Profile: From Activist to Student

At the exit of a metro station, a young short-haired woman wearing a yellow down jacket and carrying a gray backpack with a rainbow ribbon was waiting patiently for her friend. She may look like a typical college student, but Li Maizi is a well-known feminist and lesbian activist who is pushing for gender equality and gay rights in China.

She is perhaps best known for getting arrested on March 7, 2015, as she and four feminist allies planned to hand out stickers protesting sexual harassment on buses and subways.

Since 2012, Li has constantly taken risks to try to bring about change in China on behalf of female and lesbians.

On Valentine’s Day, five years ago, Li walked down a shopping street in Beijing wearing a bridal gown spattered with blood, in an act of protest against domestic violence in China; on February 26, she participated in the Occupy Men’s Room demonstration near Deshengmen in Beijing to appeal for increasing the number of women’s toilets; on August 30, she shaved her head at Lychee Bay in Guangzhou to protest discrimination against women in college admissions.

In July 2015, Li and her girlfriend registered for marriage in the U.S. after less than a week after same-sex marriage became legal there. They held a public wedding ceremony in a suburb in Beijing, to push for legal recognition of same-sex relationships in China.

But despite her well-publicized activities, this ardent feminist campaigner has become quiet of late.  Her arrest awakened her to the dangers of being too outspoken in China, and she believes the space for non-governmental groups to work is shrinking.  Now she plans to give up her life of flamboyant activism for further studies overseas.  Her change of heart is indicative of the increasingly restrictive atmosphere in China.

Li’s awareness of gender equality was first aroused by the book The Second Sex by French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. “I think the book tells something right, so I went for it,” Li said. Her strong motivation originated from her family life, where she saw her mother suffering her father’s domestic violence but refusing to get a divorce.

Li said she has been controlled by her father since childhood. Father Li used thrashings to force her to write with her right hand instead of her naturally preferred left hand.  He also pressured her to get married and have children after finding out her sexual orientation when documentary filmmakers accidentally let the secret slip while shooting at their home. “Now he can’t control me, then he threatened me with money,” Li laughed. “Whatever he likes. In no way can he control me.”

But Li said she could understand her parents whom the society they live in educate to do so. “But that’s the reason I need to stand now,” she said in an interview in 2015. “This society needs young people to speak out—to point out the fact that the genders in China are unequal. This is social advocacy and policy advocacy. Nature is very hard to change, but the policy is very easy to change.”

This year, the Oscar-nominated documentary “Hooligan Sparrow” put the spotlight on Chinese feminism again.

The leading character in the film is named Ye Haiyan, known as another Chinese feminism activist, and is Li’s friend. They chat online sometimes. Both of them have allergic rhinitis, so Li bought some rhinitis spray and posted them to Ye. “Ye has a child, which causes a lot of trouble. She needs to consider for her child,” Li said with a mischievous giggle. “I am different. I have no cares. I have two cats though.”

For Li, many things have changed after her release in 2015. But some things haven’t.

She broke up with her wife. But her two cats keep accompanying, one of whose photo with Li appeared on the website of The Guardian. It was a report about Donald Trump, who has just been elected as the 45th president of America, with a title reading “Don’t spread ‘straight-man cancer’, China feminist warns Trump.” Straight-man cancer is a Chinese neologism that concludes a group of men who are stubbornly sexist. Li hasn’t stopped working.

What also hasn’t changed is how she sees her activities in the past years.

Li shared a 2015 interview to her Facebook timeline earlier this year. “It is very interesting that I think some of the viewpoints still in my mind!” She wrote. She also quoted a paragraph: “Change is step by step, but we must push it. Some people say there can’t be absolute gender equality, so there’s no point in fighting for it. But if you fight for something, it shouldn’t be because you think it can be achieved. You should fight for it because it’s right.”

However, Li became quiet in 2016. “Before getting arrested, I knew there might be some danger. But after that, I turned to be afraid.” Li said.

After watching Director Ang Lee’s newest film “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” in which the soldier Billy Lynn struggles in making a decision whether he returns to war in Iraq or stays home. Li texted me: “The army is a distortion of humanity. I don’t understand why people keep living in this so-called collectivism and national honor.”

She describes the status quo of China as “a terrible dark age.” “Pollution is everywhere. No one has any reason to keep living in this way. But the legitimacy of the political party has been strengthened more than ever. Dissent is prohibited,” Li explained. “In short, it will get harder [to work in NGOs and as a feminism activist] in the future. I will switch over to another occupation.”

Switching job doesn’t represent an escape. Li’s next plan is to gain a master degree of law abroad. She keeps the ideal of becoming a lawyer to make more contributions to Chinese feminism and Chinese gay rights.

“No matter whether I go to [study in] the U.S. or the U.K., I will face the identity problem and the completely different social issues there. Also, I have to give up what I have accumulated in China. I will keep asking myself if this is what I truly want,” Li added. “I will never make a promise to come back, but I know I will.”

Wan Huang