Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate
By Wu Rongrong, published: April 27, 2015
Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘), though released along with the four other feminist activists on April 13, was subjected to grueling, humiliating interrogations on April 23rd and 24th. Don’t let the CCP machine destroy the very best of China. – The Editor
Fate and chance made me a social worker and a feminist: gentle and timid in appearance, but a staunch defender of women’s rights.
After four years of college social work studies and volunteer experience, I set off on a path of social advocacy
At college, I majored in social work. I fell in love with the ideas, values and curriculum of that major, its concern for society’s most vulnerable groups and its quest for fairness and justice. My Alma mater, China Women’s University (中华女子学院), was papered with images of heroic women who had been tireless campaigners for women’s rights. During my college years, apart from studying the book, I spent a lot of time volunteering at various public interest NGOs. I spent nearly two years as a volunteer at the China Children’s Press and Publication Group’s “Heart-to-Heart Hotline,” and nearly four years as a volunteer at the New Path Foundation’s Big Brother/Big Sister Program, where I served until I moved back to Hangzhou. In addition, I did a variety of volunteer work for other NGOs, pitching in for periods of days or weeks.
In the second half of my senior year at college, a friend who had opened up a bookstore couldn’t believe that I managed to be so actively involved in various kinds of social work while I was still bunking with roommates in a tiny, less than 8-meter-square, 600-yuan-per-month [then about $75 US dollars] apartment near Tsinghua University. But my material needs were few, and I realized that what made me happiest was using what I’d learned to do something of value to society.
In addition to my volunteer work during those years, I also did some personal advocacy, speaking up for the legitimate rights of many disadvantaged people. For example, when I heard about a female student who had been infected with HIV and was being pressured by her college to drop out, I took action at my own college—telling my friends, classmates and roommates to tell their friends and classmates about the young woman’s predicament, in the hope of drawing societal attention to the fact that she and other HIV-positive individuals have a legitimate right to an education. I was involved in many such efforts.
As a young student striving for academic success, I applied for scholarships and grants that required me to obtain certain certifications from officials of my home village. These officials frequently took advantage of the situation to sexually harass me or make me clean their houses for free. As a young student in that sort of environment, I had no advocate or supporter to turn to. Had I tried to speak up for myself, it would have resulted in humiliating gossip and innuendo and made me unable to show my face in the village.
In 2005, instead of returning to my hometown for Chinese New Year, I decided to stay in Beijing and find work. When I found myself in a car headed for Shunyi [a district in the far northeastern corner of Beijing] with a man who had posed as an employer to lure me there, I began to understand just how helpless I was—a weak and feeble woman versus a large and powerful man. Fortunately, thanks to some quick thinking on my part, I managed to call for reinforcements and get away. Like me, all of my female friends encountered harassment when looking for full-time or part-time work. As eighteen- or nineteen-year-old girls, all we could think of was buying a fruit knife for self-defense.
I am interested in public service, not only because of my vocation, but also because of a beautiful misunderstanding. While in college, en I entered university, a physical exam revealed that I was a “healthy carrier” of hepatitis B. Growing up in a small mountain village in Luliangshan (山西吕梁山), I had never heard of such a thing, but the doctor at the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital [in Beijing] told me not to worry, I could be 28 years old before I got sick. I took this to mean that I had only 10 more years to live, so from then on, I made a habit of trying to live each day to the fullest, and make sure each day was meaningful.
Why I stood up for Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) and spoke out against sexual harassment— courage and conviction in the struggle for women’s rights
As a child, I grew up in an extremely patriarchal environment where girls were regarded worthless. Too many times, I witnessed promising young girls from our village forced to abandon their studies and go to work to support their brothers’ educations. My close friend and neighbor, who was one of four children, was only thirteen years old when she left school and started working. After a large portion of her body was burned in an explosion of a fireworks factory, she eventually got married to a very elderly man. As the daughter of a poor family, my quest for an education was hampered not only by severe economic hardship, but also by well-meaning people who tried to dissuade me from continuing my education.
In 2009, when a young sauna employee named Deng Yujiao used a fruit knife to stab to death a government official who had been sexually harassing her, it made me think of the harassment that many of my female classmates and I had experienced. To show our support for Deng Yujiao, a younger female classmate and I put on a work of performance art called “Deng Yujiao could be any one of us.” Although that was over six years ago, during my recent detention the interrogators asked me about that performance repeatedly, and kept demanding to know who or what was behind it. I told them exactly what I’ve described above, and while I don’t know if my explanation elicited any compassion from them, I hope that it did, at least from those with daughters of their own at home. I’m not some mastermind conspirator working behind the scenes to disturb the social order; I just want to call attention to the plight of women facing sexual harassment, and call for more public measures to punish and deter perpetrators.
Don’t cry, friends—you’re not alone
The reason my fellow feminists and I were detained was because of our planned campaign [to distribute stickers with anti-sexual harassment slogans] on March 8, International Women’s Day. But in fact, by March 6, we had already made separate promises to local police not to go forward with the event, and had even submitted our stickers and printed materials to the authorities. The original intention was simply to bring the community together to oppose sexual harassment, and to extend loving support to women who had experienced sexual harassment. Time and again, I’ve blamed myself…blamed myself for getting my fellow feminists detained. I wonder if they, like me, are being treated as political prisoners. Just thinking about it makes me even more upset. Every time I think about it, I worry that they’ll hate me for it.
Several of my fellow feminists were detained a day before I was. Some people, not understanding the situation, asked why I didn’t try to hide. The thought did occur to me, but only for a moment, and then I pushed it aside. I told some of my younger friends, the ones who hadn’t been detained, that I was going to go back to Hangzhou to explain the situation [to the authorities]. I naively thought that if [the authorities] had me in hand, other friends with minimal involvement in the campaign would be released. I naively thought that keeping my friends company would make them safer than if I went into hiding, so I made up my mind and boarded a flight to Hangzhou.
Big Rabbit [Zheng Churan’s nickname] and I were interrogated separately but on the same floor in the evenings. Twice I heard her crying. I worried whether she had a vicious interrogator, or whether she was under too much pressure or suffering too much. At the time, I stopped and strained to hear what was happening in her room. Every day I prayed that my younger friends wouldn’t lose hope, that they wouldn’t feel alone. Sometimes we saw each other, and I wished I could tell them I’m here, I’m staying strong, and just knowing that we’re not suffering alone makes it easier to bear.
Making the best of a bad situation: my creative life in detention
My beauty regime: Of the 38 days in detention, I spent 19 days in a public security bureau hospital. 19 days, that’s all it took to transform my usual sallow complexion into a beautiful rosy glow. The secret was the leftover congee [rice gruel], which I would stir and stir (of course, as I stirred, I thought of my adorable little son, whose current pet phrase is “stir, stir the chocolate”). When applied to the face and body, the pale green gruel not only rids one’s skin of sallowness, it also keeps one’s hair soft and supple. Although the hospital had no “Yumeijing” brand beauty products or good shampoo, still I managed to emerge snow white and squeaky clean.
DIY fashion to beat the heat: During my first days in the detention center, the indoor temperature was kept too high, so I had to get creative by ripping out the stitching of my shirt with my teeth and removing the sleeves. It was a very fashionable look, but unfortunately the shirt was later confiscated, so I was unable to keep it as a souvenir. However, I would not recommend that others try the same, as some detention centers prohibit detainees from altering their uniforms.
Staying in shape by running in place: This is the very best medicine for curing pain and loss. Naturally, when running in place, keeping the arms elevated the entire time is an effective treatment for both neck pain and rheumatism.
The simple pleasures of reciting classical poetry: Before, I was never really able to relax and enjoy reciting classical poetry by heart—majestic lines like [Su Shi’s] “Eastward flows the Yangtze River, washing away all traces…”, or the bold optimism of Li Bai’s “Bringing in the Wine”, or the gentle beauty of [Xu Zhimo’s] “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again.” With such enjoyment, I would feel there wasn’t anything too difficult to get through.
There’s more, so much more. Later, someone will pick up where I left off.
You see, life is beautiful, I love you all, you who give me strength and warmth. You also give me the courage to describe my experience. I believe that, at the end of all this suffering, there will be a rainbow.
(Original title: Don’t Cry, Friends—You’re Not Alone)
Chinese Officers Harshly Interrogated Women’s Rights Activist, Husband Says, the New York Times, April 28, 2015.
Chinese feminist: Long hours of interrogations after release, AP, April 25, 2015.
(Translated by Cindy Carter)
Chinese original (the Chinese was posted in a friend group as a set of jpegs; China Change transcribed them for easy reading.)