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Detained Feminists Highlight China's Crackdown On Dissent

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Eric Fish speaks with Melissa Block about his book China's Millennials, which explores the story of Li Tingting, a feminist activist whose loud dissent has drawn scrutiny from Chinese authorities.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Beijing, five young feminist activists remain in detention nearly two weeks after they were first picked up by authorities. The women had been organizing a multi-city protest timed to International Women's Day. Their cause - bringing an end to sexual harassment on public transportation. They were planning to distribute stickers on buses and subway trains calling on police to do more. One of the detained women, Li Tingting, is profiled in a forthcoming book about Chinese millennials by Eric Fish, and he joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program.

ERIC FISH: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Tell us a bit more about Li Tingting and the kinds of protests that she had helped to organize before this.

FISH: So she's been doing this for a few years now, and her protests are always pretty cheeky and always pretty small. The one that made her the most famous was one in 2012 called Occupy Men's Room where her and about 20 other activists would periodically, over the course of an hour, take over the men's room to protest for having a greater ratio of toilets for women in public restrooms.

BLOCK: A universal concern, yeah (laughter).

FISH: So that was one of her big protests. They've done stuff on public transportation before. Once in Shanghai the subway authority responded to a groping epidemic by saying that women should have some self-respect and cover themself up more. So she and some of her activists boarded the trains and wore, like, metal bras and held signs that say we can be provocative but you can't be dirty. Another time in Beijing they walked down the street wearing bridal dresses splattered with red paint to resemble blood to protest domestic abuse. So all sorts of stuff like this, and they kind of go out of their way to avoid anything that would be considered politically sensitive. And they don't even use the word protest. They use the term performance art just to try to dodge political sensitivity in that regard as well.

BLOCK: Right, so if these protests aren't overly political, why would the Chinese government see her as a threat?

FISH: Well, I think that this is a trend that we're seeing a lot in general right now and not just with feminism. People have made the argument that there are things about feminism that irk the government, but it's more, I think, their ability to organize people, not just in one location, but across the country. And since Xi Jinping has come to power, we've really seen that anybody who pushes any kind of agenda publicly, and especially if they take to the streets and organize people, this is just something that they're not tolerating right now.

BLOCK: You met Li Tingting in China, talked with her. What did she tell you about what in her background led her to become a feminist activist like this?

FISH: Well, she did grow up with pretty severe physical abuse at the hands of her father is what she told me - her and her mother. So you got to think that that has a big influence on her, and she told me that was one of the things that awakened her. And she's actually also been quite active in LGBT issues as well because she herself as a lesbian - when she started doing that she started to find that she didn't even have as many avenues to raise her voice as gay men. And some of the gay men activists would even discriminate against her and other lesbian activists. So she kind of said if there's not a feminist movement in China there's really no lesbian movement either.

BLOCK: There's not a lot of news coming out of China about what's happened with these five young women who've been detained. We do know, apparently, that some of them have been able to meet with lawyers. What do you figure is likely to happen?

FISH: It's really hard to say right now. They are under formal criminal detention, which is the first step to laying out formal charges. They're accused of picking quarrels and causing a disturbance, which can lead up to five years in prison and 10 years if they consider that they've done it more than once. So it's really hard to say if they're going to lay these charges out. It would be shocking, but they have been doing this lately with activists that are pushing agendas that are not very controversial at all, like this. So I think there's a window right now. A lot of activist groups are speaking up, even within China, and we've seen protests now in Hong Kong, New York and some cities. And so if there is enough pressure they might decide that it's not worth pressing charges. So, I mean, it's really anybody's guess right now what's going to happen to them.

BLOCK: Well, Eric, thanks so much for talking with us about this.

FISH: Thank you.

BLOCK: Eric Fish is a writer at the Asia Society in New York. He's author of the forthcoming book "China's Millennials: The Want Generation."

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