Feminism with Chinese Characteristics

By Otilia Meden

“妇女能顶半边天”  (Women hold up half the sky)

Following on from General Mao Zeodong’s rationale behind gender equality, Chinese President Xi Jinping continuously promises greater contribution and more opportunities for the world – giving emphasis to prosperity for women. With Chinese women making up one fifth of the global female population,  Xi stresses gender equality in China not only gives expression to China’s own progress but also constitutes global equality and development.

Unquestionably, in recent years, Chinese women have gained more power in the political and civic spheres of life compared to earlier times. However, as the case is elsewhere in the world, working women; feminist activists; stay-at-home mothers; and all women in between are still disproportionally challenged in many aspects of life due to the mere fact that they are not men. For example, take how the Communist Party has cracked down on feminist activism and digitally censored words such as feminism and #MeToo in China. In addition, to remedy the disharmonious age gap in the Chinese population, Xi narrates that, put simply, women ought to stay home and procreate. Subsequently, these facts bring Xi’s promising words of a prosperous future for women into question. With the large proportion of the female population being Chinese, it is of upmost importance that feminist movements gain momentum by paying attention to both the visible visions and the excluded voices of feminism in China.

While the Chinese constitution guarantees women “equal rights with men in all aspects of life”, women’s progress has somewhat stagnated and been outpaced by the rest of the world. According to the CISIS gender equality index, China’s ranking in the index fell sharply from 63rd out of 115 countries in 2006 to 103rd out of 149 countries in 2018. A closer look behind these numbers reveal that female life expectancy and literacy has increased greatly since the 1980s. However, it still falls short of high-income neighbors like Japan and South Korea. The lingering legacy of the One-Child Policy and longstanding “preference for sons” are reasons for China having the most imbalanced sex ratio at birth in the world, with 87 girls born per 100 boys. What ultimately constitutes the discrepancy between Xi’s promising words and the diminishing numbers of equalities is difficult to pin down. Yet, patriarchic structures and a deeply embedded macho culture might – as elsewhere in the world – contribute to the continued inequality between men and women in China. Human Rights Watch shed light on how 19 percent of the Chinese civic services jobs were aimed at allocating men and not women with the phrases “men only”, “men preferred”, and “suitable for men”. In sum, these factors contradict Xi’s promises of greater equality, and all factors combined; Chinese women’s opportunities seem limited rather than enforced in contemporary times.

A crucial fragment of understanding why gender equality might have eroded in China lies in the term “Leftover Women”, introduced by All China Women’s Federation in 2007. The “leftover women” (剩女) is a derogatory term for unmarried urban professional working women over the age of 27. More concisely, the phrase describes the career oriented middle-class women who postpone marriage and having children to later in life. According to the Chinese government, this way of life, common in most parts of the world,  does not complement their aims of closing the gender gap and securing the population for the future. Therefore, propaganda repressive of the “leftover women” is spread throughout state media. This rhetoric promotes traditional gender roles, where women are praised as mothers, faithful wives, and dutiful daughters. This misogynistic propaganda contradicts Mao’s prior notion of gender equality, with women no longer ‘holding up half the sky’, but instead used as mere means to control the future population.

As Dr. Leta Hong Fincher explores, the Government aims that future generations redeem a knowledge-driven economy. To achieve such an objective, the birth rate should particularly increase amongst well-educated women to produce ‘quality babies’. So, how do feminism and Xi’s objectives reconcile? By appearance, not very easily. Rather the Government seems to seek the patriarchic and paternalistic state in which women are subordinate to men in the name of feminism – with Chinese characteristics.

Feminist movements in China are not different from the ones we see in other places in the world. However, like other dissidents in Chinese society, they are cracked down on. When it comes to China, the Western world is cautious with criticism and even more so in the light of Chinese women’s deficit opportunities. Do world leaders care about the oppression of Chinese women? Probably not. However, these women do hold up at least one-tenth of the sky, thus, they probably should. As economic growth continues and women’s education is enforced, the future feminist movements in China hopefully gain even more momentum and challenge the patriarchic structures to a greater extent. The important steps for Xi in the future might be to reconcile gender equality with economic prosperity – not just in rhetoric but also in reality. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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