Around this time, Zhao was contacted online by agents of the Chinese Ministry of State Security – also well known as the Chinese secret police – for Taiwanese political information. She began to see what she thought were abnormalities within Chinese society and politics. Zhao says she saw her life in Taiwan as that of “a prisoner in a place with freedom.”
After she returned to the Mainland, Zhao soon discovered the police were investigating her, inquiring about her daily schedule in Taiwan. She quickly realised she was being monitored by the government. Subsequently, policemen approached her at her university where they questioned her for five hours to get information about her involvement with Taiwan politics. Despite these encounters while she was still a student, Zhao continued to write after graduating because, “if you want to do it, then you can.” She says this is a mentality she acquired while reporting in Taiwan.
Her determination put her in good stead when she went to Wukan later that year to work on an investigative report for iSun Affairs in the village that had been rocked by anti-corruption protests just months earlier. She soon discovered reporting in Wukan was very different to reporting in Taiwan. Fear and uncertainty loomed wherever she went, “You couldn’t tell where it was safe or dangerous, you couldn’t tell what would happen tomorrow,” she says.
In Wukan, Zhao was aware she was working in a very traditional patriarchal society. She saw there were many women involved in the village protests and continuing struggle. These women played many different roles in the struggle but their stories were never told. This made her resolve to tell the story of the women of Wukan and other women in China who were fighting for their rights.
In 2013, iSun Affairs Affairs magazine closed down and after her graduation, Zhao became more actively involved in social issues. She joined Feminist Voices, a media organisation advocating for the protection of women’s rights. There, Zhao and her colleagues called for the abolition of the Custody and Education system which is mainly used to imprison female sex workers for up to two years without trial.
Zhao applied the skills she learned as a journalist to maximize coverage and discussion on the issue. She wrote 320 letters to government officials requesting the disclosure of information related to the Custody and Education system, which were all turned down. This did not stop Zhao, who sued the government for disclosure of the documents. The ensuing legal battle became a hot topic and generated a lot of media coverage.
Zhao says her experience working with Feminist Voices helped to shape her views and she now sees herself as combination of journalist and activist. She wants to report on China’s feminists and their stories as there is still a lack of support for, and awareness of, female human rights defenders.
Unfortunately, the tightening grip on civil society in the Mainland has seen crackdowns on the feminist movement. The most prominent incident was the arrest and detention of the so-called Feminist Five, who are friends of Zhao. This suppression of feminist voices in the Mainland has severely affected the movement.