The women of the Chinese internet remain defiant

Protest poster of five women Image copyright Badiucao/ China Digital Times
Image caption This image of the five women arrested in China was one of the most widely tweeted outside the country

Despite the arrest and continued interrogation of China's most prominent online feminists, women in the country are continuing to protest against sexism using the internet.

All over the world, feminist political statements are a staple of social media. Consider attention-grabbing pictures of wedding dresses soaked in blood, to protest against domestic violence. Or the male toilets occupied by women - designed to highlight the lack of female facilities. Like many such actions, those protests were designed by savvy activists to get millions of clicks.

But one thing sets these particular examples apart: they were launched on the strictly controlled Chinese internet.

Despite widespread censorship of social media, until recently feminist discussion seemed mostly permitted online in the communist country whose founder Chairman Mao once said that "women hold up half the sky".

But last month, on International Women's Day, the women behind these online protests were arrested, beginning an ordeal of detention and interrogation that led one of them, Wu Rongrong, to post the following words on WeChat earlier this week: "my spirit is on the verge of collapse."

As well as Wu, age 30, the group (dubbed the "Feminist Five") included Li Tingting, age 25; Wei Tingting, age 26; Wang Man, age 33 and Zheng Churan, age 25. They were arrested on charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," but haven't yet been prosecuted. Two weeks ago they were released on bail - which means they could be re-interrogated, as Wu has recently been, or detained again.

So does that mean that feminism has now made it onto the list of "sensitive" or proscribed topics suppressed behind China's so-called "Great Firewall"?

After the arrests, the Chinese internet suddenly seemed to go silent on women's issues. "You have to understand these five are not just five, they represent a whole cohort of young feminist activists," says Professor Wang Zheng, a historian of Chinese feminism at the University of Michigan. "So when the five were detained all the others went underground." Women's rights activists, she says, have not been detained in China since 1913.

Image copyright @kena689/Twitter
Image caption After the Chinese feminists were arrested, hashtags of solidarity began to trend

Still, feminists inside China continued to communicate with activists outside - and outside the country, Chinese feminism trended as never before. A global solidarity moment saw hundreds of thousands of tweets (including one from Hillary Clinton) and several Facebook groups being set up.

Image copyright Hillary Clinton

And when the "Feminist Five" were released, the women's rights topics also made a comeback on Chinese social media.

The first and most provocative thing to go viral was a picture of a sign, apparently spotted at a government office in the Xicheng district of Beijing, which read: "Being a good housewife and a good mother are a woman's greatest skills. Why must you exhaust everything to take jobs from men?" It drew tens of thousands of shares and comments from angry women.

Professor Wang Zheng thinks the arrest of the five women actually backfired - creating even more interest in online feminism in China. "The detention enhanced public awareness," she says.

But what makes Chinese women bold enough to continue to post about women's rights, despite the high-profile arrests?

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption During the detention of the activists Chinese women posted pictures of support

The way the arrests are being talked about in state media provides one clue. "Protecting women's rights doesn't mean protesting without approval," was how the official Global Times wrote about the issue.

Meaning, in other words, that their feminist views weren't the whole reason the five were arrested. Rather, the fact that they could mobilise actual protests and set up non-governmental organisations worried the authorities.

Journalists, civil society organisers and others have been jailed in China under Xi Jinping, part of what some see as a crackdown on civil society generally. Feminism is one small part of this wider picture. The authorities "see that grassroots feminists are capable of networking across the country," says Jinyan Zeng, a feminist scholar at Hong Kong University. "They probably think they could be another source of social instability."

Despite that, feminism has continued to trend online in China in recent days - and the "Feminist Five" are reaching out to the many people abroad who supported them. "OMG! finally can meet you all here," one of them, Wei Tingting, posted on Facebook after being released. "Feminist[s] will never die! thanks all SO much!"

Additional reporting by Vincent Ni and Gemma Newby

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