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China suppresses feminist, LGBTQ groups. Outside China, they seek to rebuild


China's government is cracking down on queer and feminist groups as part of the state's broader controls on civil society, so Chinese-speaking communities outside the country are creating spaces for free expression. NPR's Emily Feng takes us to one of them in New York City.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Yes, increasing political controls in China are limiting cultural production and dissent in the country. But it's also given opportunities to the Chinese-speaking diaspora outside government control, opportunities like this one.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: This is the Feminist Talkshow (ph), a Mandarin Chinese-language event. It uses spoken word, stand-up and skits to satirize misogyny and political repression. And it's held in New York City every month.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: It's a form of expression that differentiates this generation of the Chinese diaspora from previous ones. This one is well educated and savvy at navigating both American and Chinese pop culture. I went to this show recently. The crowd was a mix of Chinese students, recent immigrants, academics and activists ready to laugh and cry together.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Mandarin).

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FENG: In one skit, actors mimic the main Chinese state evening news bulletin. But instead of delivering blandly worded copy applauding state policy, they poke fun at domestic politics and birth policy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Mandarin).

FIFI: We are anti-censorship. When there are things people cannot talk about in China, we talk here. That's the room. That's a space we have overseas.

FENG: This is Fifi (ph), one of the Talkshow's founders and performers. She asked that only her first name be used because of fear of retribution in China, where many of her friends and family still live. She said she was inspired by an online feminist talk show that once was held inside China. Those performances were recently forced to stop, so last year, Fifi realized she wanted to continue the show's legacy, and she stuck with the talk show format because she thinks comedy is a powerful tool.

FIFI: When you're a woman, when you are from LGBTQ+ community, when you are, you know, living under censorship and constantly feel oppressed by patriarchy, societies and government, it's, like, perfect tool to express our thoughts.

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FENG: The Talkshow organizers film each performance and share it with people in China via social media, though the videos usually end up quickly taken down. This is because state attitudes towards LGBTQ communities have hardened in China in recent years. Darius Longarino, a senior fellow who studies Chinese civil society at the Paul Tsai China Center, says China's security apparatus are nervous about LGBTQ issues.

DARIUS LONGARINO: LGBTQ groups or organizations are looked at as, like, potential pawns or, you know, Trojan horses of foreign forces, and that it undermines some of the state natalism goals of increasing marriage, increasing births.

FENG: Which is why communities like the Feminist Talkshow in New York are becoming more prominent. It's a platform for cosmopolitan young Chinese people to express themselves.

RUI: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: Here, one performer named Rui shares her experience telling her mom in China she was a lesbian and that she had already married a woman.

RUI: (Through interpreter) People in the Chinese diaspora are very cautious, given their different political inclinations. So even though New York has so many Chinese people, it is very difficult to make new friends with other queer or feminism-supporting people.

FENG: But simply by talking about these topics publicly and enjoying each other's company, they're practicing a quiet form of resistance.

EILEEN ZHANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: One of the Talkshow performers named Eileen Zhang originally wanted to return to China to work on feminism-related issues after studying in the U.S. But for now, this comedy talk show is her contribution from overseas.

ZHANG: If we can't really do anything that's, like, large scale or, quote-unquote, like, you know, "revolutionary," I think at least we can use our voice to raise other people's awareness.

FENG: And perhaps by being outside China, a voice that's harder for the powerful Chinese state to silence.

Emily Feng, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.