Lu Pin at October conference BEIJING AND SHANTOU, China (WOMENSENEWS)–When Lu Pin sits in her small office in Beijing and presses the send button, her weekly e-magazine offering gender-related news and analysis goes off to some 800 subscribers.

Her organization, Media Monitor for Women Network, began in the 1990s along with about a hundred others in China that were spurred by the government during the landmark 1995 U.N. women’s rights conference held that year in Beijing. Last year her organization started the e-magazine, which had about 500 subscribers until June. Then it joined a Chinese social network similar to Facebook. The listserve quickly added 300 subscribers and her organization now claims 2,200 "friends"

Those numbers are miniscule compared to China’s colossal statistics; 420 million Internet users, nearly 36 million more in the first six months of 2010 up from the 2009 figures. But for Lu it’s all about the potential to give voice to women.

Women make up 45 percent of Internet users, according to the official China Internet Network Information Center.

But Lu and others say women don’t assert themselves much online.

"When government uses the Internet (as a gauge of public opinion) women’s voice is still neglected because women don’t give (their) opinion online," Lu tells the audience at an October conference she put together in Beijing for women’s groups on better use of new media.

Women’s groups, Lu says, lag behind environmental and public-health advocates in their use of the Chinese-version of Facebook, Twitter, blogs and Web sites. Self-censorship is a big obstacle to expanding online as it attracts attention that can be perilous as well as desirable.

‘A Little Bit Dangerous’

"Sometimes new media is a little bit dangerous," says Ke Qianting, deputy director of gender studies at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, who also attended the conference. "Maybe we will risk to lose our job or our organization is cancelled or someone will be arrested. So we will evaluate the risk before we do some advocacy or speak out."

Local authorities cancelled a Chinese version of "The Vagina Monologues" at the last minute at a Beijing university in 2003. However, the play–in which performers customized parts of Eve Ensler’s original script to reflect local conditions–was successfully staged that same year at the university where Ke teaches. She credits a low-profile publicity approach in which colleagues and supporters spread news of the performance by word-of-mouth.

And then came a pleasant surprise. A few months ago–nearly seven years later–a city official asked for a rerun at a government-sponsored event; an annual conference that brings together companies that make sex toys and other products that also work with the government on family planning. Time was too short and she declined but says the incident shows how gender activists tap dance across invisible, frequently changing boundaries.

Following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women organized a skills training project that included a session on how to use QQ, a social network. The geographically distant women became part of a virtual community. To this day they are still in active communication and support one another with, for example, advice on how to raise rabbits, says Yuan Zhongda, the deputy project manager who was also at the conference. "The indirect purpose is by organizing some projects we also want to raise the attention of society and also influence the government policy on the women issues."

But when women’s issues get politically sensitive in any way, many people become wary. The threat, whether real or perceived, is a powerful deterrent.

Guo Yanping is a graduate student in literature at a university in Guangzhou. She helps to organize awareness-raising activities at her university on a range of topics from gender roles and equality, to violence and sexuality. She’s participated in seminars and flash dance mobs in subway stations–teams of people who perform a dance routine for a few minutes wearing T-shirts with statements such as "I want to be natural" and "I love beauty but not harm." The deliberately vague wording ties in with online forums that discuss body image, media representations through ads, plastic surgery, eating disorders and violence.

Guo, who attended the October conference, says many other students think participating in such activities will affect their chances at a government job. Even those who have no such aspirations are afraid of attracting attention.

"There are two kinds of control. One is real control. The other is self-restraint," Feng Yuan, a professor at Shantou University’s Center for Women’s Studies in southern China, says in an interview.

Without new media, little will change, say several activists. New media offers new tools of advocacy for women’s groups so that they can do more than provide services; they can help shape opinions.

In the summer of 2009 a news story about a woman who killed a local official who tried to rape her triggered a fury of Internet traffic. Much of the discussion focused on the official’s corruption. Several chat rooms debated whether the woman was guilty. Many gender activists criticized the buzz for missing the main story: violence against women. They published essays that they think helped mobilize public opinion and win the woman’s eventual acquittal.

"It takes patience and confidence in the future and that what you are doing is right and good for society," says Feng.

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–Wen Shi Pei contributed to this report.

Cyrille Cartier currently teaches international journalism and a course on gender and the media at Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communications in Shantou, China.

For more information:

Gender and Development in China:
(in Chinese/English)

Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women:
(in Chinese/English)

Sex/Gender Education Forum at Sun Yat-sen University:
(mostly in Chinese)

Center for Women’s Studies, Shantou University: (mostly in Chinese):
(mostly in Chinese)

All Eyes Shot:
(mostly in Chinese)

Common Language:
(in Chinese/English)