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Chinese feminists Domestic violence awareness campaign. Li Maizi (left) was subsequently arrested and detained for over a month, for attempting to campaign against sexual harassment, along with four other women's rights activists. Photo source: ‘Free Chinese Feminists’ page

By Peter Hilton, Global Correspondent for Safeworld

The status of women in China is one with a mixed and contentious history with a variety of events interwoven to create an inconsistent image of China as both attempting to be progressive in many respects, whilst simultaneously the government equally seeks to repress and control feminist elements it feels are inconvenient or adverse to its arguably patriarchal interests.

There are a number of contextual examples which demonstrate this discrepancy in the status of women throughout China, and whilst there has been a great deal of progress made in some elements of the popular sphere, others have been brutally repressed by a government dominated by male influence.

This article seeks to highlight the extreme differences between progress made and the inequalities women in China still face every day in order to determine just how far the feminist movement within the country has come.

Maoism, Gender Equality, and Contradictions

There is a long history to China’s women’s rights movement beginning with the fall of the traditional imperialist political structure and the rise of Mao Zedong. The communists believed that by enabling and enforcing gender equality, women would be able to more aptly assist the growing movement, and to help develop the society they as an institution idealised.

Mao Zedong’s famously published collection of speeches entitled ‘the little red book’ offers a glimpse into the People’s Republic’s public policy in relation to women, as Mao himself is quoted as saying ‘Women hold up half the sky’ and more overtly:

In order to build a great socialist society, it is of the utmost importance to arouse the broad masses of women to join in productive activity. Men and women must receive equal pay for equal work in production. Genuine equality between the sexes can only be realised in the process of the socialist transformation of society as a whole’.

However, many within the feminist movement within China were quick to realise that the polemic often did not reflect reality, with accusations that the political elite had not actively taken action to ensure the equality of women. In more recent years, the new leadership of the party under Xi Jinping appear to have taken more proactive steps towards ensuring equality, with new legislation passed which defines and prevents sexual harassment within China, whilst China also had its first ever successful legal claim for discrimination based on gender in 2013.

However again, there are huge gulfs between the public representation of feminism in China and the sad reality of the obstacles faced by both the feminist movement and regular women on a day-to-day basis.

Women's Rights Activists Charged with 'Picking Quarrels'

As previously mentioned, the new leadership of Xi Jinping introduced legislation to prevent sexual harassment in 2006, which was heralded by many as a positive step in Chinese women’s rights. However, there a number of incidents which sharply contradict the positive image presented by the Communist party, beginning with the detention of five Chinese feminists for a period of 37 days throughout April and March.

The women had been aiming to place stickers on buses highlighting the daily harassment women face on public transport; they were instead arrested by authorities on the charge of ‘picking quarrels’ (which may be loosely interpreted as a charge to prevent forms of protest the state considers inconvenient).

The Prevalence of Sexual Harassment on Public Transport

The issue of sexual harassment on China’s overcrowded public transport system is well known; during my own time working in Beijing in 2013, a number of friends faced sexual harassment whilst on public transport including several female colleagues being groped whilst another faced an elderly man openly masturbating in front of her – whilst no one in the carriage appeared to bat an eyelid. When she later asked Beijing locals about the incident she was told that older men were allowed to take part in this kind of activity as they are senile and it was just the way things were.

Shocking though such incidents are, there appears to be a lack of public outcry, and although the five feminists protesting such harassment were released without charge, the fact they were detained at all speaks volumes about the state’s refusal to instigate change.

And in the Workplace

The issue of harassment extends far beyond that of public transport and is an engrained part of being a woman in China’s workforce, particularly in more industrialised districts.

A survey prepared by a Chinese NGO focussed on women’s rights in the workplace found a huge number of issues ranging from women being given inadequate access to sanitary products during menstruation to receiving pornographic messages from co-workers – or even directly being sexually propositioned. This survey highlights an endemic issue within China’s female workforce as over 70% of those surveyed said they had faced some form of harassment with a shocking 15% stating they had previously left a job because of sexual harassment.

Ineffective Enforcement of Legislation

This clearly shows that China’s attempts to remedy the issue and the enforcement of preventative legislation has been completely ineffective in curbing harassment in the work place. The report related to the survey claims that 'One of the most common expectations of the women interviewed was for the police to take more effective measures and impose more appropriate punishments on the perpetrators of sexual harassment.'

Another common hope was that: “Government officials will pay greater attention to the matter”’; this clearly illustrates the desire of women in China to see greater state intervention in issues of women’s rights and to help with enforcement of existing policies. This is again reflected by the reports finding that no women out of those surveyed went to their employer for assistance in the matter with the vast majority either turning to family for assistance or simply trying to deal with the issue themselves.

Without increased education and support on these issues of harassment, women are unable to find the help they need and continue to face abuse both in public and in the workplace.

Violence in the Home - a 'Family Matter'

Though the Chinese government has made efforts to stem the harassment within the workplace there has been far less done to prevent violence which occurs within the home.

China has only recently begun drafting legislation to prevent domestic violence which is truly shocking, considering the proliferation of abuse faced by women from their husbands. Surveys indicate that 25% to 40% of women in China have faced some form of domestic violence, whilst there is evidence to suggest that proportions are much higher in rural areas.

Though the new legislation is coming in to effect (after an extremely hard fought campaign to see it implemented), there is a deeper sociological issue within China which will have to be addressed to see the violence end. There are currently no women’s shelters in Beijing to protect women facing abuse, whilst the police are often reluctant to help viewing the abuse as a ‘family matter’.

Further to this, there are no means of escape from violent domestic situations for women as violence is still not recognised as a viable reason for divorce within Chinese law.

Hopefully, the new legislation will have some impact but without addressing public perceptions and attitudes to the issue, many women will continue to face violence behind closed doors.

Institutionalised Issues - Property Ownership

In addition to more blatant forms of harassment, there are also a number of less overt, more institutionalised challenges facing women which are deeply engrained within China’s socioeconomic structure. One huge issue facing women is that of property; there a number of issues relating to women’s position on the property ladder and these differ between urban and rural areas.

In more rural areas – though women may own property, they are often unable to obtain it in the first place, due to an inbuilt practice of patriarchal primogeniture whereby the eldest son will always inherit land. Though this is not the official government policy, this is the way it works in practice for many; however, the theoretical allocation of property by the Chinese state poses its own issues for women.

The current system is allegedly that the state owns all land and allocates it to households for farming purposes; however, this means that for a woman to own land it is contingent on her being part of a ‘household’ which in China is often a male-dominated entity with either a father or husband at the head, making true land ownership for women all the more difficult. In urban areas the issue is generally that single women are ‘priced out’ of the market, with studies showing men earn 8% more than women in the same job, but equally showing a drastically higher proportion of women can be found in lower paying careers.

With property prices skyrocketing in China as demand increases ever higher, it can be almost guaranteed that women will be unable to purchase property without significant help from male counterparts.

Systemic Gender Bias - Unwanted Daughters

There is a far more prevalent and taboo issue within China which is universally known of yet not often discussed: this is the issue of child gender bias.

Following Chairman Mao’s instigation of the one-child policy following the great famine, it became apparent that male babies were immensely favoured, with horror stories emerging of parents abandoning or even killing baby girls in favour of trying again for a son. Orphanages quickly filled with unwanted girls whilst boys came to represent a significantly higher percentage of the population leading to serious concerns over China’s demographic stability.

At present, the ratio is roughly 100 girls to every 117 boys, which the state is seeking to remedy by firstly amending the one-child policy to allow only-child parents to have two children, and now offering rewards such as furniture and even cash payments to families who have a number of girl children.

The government also banned sex determination procedures in the 1980s to stop abortions specifically due to gender, and has recently begun a crackdown on smugglers importing blood samples necessary to complete the tests. Although all of this action by the government is good, it only addresses the arguably cosmetic issue of the number of abortions, rather than addressing the principal issue of systemic gender bias towards men.

Foot Binding Ban Finally Enforced Only Six Years Ago

In spite of the large number of issues facing women in China, there have been a number of promising developments for the women’s rights movement.

In addition to the new legislation on domestic violence and harassment (which although in need of serious reform and enforcement, is still promising) there have also been a number of other changes.

Six years ago, a century-old law was finally enforced and the final factory selling lotus shoes (primarily used in the practice of foot binding) was shut down by state police, thus finally ending the practice in China. Foot binding is a practice conceptually and intrinsically opposed to the empowerment of women, representing a physical manifestation of traditional patriarchal values. In essence, women’s feet were bound in a manner causing severe disfigurement to demonstrate higher social ranking and that they had no need to work.

The practice of foot binding was outlawed in 1911 but remained prolific – particularly in rural areas, and although in modern times the practice has all but died out, it is concerning that it is only within the last decade that Chinese authorities acted to close down the manufacturers of the shoes used in the practice.

China, Feminism, and the Social Media

The proliferation of social media has seen an increase in women becoming more outspoken on issues of feminism, and a recent campaign launched on Weibo saw women showing their unshaved armpits to highlight issues of beauty standards and women’s rights to choose how they treat their own bodies.

This has unfortunately been contrasted by the ‘belly button challenge’ which also originated on Weibo, and saw women challenge one another to become skinnier in order to touch their own belly buttons whilst reaching around their back. There are also questions about the efficacy of Weibo as a platform for free speech and feminism when it is so heavily monitored by the state, and access to other forms of social media is tightly controlled.

However, feminism is becoming a more prominent issue with popular demonstrations ever more common, particularly surrounding World Women’s Day which is widely celebrated in China.

Patriarchal Attitudes

To conclude, there are still a huge number of systemic issues within China’s political and social roots which must be addressed before serious progress can be made.

Though there has been growth in popular feminism over the past few decades, it has faced numerous setbacks, including the unwillingness of the patriarchal state government to implement change without serious pressure to do so, and an equivalent unwillingness to enforce new laws once they are put into force.

Overall, the movement will be slow but as it continues to gather momentum, hopefully, a greater change in society's attitudes towards women and use of social media platforms will coincide with improved state cooperation.


The Guardian

China Perspectives

The Telegraph

The Guardian – Foot Binding