li tingting on life as a radical lesbian feminist activist in china

Finally free to travel after her 37-day imprisonment for 'provoking trouble' last year, China's most famous feminist touched down in New York last week.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
03 August 2016, 3:00pm

li tinting (left). photograph via Free Chinese Feminists Facebook

Li Tingting is a big fan of Hillary Clinton. While she doesn't agree with all of her politics, she has referenced Clinton's 1995 speech at the United Nations World Conference on Women as a touchstone for her own feminism. Hillary, in turn, tweeted her support for Li when she was imprisoned, along with four other Chinese feminist activists, for 37 days last year.

But just over 20 years since Clinton's landmark speech, little has improved for women's rights in China, the country where Clinton famously stated that "human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights."

"[Women's rights] are a global issue," Li tells me forcefully, echoing Clinton's statement. "Don't tell me about 'South Seas issues,' I don't care about that. It's global." We're backstage after her first-ever public speaking engagement in the US, at New York's Asia Society. Li is wearing a black beret, like a true rebel leader, and a pair of black Converse high-tops. "They're limited edition," she says, lifting her foot to flash a rainbow-striped rubber sole. Something about the shoes' strategic declaration of pride feels very appropriate for an LGBTQ activist in China, a country where same-sex marriage is still illegal and there are no laws that specifically protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

Earlier in the evening, seated next to fellow feminist and LGBTQ activist Di Wang, Li had explained exactly what she's up against as an evangelist for women's and LGBTQ rights in China. "In the authorities' eyes we're troublemakers. We've been under surveillance since 2012," she said.

2012 was the year of Li's first public action, a protest against domestic violence staged on Valentine's Day. Li, then 22, and two other young women recreated an action originally carried out by activists in Turkey. They walked through the streets of Beijing in wedding dresses splattered with fake blood, carrying painted signs and yelling, "Love is not an excuse for violence."

Three days later, after another protest — against the nonsensical ratio of men's to women's bathrooms in Beijing's public spaces — Li reports that she was escorted by two plainclothes policemen to an unmarked car. Bizarrely, the officers then drove her to a high-end restaurant and treated her to an expensive dinner. Li has described this as an attempt by China's "stability maintenance" forces (aka China's internal security bureau) to persuade her to stop protesting and stop engaging with the press. They also subtly suggested that she stop posting on Weibo, China's answer to Twitter.

Li's later encounters with "stability maintenance" haven't been so cushy. Over the years, her email has been hacked, her phone has been tapped, and police have shown up at her parents' home in the countryside outside Beijing and taken them for a similarly, suspiciously lavish meal.

But, for reasons that are still unclear to her, March 6, 2015, was the day when the authorities decided she had gone too far. Li had been preparing for a series of demonstrations that would happen across China on the following day, International Women's Day, to raise awareness of sexual harassment on public transport. She and ten other women were planning to put stickers on buses and trains across their home cities. But at 10pm that night the police arrived at Li's apartment and escorted her and her girlfriend, Teresa Xu, to a detention center where they were interrogated, and where Li remained imprisoned for 37 days.

The upside of her detention, Li tells me, was a massive surge in public awareness of the women's cause. While half of the women were released (including Teresa), the activists who remained in detention made headlines as China's "Feminist Five." Feminist groups around the world organized demonstrations in solidarity, wearing masks of the women's faces, and lobbied for their release. The Hillary Clinton tweets happened. "We're like the Beatles [now]," Li jokes.

The downsides were the hard conditions of the imprisonment itself and a series of gruelling interrogations. "They didn't beat me," Li explained onstage at the Asia Society. "They did insult my sexual orientation, but that didn't work because I'd already been through that when I was young. I'm a radical feminist lesbian, an international slut, that's it!" Despite her defiance, Li's arrest made clear to her the very real repercussions her activism could have. Now, she says, "I have to calculate the risk, what I should say and what I shouldn't say."

"Our priorities depend on our resources," she explains to me later. "If you want to educate the population about gender equality, it takes a lot of resources. The government has those resources, they should pay for that public education. So we focus on policy making. That's our strategy."

I ask her what three laws she would change first to improve women's and LGBTQ rights in China. The first, she says, would be improving the policing of domestic violence. (In January of this year, China passed its first-ever law against domestic abuse, but there are still gaps in its coverage and enforcement.) The second, she says, would relate to China's "no-child policy" for single women, a group which, in the eyes of the law, includes women in lesbian relationships. "Right now, I don't want a baby but maybe in the future [I will]. That is my right. You can't take away my right. For straight couples now, there is a two-child policy. For us, there is a no-child policy. That is a restriction of our reproductive rights."

Her third act would be to legalize same-sex marriage in China. "It's a very mainstream issue in China now," she says, "And LGBTQ people need it." She thinks it will happen in her lifetime, "but maybe 20 or 30 years from now."

China's current legislation didn't stop Li from participating in what she calls a "political wedding" to her girlfriend, though. Not long after her release, in July 2015, she and Teresa held an illegal marriage ceremony in front of a group of friends and international journalists at a restaurant in Beijing. "It was more like performance art," she says, explaining that it was timed to coincide with the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US.

"After we got released, we tried to avoid direct conflict," Li says. She and her network shifted tactics to avoid clashing with the authorities, holding "performance art" happenings that would harness the power of social media while flying under police radar. In April, they organized a flashmob outside the Heyi Hotel in Beijing, where, days earlier, a viral cellphone video had captured a man violently attacking a woman in the lobby. By the time the police arrived, the protesters were already gone, and images of their picket signs had already been published on Weibo. In 2015, they posted topless photos of themselves on Weibo to help gather signatures for a campaign against domestic violence. "Our bodies are our battleground," Li says, and social media has become a crucial weapon in their campaign.

Li has also started thinking about "Plan Bs," though, in case things become too hard for her in China. She might go abroad to study for a few years, for example. "But for me, the most important thing is I'm a feminist," she says. "I can't give up. I would need to completely re-identify myself."

Last month, when the conditions of her bail were finally lifted, Li made her first trip to the US, just in time for New York's gay pride parade. "I can show you my topless picture from the parade!" she tells me, laughing. "I think toplessness is an issue," she continues, turning serious. "It's about the body revolution, the sex revolution. We're also trying to push that. If you talk about rape, a lot of victims don't dare to speak out [in China], because there's a lot of stigma. Rape culture is a strong culture in our country and we need to solve it. We need to provide help for survivors. In China, there are only a handful of feminist activists. If we don't do that, who will?"

I ask her what people in the US can do to help and show solidarity. "Support Hillary Clinton!" she almost-yells at me. "Don't support Donald Trump!"


Text Alice Newell-Hanson

women's rights
LGBTQ rights
feminist five
di wang
li tingting