Iwas born in Hubei province in 1954. My father was a high-school teacher, but during the Cultural Revolution he was persecuted as a ‘counter-revolutionary’, and was unable to work again until the 1980s. It was my mother who supported the family in the meantime, working as a librarian. I finished high school in 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, universities stopped taking new students. Most high-school graduates were sent to rural areas to learn and work among the peasants; I spent five years in the countryside. We would all share our books, and took turns reading classics by the fire while cooking for the other students. In 1972, universities were re-opened; I entered the department of Chinese literature at Central China Normal University in 1974. The university had relocated to the countryside so that we could reform our worldviews, and our classes involved reciting poems by Mao and little else. Still, we managed to borrow books from our teacher—Stendhal, Tolstoy. After graduating I was assigned to teach in a school for the children of coal miners. Then, in 1978 I enrolled in a master’s programme at Central China Normal University back in Wuhan. After completing it I stayed on for a while to teach, and in 1985 began a PhD on modern Chinese literature at Beijing Normal University. My first book, a study of the writer Ba Jin, came out in 1989.footnote1

The 1980s were a period in which people felt encouraged to think independently, and to reflect on history, as part of a wider liberation of thought. I was not involved in the demonstrations on Tiananmen Square in 1989, but like other observers of the event, I was very concerned. I couldn’t believe the authorities would send in the army—it was totally unthinkable. At the time, I thought they would see the error they had made; I never expected them to go on sticking to the same mistake for twenty years. After 1989, the intellectual climate changed. It had a strong impact on literary scholars: it became impossible to discuss contemporary writers such as Su Xiaokang or Liu Binyan, or to teach ‘reflective literature’ (fansi wenxue).footnote2 This was partly why I turned to foreign literature. But there were also increasing restrictions on academic research: one step at a time, one would discover more and more limits to what one could think. Political exiles could no longer return, and many others were leaving. So I decided to move to Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou in 1994, thinking that the South would be a more open place, with freer media and a better quality of life.

For a while I led the ordinary life of a teacher, but one of the things that unsettled me was a visit to the us in 1999. Before then I had never left China, and observing the country from such a long distance, I saw that it had too much bitterness, too many disasters. But the main challenge to my thinking came from feminism and gender studies. Before this I had read some books on feminist theory, but had never related it to my own work or behaviour. It was also during this visit, in early 2000, that I first read The Vagina Monologues, which turned into one of my first film projects four years later. After I returned from the us, I began to teach classes on feminism and organize discussions—for example, of the way advertisements objectified women. Some of the other professors looked down on this, refusing to treat it as serious academic work.

If we talk about equality, we need to make connections between various kinds of inequalities in society. In my opinion, the unequal treatment of migrant workers in Guangzhou has to do with feminist theory. And in the us, for example, discriminations along the lines of race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation are talked about in connection with each other. I think theory cultivates in us precisely this ability to see things in connection with each other.

I started writing social commentaries in early 2003, when China was threatened by a sars epidemic. A reporter had called the first sars patient ‘the virus king’, and I wrote a piece in the Guangzhou paper Southern Weekend protesting against this discrimination: the patient was himself a victim, and hadn’t done anything wrong. Soon after that I wrote on the death of Sun Zhigang, a young man who died in police custody. He came from a peasant family in Hubei province, studied at university and then worked in Shenzhen before coming to Guangzhou to work as a designer. On March 17, 2003 he left his house at around 10pm to go to an internet café. The police detained him for not having a temporary resident card, and sent him to a detention centre, where he was beaten to death. His case exposed the evils of the ‘custody and repatriation’ system in China. Introduced in the early 1980s, this allowed the authorities to detain and deport anyone without a residence permit; by the 1990s it had led to the creation of a network of detention centres—‘black prisons’. The majority of those who fell victim to this system were the ‘floating population’ from other provinces, especially migrant workers from rural areas who had come to cities in search of work. A great deal of violence was inflicted on detainees in these centres, as well as extortion of money from their families.

There were four reasons for this. First, the reporting of the case in the Southern Metropolitan Daily was the first time that the violence in the detention centres was exposed. Second, Sun Zhigang’s profile was not that of a conventional migrant worker: he was a university graduate working for a design firm; urban residents and intellectuals more readily identified with him. Thirdly, the proliferation of internet technology had begun to make many websites into platforms for public opinion; this was one of the first events to generate massive discussions in web forums. Fourth, 2003 was the first year of the new administration headed by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao; the government had demonstrated a more open attitude earlier that year during the sars crisis and subsequent media uproar, which greatly encouraged the netizens.

The outcry over Sun Zhigang’s death in the end prompted the State Council to abolish the ‘custody and repatriation’ system. But ‘black prisons’ continue to exist at all levels, from Beijing downwards, and the government has set up ‘legal education’ classes aimed at containing petitioners. The authorities have promoted institutions designed to ‘maintain stability’, which in practice cover up and avoid social conflict by limiting people’s freedoms. Current practices resemble the former ‘custody and repatriation’ system: one can find many media reports of petitioners being kidnapped and held in ‘black prisons’ by the security services.