Hongwei Bao argues that rather than seeing the pandemic as an obstacle to social movements, it can be a good opportunity to experiment with flexible and creative modes of social and political activism. This piece is a shortened version of a paper in the Interface Journal.
From January to April, many Chinese cities including Wuhan were locked down in a state of emergency. The lockdowns triggered and exacerbated domestic violence against women. To address the issue, some feminist activists in China connected with each other and formed support groups for women online. One such group was led by Guo Jing, a 29-year-old feminist activist and social worker based in Wuhan. They launched an activist campaign called ‘Anti-Domestic Violence Little Vaccine’ to raise public awareness.
‘Anti-Domestic Violence Little Vaccine’
Guo Jing is a resident of Wuhan. All quotes in this post are from her diary written during the lockdown, later published as a book entitled Diary of the Wuhan Lockdown. In 2014, she was involved in China’s first lawsuit regarding gender discrimination in employment and subsequently won the lawsuit against the employer. Inspired by the success, Guo set up a legal aid helpline for women facing gender discrimination in the workplace.
While in quarantine in Wuhan, for seventy-seven days in a small flat, she communicated regularly with her feminist friends online. At the same time, she kept a diary on her social media; she also ran a legal aid helpline and answered questions from callers every evening during the lockdown. The public nature and the realist and activist style of the diary makes it an important document for the pandemic and the social movements during the pandemic.
At the beginning, Guo and her feminist friends felt vulnerable and helpless, as the situation in Wuhan went out of control and the infection rate and death toll rose dramatically. However, after a few days, they decided to set up a feminist activist WeChat (a Chinese-language social media) support group, talking through voice and video chat for a couple of hours every evening, encouraging and supporting each other along the way. In these chats, the group examined the lockdown from feminist perspectives, discussed ways of engaging with social issues, and explored possible strategies to ‘help individuals overcome a sense of vulnerability’, especially for young women like themselves.
In their discussions, they realised that the epidemic was exacerbating sexual discrimination and domestic violence against women. Trapped in a confined physical space for an extended period of time, many men were venting their pent-up frustrations on use their family members.
To raise public awareness of the issue, Guo organised an online workshop and, in collaboration with the Rural Women Development Foundation Guangdong, launched an ‘Anti-Domestic Violence Little Vaccine’ campaign. The group published an open letter online, calling for an end to domestic violence and encouraged people to copy or print out the letter and post it in public spaces. The response was overwhelming: ‘In just a few hours, several thousand people volunteered to become “little vaccines” [meaning volunteers].’ Many people came up with creative ways for public advocacy. Guo recorded in her diary:
Since the start of the campaign, many people have posted the open letter in their own neighbourhoods. Some have even redesigned the open letter and made it into a beautiful poster. Some dialled the telephone number of the Women’s Rights Hotline run by the All-China Women’s Federation to make sure that the hotline is in operation. Others shared their own experience of falling victim to domestic violence.
To date, the campaign’s social media account on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of twitter) attracted 8,270,000 views and 777 readers’ comments, expressing support for the campaign and documenting their own actions. A participant wrote: ‘We should all become active spectators and refuse to remain silent when seeing domestic violence around us!’
Designing campaign strategies
The strategies used in the ‘Anti-Domestic Violence Little Vaccine’ campaign are open, flexible and context specific. The first question for the activists to address was to ensure the safety of a campaign and its participants. Feminist activism is a politically sensitive issue in the PRC (People’s Republic of China) since the arrest of the ‘Feminist Five’ – five young feminist activists who planned to distribute anti-sexual harassment leaflets on public transport on International Women’s Day in 2015. Despite this, the language of ‘anti-domestic violence’ has legitimacy in the PRC’s public discourse. China’s legislative body passed its own anti-domestic violence law in 2015. It is, therefore, possible to address the issue of domestic violence without explicitly talking about ‘feminist activism’.
The design of the campaign logo and slogan speaks effectively to a target audience – primarily young people in urban China – without making the campaign sound explicitly political. At the centre of the campaign logo is the standing cartoon figure of a green-coloured cat dressed in a short skirt, wearing a surgical mask, holding a huge syringe with one hand/paw, and pushing the top of the syringe with the other. A gentle shot of green liquid, resembling a green grass shoot in shape, appears on the tip of the needle.
The image manifests an aesthetics of kawaii (‘cuteness’ in Japanese) and xiaoqingxin (‘little freshness’ in Mandarin Chinese) popular among urban youth in East Asia. It appears non-militant and non-threatening. The words on the left-hand side of the picture read: ‘antidomestic violence little vaccine’; and on the right hand-side, ‘caring for each other in the lockdown’. This slogan taps into a culture of solidarity and mutual care in the epidemic. The term ‘little vaccine’ also speaks to the epidemic condition in which ‘vaccines’ are welcome and needed.
Most importantly, the campaign organisers have not called themselves and the participants ‘feminists’ or ‘activists’. This is an example of a type of politics based on specific social issues (i.e. anti-domestic violence) instead of political identities. The campaign has therefore attracted some male participants and even garnered support from some participants’ parents. By focusing on specific issues, activist campaigns become more inclusive and are therefore likely to have a greater social impact.
The ‘Anti-Domestic Violence Little Vaccine’ activist campaign offers a good example for social movements in a time of crisis and a ‘state of emergency’.
Social movements addressing problems such as domestic violence in the pandemic are able to garner support from people and invite wide participation in society. Although the quarantine measures have made public gatherings and physical contacts between people difficult, the Internet and social media have facilitated social mobilisation and political activism in significant ways. The collective spirit and emotional intensity generated in a time of crisis can be mobilised for activist purposes, and their impacts are likely to be greater now than in ordinary times.
This case study has also highlighted the need to develop culturally sensitive and context specific activist strategies in social movements. Chinese feminists’ issue-based and coalition-building politics – together with their nuanced understanding of the public space in China as well as their strategic use of East Asian popular culture – has contributed to the popularity and success of this campaign among young people during the lockdown.
Departing from an adversarial, confrontational, and even hyper visible types of politics characterising many activist experiences in the Global North, people in China and other parts of the Global South are working their way through political constraints in their own societies; they are experimenting with innovative activist strategies based on specific local conditions and contingent social circumstances. These activist strategies should not be seen as a compromise to a political a priori, but as creative ways of reshaping and reinvigorating political activism and social movements transnationally.
Hongwei Bao is an Associate Professor in Media Studies at the University of Nottingham, UK.