Monday saw China roiled by a rare phenomenon – a student protest à la Femen, the Ukrainian feminist protest group. The six topless protesters at the University of Guangdong wielded signs demanding gender equality, and asserting that Chinese women were treated poorly in comparison to their male counterparts in the workplace.
The rally’s methods are not without precedent – Chinese women’s rights activist Ai Xiaoming posted a topless picture on her Facebook page last year in solidarity with a fellow activist who had been detained by authorities. But in a county where feminist movements are often marginalized, the topless rally is surprising for its unabashedly public nature. Indeed, it looks to mark the easternmost movement to mirror Femen, whose topless rallies have been held – with varying success – across Europe and in a few Middle Eastern nations.
The demonstration’s timing is unfortunate for the country’s leadership in Beijing, coinciding as it does with the biggest worker’s strike in recent history, which entered its second week on Monday. Thousands of employees at a major factory, which produces shoes for major global brands like Nike and Adidas, are protesting working conditions and inadequate benefits. Both events follow a year of perceptible rumblings, largely concentrated in China’s urban centers where young, middle class populations are frustrated with President Xi’s failure to enact promised reforms, not to mention his government’s lack of transparency about the country’s pollution problem and stalling unemployment amidst an economic slowdown.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Unemployment in China
Xi is responding – kind of. The Chinese leader has launched an aggressive campaign to root out corruption within his government, but has accorded little more than an superficial outreach to his young constituents, i.e., an orchestrated stroll though Beijing’s smog-filled streets this February and similar attempts to normalize the president’s image. But little has changed in the government’s lackluster approach to air pollution; as for employment prospects, Chinese media estimate that some eight million students remain out of work. Even less attention has been granted the country’s gender inequalities.
With the government ignoring them, little wonder Chinese students are resorting to flashy, if dubiously effective, tactics. Photos of the topless demonstration at the University of Guangdong went viral Monday on Weibo, China’s vast blogging platform, reportedly spreading too fast for the network’s renowned government censors. So while China’s shoe strikers may be making the most noise, the Guangdong group looks to be getting the most publicity — for now. It remains to be seen if the media-hungry Femen, whose influence has been on the wane in recent months, will move to appropriate the Asian protest movement.