Q&A: Performing Artivism
Q: What was your talk about?
I gave a talk about performing artivism in China. It is about how feminists, lawyers and other activists use performance arts and social media to mobilize and to pursue their activism. We call it “artivism” because it's a combination between art and activism.
Q: Can you give me some examples?
For example, since 2012, feminist activists have organized quite a few what they called “actions” (行动) to support the legislation of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law. They took topless pictures of themselves or wore “bloody” wedding dresses stained in red color. Those pictures were then posted on Weibo and other social media platforms. Some pictures went viral and raised the consciousness of the people about domestic violence problems.
Q: Why are they using this way, not other ways?
In the case of feminists, they were a younger generation of feminists, rising at that time.
The older generation, like professor Wang Zheng, is still at the core of the feminist movements in China. Her generation and some intellectuals in the 40s and 50s are more traditional feminists. They introduced feminist theories and wrote in the traditional, mainstream media.
About seven or eight years ago, we saw this new generation young feminists emerging. At that time most of them were college students. My co-author Wang Di was also a member of this group. She was in college in the late 2000s to early 2010. They started to use entertaining and performative ways to do feminism. I think partly because they were young and confident, but also because they had few resources within the system (体制内). For example, they don’t have access to the traditional media, as they don’t have the discourse of power (话语权). They turned to social media and it also happened that new social media like Weibo was really popular that time. So they took advantage of it. And they used very conspicuous and sometimes even radical means to show the public their causes.
Q: How about the lawyers?
It is a different situation. I don’t think it's because lawyers don't have resources or young. In fact, the lawyer activists are older than the feminists. For example, two lawyers put on their lawyer robes, carry a bag of sweet potatoes, and then march around the courthouse for hours to protest against the judges, adapting the idea from the old Chinese saying “当官不为民做主，不如回家卖红薯” (“If an official does not hold justice for the people, he'd better go home and sell sweet potatoes”). Another lawyer used a hidden poem in his confession in court to protest against the illegalities in the judicial process.
I think the primary reason why lawyers started to use performance art is because they got really frustrated by how the legal system worked. They realized that using the traditional and professional means was not going to work very well, and it never really worked perfectly well. With the rise of social media, they realized there was a new instrument which they could use to challenge the judges, procurators, and the police outside the courthouse, in the public domain, on Weibo and other social media.
Q: So they were trying to get some support from the public?
Absolutely. It was all about getting public attention. I mean for both feminists and lawyers.
My co-author Wang Di and I developed this theoretical framework for explaining the rise of artivism. But very soon we realized that the state was the biggest performer in China. For example, the state has all the propaganda instruments, on all these things we care about, like gender equality and human rights. There are a lot of things going on in the backstage behind their frontstage performance.
I think what the feminists and lawyers were trying to do was really to perform differently from the state's narrative and to present an alternative voice. To be in front of the public, to challenge the state’s official narrative, and hopefully to shape public opinion in the long term. It is almost like using the public opinion as a stage to promote gender equality, anti-domestic violence, legal reform, or even political activism and human rights.
Q: Was it successful at that time?
For two or three years, between 2011 and 2013 or 2014, they were very successful in many cases, in terms of getting attention and getting outcomes. There were a few legal cases, like the Beihai case and the Xiaohe case around 2011-2012. Lawyers put stuff on Weibo and online as the trials went on and generated a lot of pressure on the court. The courts actually changed their behavior and eventually released the defendants.
For the feminist movement, the Anti-domestic Violence Law had been in the making in China since the mid-2000s. But after the young feminists started this kind of radical performance in public, it definitely facilitated the legislation. As a result, the law was finally passed in 2015.
Q: What happened after 2015?
2015 was a big turning point for both movements, the feminist movement and lawyer activism. The “Feminist Five” were detained in March 2015. The same year in July, there was the “709 Crackdown” on activist lawyers. More than 200 lawyers were taken in for questioning or detained. Many of them were released shortly, but some were charged criminally later. Both movements suffered major setbacks in 2015.
The government felt threatened by the growth of the movements. Its biggest fear was that lawyers, feminists, labor activists, all these movements coming together against it. Those movements were parallel developments around the same time but they didn’t interact much. So the state felt the need to crack them down. In Chinese, it is called 杀鸡给猴看 (“To kill the chicken to frighten the monkeys”).
Q: It has been three years since 2015. Does the artivism still exist?
It still exists but it's getting harder to do. It is also getting more creative. For example, after the Feminists Five incident, feminist activists realized that giving out flyers on the subway was probably not going to work anymore. So they tried to buy a billboard in the Guangzhou subway to promote the anti-sexual harassment agenda. But then they ran into all kinds of trouble. They were not allowed to use photos so they designed a cartoon. But their request was still not granted. Eventually they came up with this brilliant idea. One of the activists wore the cartoon image on her shoulders to become a human flesh billboard for anti-sexual harassment. And it was also replicated by other feminists in multiple cities.
Q: Do you think this is going to die out or there will be another different form of artivism?
I don't think it will die out. It is a cat-and-mouse game. You have to play the game with the state constantly and creatively. And there will always be activists who want to play the game. I study Chinese law, and I see the number of activist lawyers over the past 10-15 years keeps going up. One reason is simply demography. China has about 365,000 lawyers now. Every year, there are at least 20,000 to 30,000 new lawyers joining the bar. It is growing really fast. If one percent of them became politically active, that would be 200 or 300 lawyers. Even if half of them got disbarred, then it would still end up with at least 100 new activist lawyers, every year. I'm not too pessimistic given this demographic trend.
There will always be new technology and new ways activists can use. For example, feminists used to use WeChat. Then they realized WeChat was not safe, so they started to use Telegraph, Signal, or some other apps. There are always ways they could get around. But not all these different generations of technologies help mobilization in the same way. I think Weibo, Twitter this kind of public social media platforms have probably been the most powerful ones. Because one post can reach the general public. WeChat is only semi-public, and it is not that effective.
Who knows? Maybe five years from now, we'll have a new generation of even more powerful technologies. It's a big question mark. But as long as we have the people persist in doing feminism or political activism, I’m optimistic for the future.
Q: What you would like people to take away from your talk?
The first is to understand and appreciate the importance of what the activists are doing and why they are doing it. It's very important, especially in the context of China, to have voices outside of the state and voices and performances that are different from those of the state. If the only performance you can see was from the state, that would be a horrible situation. Although the activists are facing so many challenges and difficulties, I really hope that, by doing this research project and giving the talk, we can make more people appreciate what they do. I think they're doing very difficult but important work for China's future.