Last February, Guo Jing, a 29-year-old feminist activist and social worker living in Wuhan, woke up to new regulations: residents were banned from leaving their homes without permission. “The new rules remind me of the novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” she wrote in her diary, as she had every day since the government imposed a citywide lockdown a month before, “where women are stripped of their freedoms by a patriarchal government during a state of emergency.” Cut off from the outside world, she felt isolated and powerless.

She posted her diary entry on WeChat, sharing her private thoughts with millions of readers around the world. That day, as she did every day, she coordinated with the volunteers of a campaign she had founded to help women deal with domestic violence. That evening, she spent several hours catching up with members of a tight-knit group of a dozen or so Chinese feminist activists scattered around the world, exchanging words of advice and solace. Tech-savvy and entrepreneurial, these women are emblematic of the rising generation of feminist activists in China. Long barred from physical spaces of gathering — first because of politics, and now due to the coronavirus — they have become experts in building solidarity online.

Guo came of age during a nationwide feminist awakening. Like hundreds of thousands of women in China, she had moved from a small village to a big city to attend university in 2009 and, with the help of the internet, began to explore new ideas of womanhood. She bought her first smartphone and started following publications such as Feminist Voices, a digital magazine that evolved from a .doc file format distributed via email to one of China’s most influential feminist advocacy platforms. She connected with like-minded women across the country, who were beginning to question and push back against the sexism deeply embedded in everyday life.

In 2012, when Guo was a college junior, a loose coalition of young, college-educated women in Beijing and Guangzhou were also organizing. They played what they called “boundary ball”: testing societal limits without crossing them, tackling issues that were not explicitly political but controversial enough to challenge the status quo. They “occupied men’s toilets” as performance art to pressure the government to provide more toilet stalls for women. They shaved their heads to protest inequality in higher education. They donned blood-splattered wedding dresses to raise awareness of domestic violence. They initiated petitions, filed lawsuits, and pushed for legal change — efforts that would eventually pave the way for the passage of China’s landmark “anti-domestic violence” law in 2015. Emboldened and inspired by her peers, Guo successfully filed a lawsuit against gender discrimination in the workplace, after an employer refused to hire her because she was a woman.

But the movement took a dramatic turn in 2015, when the government staged a high-profile arrest of a group of young female activists — the so-called Feminist Five — and jailed them for 37 days. In the years that followed, as authorities tightened their grip on all forms of free expression and civil society, they also zeroed in on feminists. In 2018, on International Women’s Day, Feminist Voices was shut down by censors, accused of posting “sensitive and illegal information.” A year later, as part of a broader wave of repression against civil society, five women’s rights NGOs, including the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, founded by one of the five, were forced to close. By the time the pandemic hit last year, the public space for feminist activism in China, already rapidly shrinking, had all but disappeared.

One irony of this crackdown is that China’s Communist Party was originally rooted in the ideals of female liberation. When Mao came to power in the 1950s, proclaiming that “women hold up half the sky,” China boasted one of the largest female workforces in the world. But as economic reforms accelerated over the last three decades, gender inequality deepened. In recent years, the government has increasingly aligned itself with patriarchal Confucian values and encouraged the revival of traditional gender roles: namely, that women should be seen as wives and child bearers.

In response, activists have found new ways to fight for their demands. In 2018, when a plaintiff known as Xianzi accused a powerful Chinese media figure of sexual harassment, her open letter helped spark China’s #MeToo movement on university campuses across the country. In addition to full-time feminist activists, students advanced the cause — organizing supporters, signing petitions, and demanding their schools develop mechanisms to handle instances of sexual harassment. To evade censors, participants circulated emojis of a bowl of rice (mi) and a bunny (tu), whose Chinese characters sound like a homonym of “me too.” Last December, when Xianzi’s lawsuit was heard in a Beijing courthouse, hundreds of allies gathered outside, and those unable to attend sent hot bubble tea and warming pads. When a delivery man showed up to the scene and asked, “Who is ‘Xianzi and her friends’?” the crowd responded: “We all are.”

“If your body cannot participate, then you have to re-create the front line elsewhere.”

This new movement grew out of the digital sphere, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it transcends national boundaries. In August 2018, after the CEO of Chinese e-commerce giant was arrested for sexually assaulting a Chinese student in Minneapolis, the Chinese feminist community in the U.S. defended the woman against harassment from the press and social media commenters in China by building a global movement around the hashtag “I Am Not a Perfect Victim Either.” Lu Pin, the founder of Feminist Voices, said that feminists are emerging and organizing independently of activist leadership, creating what she calls a “networked guerrilla movement,” with nodes all over the world. From her home in New York, Lu communicates with her colleagues in China and elsewhere every day, facilitates WeChat groups, and cultivates connections between members. “If your body cannot participate, then you have to re-create the front line elsewhere,” Lu Pin said.

Today, during a moment in which we all have been cut off from public space, many of us are just starting to grasp what these activists have long understood: resiliency is built on trust, and trust is dependent on shared experience and mutual vulnerability. These values were not built into the original infrastructure of the internet, which prioritized anonymity. We cannot swipe our way to solidarity or tweet our way to trust. Digital intimacy is possible, but, as in real life, it must be deliberately created and nurtured. What then, does it mean to cultivate intimacy online? How do we grow a movement across digital borders? How do we learn to trust a disembodied face on a computer screen?

When Wuhan went under lockdown, Guo and her fellow activists checked in with each other nightly, sharing their hopes and fears and aspirations. The movement’s resilience, across geographies and borders, lies in the depths of these relationships, which are “built on mutual vulnerability,” Guo said. “I feel safe and accepted in this group. We are able to speak to each other truthfully, honestly, and without fear of judgment.” The internet cannot fully replace physical connection, but if used with intention, it can sustain and strengthen bonds.

Last November, I met Guo at a train station in Wuhan. Life in the city had all but returned to normal, with Covid-19 cases at zero, restaurants open, and travel restrictions lifted. She was about to hop on a train to the northern province of Shandong. A month prior, a woman there had been beaten to death by her husband, and the lenient punishment he had been given in a closed trial — three years in prison — infuriated the public. In response, the court had withdrawn the initial ruling and organized a new trial, this time open to the public. Guo could have watched a livestream or read about it online, but while it was still possible, she wanted to be there in person.