BEIJING — Buoyed by the support she has received both inside the country and from abroad, one of China’s leading feminists has vowed to continue advocating for women’s rights after her release from detention last week, despite police harassment.
Li Tingting, 25, a lesbian campaigner on women’s issues, is probably the most prominent of the five women who were detained in early March for planning to distribute stickers at bus stations to raise awareness of sexual harassment on public transport. Detained for 37 days, the five were released April 13 after a global outcry but remain under investigation. They have been told to report regularly to police, to not leave their home cities and to not talk to journalists.
But Li, in a statement given to The Washington Post, said she was determined not only to force the government to drop the case against her but also to continue her struggle for justice for women in China.
She also spoke out about her ordeal in detention, how the pressure has caused strains within her family, and about how she even began to doubt herself after 10 days of harrowing police interrogation.
“The public is more clear now about who the feminists are, and what they are doing,” she wrote. “What happened to us told the world the truth, the real side of China. Many people outside the country thought gender equality was not an issue in China. They were misled by government propaganda, including Mao’s speech that women hold up half the sky, but now they’ve got to know what China is really like.”
In many ways, gender inequality has widened in China since Mao Zedong died and the country turned away from communism toward state-directed capitalism. Women are unequal in marriage and before the law, and underrepresented in the boardroom and in politics, experts say.
“The reason why I became a feminist is simple: I’m a woman and I found the world is unequal,” Li wrote. “It’s important for women to stand up for themselves because only they know their needs.”
Before her release, police forced Li to sign a pledge not to talk to the news media, something her attorney, Wang Yu, said has no basis in Chinese law. Nevertheless, Li appears determined not to be silenced entirely.
Li said that she was interrogated 49 times during her detention, under strong lights and for up to eight hours at a time, and that one police officer “spat” smoke into her face many times during the questioning, while several insulted her for being a lesbian and called her shameless. On one night, she was allowed only two hours sleep.
“They kept telling me I was being taken advantage of, that I was being used,” she wrote. “After 10 days, even I doubted if I had been wrong. I asked myself over and over again, ‘Am I being used? Has anyone ever forced me?’ ”
“But then I realized the answer was simple — that I have never been used,” Li wrote. “I know they wanted to make me confess. I didn’t confess, but I totally understand why innocent people confess in jail, because I experienced it.”
Growing up in a working-class family on the outskirts of Beijing, Li has described in previous interviews how her father would often beat her (and her mother), with thrashings for something as simple as writing with her left hand rather than her right.
Once Li left home to go to a college in Xi’an, she took up gender activism, becoming a leading member of a group that deliberately avoided the politically sensitive language of protest by engaging in performance art.
In 2012, in a “bloody brides” campaign against domestic violence, Li and two friends marched down a busy street in Beijing wearing wedding dresses spattered with fake blood, bearing placards and chanting slogans declaring, “Love is not an excuse for violence.”
Li also led about 20 women to take part in a campaign known as Occupy Men’s Room, where they took over male public restrooms in Beijing and Guangzhou for short periods to protest against a shortage of facilities for women.
It was a campaign that captured the imagination of the news media, spread to other cities and caused some municipalities to build more restrooms for women. But it also marked Li out to China’s powerful public security apparatus as a nuisance, especially when she refused to be bought off with a job at a government-affiliated women’s federation. From then on, Li’s actions were closely monitored.
About the same time, Li also came out to her friends, and eventually to her parents. According to an account in Eric Fish’s forthcoming book, “China’s Millennials,” Li’s mother had known for some time and was supportive; her father was not, pressing her to marry anyway and have children.
During her detention, Li says her parents were forced by police to stay at her aunt’s home for 10 days. She had a “big fight” with her father after her release but added that they have now “compromised a little.” He has accepted her girlfriend and allowed the couple to move into the family home.
“I don’t want to say any ill of my father anymore,” she wrote. “Things have changed. I am living in my parents’ place now, and I don’t want others to stir quarrels between us.”
Despite official distrust, the struggles of Li and other activists have brought some progress. China’s parliament is currently considering a law against domestic violence, which, if passed, would represent a significant step forward in women’s rights.
“My experience is that the public consciousness about women’s rights in China is awakening: Even at slow pace, but it is progress,” Li wrote.
Li said her time in jail cemented her plans to become the first openly lesbian lawyer in China, and she is now studying to become an attorney.
“It’s good for attorneys who are gay but afraid to admit it, and for LGBT people who need legal aid,” she wrote. “It’s also a kind of compromise to my parents.”
“My mother always supported me, but my father fundamentally disagreed with me. But I admit they’ve been affected by me recently. So I think if I became a lawyer — a kind of mainstream job — it would be easier for them to accept.”
Xu Jing contributed to this report.