Chinese activist relieved to be out of Oscar spotlight

Ye Haiyan in her unheated apartment on the outskirts of Beijing.
Ye Haiyan in her unheated apartment on the outskirts of Beijing.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING • Ye Haiyan, one of China's most prominent women's rights activists, huddled in her unheated apartment on the outskirts of Beijing, waiting to learn if the documentary that propelled her to international fame would receive an Oscar nod.

Last month, Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary following her activism on behalf of sexually abused children, made a short list for the Academy Awards.

When she learnt the film was not included among the final five nominees announced last Tuesday, she breathed a sigh of relief.

"If many people started paying attention to me because of the film, I suspect I wouldn't be able to stay in China much longer," she said.

"I don't want to stand up and become an even more prominent dissident here."

Since 2012, Ye has gained a huge online following for shock-tactic human rights activism: working for free in a brothel to advocate for sex worker rights and making a tonguein-cheek offer to sleep with a school principal who raped and pimped out his students in the southern island province of Hainan.

Her work drew the attention of internationally renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who posed nude with her in a controversial photograph.

But the spotlight also attracted the attention of the country's police, who ruthlessly persecuted the single mother for her role in organising protests against the school rape case.

The director of Hooligan Sparrow, New York-based Nanfu Wang, captured the drama of intimidation, detention and evictions Ye suffered in the summer of 2013, weaving the tense footage into a thriller-esque narrative.

The first-time director's documentary would have become one of only a handful of movies by a mainland Chinese film-maker to ever be nominated for an Oscar.

Wang was disappointed the film was not included in the final five nominees. "A nomination would have been big news in China - the kind of news that state censorship would struggle to manage," she said.

Greater exposure might mean greater protection for Ye from the authorities, but it could also end in increased harassment, she said.

Wang has not returned to China since the film debuted, unsure of the consequences that might await her. "It's difficult to know for sure how the government will behave," she said.

Since the film's release, Ye has been forced to reevaluate her oftensensationalistic tactics. Things were "quite dangerous" for a while, she said, as the government upped its surveillance. "Before, I'd been so naive. I thought as long as I made noise, the government would hear me and change."

Living under constant scrutiny, she said, has forced her to find a balance between speaking out for her beliefs and keeping a low-enough profile to avoid becoming further entangled.

Her previous tactics, inspired by Western-style activism, fell on deaf ears in China, she said.

"People wouldn't listen to anything you said, thinking you'd been brainwashed by Western universal values," she said.

To change Chinese hearts and minds, she is going to "try to better understand people and find language that they can accept".

"I'm even willing to work with the Communist Party," she added.

"As long as they allow me a small space in this country to survive and speak, I won't leave or give up being a critic."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Chinese activist relieved to be out of Oscar spotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe