The day before International Women’s Day in 2015, women's rights activist Wu Rongrong was dragged off a plane from Shenzhen and taken to a police station in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou.
How one of China’s ‘Feminist Five’ is fighting for women’s rights, even after jail
She was locked up for 37 days, interrogated by day and left to sleep on the floor at night.
And all because she planned to hold up signs at local bus stops to protest pervasive sexual harassment on public transport.
“The police officers asked me ‘why are you against sexual harassment?’,” Wu recalls.
“I told them: ‘it is a real problem, and I’m scared of it.’”
The detention of Wu and four other female activists ahead of International Women’s Day triggered an international outcry, with US and European Union officials calling for their release.
The activists, all of whom were released a month later, became known as the “Feminist 5,” turning into a symbol of the feminist movement in China.
For Wu, who was born to a poor family in rural Shanxi province in northern China, the feminist rebellion had begun long before that.
With her mother too sick to farm, Wu started working in the fields at an early age.
When she was six, she would help her father plant seeds or plow with a tiny hoe.
Most of the girls in that village dropped out of school and married before the age of 18, but Wu’s grandmother insisted on funding her education with the money she made from peeling walnuts.
Wu says her living room filled with angry relatives after she announced that she was moving to Beijing to study social work.
“They told me to get married, so the gift money from my future in-laws could cover my two brothers’ education,” she says. “I just wanted to kick them all out.”
Wu says that this early experience of discrimination sparked her interest in women’s rights.
Bright lights, big city
After her graduation in 2007, Wu worked in Beijing for non-governmental organizations, providing legal and psychological advice to sex workers, HIV carriers, and domestic violence victims.
It was a time when civil activism was tolerated, and even encouraged, by the Communist Party leadership.
Wu and her colleagues organized petitions and small-scale street protests, and some of their actions were even covered by state-controlled media.
In 2012, they staged an “Occupy Men’s Toilets” demonstration in more than 10 cities to demand more stalls for women.
And on International Women’s Day that year, Wu helped organize an anti-sexual harassment event, in which activists protested by eating pig’s trotters on the street of Guangzhou.
It was a visual pun: “salty pig’s hand” is Chinese slang for “groper.”
But the campaigning ground to a halt in 2015 when she and her colleagues were detained.
The round-up of the Feminist Five was part of a wider crackdown on civic activism by President Xi Jinping’s administration. Human rights lawyers were arrested and social media restrictions were tightened.
Wu is now studying for a law degree at the University of Hong Kong.
She almost didn't make it.
Chinese police nearly refused to approve the travel document she needed to leave mainland China, due to her detention.
Talking to Inkstone in Hong Kong, Wu talked about her childhood, her interest in Buddhism and her seven-year-old son back in Hangzhou, in eastern China.
She looks younger than her 33 years. She jokes that she lost her chubby cheeks during the month-long detention, but later gained them back.
Her friendliness and warmth remind me more of a mother than a veteran activist.
Wu says she will never abandon feminism but, after her detention, she has adopted a less high-profile way of pushing for change.
Before arriving in Hong Kong, Wu provided psychological counseling to working mothers and housewives, to help them cope with stress from family and society.
When the global #MeToo movement gained ground in China last year, Wu offered support and advice to activists campaigning for policies to prevent sexual harassment in Chinese universities.
“When we were talking about feminism years ago, my friends thought it was a strange idea,” Wu says. “Now people don’t find it strange anymore.”
She says she's heartened by the growing recognition of women’s rights in China, despite the greater barriers to activism.