In this 2015 photo, Chinese activist Li Tingting protests gender discrimination outside a post office in Beijing. (AP)

In 1968, Chairman Mao Zedong famously declared that Chinese women ought to “hold up half the sky.” Yet in 2015, the government detained China’s “feminist five” for planning to distribute anti-sexual harassment materials in public. Two years later, Beijing is still nervous about gender activism. In May 2017, Guangzhou police searched the houses of feminists who they suspected were printing clothing with slogans against sexual harassment.

Gender has become a politically sensitive word in China.

Why would a party that liberated women be threatened by a handful of 20-year-olds who champion the very rights that the government espouses?

My student and I went to China to find out. Based on three months of fieldwork and more than 40 interviews, we offer three reasons that the Chinese government is afraid of new-wave feminists — and why, despite this fear, authorities should still let these women speak.

1) China’s feminists are astute activists. While the Chinese government has tolerated the occasional nationalist protests and labor strikes, it is apprehensive about activism that has an organizational backbone.

The feminists are embedded in a broader network of organizations that support their actions as individuals. Challenging the authorities as a large, coordinated collective invites repression. To reduce political risk, activists sometimes disguise their organizing behind a cloak of individual or small-scale actions.

As I explain in a forthcoming book, this is a form of “mobilizing without the masses.” What appears to be an individual protest is actually coordinated behind the scenes by activists and their organizations.

Feminists, in fact, were behind China’s highest-profile cases of employment discrimination, the latest of which involves an aspiring female chef. Domestic media reports portray the chef as an indignant, self-inspired plaintiff.

But behind her lone-warrior image are media-savvy feminists who coached her to sue the would-be employer. They also helped her to write a press statement that was circulated on blogs and sent to journalists.

Using performance arts to generate media attention is not a new strategy in China or elsewhere. According to a Chinese journalist I spoke with, “It’s not that feminist activists use more performance arts; it’s that their actions are more likely to be seen.”

The visibility of these feminists is in part due to the tireless advocacy of organizations such as Women Awakening, which maintains an active blog with more than 76,000 followers.

And this organizational support makes Beijing apprehensive. A few lone warriors may be tolerated, but not if they are linked up to civil society groups and activist networks.

2) China’s feminists expose inequalities that prick the public’s conscience.

Take systematic gender discrimination in university admissions as an example. In certain Chinese institutions, women scored 65 points higher on entrance exams than men admitted to the same program.

In a country where a half-point difference can mean entrance denial and where mass protests have broken out over admission equity, this exposure could be another potential catalyst for social unrest.

Feminists blogged about this gender gap but also took direct action by shaving their heads in protest and writing letters to the government. An inspired university student in Guangzhou wrote letter after letter to the Ministry of Education asking it to address this issue.

She described her actions in an interview with me as a low-probability game: It’s “like throwing a stone into the river and watching for one to strike a fish. Most of the time, there is no impact. But occasionally there is and you feel like you’ve won the lottery.” She “won” twice in three years, receiving two phone calls from the ministry in Beijing.

The feminists later blogged about her efforts, pursuing a strategy of online activism aimed at influencing public policy.

A faster way to generate public outcry is to shame celebrities. The feminists’ choice targets are male public figures they consider stubbornly sexist — those suffering from “straight man cancer.”

Their latest attack targets Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group, the world’s largest online marketplace. In a July speech to female entrepreneurs, Ma declared, “In my next life, I want to be woman; I want to have two kids. Having kids early is more important than anything.”

While Ma might have thought he was encouraging women to have it all, his words incited feminists: “He can afford to praise birth, to praise women, but that’s because he won’t ever face the problems that women face!”

Ma’s reference to the liberating effects of the two-child policy also touched nerves. Chinese women are likely to face higher hurdles from employers unwilling to pay for two maternity leaves. The feminists remain unafraid to flag this and other touchy issues, further agitating Beijing.

3) Feminists threaten China’s party-state by communicating with labor activists.

The large migrant labor pool, from China’s rural provinces, faces widespread housing and educational discrimination. When the government targeted a labor organization in 2015 as part of a broader crackdown on labor NGOs, Feminist Voices highlighted state repression of migrant workers by soliciting public opinion on how, exactly, the organization should preemptively “commit suicide.”

Why is this tentative alliance, however tenuous, unsettling to Beijing?

By identifying common ground with workers, feminists could tap into a much larger network of more than 280 million migrant workers, 34 percent of which are women. This makes the feminists’ actions a threat to the regime.

While Beijing can quell sporadic workers’ protests by buying people off, close links between intellectuals and the proletariat can make for an empowered opposition. The alliance between students and workers, however fraught with tension, once catapulted the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement forward.

Such cross-class alliances are uncommon today. This is in part because President Xi Jinping’s administration treats civil society as a threat to national security and has cracked down on organizations that connect different social groups to one another.

What are Beijing’s options?

Harsher repression is, of course, an option. But authorities may, in fact, benefit from engaging with the vociferous women. That’s because they have good ideas for public policy, a scarce resource under an administration that has not encouraged local governance innovations.

But policy innovation is a must if local governments are to address social challenges. For instance, Guangzhou and Shenzhen recently became China’s first cities to offer women-only subway cars. Even if officials would never admit to any influence from recent feminist activism on anti-sexual harassment, they may very well have been responding to the public heat that the feminists generated.

This is not a bad thing. Adopting more innovative gender-equitable policies would give teeth to the party’s much-trumpeted slogan “Women hold up half the sky.” In a country where single women are called “leftover” and where women continue to be excluded from top political leadership, Beijing may have much to gain from allowing Chinese feminists to speak up.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article inaccurately linked one of these leaders to a particular NGO. The Monkey Cage regrets the error.

Diana Fu is assistant professor of Asian politics at the University of Toronto. Her book, Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China, will be published by Cambridge University Press in fall 2017.