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Inside the Terrifying, Absurd World of a Women’s Rights Activist in China

We spoke to director Nanfu Wang about her harrowing documentary 'Hooligan Sparrow' about the Chinese government's relentless pursuit of activist Ye Haiyan.
June 8, 2016, 2:35pm
Still from 'Hooligan Sparrow.' Courtesy of Little Horse Crossing the River Productions

In one of the funnier scenes in Nanfu Wang's documentary Hooligan Sparrow, Chinese women's rights activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a. Hooligan Sparrow) is sprawled on her bed, entertaining questions from the endless stream of journalists who have shown up at her apartment. She has just been arrested protesting the non-conviction of a rape case in Hainan, but the inquisitors are more eager to know what she did at the Ten Yuan Brothel, where she offered free sex to draw attention to the dismal working conditions of sex workers in China. Sparrow seems tired and bored, but then a mischievous spark enters her eyes. She recalls a man asking her during the middle of sex,"'Where are you from? Why are you so kind? Who sent you here?'" Then she laughs about it with her head thrown back. "I told him that Beijing sent me," she deadpans, an unlikely scenario, to say the least, for the government-harried activist.


Aside from these brief moments of levity, the rest of the documentary is a grim foray into China's political repression machine, a complex web of unchecked corruption, misguided patriotism, and pervasive propaganda. For her activism, Sparrow has been relentlessly pursued, intimidated, beaten, evicted, and detained. Wang followed Sparrow for one summer and documented the government's terrifying yet oftentimes absurd efforts to suppress her: In one scene, a mysterious, angry mob suddenly appears at Sparrow's apartment, rattling her front door like bogeys in a horror movie, and the 41-year-old's only recourse is to defend herself and her daughter with a giant kitchen knife.

Mostly shot with an easy-to-conceal, point-and-shoot DSLR camera, cell phones, and secret-camera eyeglasses, the footage that comprises the film is dizzying and riveting, providing a first-person perspective on what it's like to suffer the consequences of being a political activist in China. Selected as the opening selection of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York on June 10, Hooligan Sparrow earned Wang the Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking. I met Wang at her home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to talk about the Chinese government's tactics of repression and her wildest hopes for future reform.

VICE: I'm Taiwanese—well, I guess contentiously that makes me Chinese—but I had no idea political activists were so suppressed in China. When I left the theater I was totally speechless and couldn't do anything for an hour. I felt completely ignorant.
Nanfu Wang: Before I made this film, I was also ignorant. And I grew up in China. My whole life, I had not met an activist or talked to one. Activism is a sensitive word in China. It's not something you hear about a lot. Even in the newspaper or social media, if you see something about Falun Gong, it's so taboo that no one in China would think about it without associating it with some kind of craziness or anti-government sentiment. It's almost like activist, human rights—these are not neutral words anymore. Ordinary people don't want to involve themselves at all. Because the media depicts activists as extremists who must have some kind of mental illness—something must be wrong with these people if they want to protest.

How did you hear about Ye Haiyan and why did you want to make a film about her?
I first heard about Ye Haiyan on social media. She was popular at the time because of the Ten Yuan Brothel action that she did, where she offered sex for free in order to call attention to the working conditions of sex workers. When she started blogging around the 2000s, she gave herself the nickname Hooligan Sparrow. Liu Mang Yen. She was one of the few bloggers who were very bold, blogging about their sexual experiences. Her blog was called Mei Ri Yi Zi , which means "a record of each day," but it's also a play on words, because ri is slang for "fuck." So, a blog for every fuck.


Some people criticized her, but others admired her courage. Although I knew about all this, it was only after she did the free-sex action that I started paying attention. I read about what she was advocating—legalizing prostitution—and I felt that I agreed with her. She's smart. She argued that once prostitution is legalized, sex workers can be protected and the industry can be regulated.

How did she get radicalized?
I think that she became an activist because it's her personality. She is a radical person. She's very adventurous, she has a great sense of humor, and she is very creative.

For instance, at the Hainan protest against the principal who raped the young girls, we were all discussing what to write on the signs, and she said, "I'm going to write 'Hey, principal, get a room with me—leave the children alone!'" Which was so funny! So we were sitting there laughing. And of course she did it, and the image went viral.

Where is Sparrow now?
She recently moved to Beijing, to an area called Song Zhuang, which is where a lot of artists live. She started painting about three weeks ago, and now she's selling them online and people are buying it.

Is she still getting hounded and threatened?
Her passport was taken by the government in November 2014. Before she moved to Beijing, when she was in Wuhan, her hometown, they put a surveillance camera in front of her apartment. Whenever she left, they would question her. After she moved to Beijing, the police visited her twice to threaten and warn her. They said, "Don't try anything otherwise we could evict you from here as well." So she was scared but very angry too. She can't do any campaigns in the streets anymore.


But she writes a lot. She writes on her blog probably every day. She writes, people read, and they pay for it. It's her income resource. The censors delete her posts after one day, two days, depending on what she writes, but then she'll just do screenshots and post it again.

So people do have access to provocative content on the internet.
I think the government is pretty freaked out about that. They reacted so strongly to the Hainan case because they want to control things as much as possible. Last year, there was a crackdown on human rights lawyers, and the government questioned 300 lawyers and then arrested 29 of them—almost all the human rights lawyers in China. It's a sign that they are really afraid the lawyers are educating people about their own rights and ways to defend their rights.

Still from 'Hooligan Sparrow.' Courtesy of Little Horse Crossing the River Productions

A principal that rapes young girls is obviously wrong, right? You don't need a lawyer to tell you that's wrong.
But it's so complicated. For the Hainan case, for instance, people didn't have first-hand information. Their only channel of information was from the state media and newspaper.

The media was saying there was no rape. There was no abuse. They were saying that the girls received money and gifts from the principal. Then the media steered the conversation toward how parents should educate young girls. The message was like, "Oh, nowadays the society is so deteriorated that even young girls want cell phones and clothes and money." So then the public debate became about the parents' responsibilities in educating their kids. It was like, "These young girls wanted money. These girls were not well-educated."


That's so enraging. It became all about disciplining women.
Yeah. The debates would be like, "Why did the girl go with the principal? As we see from the surveillance video, he did not kidnap her! She was walking with him." And then they interviewed other school kids and quoted them saying things like, "She always had a good relationship with the principal and she would brag about it!" Even my own friends who knew I was making this film were dubious about what happened.

If you remember, in the film, I interviewed one of the dads of the girls. I asked him, "Do you know Ye Haiyan? What did you hear about her?" And he said, "I heard she slept with men." And I said, "What do you mean? Like a prostitute?" And he said, "Yes." At that moment, my heart went so cold. I thought, Even him. This woman sacrificed so much to defend your rights, and now you're still judging her. But I don't blame him. All the information he got was through the media.

Can you describe what it was like to be threatened and followed everywhere?
Each time I went out into the street, I had to be alert. It was paralyzing. For me that meant I couldn't take out my camera. If I tried to film secretly with a secret camera in my pocket or somewhere on my clothes, it would feel like there was something burning my leg. Or wherever the device was hidden. That part of your body got really hot.

Director Nanfu Wang. Photo courtesy of Little Horse Crossing the River Productions

Do government officials contact random people to say, "Hey, can you follow this woman and harass her?" Is there a list somewhere?
A government official or police officer can personally go to a friend in the community and say, "Hey, I have a part-time job for you." There is also an official community organization that exists in China called the "Stability Maintenance Team," but I don't know.

What struck me was that all of these harassers were men, and often they would have a pleased expression like it was fun for them!
In China we have this strong sense of patriotism, this idea: I need to protect my motherland. The brainwashing starts in school. Everyone has to recite things like, "The party is higher than anything." We are told that the motherland is your mother: "No matter how ugly your mother is, you don't criticize your mom." They use that analogy to teach us to love China. But it's a false analogy—the party is not like your mom!


Even my own mom, when she learned I was making this documentary, she said, "Why are you doing that? You shouldn't! If there is a problem with the local government, you should report to higher level official instead of taking it outside of China. You will create a negative image and everyone will think China is bad." [Laughs]

Will you go back to China anytime soon?
I don't think I will go back anytime soon. People say it's risky. At customs they might check your name and say, "No, you can't come in." Which happens to a lot of activists who are now in exile. Or I go back but I can't come out. Or maybe nothing will happen. Just some harassment. In the future, if I have a period of time when it won't be such a disaster, I will try.

What's your wildest hope regarding political reforms in China?
I would like to see complete personal freedom—freedom of expression and protest and public assembly. America's not the freest country, but I would be happy if China could reach the same levels of freedom. But I don't see it happening. Because of the brainwashing, it would take many generations, and the education system would have to be reformed entirely.

The other problem is that information is so restricted right now. Everything people read and see is filtered. Even if, in a year, the internet firewalls are taken down, and people have access to Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and everything, that would be a huge step. Soon, the younger generation won't even know what Google is.

Are you managing to change your friends' minds? Do they think you're crazy? Yeah.

None of your friends are backing you up?
Well, I am making new friends now! But awareness is the first step. Sometimes people will come up to me after the screening, crying. They say, "I did not know this was my country."

Hooligan Sparrow is the opening selection on June 10 at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.

Follow Anelise Chen on Twitter.