. The result is a lot of effort with very little success: not only did Red Maple receive less funding, but its image was also damaged. It’s difficult – it seems that my successors at Red Maple will have to be both highly able and also have the public interest at heart. It should not be one person, but a small team, a collective leadership who can display collective intelligence.

China’s Contemporary Feminist Movement

The feminist movement is an umbrella movement: the movement in other countries has many factions. Some are more extreme than others. For example, radical feminism states that the family is the main tool of women’s oppression, and that men achieve control over women through sexual oppression. Because of this, some organizations have developed into lesbian organizations. My political approach is relatively mild: I advocate for gender equality, an equal partnership of cooperation between men and women.

Some contemporary Chinese feminists take political actions, such as occupying men’s toilets, or displaying bloodstained wedding dresses on the street, so that everybody can see the shocking depiction of an abused bride, thus rousing the public’s attention. I think that there is nothing wrong with doing this. To advocate for equality between men and women, different people can use different forms of expression; the feminist movement needs a diverse range of actions and a variety of voices. In South Korea, I have seen similar actions, such as women performing street art with an anti-domestic-violence message. These kinds of actions are very media-friendly, and newspapers rush to report on them; this in turn can exert an influence on society.

Red Maple has recently set up “Speak Out Against Domestic Violence” campaigns in five major cities, using a form of psychological drama to persuade women suffering from domestic violence to be brave enough to speak out and seek the support of the community. Domestic violence will not end of its own accord; only with the support and help of the community can we eliminate violence.

I believe that the fight against domestic violence is a common cause for the whole of society and all civil society women’s organizations. But our voices are still too weak; anti-domestic violence organizations should cooperate, each doing what they are best at. Red Maple has done a lot of research on domestic violence, which is our specialty. To oppose domestic violence, you need to answer many questions, such as: Why do battered women not leave home? Why would a man hit a woman? Can an abusive man change his ways, and lower his fists? These questions should be approached through the lens of theory; we should learn from the research of other countries, setting out from the viewpoint of our own country’s circumstances. Some organizations, by contrast, are more adept at organizing events. All these organizations should work together, dividing up their functions according to their specialties, to form a comprehensive system of social support against domestic violence, in order to effectively help abused women.

In Brief

In this article, CDB’s Guo Ting interviews Wang Xingjuan, one of the pioneering figures of the Chinese feminist movement. Through Wang’s story, we get a glimpse at the development of the Chinese women’s rights movement from the end of the eighties on.
Table of Contents