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Feminism with Chinese Characteristics

Do Chinese Women Hold Up Half the Sky?

By Alexandra Z.

I would imagine a fair amount of those who are reading this to have rolled their eyes upon seeing that notorious word that starts with an ‘F’ and ends with ’eminism’ in the title: the recent wave of feminism seems to have overwhelmed us with so many campaigns and initiatives that, just like with many concepts in their extreme forms, it has lost some of its value. However, the social change it strives to bring to the world is undoubtedly long overdue. From the Nordic countries to Latin America, state governments have been adopting different strategies to combat gender inequality, and, unsurprisingly, China seems to have come up with its very own approach to this problem. 

The History of Feminism in China

From a historical perspective, modern feminism in China was mainly brought along by the revolutionary 1950s. After thousands of years of women having an inferior status in society, a fact that was reinforced by feudalism and traditional Confucianist values, the Maoist era turned out to be a milestone in China’s feminist history. Political slogans like “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” reflected the desire to challenge the traditional patriarchal mindset of people. Indeed, not only was an unprecedented number of females mobilized into paid employment, but also, due to the so-called ‘cadre management system’, they could aspire to be involved in the political life of Maoist China. And while women were rarely appointed to high positions in the governmental hierarchy and their political participation was restricted to the role of ‘revolutionary youth’, these developments were also a step in the right direction. However, the most significant change came along in the private sphere with the introduction of the new Marriage Law in 1950, which prohibited concubinage, formally allowed women a free choice in marriage, the right to divorce and awarded them custody of their children, as well as improving their inheritance rights. In addition, some efforts were made to increase female literacy, which previously had been alarmingly low compared to their male counterparts. 

Interestingly enough, although the ‘trend’ for female liberation had been put into motion, certain ambiguities remained in the post-Mao era. On the one hand, globalization and the growing exposure towards ‘Western’ values and attitudes could not go unnoticed. However, the reforms and ‘opening-up’ have also sparkled a reverse process: since the government has largely retracted from the private sphere during the privatization and industrialization efforts, the traditional patriarchal family values resurrected. The culmination of such processes was the widespread manifestation of the so-called Son Preference, especially after the introduction of the one-child policy. In rural areas, the preference for sons stemmed from the hard labor required to sustain their agricultural-based lifestyle. In cities, it was widely believed that sons would be more capable to provide for their elderly parents, as women were also legally disadvantaged in the labor market. Maltreatment of young girls, underreporting of female births and infanticide have been some of the devastating consequences of the preference of a son. It is particularly striking that women themselves seem to have been the facilitators of such preferences by acting as advocates for the patriarchal family.

The implementation of the one-child policy per se was an important indicator of the role of women in Chinese society. Women’s bodies – and indeed, the policy mainly affected women (male contraception did not receive enough promotion or popularity)— became an object of tight control by the state in order to achieve government-set population goals. Digging a little deeper, the women liberation campaign during the Maoist period was to a large extent implemented in order to reach their ambitious economic goals. Gender equality was prescribed by the government—a government exclusively made up of men. 

Has anything changed?

As we look around in the glorious city of Shanghai, we see an outstanding number of successful, well-educated women working for Fortune 500 companies, creating their own businesses, and generally speaking, who are striving as hard as men towards self-realization in various spheres. Indeed, China has the biggest number of self-made women-billionaires in the world(The Hurun Report, 2016). While attitudes towards gender roles in China is a whole separate topic, it is worth to take a look at the official discourse in the country.

Only just a quarter of the Chinese Communist Party’s about 89.4 million members are women. As we move up the political ladder, the number of women drastically decreases. The twenty-five-member Politburo currently only has one female – Sun Chunlan. Furthermore, the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo has never had a female representative. Strong gender stereotypes and a man-oriented political culture make it hard for women to break the political glass ceiling. 

However, despite weak female representation in upper-level politics, the Chinese Communist Party has recently been bringing gender equality back to its political agenda. In 2015 China, pledged to donate 10 million US dollars to UN Women in order to assist other developing countries to build 100 health projects for women and children. Domestically, considerable efforts were made to improve the legislation on women’s rights. These have already produced success stories, such as when the first workplace gender discrimination case was won in China in 2014. And the Anti-Domestic Violence Law of the People’s Republic of China took effect on 1 March 2016. 

These and many other advances for women represent the government’s concern with gender discrimination in the country, and yet there seems to be a certain inconsistency in governmental attitudes. One of the two government-controlled Women’s rights organizations, All-Women’s Federation is often criticized for being used as a tool for social control and to the promotion of population planning policy. An infamous example would be the stigmatizing article posted by the Foundation about the ‘leftover women’ (sheng nü) – as they defined the unmarried women over the age of 27. Another sad example would be the Feminist Five case – a group of by that time quite well-known feminists, who were arrested and detained in prison in 2015 because they had planned to give out stickers in Beijing subway on the eve of International Women’s Day in order to raise awareness about sexual harassment on public transport. Needless to mention the removal of the #metoo campaign posts or a very recent deletion of any posts related to Feminist Voices organization, including their page on Weibo.

All of this conflicting evidence proves that in China Feminism seems to have its very own characteristics. For one thing, gender inequality is combatted in a very top-down manner, meaning that feminism is encouraged when it is promoted by the government, but not when it comes from social activism.

Up until now, “state power and policies have been the creators not the creations of the transformed”, but with a growing number of educated women, stronger anti-discrimination legislation and the profusion of international gender-equality awareness campaigns, there is hope for improvement in the nearest future. 

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