On the eve of International Women's Day in 2015, five Chinese women — Li Maizi, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, and Wang Man — were handing out stickers against sexual harassment when they were arrested by police. At the time of their detention, Chinese President Xi Jinping was scheduled to host a United Nations summit on women’s rights in New York.
Leta Hong Fincher’s Betraying Big Brother captures the irony of having an international day dedicated to women’s rights when governments across the world work at stifling those rights. Fincher interviews the five arrested Chinese women after their 37-day-long detainment, and discovers how a surveillance state tried to stamp out feminism, even though the women forged their politics through personal experiences with domestic, sexual, and, later, police violence.
The two most important strands in Fincher’s book are women’s persistence in the face of hypermasculine leadership — the “patriarchal authoritarian” Xi's strong-man-of-the-family brand of politics resembles that of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Narendra Modi — and the role of the internet in connecting feminist movements across the world.
While Western media described the #MeToo movement as slow to take off in China, Fincher points out the difficulty of sustaining a hashtag campaign in a country where there is no internet freedom, and where women’s stories of abuse are routinely censored and removed within minutes of being uploaded.
The five detained women, who later came to be known as #TheFeministFive, were ultimately released when a global campaign for their freedom took off online.