We live in revolutionary times, which means that counterrevolutionary forces are also unusually active. The current wave of anti-authoritarian activism dates back to 2011, the heady year of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Those movements have endured in various forms, as in the wild popularity of Bernie Sanders’s candidacy and the growing influence of the Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve seen how state power in the West has responded to these popular awakenings—with austerity measures and militarized police. But what has been the response of state authority to the global trend of anti-authoritarian solidarity in the East?
The new documentary Hooligan Sparrow is a riveting feat of guerrilla filmmaking, chronicling the persecution of one of China’s foremost activists, Ye Haiyan, aka Hooligan Sparrow. It reveals much about the systems of power in the world’s largest authoritarian state and the equally formidable tactics of China’s burgeoning activist culture.
Ye Haiyan came to prominence in China some years ago by embedding herself among China’s vulnerable, exploited sex workers, who are often severely abused and mistreated. She lived their lives to better understand their plight and shared her findings with media outlets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was branded a “whore” by many, but she also inspired many progressive Chinese, especially women, to take a stand. Sex workers choose their occupations, Sparrow argued, out of poverty and a lack of options. Though her activism centers on women’s rights and sex workers, she sees endemic poverty as the force driving women to this often dangerous form of work.
The documentary is shot by the intrepid filmmaker Nanfu Wang, largely with hand-held cameras in a style that conveys true urgency. Wang’s film is a first-person account of the fierce protest led by Sparrow over a shocking crime in May 2013. In the Hainan Province, six elementary school girls were apparently violently raped by the school’s principal with a housing bureau official as an accomplice.
This was just the latest in a long series of such crimes in which public servants use their power to have sex with underage girls in China, where the age of consent is 14. Due to a loophole in the law, even if a girl is under 14, the rapist can go free by simply claiming ignorance of the girl’s youth. To make matters worse, if the rapist claims he paid the girl, he is prosecuted for “patronizing a prostitute,” which carries a much lighter sentence than a rape conviction. Sparrow’s protest largely centered on fighting to reform this law.
The bulk of the film follows Sparrow in the weeks after she leads protests demanding harsh punishment for the Hainan principal, and her efforts to inform the public about the insidiousness of the loophole. It is remarkable that a relatively small group of women with cameras and meager little signs drew an immediate, heavy police response, and shortly afterwards, thugs harass Sparrow at her home. They harassed her so severely, trying to shove their way into her apartment, that she defended herself with a knife. For this, she is detained for two weeks.
Later, a huge crowd of protesters gathered outside her apartment, calling her a whore and demanding she leave the neighborhood. Wang’s narration informs us that the mass of demonstrators was likely hired by the government. They have dialects scarcely decipherable to Wang, indicating they were bused in from faraway regions. This is arguably the Chinese power system’s most potent weapon of control—nearly 1.4 billion people willing to screw their neighbor to advance their own interest. Despite being omnipresent, the state likely knows that if it doesn’t use its gargantuan population as a coercive tool, solidarity may build and the sheer power of numbers will be too much to control.
Soon enough, Sparrow and her teenage daughter are evicted from their apartment, for dubious reasons, and Wang follows her on a quest to find peaceful refuge somewhere. This proves unsuccessful, however, since the government has plain clothes secret police spies everywhere, along with National Security Agents in hot pursuit. The state’s control over dissenters is so complete that Sparrow is effectively banished from society for disputing a clearly unjust law.
A fascinating, unsettling front-row seat to the structures of control in China, Hooligan Sparrow offers a chilling look at a government gone mad with a lust for control while also revealing how resistance and solidarity remain not only possible but vital to any future worth having.