Xiao Meili is an unassuming activist. Despite her shy demeanour, however, she’s taken on feminism as a full-time job, petitioning for women and children’s rights. Most days, you can find her in the offices of the Women’s Media Monitoring Network, plotting awareness campaigns to tackle major issues such as sex abuse in schools, gender inequality and workplace discrimination. ‘I don’t really have an income or a job. This is
my job,’ Xiao says of her life’s work. The little money she does make is generated from her Taobao shop, where she sells her sketches of adorable cats.
Her pixie haircut and round specs give her a youthful, animated, Harry Potterish look, but when she speaks you know her convictions run deep. When Xiao heard a series of heart wrenching news reports about teachers sexually abusing their students last year, she refused to sit idle.
Instead, she walked more than 2,000km from her Beijing apartment to Guangzhou over 144 days, crossing 55 cities to raise awareness about child sex abuse in China’s schools, gathering petition signatures and writing letters to officials at each stop. Out of the 160 letters she wrote, 42 responses were received from bureaucrats, all deflecting responsibility to other departments and claiming that child sex abuse didn’t fall under their jurisdiction.
Only one local government – in Xinzheng, Henan – applauded her campaign. ‘The Xinzheng government rang me and said the officers thought it was amazing and wanted to join me. They didn’t, but I was very happy about it. Most of the local governments were suspicious. They thought I was walking on behalf of an organisation,’ the Chengdu-born firebrand explains.
Xiao’s political origins were established early, during her studies in Taiwan, where she was introduced to feminist films and literature. ‘Taiwan’s young people are different from Chinese students. They can have demonstrations in the street, but my friends were not really interested in this. When I first began my walk, they thought it was stupid and boring,’ Xiao says.
But she was undeterred by the naysayers and marched on anyway. However, to this day, her parents have no clue about her arduous trek across China, despite it being widely reported in the international and Chinese media. ‘They don’t know the American media,’ Xiao says with a sense of humour, blaming her grandmother as a television hog with her Chinese soaps. But they almost found out when she lectured at Tianjin’s Nankai University and a family friend’s son was in the crowd. ‘My mother asked him what I was talking about and he said not to worry because it didn’t make me any money,’ Xiao recalls. Like many Chinese children, Xiao didn’t want to rattle her parents with worry, knowing they’d most likely disapprove of her campaign.
Surviving mainly on Chinese buns (mantou) and water, Xiao stuck to a daily regimen. After breakfast, she’d research her next stop, book cheap motels, write letters, collect signatures and walk. When she passed through major cities, she’d meet with professors and give lectures about her journey at the universities. On the road, strangers were encouraging but at the same time baffled by her mode of transport. ‘A lot of people said, “you’re walking on the road? Why? Why don’t you take the bus?”’
Walking, Xiao says, was another form of liberation for her, and political in itself – she wanted to prove that women shouldn’t have to feel afraid to walk the streets alone.
Along the way, she was joined by 50 of her fans – from 18 to 60 in age, including some men – who read her blog, which documented the five-month journey. Some of her fellow walkers included feminist scholar and China’s Vagina Monologues director Ai Xiaoming and activist Ye Haiyan, who famously demonstrated in front of a Hainan school where the principal and a government worker were convicted of raping six female students in a hotel room.
Ye held a sign that went viral on the Internet, reading, ‘Principal, get a room with me – leave the school kids alone.’
Ye’s campaign opened the floodgates, leading to dozens more cases surfacing and other victims coming forward, sparking national outrage after the perpetrators were handed lenient prison sentences. To quash her activities, Ye was harassed, beaten and left homeless by authorities. Ai Xiaoming and dissident artist Ai Weiwei supported Ye by continuing her campaign and petitioning for her release.
Chinese author Lijia Zhang walked with Xiao for five days in Changsha. She says she suffered at the hands of an abusive high school maths teacher in the ’70s as a student in Nanjing. ‘He molested all the girls in our class,’ Zhang says. She was 13 at the time. Under the pretence of checking her work, he’d lean over her, running his hand up her shirt to touch her chest. ‘We all tried our best to avoid him,’ Zhang says, but one girl, who had the most developed breasts in class, was his main target and couldn’t escape his abuse. ‘She dropped out at 14… she could’ve stayed and had a better future,’ Zhang says – but the trauma overwhelmed her. During that time, Zhang and her classmates didn’t know what ‘sexual abuse’ was. The man’s actions went unreported, as many are still today.
For every sexual abuse case that’s reported, seven go unreported, according to research from the People’s Public Security University of China, which surveyed 5,800 schools. Between 2010 and 2013, China charged 8,069 people with child molestation, according to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. ‘In sexual abuse cases, 50 percent of them happen to rural migrant families because parents are working in other provinces and pay less attention to the daily life of their kids,’ says Beijing lawyer Lv Xiaoquan of Qianqian Legal Aid, which takes these cases on for free.
In fear of losing face, many families cover up the abuse to shield their child from further pain and prevent social stigma. ‘Some people blame the parents or think the victims have done something to lure the abuser, which is ridiculous,’ Zhang says. Last October, the Supreme People’s Court issued new guidelines to hand down tougher sentences to abusers, namely teachers and government employees, in light of the scandals. However, critics say the new guidelines are still too broad, calling for the age of consent to be changed and stricter measures to be implemented.
As for Xiao, a visual artist by training, she says she’s in discussions with a publisher to release a cartoon book about her journey. Meanwhile, she’s laying the groundwork for her next campaign, which will tackle sex abuse on campus. ‘There is a lot of sex abuse in universities. People say it’s the girls’ fault for not protecting themselves. This is China’s culture. They want to control women.'