Li Tingting was one of the Feminist Five detained in China last year ahead of International Women's Day. To mark its one-year anniversary, she recorded a message thanking the Chinese government for "pushing the feminist movement to another peak." (YouTube/Piner Piner)

Chinese feminist Li Tingting has a message for those who detained her ahead of International Women's Day last year: Thanks.

In a video dispatch posted to mark the one-year anniversary of her detention, Li expresses "gratitude" to the Chinese government for "pushing the feminist movement to another peak."

Li and four other women were detained last March for planning to hand out stickers and leaflets to raise awareness about sexual harassment, and were held for 37 days. Though they were released last April, they remain "suspects" and are routinely harassed by police, their lawyers said.

A year after she played the ukelele while the police searched her home, Li seems utterly undeterred. She said she's glad her detention and the #freethefive campaign that followed helped put China's fight for gender equality on the map.

"What happened to us had [an] enormous impact in China and overseas. It was actually the first time that the international community knew that there are real feminists in China," she said.

Given the year it's been — and the year she's had — that's a (deliberately) gutsy take.

It's been a brutal year for Chinese activists. The arrest of the Feminist Five last spring was followed by an unprecedented crackdown on Chinese lawyers, including many who work on women's rights, and the shuttering of a renowned women's legal center.

The arrests and detentions have had a chilling effect on women's groups. Many campaigners are now wary of speaking to the press, and do not want to be caught communicating with foreign non-profits, which the government increasingly sees as hostile.

So, when Li says #freethefive "enhanced" ties between Chinese and foreign feminists, she's taking a risk — and a stand.

The ruling Communist Party says it supports gender equality. Months after Li and her colleagues were detained, the Party's chairman, Xi Jinping, was granted the honor of speaking at a conference hosted by UN Women, where he praised the country's progress on women's rights.

There have been gains: Thanks to three decades of economic growth, Chinese women, like Chinese men, are generally healthier and wealthier than ever before.  After years of campaigning, China last year passed its first anti-domestic violence law.

And yet, research suggests that Chinese women are losing ground relative to men, and many feel sexism is on the rise. In Party-controlled media, people joke about women who are too educated, or strong, for their own good.

The All China Women's Federation (ACWF), which was founded in 1949, is tasked with campaigning for women's rights, but does so on behalf of a Party that is dominated by men at the highest levels, and it often promotes a vision of womanhood that puts marriage and children above all else.

In her book, Leftover Women author Leta Hong Fincher shows how the ACWF  helped spread the notion that women who are not married by 27 are the human equivalent of stale cake. An article published on their website compared women who pursue higher education instead of focusing on husband-hunting to "yellowed pearls."

On Monday, the ACWF hosted an event at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, where the country's rubber stamp parliament is being led by a sea of men in suits. After a speech that twice extolled Xi Jinping's "Four Comprehensives," but made no mention of the Feminist Five, the crowd was treated to a fashion show.

Fashion can be feminist, but the staging — old men deliberating, young women modeling — seemed a symbol of the move away from women's rights and toward a "celebration" of so-called feminine virtues.

Indeed, in a front-page International Women's Day commentary, the Party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said the goal was to "give every woman a chance to make their dreams come true and make their life shine."

"Women are the holders of the secret code of happiness," it read. "They play an irreplaceable role in constructing socialist core values through soft power and feminine wisdom."

The website of the People's Liberation Army was more directly misogynist: "Who says women soldiers are always dark, ugly and fierce?" read the text accompanying glamour shots of young women in uniform.

That's exactly the kind of sexism that the Feminist Five seek to challenge. Their small-scale street performances are designed to make people stop and think about how social pressure shapes the way women work, love and live.

In the video, Li says she's now campaigning against forced marriage. She wants women to know that marrying a man is not necessarily the key to a "happy life."

That message may not seem radical, but these days, in China, it is.

To dare to be different, and to say so, is brave.

Liu Liu and Xu Yangjingjing reported from Beijing.

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