6 March 2018
By Li Maizi, activist for gender equality and sexuality. Proofreader: Wang Simei

With the rise of overseas study fever, the number of Chinese students around the world is considerable. According to the United States Government's "2017 Open Door Report," the number of Chinese students enrolled in higher education institutions in the United States increased to 357.55 million in the 2016-2017 academic year, an increase of 6.8% over the previous academic year. The number of Chinese students studying in the United States tops the list for the eighth consecutive year in all countries accounting for 32.5% of the all international students in the United States. According to the BBC, Chinese citizens have already became the largest group of overseas students in Britain - there are 155,000 Chinese students in Britain.

The number of Chinese overseas students is huge, but their awareness of gender inequality is rather lacking. Many cases of sexual violence in the international student population are attributed to the absence of education on gender equality and the lack of gender-sensitive social environments.

Political apathy: Chinese students and the western perspective of gender equality

Due to the special political and language system in China, Chinese students have received a political education considerably different from western education. Most Chinese students are cultivated to develop political apathy, and do not actively campaign about about civil social issues. Most of them are taught that financial success is the ultimate aim of their education. Therefore, the vast majority of Chinese students who study abroad and major in business in commercial schools do not feel the need to concentrate on social issues, or have any motivation to learn about social movements and civil societies.

Chinese students and blindness to gender equality issues

The closed culture many Chinese international students live within restricts the spread of the concept of gender equality. The lack of gender education in China has left most Chinese students maintaining traditional, and often sexist, concepts of gender. Female students are still marginalized because of their gender. On one hand, they left their homeland and left the supportive environment created by their relatives and friends. They also live in a closed overseas Chinese-student circle. These dual vulnerabilities lead to the cross-vulnerability of female students. This is why, even in foreign countries, sexual violence against Chinese female students is frequent, and normally, the perpetrators are Chinese male students. This also highlights the necessity and urgency of establishing a gender-aware feminist community abroad.

How to mobilize Chinese students to join overseas feminist movements

I set up a London-based feminist group in England in September 2017. Our main activity has been to play "The Vagina," a pioneering feminist drama. The members are mainly female students and a handful of men who support feminism, and non-Chinese people who care about feminism in China. In addition, we hold gender equality workshops regularly, such as a campaign to support #MeToo, and a candlelight commemoration of the Jiang Ge murder case.

Mobilizing female overseas students must include building social networks, disseminating gender concepts and conducting education on gender equality. Through the establishment of communities, female students can support each other. When they are oppressed by gender stereotypes, they can help each other.

There are misconceptions related to the idea that women lack the motivation for being a leader, which is related to China’s social and domestic education. There is a need to mobilize female students, to highlight the power of examples and the need to provide a supportive environment that will allow them to grow gradually into leaders. Just as the Chinese-American black activist Chen Yuping (Grace Chen) said, ‘only when you shoulder the responsibility of treating yourself as part of a change, can the change then happen.’

In China, female students are frequently victimized by the mainstream media and treated as physical and sexual objects. In many cases, female students are portrayed as victims of sexual violence, often scare-mongering and restricting women's night-time movements. We can witness this stark reality when the media vied to reveal the information of the victims of the gang rape case of Li Tianyi and other men.

‘The Vagina’: The importance of feminist drama

The drama 'The Vagina' is performed in the United Kingdom, but the drama still mainly covers the Chinese community, especially the female student community. It conveys the reality of gender discrimination in China, as well as how feminists and mainstream society regard the issue of women's rights from unique perspectives, including on the health of women, an important social issue that has long been neglected by mainstream Chinese society. The script includes addressing the woman's body in a positive and healthy manner, humorously resisting so-called slut-shaming and reflecting on rape culture.

Feminist drama is a very good way of empowering women. Emphasizing the subjectivity of female students not only highlights the fact that women can demand the right to speak, and have the right to start a sexual discourse. Female students are opposed to shaming girls and gender-based violence, and we are opposed to stigmatizing women's sexuality. This is very important in the context of China. Women are the main force of the feminist movement. This is beyond doubt.

About author

Li Tingting (Chinese: 李婷婷), aka Li Maizi (Chinese: 李麦子), is an activist for gender equality and sexuality. She was detained by police for 37 days from the eve of International Women's Day in 2015, along with four other activists, for protesting sexual harassment on public transport. She has been the Beijing-based manager of the LGBT program at the Beijing Yirenping (益仁平)Center. She has led many of the group's campaigns related to anti-discrimination, domestic violence, and biased policies towards women in higher education and employment. In 2012, she organized the "Occupy Men's Toilets" campaign in Beijing and Guangzhou to highlight the need for more women's public restrooms. The campaign was lauded as a success in the state-run China Daily, and some of her other campaigns, including raising awareness of domestic violence and LGBT issues, have been profiled in state media. She is recognised as one of the Foreign Policy one hundred global-thinkers in 2015, one of the BBC 100 women in 2015 and one of the five Chinese Feminists listed in "MS. Magazine Ten Most Inspiring Feminists of 2015". She was also short-listed for Trust Women Hero Award in 2015. She is now doing her Masters in Theory and Practice of Human Rights at the University of Essex.