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‘Anti-domestic violence little vaccine’

Updated: Jul 26

A Wuhan-Based Feminist Activist Campaign During COVID-19


by Hongwei Bao


The current global discussion about COVID-19 is dominated by an overwhelming emphasis on public health measures and economic impacts. This often leads to the negligence of many social issues. One of them is a rise in domestic violence against women. Life under lockdown has posed great challenges to many women who live in abusive relationships and who suffer from domestic violence (Taub 2020). These victims often have nowhere to go because of the strict quarantine measures imposed on them. Necessary police intervention as well as legal and social support may not be readily available during this period. It is therefore crucial for ordinary citizens and civil society groups to raise public awareness of the issue, offer support to victims, and issue warnings to perpetrators.


From January to April 2020, many Chinese cities including Wuhan were in complete lockdown. Public transport stopped; entry and exit restrictions were imposed. The lockdown of cities and neighbourhoods exacerbated many social problems including domestic violence against women. Under the Blue Sky, an anti-domestic-violence NGO (non-governmental organisation) based in Hubei’s Lijian County, received 175 reports of domestic violence in February, three times the number of such complaints during the same month in 2019 (Feng 2020). To address this issue, some feminist activists in China connected with one another and formed online support groups for women. One such group was led by Guo Jing, a feminist activist and social worker based in Wuhan.1 The group launched an activist campaign called ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ to raise public awareness of women’s rights.


In this article, I introduce the ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ campaign in China at an early stage of the pandemic (January to April 2020). I introduce the campaign primarily through quoting and analysing the organiser Guo Jing’s first-person accounts, I then sum up some of the activist strategies used in the campaign, including how they deploy culturally sensitive and context-specific tactics to practice an issue-based and coalition building feminist politics. 2 In particular, I focus on how the campaign brought the participants out of the domestic space and into the public space in a quarantine environment. I contend that these activist strategies are likely to be effective because of the acute attention paid to local contexts and the effective use of digital media and technologies. I also suggest that rather than seeing the pandemic as an obstacle to social movements, it is possible to see the pandemic as a good opportunity to experiment with flexible and creative modes of political mobilisation and social activism.


Anti-domestic violence little vaccine’


Guo Jing, a resident of Wuhan, is a 29-year-old feminist activist and social worker. In 2014, she was involved as a plaintiff in China’s first lawsuit concerning gender discrimination in employment; she subsequently won the lawsuit against the employer (Legal Information Institute 2014). Inspired by the success, Guo set up a legal aid helpline for other women who face gender discrimination in the workplace. On her social media sites, she frequently advertises the helpline (Figure 1). During the Wuhan lockdown, Guo was in quarantine in a small flat for seventy-seven days from 23 January to 8 April 2020, communicating daily with her feminist friends online. She also kept a diary on her social media and shared her writing with friends and followers, which was later published as Wuhan Lockdown Diary (Guo 2020). At the same time, she continued to run the legal aid helpline and answered questions from callers every evening during the lockdown.

Figure 1. Guo Jing’s business card, on which the helpline information is displayed

At the beginning of the lockdown, Guo and her feminist friends all felt vulnerable, while the infection rate and death toll rose dramatically, and the situation in Wuhan quickly got out of control. They decided to act together to overcome the sense of helplessness. They subsequently set up a feminist activist WeChat (a Chinese-language social media platform) support group. In the group. they talked to each other through voice and video chat for a couple of hours every evening, encouraging and supporting each other along the way during the lockdown. In these chats, the group examined the epidemic from feminist perspectives, discussed possibilities and strategies of engaging with social issues. They explored ways to ‘help individuals overcome a sense of vulnerability’, especially for young women like themselves (Guo 26 January 2020). 3


Through discussion, the group realised that the epidemic was having a gendered effect. Indeed, in comparing battling with the coronavirus to fighting a war, public health interventions often privilege a masculine perspective and valorise men’s role in society. Meanwhile, these measures push women back to the domestic space and define their roles as housewives, mothers, and carers. In doing so, they reinforce the deeply entrenched men/women and the public/private dichotomies characterising a patriarchal and heteronormative society (Kay 2020). At the same time, the epidemic condition has exacerbated sexual discrimination and domestic violence against women. Trapped in a confined physical space for an extended period, many men use their family members to vent out their pent-up frustrations. Women who live in abusive relationships are especially vulnerable. Guo reported in her diary: “The lockdown increased the difficulty for victims to gain help and support; it also increased the practical difficulty for us in being able to offer our own intervention.” (Guo 28 February 2020)


To raise public awareness of this issue, Guo organised an online workshop. In the workshop, feminist activist Feng Yuan shared her experience of and gave the audience advice on how to deal with domestic violence. The live broadcast and its recording attracted 1,200 viewings on that day and received positive feedback from participants and viewers (Guo 29 February 2020).

Figure 2. ‘Anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ social media account


Figure 3. An activist posting a hand-written ‘anti-domestic violence open letter’ on the door of an elevator


Building on the success of the workshop and working in collaboration with the Guangdong Rural Women Development Foundation, the anti-domestic violence workgroup led by Guo launched an ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ activist campaign (Figure 2). The campaign called on women to raise public awareness of the issue of domestic violence. The group published a virtual open letter, calling to the public for an end to domestic violence. It also encouraged people to hand copy or print out the open letter and post them in public spaces (Figure 3). Many people came up with creative ways for public advocacy. Guo wrote in her diary:

Since the start of the campaign, many people have posted the open letter in their own neighbourhoods. Some have even redesigned the open letter and converted it into a beautiful poster. Some dialled the number of the women’s rights hotline run by the All-China Women’s Federation to make sure that the line is in operation. Others shared their own experience of falling victim to and dealing with domestic violence.
The aim of the campaign is to make domestic violence visible in society and offer support to its victims. Now thousands of people have volunteered to become ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccines’. I hope that more people can get involved and the number can reach ten thousand, so that the ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccines’ can be spread in more neighbourhoods. (Guo 4 March 2020)

Campaign Strategies


The activist strategies used in the ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ campaign are well worth noting. These strategies deal effectively with the issue of safety and political sensitivity by taking into careful consideration local contexts. Although China’s feminist activism constitutes an integral part of the transnational feminism and international #metoo movement, copying activist experiences directly from their Western counterparts without localisation and hybridisation is not an option for Chinese feminists.


In the context of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), activist campaigns are usually carried out in a non-explicitly political, non-aggressive, and non-confrontational way. Feminist activism is no exception. In designing the ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ campaign, the workgroup’s primary consideration was to ensure the participants’ safety. After all, feminist activism is seen as a politically sensitive issue in the PRC since the arrest of the ‘Feminist Five’ – five young feminist activists who planned to distribute anti-sexual harassment leaflets on public transport before the International Women’s Day in 2015 (Fincher 2018).


Despite this, the language of ‘anti-domestic violence’ has its own legitimacy in the PRC’s public discourse and state feminism. China’s legislative body passed its own anti-domestic violence law in 2015 (Mak 2020). The country’s national organisation representing women, the All-China Women’s Federation, also runs a helpline for women, advising women on how to deal with domestic violence, but the effect of the helpline is limited. It is, therefore, possible to address the issue of domestic violence without mentioning ‘feminist activism’, as the ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ group has done in their campaign.

Figure 4. ‘Anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ campaign logo

The campaign logo and slogan have effectively taken into account the social context of the epidemic and the geographical location of China in East Asia. They speak effectively to a target audience – primarily young people in urban China – without making the campaign sound explicitly political.


At the centre of the campaign logo is the standing cartoon figure of a green-coloured cat (Figure 4). The cat is dressed cutely in a short purple skirt, wearing a surgical mask, holding a huge syringe with one paw, and pushing the top of the syringe with the other. A gentle shot of green liquid, resembling a green grass shoot in shape, appears on the tip of the needle.


The campaign logo manifests an aesthetics of kawaii (‘cuteness’ in Japanese) and xiaoqingxin (‘little freshness’ in Mandarin Chinese) popular among urban youths in East Asia. The cat image is characterised by a fresh, pleasant, and dynamic visual style; it appears non-militant and non-threatening. The words on the left-hand side of the picture read: ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccine’; and on the right hand-side, ‘caring for each other in lockdown’. This slogan taps into a culture of solidarity and mutual care in the epidemic.


The term ‘little vaccine’ also speaks to the epidemic condition in which ‘vaccines’ are welcome and needed. By calling the volunteers who participated in this campaign ‘little vaccines’, the campaign bypasses politically sensitive terms such as ‘feminist activists’ and thus reduces potential risks for participants.

Being experienced feminist activists who have organised many activist campaigns, Guo and her friends are aware of the importance of participation; they also recognise ordinary people’s agency in making their own decisions and taking actions to change society. The campaign strategies are designed in such a way that people are encouraged to ‘act up’, because one’s confidence and agency can be effectively boosted in the process of ‘acting up’.


But this process of ‘acting up’ should not be prescriptive, that is, following strict guidelines and rules. Instead, they should be open and flexible enough so that individuals can determine their own ways of engagement and devise their own activist strategies. Different individuals may have varying perceptions of their places in a movement; a movement should be able to help these individuals negotiate the grey zone between finding and challenging their comfort zones. The flexibility in ‘acting up’ also helps to protect new participants and gives them time and space to gain confidence at their own pace.

An activist strategy should recognise participants’ agency and help them exercise their own agency. How to mobilise the participants’ agency is therefore crucial to a movement. This process usually involves embodied participation, which is obviously under constraint in a quarantine environment but is not impossible.


For example, the major action point of this campaign is for participants to make an anti-domestic violence open letter public. This is an appropriate task because it is easy, doable, and flexible; it also leaves ample space for individual creativity. Participants can post the open letter online and on social media. If they are brave enough, they can post the letter in their neighbourhoods. Most people disseminate an e-version or a print version of this pre-drafted open letter; those who are determined enough or those who do not have a printer at home can choose to hand copy the letter; those who are artistically gifted are even encouraged to redesign the poster.


In other words, the simple task of posting an open letter can potentially activate people’s agency and creativity. In doing so, it boosts participants’ confidence and gives them a sense of achievement. After sharing their experiences online with others, many participants start to develop a sense of belonging in an activist community, although their relation to and position within that community may vary. They also feel that they are contributing to an ongoing social movement, or a worthy social cause.


The constant shifts of a campaign from online to offline and then back online, facilitated by the active involvement of people’s embodied and affective experience, are therefore crucial to the campaign’s success.

Perhaps most importantly, the campaign organisers did not call themselves and other campaign participants ‘feminists’ or ‘activists’. This is an example of a type of politics based on specific social issues (i.e. anti-domestic violence) rather than political identities (Edwards 2008).


In this way, the campaign speaks to many social groups and can potentially build a coalition between women and other social groups. the anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ has therefore attracted some male participants and even garnered support from some parents. By suspending feminist labels temporarily and by focusing on specific social issues, an activist campaign like this is likely to become more inclusive and therefore yield a greater social impact.


Engagement with the Public Space


Despite its obvious constraints, the lockdown condition offers ample opportunities for activist campaigns and social movements. Many people – primarily the ‘non-essential’ workers in the public policy discourse – have more time and enthusiasm for social engagement. Also, the pent-up energy and emotional intensity accumulated during lockdown can be channelled and released for activist purposes. In a pandemic, many people are eager to prove themselves useful for others and to society, but most cannot find an appropriate way to make their contribution.


The public health discourse during the pandemic often centres on the imagination of an isolated individual who stays at home and who only takes care of themselves and their families. This highly individualised and home-centred narrative neglects people’s need for social interaction; it also negates people’s responsibility for each other and for society. This is a manifestation of the neoliberal subjectivity – an entrepreneurial and calculating self that is divorced from society and the public good. In this context, forging a collective subjectivity and shaping a form of publicness is crucial for a social movement.

The quarantine condition poses unprecedented challenges for activists to bring out a sense of publicness – in terms of people’s concern for and engagement with political and social issues. Offline gatherings are difficult in lockdown, although this experience can to a certain extent be remedied by using digital media and technologies. To bring a movement from the private and domestic sphere to a public space – understood in both physical and virtual terms – activists need to consider the cultural specificity of the public space in national and local contexts.

The idea of ‘public space’ has a vexed history in China. The notion of ‘publicness’ (gong) was a modern concept imported from the West through colonial modernity at the beginning of the twentieth-century (Liu 1995). In the Mao era (1949-1978), the private space was eradicated in the national project of a socialist modernity. The post-Mao era (1979-present) has witnessed the re-emergence of the private sphere and the individual self in Chinese society.


However, a postsocialist public space is highly precarious and gendered. Public spaces in a city are often controlled with surveillance by authorities; the use of these spaces is often politicised and even commercialised. For example, bulletin boards in urban residential compounds are often full of political posters, or commercial advertisements featuring women’s bodies. In contrast, ordinary citizens’ use of these spaces is often forbidden, strictly scrutinised, or treated with suspicion. The act of posting an open letter in these public spaces therefore marks an act of transgression and signals the reclaiming of ordinary people’s entitlement to these spaces.


Guo reflected in her diary:

Many people said they were nervous when posting the open letter in public spaces, as if they were doing something wrong. In contrast, many perpetrators of domestic violence feel no unease at all when they committed physical violence in public. They will not even tone down their voice. The victims are usually more worried about being seen and being humiliated by others. Such a public space tolerates and even encourages violence against women.
It is easy to understand people’s unease in this context. We seldom use public spaces; we do not claim ownership to these public spaces. The campaign of posting anti-domestic violence open letters in fact has two objectives: firstly, to raise public awareness of domestic violence and offer support to victims; secondly, to exercise our right to use public spaces, and improve the social environment where such practices exist. This will also send a warning message to the perpetrators. (Guo 6 March 2020)

Guo believes in the power of individual and collective action in empowering marginalised people in society. She also sees the potential of ordinary people’s agency once they feel that they are empowered. She wrote on 8 March, the International Women’s Day (also the fifth anniversary of the arrest of the ‘Feminist Five’): ‘Many people have been searching for light and connection in the darkness of lockdown. They have never given up their desire for social change. This can release tremendous strength and power.’ (Guo 8 March 2020)


Conclusion


The ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ activist campaign offers a good example for political activism and social movements in a time of global crisis and a ‘state of emergency’. COVID-19 has brought unprecedented opportunities and challenges for contemporary social movements across the world. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing social problems including structural inequality, government inefficiency, and a weak social welfare system, nationally and globally.


Many people have been suffering from illness, death, and poverty because of these problems. But the pandemic situation has also raised the public’s awareness of these problems; it issued an urgent call for these problems to be addressed. Social movements addressing these problems are more likely to garner support from ordinary citizens and invite wide participation in society.


The quarantine measures have made public gatherings and physical contacts between people difficult. But the Internet and social media have facilitated social mobilisation and political activism in significant ways. For example, a large part of the ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ activist campaign took place online and on social media.


Physical isolation, therefore, does not necessarily bring an end to social movements. The collective spirit and emotional intensity generated in a time of crisis can be mobilised for activist purposes, and their impacts are likely to be stronger now than in ordinary times.

This case study has also highlighted the need to develop culturally sensitive and context specific activist strategies in social movements. Chinese feminists’ issue-based and coalition-building politics - together with their nuanced understanding of the public space in China as well as their strategic use of East Asian popular culture - has contributed to the popularity and success of this campaign among young people during the lockdown.


Departing from an adversarial, confrontational, and even hyper visible types of politics characterising many activist experiences in the Global North, people in China and other parts of the Global South are working their way through political constraints in their own societies; they are experimenting with innovative activist strategies based on specific local conditions and contingent social circumstances. These activist strategies should not be seen as a compromise to a political a priori, but as creative ways of reshaping and reinvigorating political activism and social movements transnationally.

Works cited:

  • Edwards, Louise. 2008. ‘Issue-Based Politics: Feminism with Chinese Characteristics or the Return of Bourgeois Feminism.’ In David Goodman (ed.) The New Rich in China: Future Rules, Present Lives. London: Routledge, pp. 201-212.

  • Feng, Jiayun. 2020. COVID-19 Fuels Domestic Violence in China SupChina

  • Fincher, Leta Hon. 2018. Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China. London: Verso.

  • Guo, Jing. 2020. Wuhan Fengcheng Riji (Wuhan Lockdown Diary). Taipei: Linking Publishing.

  • Kay, Jilly Boyce. 2020. ‘Stay the Fuck at Home!”: Feminism, Family and the Private Home in a Time of Coronavirus.’ Feminist Media Studies DOI:

  • Legal Information Institute. 2014. Guo Jing v. East Cooking Vocational Skills Training School Women and Justice

  • Liu, Lydia. 1995. Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity - China, 1900-1937. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Mak, Sophie. 2020. China’s Hidden Epidemic: Domestic Violence The Diplomat

  • Taube, Amanda. 2020. A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide New York Times


Hongwei Bao is an Associate Professor in Media Studies at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research primarily focuses on feminist and queer cultures in contemporary China, with a focus on media and cultural activism. He is the author of Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (NIAS Press, 2018) and Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism (Routledge, 2020)

This piece was first published in Interface: a journal for and about social movements. Reproduced with the author's permission.


1 I use the hanyu pinyin type of romanisation and the Chinese convention to present Chinese-language names: family names preceding given names. For example, in the case of the name Guo Jing, Guo is the surname and Jing is the given name.

2 Guo’s accounts have been taken from her published diary. The diary was first published online on Guo’s social media and on the Chinese-language news media Matters. It was later published in print, titled Wuhan Lockdown Diary (Guo 2020), by Taipei-based Linking Publishing. Although nominally a diary, Guo’s writing can be more appropriately described as a blog, publicly shared with friends and followers, and widely circulated online and offline. Guo uses public circulation of her writing as a form to engage with feminism and connect with other people. The public nature and the realist and activist style of the diary makes it an important account for studying feminist movements in China during the pandemic.

3 All the dated quotes are taken from Guo’s diary (Guo 2020). The dates refer to the time when these entries were first published online.