Standing in front of the crowd gathered in an auditorium at the Chinese University of Hong Kong last October, Sonia Ng removed the black mask shielding her face. She and her fellow CUHK students had come to this town hall meeting with school administrators to demand more support for classmates arrested during ongoing citywide protests; Ng had stepped up to recount her own arrest, which had happened at the end of August.
“Did you know that when we’re arrested, the police confiscate our phones and switch them off? Did you know that they swear at us, force us to go wherever they want?” she said, her voice breaking as she addressed the school’s vice chancellor. “If they want us to enter a dark room, we do; if they want us to take off our clothes, we do.… Did you know that the room in San Uk Ling Holding Centre where they did body searches on us was pitch black? Did you know that I’m far from the only victim of sexual violence committed by the police? Did you know that other arrestees were sexually assaulted and tortured by multiple officers, regardless of gender?”
By then, the protests sparked by a Chinese extradition bill had been going on for four months—and Ng was the first protester to accuse the Hong Kong Police Force of sexual assault using her own identity. A video of her auditorium testimony went viral. Shortly after, she said that she began receiving threats over the phone; her personal details were revealed online.
The Hong Kong protests that began last summer have been rife with accusations of emotional and physical abuse against women. In addition to allegations of police assaulting detained protesters, there have been reports of activists and journalists receiving rape threats and being doxxed by trolls. Women have recounted enduring humiliating and unnecessary strip searches by police; footage emerged of police ripping off a protester’s skirt and exposing her underwear during arrest. One teenager alleged that she was gang-raped by police officers and had to have an abortion. A journalist for NBC said that after one cop grabbed her breast, she attempted to find out his ID number from other officers—who responded by pepper-spraying her in the face.
The anti-protest side has attempted to use women’s sexuality to discredit the movement—such as when Fanny Law, a member of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s cabinet, claimed that young women were offering sex to male protesters. But women on the government’s side are not immune, either: In January, a woman police officer whose image had gone viral spoke out against the force’s culture of sexual harassment in a series of Instagram posts, saying that male colleagues were spreading rumors about her and making it difficult for her to do her job.
Unlike other so-called “global” cities, Hong Kong has never fostered a robust or radical feminist consciousness. Even the #MeToo movement failed to gain traction there. This is in part because of the persistent myth among Hong Kongers that their home is a “post-feminist” society that has already achieved gender equality. Even when gender violence enters mainstream discourse—for instance, when police were accused of sexual assault during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, or during the high-profile trial of a British banker who raped, tortured, and killed two Indonesian women—the incidents are written off as anomalies, or quickly overshadowed by issues deemed more politically or socially important.
Amid city-wide criticism of police brutality and misconduct, the issues that have come to light during the protests have triggered a wider exploration of the status and treatment of women and other marginalized groups in Hong Kong. Last August, thousands marched under the rallying cry #ProtestToo to support victims of sexual harassment and violence. These discussions could be lighting a tentative feminist flame, in a society that has shied away from confrontations with gender inequality.
Both locals and foreigners have long seen Hong Kong as a place where East meets West. It’s often assumed to be more socially progressive and more likely to uphold international standards in law and business than many other parts of Asia. These ideas have their roots in British colonial policy: From the 1950s to the 1997 handover, the British-run government worked to depoliticize Hong Kongers and reframe “Chineseness” as purely cultural, in order to counteract Communist influence from the mainland and quash resistance to colonial rule. The government restricted local autonomy, placing limitations on political structures such as the Legislative Council and making legislative reforms that still constrain civil society today. It also fostered a sense of superiority over mainland China, one that scholars such as Yuk-Lin Renita Wong have argued was meant to associate Westernness with modernity. The message was that without colonialism, Hong Kong would be just as “backward” as the mainland. Hong Kongers should be grateful.
Even after the handover, women Hong Kongers continued to contrast themselves with those living on the mainland: Compared to their counterparts, they saw themselves as “liberated” subjects, living in an equitable society with an abundance of rights. “For those politicians who do not support a feminist agenda, the popular discourse of Hong Kong women as being better than their Asian counterparts has served to support their argument that gender equity already exists in Hong Kong,” Wong wrote in a 2004 paper. This sense of superiority has served to negate Hong Kongers’ colonial trauma, absolving Britain and other Western nations for their role in oppressing the territory and disempowering the feminists fighting for gender rights.
If British colonial nationalism perpetuated the idea of Hong Kong as a post-feminist society, the Chinese-sponsored nationalism that came after 1997 strengthened the city’s patriarchal culture. Although these competing versions of nationalism have caused rifts in the cultural and political identities of Hong Kongers, they both work together to constrain intersectional feminist efforts and grassroots organizing.
State media and propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party is steeped in patriarchal language that paints Hong Kongers as spoiled brats and frames China as the father figure who knows what’s best for them, the renegade children corrupted by coloniality. The build-up of this discourse post-handover helped “justify the marginalization of ‘radical’ groups from the locus of power,” scholars Wai-Man Lam and Irene L.K. Tong wrote in a 2006 paper. They add that the emergence in 1993 of the Hong Kong Federation of Women, a pro-Beijing group claiming to represent women’s interests, also strengthened conservative and nationalist feminist factions—while diminishing those with orientations further from the center of power. To this day, issues related to sexuality are routinely dismissed as unimportant. The head of Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission said last year that same sex-marriage was an “impractical” issue that could “never pass [the legislature]” and would “waste resources.”
During the 1980s and ’90s, Hong Kong grew to become an international financial center, giving rise to a strong middle class. For the first time, many women were economically empowered, with access to jobs in professional industries. But they have continued to face gender-based discrimination in both personal and professional spheres.
A poll last year found that one in four university students of all genders in Hong Kong had been sexually harassed, but less than 3 percent reported their cases. Women earn, on average, 22 percent less than men do. Only 30 percent of managers in the workplace are women—a lower number than in mainland China. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s capitalist culture has manifested in stereotypes such as the “Kong girl,” a Cantonese equivalent of the “basic bitch”: a woman who lacks substance and is obsessed with material things. Not only that, but Hong Kong women suffer from rising rates of domestic violence—with recent arrivals from the mainland and ethnic minorities among the most vulnerable.
Despite the perception that women in mainland China are worse off than those in Hong Kong, many Hong Kongers are forced to travel to the mainland to get an abortion. If they can’t do that, they may end up risking their lives with an illegal procedure—you can get an abortion in Hong Kong only if two different doctors have agreed that the pregnancy would endanger your life. Even if you’re approved for an abortion, it’s prohibitively expensive: It can be difficult to have the procedure performed at a public hospital, and South China Morning Post has reported that private clinics and hospitals could charge as much as $5,100. If a woman does choose to have a baby, Hong Kong mandates paid parental leave of just 10 weeks. In most parts of China, women are entitled to at least 14 weeks—although it’s important to note that some face barriers to accessing that right. In Singapore, it’s even longer: Women get 16 weeks of leave.
Last July, not long after the protests began, thousands of people attended a demonstration against dai ma, a Cantonese term referring to mostly middle-aged women from mainland China who sing and “square-dance” to putonghua (Mandarin Chinese) pop songs in public spaces. A typical part of Chinese culture, such dances function as a way for the elderly to socialize, and can be seen not only in the mainland, but also in diasporic Chinese communities worldwide. In Hong Kong, dai ma often attract audiences of older men, who sometimes give them donations; these women have long been accused of causing public disturbances with their loud music, as well as allegedly begging and performing sex work.
While this is not a new issue in Hong Kong, the protest against dai ma was linked to the anti-extradition bill demonstrations: Both express anti-China sentiments. The current movement is ideologically diverse, and some right-wing sections of society have been emboldened to act out against immigrants, women, and other minorities on a scale previously deemed socially unacceptable. The July protest’s misogynistic tone prompted a coalition of sex workers and allies to release a statement criticizing prejudice against both sex workers and women like the dai ma. In a note, translators pointed out the need for “more recognition of the gendered xenophobia directed toward dai ma.”
Freedom of speech in Hong Kong has enabled the city’s feminist groups and LGBTQI+ activists to organize on a variety of issues—but those groups have rarely been able to integrate their concerns into wider campaigns such as the pro-democracy movement, where their concerns are routinely dismissed. Feminism in mainland China has been radical by comparison, giving prominence to intersectional activists such as the Feminist Five and generating a visible #MeToo movement. Chinese feminists have used performance art and other measures to combat gender stereotypes, violence against women, growing inequality driven by market reforms, and government-sponsored neonatalism sparked by demographic changes.
“Feminists in Hong Kong do have analyses of sexual violence, justice, and equality, but there is little public understanding of this,” writes gender scholar and professor Sik Ying Ho in a recent essay about feminism and the protests. “Feminists in other countries, where feminist discourse has become more mainstream, have been able to push back against such behavior, but this is less possible in Hong Kong, as even its more progressive citizens seem unable to see a problem.”
In recent weeks, the Hong Kong protest movement has been consumed by concerns over the novel coronavirus. Some demonstrators have shifted their focus toward protesting the lack of support for medical workers, plans to repurpose buildings into quarantine centers, and the government’s perceived reluctance to take stronger public health measures and restrict travel from China. Still, the core issues remain the same: Protesters believe that the government is yet again prioritizing politics over the well-being of Hong Kongers, and silencing dissent rather than engaging with the people they claim to serve.
The protests—which some have called the “revolution of our times”—have been largely leaderless and decentralized. Rejecting the city’s top-down political system and promoting grassroots organizing has allowed Hong Kongers to create new political communities and platforms for civil society groups to flourish. Feminists are among those groups, especially as widely publicized incidents of violence and abuse have helped to expose the challenges that women have always faced. And women have been on the front lines throughout, including two—a first-aid provider and a journalist—who were both shot in the eye by police.
Yet the movement as a whole is far from feminist. On social media forums such as LIHKG, pro-democracy supporters have circulated pictures of women police officers and posted derogatory comments, says Nickolas Tang, a Hong Kong activist who has been involved in the movement. Protesters have also created sexist artwork—for instance, by photoshopping a picture of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s face onto the body of a porn star. “It’s a way of using dehumanizing and sexualized tropes to mobilize people,” Tang said.
The feminist fight has roots far deeper than this current conflict. It is crucial for all Hong Kongers to confront how we, too, could be perpetuating injustice. Women protesters have been called “brave fighters” or held up as figureheads, but this idealization still ties women’s worth to sacrifice. It doesn’t get us any closer to real equality. We need to ask ourselves what kind of revolution we are waging, and who gets to have a say in the Hong Kong we are fighting to reclaim.