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Asia

Chinese feminist honored as 2015 'Global Thinker'

"Foreign Policy" magazine has listed Chinese feminist Li Ting-ting as one of its 2015 Global Thinkers. Li told DW the honor is a chance for China's feminist and LGBT rights movements to gain attention at home and abroad.

Li Ting-ting (main picture, left), also known as Li Maizi, was honored by the US publication "Foreign Policy" as one of its top 2015 Global Thinkers. Li is among the three Chinese nationals selected this year, the two other being journalist Chai Jing and scientist Li Fei-fei. The annual list, which has been recognizing prominent leaders and activists since 2009, has previously selected other Chinese nationals such as activist dissident Liao Xiaobo, the currently detained civil rights lawyer Pu Zhi-qiang, as well as Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement last year.

Twenty-six-year-old Li was one of the "Feminist Five" detained by Chinese authorities in March this year, one day before the International Women's Day. She was charged with "picking quarrels and provoking trouble." It is suspected that she was arrested for planning to distribute stickers and fliers on public transportation to raise awareness about sexual harassment. Her 37-day detention drew international outcry with pleas for Li's release, while the hashtag #FreeTheFive went viral on social media.

For Li, making the 2015 Global Thinkers list not only recognizes her advocacy work with China's feminist and LGBT rights movements, but it also gives her causes an international platform. "It definitely helps to raise awareness about the issues in Chinese society," Li told DW.

Portraits of Li Tingting (top L), Wei Tingting (top R), (bottom, L-R) Wang Man, Wu Rongrong and Zheng Churan are pictured during a protest calling for their release in Hong Kong April 11, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Li was one of the 'Feminist Five' detained by Chinese authorities in March this year

The road to advocacy

Ever since she was a little girl, Li says she was determined to fight against injustice. "I was very masculine when I was little, and my classmates always made fun of me or bullied me because of that," Li said. "Although it got better as I grew up, I still always had that impulse to fight against injustice and inequality."

In 2012, Li first publically participated in the gender equality movement - the "Bloody Bride" campaign. "It was very exciting. It felt like participating in a protest, although there were just three of us." During the campaign, Li wore a wedding dress spattered with fake blood and ran on the busy streets of Beijing to protest against domestic violence.

Later that year, Li also started the "Occupy Men's Toilets" campaign which demanded more public toilets for women. The movement gained coverage from both local and foreign media.

Li said that these campaigns increased societal awareness on issues such domestic violence and women's rights. She also said that China's feminist movement has positively developed and gained support over the past few years.

"More and more people are willing to acknowledge that they are feminists. The term feminist used to be considered very negative in the past," Li said.

Despite positive progress within the gender equality movement, LGBT people still face a great deal of discrimination in China. "Homosexuals cannot reveal and acknowledge their identities in China. Many of them are forced to commit to heterosexual marriage and to give birth," asserts Li.

LGBT discrimination in China

In China, although being homosexual is not criminalized by law, inequality and the marginalization of LGBT people still exist at different levels in society. In fact, the Chinese government only stopped classifying homosexuality and bisexuality as a psychiatric disorder in 2001, while many textbooks continue to describe homosexuality as a mental illness.

"There is still discrimination within health care settings - the healthcare sector refuses to treat LGBT people or demonstrates discriminative attitudes and behavior towards them," Shen Tingting told DW. Shen is the director of Advocacy Policy and Research at Asia Catalyst, an independent organization that advocates for marginalized groups within Asia.

A 2014 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report about the status of LGBT rights in China also highlighted the problems faced by LGBT people who try to seek health care in China. "Access to psychological and mental health is a major issue, considering the immense pressures of discrimination, stigma, social ostracism and internalized homophobia still present in China," the report said.

There is also a lack of civil rights for LGBT people in China, as same-sex couples have no legal status under current Chinese law. To advocate for the legalization of same-sex marriage, Li and her partner held a wedding ceremony in July this year, despite the fact that they could not get official recognition. Apart from demonstrating a commitment to their relationship, Li also said that they hoped their action would have a larger impact on society.

In addition to institutional discrimination, homosexuality is still stigmatized within Chinese society. The UNDP report also reveals that public opinion regarding non-traditional sexual orientation and gender identity remains predominantly negative today. "Discrimination towards and disapproval from family, relatives and acquaintances of LGBT people remain common as the latter are deemed to have deviated from traditional heteronormative family values," the report said.

Hope for the new generation

But there is, however, a silver lining to the current situation. Shen asserts that naming Li as a top advocate on the Global Thinkers list not only signifies international recognition of her work for gender and LGBT equality, but the list can also can have a positive impact within Chinese society. "It will raise awareness on the issues for mainstream society, as well as the understanding and acceptance of similar advocacy work which NGOs are doing in the country," Shen says.

Lesung für Liu Xiaobo im Berliner Martin Gropius Bau

The annual list has previously selected other Chinese nationals such as activist Liao Xiaobo

Shen said domestic and international organizations in China are witnessing ever-increasing crackdowns and controls from the government. However, advocates from China's new generation, like Li, have the potential to make a difference and enact change. "A new generation of activists have grown and know how to work effectively in this environment," Shen said. "They are strategically using social media, performance acts and other creative methods to conduct advocacy."

Although the online community can be very effective in spreading messages, Li thinks that offline campaigns are still the dominate means by which change can be created. "In the future, we will continue to organize more concrete actions to raise awareness in society, and we will try to mobilize more people to participate."

However, besides efforts from civil society, the government still plays a very important role in promoting gender equality. "If the government would explicitly show their acknowledgement of the feminist movement, and would promise that feminist activists won't be arrested again, it would be the most effective support for our work," Li said.

Although the government has yet to show any support for her causes, they do seem to be relaxing their control over advocacy work, she added. Li has also even started working with the government to promote domestic violence awareness.

"We have begun cooperating with the authority in the (conduction of) advocacy work. For example, we arranged lectures in schools and public seminars, as well as educating primary school students about anti-domestic violence."