Hong Kong protesters know how they see themselves. One crowdfunded statue of the “Goddess of Democracy”—adapted from an image originally adopted during protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989—depicts the archetypal “front line” protester, complete with hard hat, gas mask, and protective goggles.
It isn’t the only female image used by the protesters, whose gender mix is fairly equal. After a young woman offering first aid was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet by the police, images of a woman wearing an eye patch, or with roses dripping blood over her eye, took hold.
China also depicts the protesters as women—but not as brave or martyred ones. Instead, it turns to the language of both parenthood and misogyny.
China is hardly unique in depicting relationships between ruler and subject as parent and child. But the idea is prevalent today in a way that’s largely vanished elsewhere. Chinese President Xi Jinping has reinforced the image of the leader as family patriarch, “Uncle Xi” dominating the table. Official women’s groups increasingly push propaganda suggesting women should step aside to aid men’s careers, or to have babies to prop up the country’s falling birthrate.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has tried to characterize her rule as that of a gentle but firm parent, refusing the unreasonable requests of her wayward child. Online propaganda, meanwhile, has produced cartoons showing China as a long-suffering mother whose infant daughter Hong Kong was snatched away from her loving arms only to be returned as a tantrum-throwing toddler, refusing her multitude of gifts.
Often rebuttals are trapped within that paradigm themselves: Instead of rejecting the idea of Lam as a mother, Hong Kong’s netizens busied themselves with banners depicting her as a bad mother, digging up photos of her beaming at her son’s graduation and contrasting them with the beaten, bloody faces of protesters. Just as there are bad mothers, the images suggest, there are good mothers, “true” mothers of Hong Kong, wanting to make their love known, staging a sit-in outside government headquarters in solidarity with the anti-extradition protests.
It’s all too easy to reach for the classic Confucian text The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety as a lens for understanding this iconography, or the popular saying in China that gentle mothers produce sons who are failures.
Women are usually the villains in Chinese histories. Tycoon Li Ka-shing’s endlessly dissected cryptic full-page advertisements in Hong Kong newspapers, published in August, included a reference to a Tang-dynasty poem written by Li Xian, an exiled crown prince. Its advice on the picking of ripe melons was a veiled rebuke to the prince’s mother, Empress Wu Zetian, for the death of his brother and his own exile—another power-hungry bad mother.
But there are also more recent narratives.
Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has been flooding the media with cautionary tales of “little emperor syndrome” and “princess disease.” Supposedly the result of the recently ended one-child policy and growing urban affluence, these only children are depicted as spoiled and socially stunted by too much parental affection. They are portrayed as an aberrant reversal of the expectations of filial piety: They sponge resources from their parents and grandparents, as the bulk of the family income is spent on their sole child.
The criticism of Hong Kong as a bratty little girl refusing the many gifts of her mother draws as much on these more recent stereotypes as anything from the time of Confucius.
The depiction of Hong Kong as female in these caricatures calls to mind stereotypes of the “Kong Girl.” Baidu Baike, China’s user-generated encyclopedia, has a page listing the many ways to identify and defend yourself against the self-centered, handbag-loving, gold-digging “Kong Girl.” It warns of how she uses her sexuality to manipulate her orbiting men, termed “dogs” or “Guanyin’s soldiers,” an arch reference to the guardians of the popular bodhisattva and goddess of mercy.
It is this specific sexist stereotype that is being drawn on when Hong Kong is portrayed as a shrill, high-maintenance mistress constantly talking about her ex. This overlays misogyny onto a nationalism that reduces the complexities of its own people into a single solitary, bratty dependent. It isn’t that there are multiple factions with different, mutually exclusive agendas; it’s that this airheaded girl-child is indecisive and fickle. It isn’t that a woman may be confident and independent; it’s that she’s narcissistic and viperous.
The ultimate manifestations of this were the bizarre comments by pro-Beijing Hong Kong politician Fanny Law that the “young girls” of the movement were being tricked into offering “free sex” to protesters. Hong Kong’s independent, active young women were reduced to nothing but their gender.
In a global context, authoritarians often have often framed places and peoples as a single desirable, controllable woman, from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who recently described Brazil as “a virgin that every pervert from the outside lusts for,” to Adolf Hitler rousing the sleeping Valkyrie that is Germany. This positions the lover, the master of the nation, as active and masculine; the nation, the claimed and conquered, is passive and feminine.
Within China, this is evoked again by the characterization of the colonized region of Xinjiang, where more than a million Uighurs are held in camps, as a willing, waiting bride. Currently circulating on the Sinophone internet are videos promoting the marriage of Uighur women to Han men. These videos assure their audience that there are no scientific reasons why intermarriage should be discouraged and that Uighur women are not only exotically beautiful, but also proficient in Han culture and the Chinese language. They are objectified, even commodified, as part of the wider colonial conquest.
These videos do not even mention Uighur men marrying Han women. The “Uighur” is framed as wholly and exotically feminine, gigglingly passive and waiting for an honest Han man. The image of the “fragrant concubine,” a quasimythical Uighur woman taken as consort by an 18th century emperor, is often evoked. Chinese stories say she came to love the man who stole her. Uighur legends say she fought him off until she was murdered by the emperor’s mother.
This language is reminiscent of China’s May Fourth Movement of the 1910s and early ’20s, which memorably linked national humiliation to male sexual impotence in works such as Yu Dafu’s “Sinking,” whose protagonist, a Chinese student in Japan, feels simultaneously threatened and aroused by the life around him. The crisis of the nation becomes a crisis of Chinese masculinity. This thread of insecurity continued in nationalist propaganda during World War II, which often centered on sexual violence against women. In works from Lin Jue’s “Under the Whip” to Ma Jia’s “The Road to Revenge,” and still in many Chinese television shows today, nameless Chinese women are raped and murdered by Japanese troops as a metaphor for the nation in peril.
Urban legends circulate still today of Chinese men going to Japan with the intention to “avenge” the Rape of Nanjing upon the bodies of Japanese sex workers. The twist in the tale is that after vigorous intercourse, the sex worker picks up her cell phone and pours out a stream of crude northern Chinese curse words.
And on the ground in Hong Kong, this language plays out in the allegations that the Hong Kong police have used sexual violence against female protesters. A protest on August 28 highlighted the issue, and it’s become one of the chief grievances in a long list levied against the despised police force.
The battle over Hong Kong—like so many nationalist contests—is being fought over the metaphorical and the literal bodies of women.