Feminism in China

Feminism has had “a prominent role… in China’s revolutionary history… China’s ruler Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that ‘women hold up half the sky.’ Propaganda images in the 1950s and ’60s showed smiling, muscular female welders and factory workers laboring to boost industrial production.”  The importance of sexual equality was institutionalized in the law when China’s first Civil Code was released in 2020.  “Husband and wife are equal in marriage and family,” according to Article 1055.

But neither propaganda nor laws have changed the underlying cultural reality that China’s “deep-rooted gender roles often place the bulk of housework and childcare on women, making it difficult for them to balance work or study with motherhood.”  (Hmm… I wonder why this sounds so familiar.)

In 2015, a group of feminists planned a “multi-city protest aimed at sexual harassment on public transport.”  To the surprise of no one, five of the leaders – later called China’s Feminist Five – were arrested “on suspicion of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’” After an international outcry, they were released 37 days later, but were kept under nerve-wracking surveillance for several years.  According to Dr. Leta Hong Fincher , who wrote a book about the Feminist Five, this “marked the birth of [a] new feminist movement that has had remarkable momentum in the years since, in spite of a really brutal crackdown from Beijing.” 

Since then, China’s MeToo movement has been miniscule compared to that in the US.  But the fact that there have been MeToo cases at all can be seen as a huge breakthrough in a country that controls both social media and the traditional press.  The most well-known case to date involved international tennis star Peng Shuai.  On November 2 last year, she published a detailed social media post accusing Zhang Guoli of forcing her into sex three years before.  As one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Zhang is one of the most powerful people in China.

According to the New York Times “state censors quickly restricted searches for Ms. Peng’s name on the Chinese internet and deleted the post, but… [the word spread and] in the following hours, netizens logged nearly seven million searches for the post.”  The day after the post, Ms. Peng disappeared from public view.  As explained in a follow-up Times article this February this “prompted a global chorus of concern for her safety.”  She reappeared in February at the Beijing Olympics.  When a reporter asked why the post had been erased within hours of her accusation.  Peng replied “I erased it… Why? Because I wanted to.”

Uh huh.

Beijing residents demonstrate against sexual harassment in 2020

While anecdotes like these give a flavor of the status of Chinese feminism, a more systematic way to see where the Chinese stands in relation to the rest of the world is by looking at “The Global Gender Gap Index… introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006 to benchmark progress towards gender parity” in four categories: economic opportunities, education, health and political leadership. 

According to the most recent “Global Gender Gap Report”, China ranks #107 of the 156 countries in the study.  (Iceland is #1 with the smallest male-female gap.  The US is #30.)   

But when you look into the underlying data, China actually has the smallest male-female gap in the world in two sub-categories:  professional and technical workers (51.7% female in China) and enrollment in post-secondary education (55.9% female).  And they rank sixth in the world with one of the lowest gaps for “wage equality for similar work.”

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that China earned its low overall rating with scores on many other sub-categories, including the percent of women in ministerial positions (#147 of 156).  Despite the fact that “Chinese law states that women and men should have equal rights in all aspects of political life… [and] 30 per cent of the members [of the Chinese Communist Party] are women… [women] remain marginalized in politics.”  China’s central decision making body, the Politburo has 25 members, but only one is a woman:  Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan.  And “no woman has ever held a seat on the seven member Politburo Standing Committee.”   That’s where the real power lies, and women don’t have it.

An even more critical subcategory is sex ratio at birth, where China ranks dead last (#156 out of 156 countries) with just 89 women born for every 100 men.     

To some extent, this gap can be traced to China’s infamous “One Child Policy” instituted in 1980 to reduce population growth.  Given a cultural preference for sons, the policy made a bad problem worse by leading “to a rise in sex-selective abortions, with families often choosing to abort girls.”  For more about how this law trampled on reproductive rights and destroyed families and individuals, see my post in this blog entitled “How families are changing.”  Or better yet, watch the 90-minute documentary “One Child Nation” (streaming on Amazon). 

From the government’s point of view, the law reduced population growth too much, and it was revised to become the “two child policy” in 2016.  At that time, the government “told couples that it’s their patriotic duty to have two babies. They’ve dangled tax breaks and housing subsidies. They’ve offered to make education cheaper and parental leave longer. They’ve tried to make it more difficult to get an abortion or a divorce.”  When all that did not have the desired effect, it was replaced in 2021 by the “three child policy.”  

If future policies try to encourage four children, then five, then six or more, that won’t work either.  The problem is that Chinese society has largely become urbanized, and no law has been able to overcome larger cultural forces.  “Add into the mix a tendency among millennial women to delay marriage and have even one baby — or none at all — and it’s a demographic time bomb.”

None of the policy changes to date have reduced widespread anxiety “over the rising cost of education and of supporting aging parents, made worse [in China] by the lack of day care and the pervasive culture of long work hours.”  In short, as one social media user summed the up challenge of getting people to have more children: “Don’t [policy makers] know that most young people are already tired enough just trying to feed themselves.”

As a result of all this, according to the most recent census, there are about 35 million more men than women in China.  And the gap in marriageable age males continues to get worse as the “one child” generation grows up. From now until about 2060, “three single males [of marriageable age] will be competing for [every] two single females.”  

The surplus of young males has already caused an increase in sexual trafficking.  According to WION, an Indian TV station, “Women have been trafficking from northern Myanmar… [and] sold for anything between 3,000 to 13,000 dollars to Chinese families… Once bought, women were held prisoners and pressured into producing babies.”

Many solutions have been floated to try to solve the gender imbalance. One publicity hungry economist even wrote that China should consider polyandry.  The Washington Post called this the “two husband strategy” and quoted such outraged social media comments as “He wants to legalize sex slaves,” and “It made me throw up.”

Summing up these and other developments in a recent interview entitled “The state of Chinese Feminism in 2022,” Dr. Fincher concluded that there is a “glimmer of hope…that because there is much more awareness about widespread sexism and injustice towards women in China, that all of these attempts to push back against the Chinese government… are having an effect.”

One big advantage that feminists have, Dr. Fincher went on to explain, is that “the Chinese Communist Party itself was… founded on the basis of gender equality… [This is] one of the reasons that this feminist awakening continues…  The Chinese government does not want to appear to be completely intolerant of any discussion of women’s rights…”

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