To Be An Independent Activist Was One Of My Dreams’
Jiyoung LeeAn interviews YUAN FENG, a feminist activist from China
As an activist in China, Yuan Feng actively advocates women’s rights. Yuan is now the director of Combating Domestic Violence against Women and a leading figure of Gender and Development (GAD) group in China. She visited South Korea to join a newly established feminist network, Network for GloCal Activism and School of Feminism. Excerpts from the interview.
IPS: It is not very usual for Chinese activists to define themselves as independent activists. Are there any particular reasons why you call yourself an independent activist?
Yuan Feng: Actually becoming an independent activist was one of my dreams. In the past, I thought it would be impossible, but now I feel happy because I can say that I am an independent activist. I currently do not belong to any organisation, but I am working individually as an activist. I think this question is very meaningful in China’s context because, as you mentioned, there are very few people who define themselves as independent activist, but slowly the number of people like me is increasing.
IPS: Can you explain in more detail?
YF: After the Chinese Communist Party came into power in 1949, every individual was recognised only as one of the many cogs forming the party-state machinery. It means that everybody should be a member of a particular unit. And of course, there is lack of gender perspective and sensitivity within the organisations. After ‘Reform and Opening’ in China, the concept of individual started to appear slowly. This is the social background which went into the making of an independent activist in China.
I worked for People’s Daily and China Women’s News for 20 years during which I felt that I was a cog in the party-state machinery but at the same I tried to be an independent thinking journalist. Gradually I found that one cannot be critical if she lacks gender sensitivity. I wanted to maintain objectivity as a journalist, and clearly demonstrate how general news is gendered. With other likeminded people, we established Chinese Women Media Monitor Network to screen Chinese news for gender sensitivity in 1996.
Apart from that, I was active in the formation of groups and networks for gender and development, and Combating Domestic Violence against Women. After all these processes, now I became an independent activist. But sometimes this ‘freedom’ allows me no freedom. Working as a freelance activist without being attached to any particular organisation sometimes brings about political inconvenience on many occasions in China.
IPS: The Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing is considered a milestone for international women’s movement. Would you elaborate on what kind of impacts it had on women’s movement within China?
YF: If at all, we can say, that there existed women’s movement in China before 1995, I think the 1995 conference was a great turning point. Especially after Tiananmen Square Massacre, people’s organisation in China had massively shrunk and hence only governmental organisations were active before 1995. The 1995 conference provided the basic ground for Chinese people to understand NGOs.
But I must also tell you that the meaning of NGOs in China is not necessarily anti-government. Nonetheless, through this conference, women in China started to have global perspectives and through studies started to understand the situation of women in other countries as well.
IPS: What made you join the newly established network called Network for GloCal Activism (NGA) and School of Feminism (SF)?
YF: Most organisations in China are still confined to their own specific issues and are not actively engaging with other sectors. For example, AIDS related NGOs number in thousands, but there are less than 10 organisations which deal with AIDS focusing on women, even though the number of women infected with HIV is about one third of total infected people.
Considering this segmentation and lack of gender sensitivity in China, I think we need to have a new type of network to bridge different issues. At the same time I do not see these problems as China specific. As a process, first we should recognise our own local problems, and then we discuss them at a global level and find commonalities. Most of all, to build a democratic country, we need to resist current patriarchal authoritarianism, capitalism, militarism, imperialism, and fundamentalism. For NGOs, having critical and political perspective on these are very important. Through these processes, we can also establish a new theory to explain our actions. These are the uniqueness of NGA and SF.
IPS: Today China is seen as an emerging hegemonic power in Asia. Within that context why do you think that it is important for Chinese women’s movement to be part of networks like NGA and SF?
YF: China is a huge country of 1.3 billion populations and composed of 56 ethnicities, but China is usually represented only as "Han ethnicity" and "Beijing". We need to deconstruct this centrality of Han ethnicity and Beijing-oriented perspective about China. I think one of the ways to deconstruct hegemony and centrality is to connect locals to locals, not based on the concept of nation state. This is why we are forming this new NGA network.