As part of the Women我們 Series, CCCSF featured a private lecture by queer and feminist activist Li Maizi, who was detained by the Chinese government for a period of time due to her work. This interview was conducted by Victor Liu, CCCSF Research Fellow, after said event.
Victor: Welcome again, thank you so much for coming. I thought it was, it was very good luck that I reached out to that Facebook page and it turned out that you were the one running the Facebook page. I thought it was just run by, like, a random fan or something like that so it was very cool for it to actually be you!
Maizi: Various people and, I think, all five of us sisters -- we all have the rights, there’s more than ten moderators on that page.
Victor: Okay, well it was good luck that you were the one who responded to me then. [laughs]
Maizi: Yeah. Very lucky, I think. [laughs]
Victor: Right. Really lucky, crazy lucky. So, first question. One accusation that Chinese activists face is that they’re “connected to foreign powers,” right? But, of course, Chinese activists have to look internationally, otherwise, the NGOs don’t get any funding.
Maizi: Almost none.
Victor: Exactly. How do you navigate that? On one side, you won’t get any funding if you are associated with foreign powers and, on the other side, the government might crack down on you if you get foreign funding. How do you reconcile these two different considerations?
Maizi: In 2017, if they pass this certain law, these activist organizations are going to have to announce that they are only going to raise money from the public, that they’re going to raise money from selling t-shirts on online shops or from their friends, who donate their money to us. But, underground, there still will be a lot of NGOs who keep receiving foreign funding in the future. It’s just like in other countries! Like Russia, India, Egypt, it’s quite similar.
Victor: How do the underground organizations keep themselves safe, then, if they’re getting this funding illegally?
Maizi: The authorities will handle these matters in the form of selective law enforcement. So, if you’re on the top of the list, they will crack down on you first. But, if your work is not a big threat for the authorities…. Basically, they won’t crack down on all of the NGOs. At the same time, the government has a lot on their plate. They will choose the organizations that are likely to achieve more. They will value those more. Is it more worth it to crack this, or crack that?
Victor: I see. So the NGOs at the top of that list.
Maizi: Some of them. This year is okay, because the law isn’t in employment yet. Before 2017, it will be okay. But next year, who knows? But you can act in ways to go around the law. You can’t always be sensitive to these political pressures. So just ignore them. After all, it doesn’t depend on what we do – whether or not a crackdown happens – it’s dependent on the authorities.
Victor: So what you’re saying is that there’s really no way for a Chinese NGO to keep itself safe.
Maizi: There is really no avoiding illegal activity. A lot of NGOs do self-censor to minimize the risk, though.
Victor: Okay, so they hide their own activities so they don’t compromise their safety.
Maizi: You know, in the U.S., there’s this organization called Yes Man. Do you know Yes Man? They are American activists and they do a lot of hoaxes. For example, they participate in high-level company meetings and they pretend they are experts on business. We do similar things. For example, a big company once polluted a lot of water, and the citizens who lived there, they got sick, so we needed to ask them to give the citizens money and the residents money. So, we posted a fake New York Times and said that this company promised to pay the money to the residents.
Victor: So you’re saying that it’s okay for the end to justify the means?
Maizi: Of course! We should take the results into consideration. Whatever benefits Zhao Wei most. We shouldn’t forget that. But, in the end, we are advocating for people, so we should do whatever is most beneficial for these people in detention, not for the civil society movement.
Victor: Your activist group, you innovated within China a kind of a kind of activism that is very artistic and performative and visual, such as your bloody wedding gown intervention. I was wondering where you got the idea to hold artistic interventions for activistic purposes, methods which didn’t exactly exist in China beforehand. What was your inspiration? What kind of artists did you look to for reference? Why do you think the arts are important to social critique?
Maizi: It’s very easy, actually, we copied Bloody Bride from Turkey. In Turkey, they had the same art performance, but it was more like a march. More than just three people on the street. But in China, we made it our own! If you gather a lot of people for a public demonstration, it will be very sensitive for the government, so we had only three participants, including me. So, in this Bloody Bride project, we emphasized intimate partner violence in communities, including domestic violence in same-sex partners.
I think this action became our most popular one, actually. We wore bloody wedding dresses, and these dresses were very attractive to the general public, you know? Rather than Occupy Men’s Rooms – toilets weren’t very popular.
Victor: It’s because a toilet is a closed space.
Maizi: Yeah, and it’s not very clean, it’s not very beautiful. But when you’re wearing a wedding dress in the street, even though it’s bloody, it’s a spectacle.
Victor: Right, it’s something that makes for a good thumbnail for a news article and spreads easily online, for example.
Maizi: It was very successful one, but not very effective. The most effective art performance was Occupy Men’s Room. After that, a lot of cities, they changed their gender ratio for toilets so women could have more space. In Beijing, if you need to build a new toilet in a public space, the gender ratio has to be two-to-one now, women-to-men. This was our exact request, so we were very effective. Besides the art performance itself, we wrote letters and we used traditional media outlets to push the authorities to take this action. As for domestic violence, China also passed anti-domestic violence laws.
Victor: So you don’t think that Bloody Bride was a critical to getting these passed?
Maizi: No, I think it was just part of it.
Victor: So, my next question – in China, there’s a lot of media censorship. A lot of American LGBTQ+ rights’ progress is attributed to media representation and airtime, for example, during the AIDS crisis and the intense media coverage that ensued in the 90’s because many celebrities took to it as their pet issue. How do you navigate media censorship and try to achieve these similar successes as the American movement, LGBTQ+ rights and beyond?
Maizi: The Chinese market and the economy – these don’t get a lot of monitoring by the government. They just like money. So if you give them money, they will like us. Our NGOs are like customers, and people don’t care who exactly the customers are. A lot of NGOs actually register as companies, doing “cultural consulting.” In this way, we call our actions “advertisement,” and say that the company is just trying to promote a certain culture through these advertisements. We just then send contracts or set up a contractual relationship – like, you just serve me, and I give you the money. As an “advertiser,” the only constraint is that you have to avoid certain words, like “逼 (bi)”, which means “vagina,” or other sensitive words, otherwise, it’s okay. Moving forward, this is a good method to find cooperation and logistical support for our movements.
Victor: Can you speak a little bit about what happened to the other people who were in the Feminist Five -- if they’re continuing activism work after their detention? If they’re staying quiet, if they’re speaking out, and how your life looks after incarceration?
Maizi: All of us five are under a lot of pressure. This kind of pressure comes not only from the police and from the monitoring and the surveillance, but from the detention itself, too, since it happened just very recently. You have to comfort yourself that this kind of thing won’t happen again, but that’s not necessarily true. You’ll never know. Maybe someday, the same thing will happen to you again. It’s a feeling of there being no safety in your country because, everywhere, they’re monitoring your phone calls, monitoring your WeChat, and more.
Victor: What brings you to the United States? What made you want to travel here?
Maizi: Just for a temporary visit. The first destination was Montreal. I spent three weeks there, and then I traveled to New York because it was very close. It was only a one hour fight. It just felt like traveling to the U.S.
Victor: What did you think of New York? You went to Pride, right? What did you think of New York?
Maizi: I love New York. Maybe because there’s a lot of LGBT community there. In Montreal, they don’t have a lot of people, and I grew up in Beijing, where there’s always a lot of people. Pride lasted more than six hours. It was a long march. I was just observing on the street, topless. [laughs] I got a lot of gifts, like sunglasses, like wristbands.
Victor: Do you know much about the criticisms about Pride?
Maizi: No idea! What about it?
Victor: I’m actually a pretty big critic of Pride myself. It represents largely wealthy, white, male interests – very mainstream interests – and ignores other communities. In San Francisco Pride this year, the theme was “Racial and Economic Justice” in order to try to address these issues and conform to the current political climate that is responding to these issues. Then there was the Pulse Orlando shooting, which caused Pride officials to increase the presence of police in Pride, which upsetted a lot of the groups that actually advocated for racial and economic justice and caused them to drop out. Like #BlackLivesMatter and the Transgender Law Center. So the theme rang very hollow. I really support the groups who boycotted Pride for that, since Pride was being very selfish and acting based on its economically and racially privileged agenda.
Maizi: It’s more about differing attitudes, I think, like, “This is my attitude. If you want more police, then I quit.” A good or bad one? It’s hard to say. Because if you choose to quit, you can’t show what you want to say. You can’t organize another Pride. It’s impossible, because that Pride is already so big! In China, we boycotted Micro Weibo, but we still use Micro Weibo! You can’t drop that, it’s a very important platform.
Victor: Well, for Pride, it’s not so much an important platform anymore, since it’s just one big, gay, white, rich party. If you have a political agenda, it’s not necessary to use Pride as a platform. Normally, I don’t even go. This was the first time I went – I don’t like how apolitical it is and how hollow its political gestures are.
Maizi: I think that’s a problem, how most of the people there are white and rich. And there are a lot of companies there.
Victor: Yes, mostly big banks.
Maizi: Before the Pride parade, we had Dyke March.
Victor: Oh, I love Dyke March! Dyke March is very radical and inclusive. I went to San Francisco’s Dyke March, and it was very inspiring to me, but I was really disappointed in the turnout. Pride overshadows it.
Maizi: It’s a common issue, even in China. We use events to show how the community is made of healthy and positive role-models, but most of the people, they are gay men, guys with lots of muscles and high-paying jobs. But social movements are just like that! If you want to allow more of the general public to recognize you, you need to be more mainstream. Because the general public, they aren’t the community. They don’t want to know your politics, they just want to say, “Oh, these people are my friends.” For the general public, they don’t have to be very familiar with the issues. And now, with regard to same-sex marriage, we now have 30% of the Beijing population as supporters!
When an issue is popular enough, people will try to appeal to it for their own advantage. Hillary and Trump, they all state support for LGBT issues, such as gay marriage. Even though Trump might say something bad about the LGBT community, he wouldn’t say, for example, that he’s against gay marriage.
Victor: I actually wanted to ask you about Hillary Clinton. I don’t like Clinton at all, and many American radical political activists don’t like her. However, I’ve heard and I’ve seen a lot of Chinese feminists speak very highly of her. I was wondering if you could talk about why that is and maybe about your own personal viewpoint on her.
Maizi: I think it depends on what kind of standards you have. I used to talk about this issue with Eve Ensler of the Vagina Monologues. Eve Ensler said that they used to be good friends, Hillary and Eve, but Hillary supported the war! And if there’s war, nearly all of the victims are women and children. That’s a problem. I think Hillary is more of a politician. Sometimes, she can’t make the decision on her own behalf, she has to value the interests of the liberal party. If she doesn’t become the president, she might have more freedom to act, but now, as a politician, she doesn’t have much choice. Of course, it doesn’t mean she can be forgiven.
About the relationship between China and the U.S. -- it’s quite different. Sometimes we need the U.S. government to make statements for us, especially advocating for the people and for human rights. From this perspective, I should thank her, because she tweeted twice on Twitter to support us detained feminists. So I’m grateful. It’s very hard because we’re vulnerable people and we don’t have a lot of choice. But you, you’re a citizen of the States; you can review your choices and give up the vote – like, “Oh, Trump and Hillary, both terrible.
Also, in 1995, at the World Women’s Conference in Beijing, she made a presentation. At that time, she emphasized, “Human rights are women’s rights, women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” That was very inspirational for Chinese feminists, and it increased the development of gender equality movements and rights in China. It became more like a sisterhood.
Victor: Do you know about the Stonewall Riots? It’s often forgotten that Black and Latina trans women actually started the modern LGBT rights movement by instigating Stonewall. Now, the LGBT movement in America is very whitewashed and mostly cisgender gay men. I was wondering, in China, if transgender rights have been marginalized in this same way. How are trans people treated, and what is trans activism like in China?
Maizi: These transgender issues, I think they’re similar to those in the U.S. The transgender community is not very politically strong, they’re more vulnerable than other LGBT communities. There are studies that indicate that they are not usually well-educated, that their parents evict them from their homes when they are young, many of them are sex workers—
Victor: Right, many trans people in America only have sex work as an option because they are discriminated from being hired for other jobs.
Maizi: Some of them just live in the closet. If they have safe spaces, they might be able to work as drag queens. But there’s a paradox. Who can lead the transgender movement? It must be the transgender people! It’s not the lesbians or gays. It’s not about sexual orientation, it’s about gender identity. The transgender people should lead this movement, and we can give them some tactics and strategies and support. I used to push the issue of accessibility to medical treatment for transgender people -- for example, the hormones they use right now are not very good quality. I think we can help advocate on these aspects to ask the government to provide transgender people with good medical treatment, but, then, I find the problem is that, transgender people… Maybe it’s because I just know a small number of them, but it’s very hard to find suitable people who have the strong willingness to do this! I think there’s a lot of space for advocating transgender issues in China, but it must have some transgender people from the community to lead. It’s just like other social movements. If you work on racial justice, the African-American people lead this movement. If you work on women’s issues, women are the leadership. First of all, we need to deal with the leadership problem in the transgender community.
Victor: Why haven’t transgender leaders emerged? How do you think you can help trans leaders emerge?
Maizi: There are some historical issues and factors. Because they haven’t been well-educated, they have to struggle to make a living for themselves. It’s not like the gay people, for example – gay men, can procure higher-level positions in a company or in the government because they can hide their sexual orientation, and they can donate money to the movement. Transgender people are more vulnerable.
It’s not easy, since every NGO has their own goals. If they have their own goals, they don’t have the motivation to care about other issues. The Beijing LGBT Center now has a Transgender Hotline. But the Beijing LGBT Center, they have so many different programs that they don’t have a lot of time to spend on just transgender issues.
We did just have the first transgender employment rights case in China -- this person, he is a transgender man. We advocate for transgender people through legal counsel, but it’s all just by chance, as we only happened to receive this case.
Victor: The Feminist Five’s detention really put Chinese feminism on the map and made it internationally recognized. How does it affect the entire movement to be subject to this popularity, and how do you and your colleagues take advantage of this reputation for new opportunities?
Maizi: Feminism in China became popular just because the government detained us – it suddenly became much more of a pressing political issue. They detained me for protesting against sexual harassment, so people all around were asking, “Does that mean the government supports sexual harassment?” Also, it was very shocking for people that we got detained, because all we were doing was protesting sexual harassment! At that time, the government was under a lot of pressure, a lot of public attention, since they didn’t have a reasonable excuse to arrest us or keep us in detention. It was very difficult for them. They wouldn’t admit that they were wrong, so they kept us. But if they didn’t release us, it would become more and more internationally-known, not only by organizations in the U.S. and U.K and South Korea, but also developing countries.
Because we are now well-known by international organizations, we are able to have more communication with them. This experience is not only suitable for China, but also suitable for other countries’ sake. You can do things the same way – like Occupy Mens’ Room or Bloody Bride. We can replicate these effective demonstrations in different countries. It’s very easy These tactics can be used in different countries for different issues. It’s a wealth for the entire movement. They start to know more about the Chinese women’s movement, and we start to engage and get involved in international campaigns. This kind of connection is very important.
Victor: What international campaigns have you been involved in since detention?
Maizi: The Stanford rape case. We supported the victim, that was one thing. Another thing, there was a South Korean woman who was working on gender equality issues and supported us when we got detained. The security department in Seoul, South Korea, accused her of disturbing the public order, so she campaigned with the Chinese Embassy based in Seoul. This woman, she had to go into trial, and, in the trial, the court rejected the request from the security department, so my friend was not guilty. That was great news. Now, they appealed, so we are waiting for the results. I wrote a letter and emailed her to support her, to support her work in South Korea.
Victor: Could you clarify a little about what you’re doing right now, like which organization you work for? What’s the name of it, what they’re involved in now, and what they might be involved with in the future?
Maizi: No. [laughs] I can’t talk about that.
Victor: Because it’s sensitive information? [laughs] Even though you said no, it’s still a very interesting answer to me. It just reminds me about how it’s a privilege to even be openly talking about these political issues. Yeah, you don’t have to say anything.
Maizi: So, my work is mostly focused on women’s issues and LGBT issues now, and I also own and operate an online shop.
Victor: For the NGO?
Maizi: No, for myself. [laughs] This is my generic answer.
Victor: Could you just say a couple words on what you thought about the experience of coming to CCC, and how you enjoyed it?
Maizi: It was a very amazing experience. You sent me that link, I contacted you, and then we had that lunch and that talk. It was great. I’m not really familiar with the Chinese Culture Center, but I think you’re all very friendly. I’m very lucky. In San Francisco, working on Chinese issues and letting people know more about China – through your exhibition – I feel like it is very meaningful. It’s important to let foreigners know.
Victor: Thank you so much for speaking with me.