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NüVoices Won’t Let Beijing Silence Women

Participants engage in discussion on discrimination at a NüVoices event. (Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen)
Participants engage in discussion on discrimination at a NüVoices event. (Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen)

After years of enduring conferences about China whose panels primarily featured men — dubbed “manels” — and reading articles on China that mainly cited men, Joanna Chiu was fed up.

Years before foreign correspondents were being forced to leave China in droves, and even before headlines documented the widespread online harassment that female reporters face over their China coverage, the more obvious issue, according to Chiu, was the sidelining of female experts on China.

The excuse that there just weren’t many female China experts eventually grew so banal that Chiu, then a China correspondent for Agence France-Presse, set out to prove everyone wrong.

In January 2017, she put out a call on Twitter, now known as X, for people to contribute to an open-source directory she had created, where anyone could add female experts on China.

“It blew up overnight,” Chiu told VOA. “Before I knew it, there were hundreds of experts.” The directory now includes more than 600.

What started as a grassroots online directory eventually grew to NüVoices, an international editorial collective that amplifies women’s and nonbinary people’s work on China by hosting events around the world, producing a twice-monthly podcast and an online magazine — and above all, by serving as a community for people whose crucial work on China has long been discounted.

NüVoices is inherently celebratory, said Chiu, the group’s chair. That celebration of women’s work on China takes place in the face of what critics say is a deeply misogynistic Chinese government that would much rather see its detractors — especially those who aren’t men — silenced.

After Chiu launched the open-source directory, she said, “because discussions kept coming up around the directory, about how it could be a really elegant solution to removing all these excuses for the exclusion of women, it naturally progressed into a community.”

Chiu and other women regularly convened in Beijing, and after lots of late-night discussions at restaurants along the Liangma River, they decided to launch a group to “highlight women working on China,” Chiu said.

NüVoices — a play on “new” and “nü,” which means “woman” in Mandarin — launched on International Women’s Day in March 2018 at the iconic and since-closed Bookworm bookstore in Beijing.

“It was a totally packed, sold-out event at the Bookworm. So much enthusiasm for what we were doing,” said Chiu, who now reports from Vancouver for the Toronto Star. A lot of support over the years has come from men, she added, “who are sick of feeling like they’re complicit in this weird, patriarchal, male-dominated China field.”

NüVoices has succeeded because it provides actionable solutions, like joining a chapter or using the expert directory or reading recommended books written by women, Chiu explained. “You can spend years reading the work of the people we promote.”

In the more than five years since its founding, the group has expanded to seven chapters — China, London, Europe, Washington, New York, Canada and most recently, Taiwan. Chiu hopes an Australia chapter will be next.

“I still marvel sometimes at how it grew out of this directory,” she said.

The group also launched a twice-monthly podcast. The first episode looked at Chinese women who, despite the risk, work as news assistants at foreign news bureaus in China.

This past summer, NüVoices marked its 100th podcast episode.

“And we still have such a long list of people we want to reach out to as podcast guests,” said Chiu, who still regularly hosts the podcast. Other NüVoices board members rotate as podcast co-hosts as well.

Believing that women’s work is worth celebrating is a “very basic notion,” she said. But considering the challenges facing women journalists — in terms of China and more broadly — it can also be considered a radical one.

Online harassment

A 2022 report from the International Center for Journalists found that nearly 75% of female journalists it surveyed had experienced online threats — often of a sexualized nature.

It’s a trend that female journalists who cover China know particularly well. For all journalists who report on China — but especially women — covering the country with one of the worst press freedom records in the world can mean having a target on your back, according to Kiran Nazish, director of the Coalition for Women in Journalism.

“We constantly see threats,” Nazish told VOA. “The intent is, of course, to silence them.” But that often hasn’t worked out, she said.

“It’s no small secret what happens in many cases to outspoken journalists in China, especially women, who are subjected to very specific forms of harassment and coercion,” said Siodhbhra Parkin, chair of NüVoices’ Washington chapter. “That’s really what NüVoices has meant to me — it’s a way to hear voices that would otherwise be censored or stifled.”

In response to VOA’s email requesting comment, the spokesperson of China’s Washington Embassy said, “The Chinese government attaches great importance to gender equality and the all-round development of women.”

“It’s impossible to advance the Chinese modernization drive and build a culturally-advanced and harmonious world without the extensive participation of women,” Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson, added.

Meanwhile, a 2022 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified what appeared to be a Beijing-backed online information campaign designed to harass, intimidate and discredit female journalists of Asian descent who report on China. Some harassment is government-backed, but it isn’t always.

The often sexualized and misogynistic nature of this harassment reflects deeper forces that are baked into the Chinese government, according to Leta Hong Fincher, an adjunct professor at Columbia University whose research focuses on gender issues and feminism in China.

“The Chinese Communist Party sees the subjugation of women as integral to its authoritarian rule,” she told VOA. That manifests in everything from the Chinese concept of leftover women to the censorship of feminist topics across Chinese social media, Hong Fincher added.

“Our response is our existence,” said Parkin, who works in the human rights sector.

Just six women have ever become full members of China’s Politburo, which is the party’s 24-member executive leadership body, and none has ever sat on the innermost Politburo Standing Committee.

“That is emblematic of the deeper problem here, which is that you’re only ever getting one side of the story if you only ever listen to one type of person,” Parkin said.

The targeting of female journalists who cover China wasn’t as bad when NüVoices started, Chiu recalled, but it has gotten worse each year. In turn, the celebration that characterizes NüVoices’ work represents a refusal to be silenced, Chiu said.

“We want to, for the most part, ignore the trolls and just keep trumpeting the successes of our community. It’s like a barrage of positivity and celebration,” she said. “We want to make sure the silencing is not successful.”