The Stuff of Heroes – Feminism’s Absence in Modern China

The Chinese road to gender equality will be a long and winding one.

In 1907, Chinese government officials executed the famous writer and poet, Qiu Jin, for conspiring to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. Eventually, of course, the Qing Dynasty did collapse, and the People’s Republic of China celebrates Qiu Jin as revolutionary heroine. Qiu Jin and her contemporaries, however, didn’t aim for a mere change in political systems – they wanted a complete overhaul of Chinese society. She was among the many activists in early 20th century China who protested the practice of foot binding and advocated for the political, cultural, and economic liberation of women.

Almost a century later, however, China lacks its own brand of feminism. That’s not to say individual Chinese citizens fail to advocate for women’s rights – uproar over recent, high profile cases of forced abortion prove otherwise – but that no popular, social movement exists. In the relatively permissive environment of modern China, when Ai Weiwei can maintain a tenuous web presence and environmental protests can force policy change, the failure of feminism to leap from individual outrage to social consciousness seems surprising.

An authentic feminist movement would certainly help. Though the Human Development Index ranks China just below the United States on its Gender Inequality Index, due to high female participation in the labor force and excellent female educational rates, gender discrimination at birth, as well as the overwhelming absence of females from high ranking managerial and ministerial positions, tells a different story.

The World Economic Forum, which includes these factors, ranks China 61st in gender equality, well behind not only developed, Western nations such Iceland (1st) and the USA (17th), but behind poorer, conflict-ridden countries including Sri Lanka (31st) and Nicaragua (27th). In recent social surveys conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation, public opinion reflects increasingly regressive views of women’s roles, placing them solely at home with the children. Men have also enjoyed a greater share of China’s economic ascent, with a gender pay gap of 69% and growing.

Assigning this conundrum to “traditional Confucian values,” a popular approach among Western journalists, simplifies China’s cultural history to a single strand of thought and shifts the blame from China’s leadership. While Confucianism – the umbrella term for a multitude of Chinese schools of thought – placed women in subservient roles in society, medieval Christianity was no less patriarchal, and decades before the fall of Qing Dynasty, some Chinese scholars had begun to reevaluate classical texts and advocate for equality between the sexes.

In reality, China has failed to develop a feminist consciousness for two main reasons. Unlike the West, where women’s liberation evolved organically, first from the economic interests of men and then through the political advocacy of women, communist China instituted the political, legal, and economic rights of women by government fiat. This equality extended only as far as the ministerial office, and at the discretion of local officials, while individual relations between the sexes remained unchanged.

The Communist party also refuses to allow civil society – and, by extension, the general public – to engage with gender inequality on its own terms. The independence of women, like every other Chinese citizen’s rights, is subsumed by the needs of the state: economic development, social stability, etc. China’s sole national women’s rights organization, the All-China Women’s Federation, answers to the party. Though their reports will cite problems, such as the “pyramid” structure of female representation in private and public organizations, they stop just short of criticizing government officials. Instead, they highlight success stories.

Other feminist NGOs exist, but tend to run into trouble with the state. Guo Jianmei, a lawyer and activist in Beijing, runs the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services, which advocates for judicial reform and defends women’s rights in court. After she received the Simon de Beauvoir Prize for her advocacy, the government revoked her Center’s license and Beijing University distanced itself from the group. Guo Jianmei never agitated for any sort of political change, and worked within the system to modify marriage laws. She posed no apparent threat, but the Chinese government wants only the party to fight on behalf of women’s rights – no one else.

While environmental NGOs and civil rights lawyers have also experienced this precarious, off-and-on-again support and opposition from the Chinese government, feminism poses a unique, ideological threat.  For instance, though protests against a potentially toxic chemical plant in Dalian might broadly reflect frustration with the prioritization of material wealth over public health, the solution remains local – and in fact, allows the government to demonstrate awareness of public opinion. Scrap or delay the construction plans, and the protests end.

Women’s liberation, however, is never a purely local matter. If females fail to reach the echelons of upper-management, watch their male colleagues’ paychecks grower faster than theirs, and lose control of their reproductive systems, individual abuse of power cannot be faulted – as in every other country, this is systemic oppression. Since a male-dominated society oppresses women – and party’s elite are almost entirely men – it then follows that the party and Chinese government oppresses Chinese women. A popular women’s rights movement would necessarily have to rework the social and political order.

Feminism is also an inherently individualistic worldview, promoting the autonomy and achievement of a female. Unlike the environmental movement, which can achieve limits on pollution, or the labor movement, which can push for a minimum wage, a feminist movement seeks an engrained cultural respect for the individual. This focus on individual autonomy isn’t incompatible with Chinese culture, which has grown and evolved for thousands of years, and will survive for thousands more; feminism only clashes with an autocratic government.

Whether the next leaders of China will embrace political reform or push through radical economic policies is up to debate – it is unlikely, however, that they will be willing to cease even a little bit of control in return for the empowerment of 700 million Chinese women. China will probably have to fight for its feminism and reform its culture despite government interference.

I doubt Qiu Jin would have it any other way.

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