From the streets to college campuses, scores of young women are appearing on the frontlines of rare protests in China against zero-COVID policies that have led to a rise in domestic violence, a mental health crisis, food shortages, and even death.
Some women are openly criticizing the government, while others have resisted police intimidation on the streets.
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A video circulating on social media showed a young woman at Tsinghua University holding a blank placard in the middle of a crowded plaza. She did not move or respond to confrontation from security officials.
At a vigil along Liang Ma river in Beijing, a woman gave an impassioned speech to commemorate those who died during China's restrictive zero-COVID lockdowns. Around her, hundreds held candles in silence.
"Let's remember Dr. Li Wen Liang, a whistleblower who warned us of Covid, but was punished and subsequently died of the virus," the woman said.
In Beijing, another woman gave an emotional address about the "lies and silence" from authorities in the aftermath of a recent fire that killed 10 people in Xinjiang.
Efforts to rescue victims of the fire were allegedly hampered by COVID measures.
In the eastern province of Zhejiang, a woman with chains around her hands and a tape on her mouth walked down a busy street while holding a blank piece of paper, as part of a protest movement to symbolize mounting censorship in China.
Gender equality under Chinese President Xi Jinping's leadership has worsened over time, experts told Semafor, with women taking on fewer leadership positions than ever before. For the first time in 25 years, not a single woman has been selected to join China's new Politburo –– a group of senior officials that make up the Communist Party's top decision-making body.
Despite recent legal amendments to safeguard women's rights in China, authorities have silenced activists who are part of the country's #MeToo movement.
The pandemic only exacerbated these issues.
Research from the United Nations shows that domestic violence has been on the rise across the world over the past three years. The situation is especially pervasive in China, experts say, where divorce is considered after a mandatory 30-day "cooling off" period, which can be detrimental for women in abusive marriages.
"The women who are stepping out –– they feel really compelled to do it," Dr. Leta Hong Fincher, the author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, told Semafor. "It's that moment that Marx wrote about the workers of the world –– 'you have nothing to lose but your chains' –– it's that moment of complete desperation and frustration. That you've hit all dead ends."
"You have to be so courageous and recognize it," she said. "If you're going to take to the streets and take some kind of radical action against the government, you're going to be punished."