Chinese feminists seek enhanced rights

June 25, 2014 by Yang Shen

Domestic violence is rapidly becoming a major public issue in China. From the heady days of the radicalism of the Red Guards, when gender equality seemed to be on everyone’s lips, the issue of equality had dropped off the political agenda. Figures show that women earn less, are promoted less and are given less responsibility than male colleagues. But recently there has been a growing awareness by some women that things have got to change. How far will it go?

The new realities over women’s rights and domestic violence (DV) were highlighted in mid-June when the well-known actress Yi ‘Crystal’ Huang dramatically released medical reports and photos of her injuries on the social media site Sina Weibo in order to prove that she had been been beaten up by her businessman husband Yiqing Huang.

The photos caused a sensation and have sparked a debate about the extent of DV in China. According to the semi-official All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), 24.7% of married women in China have been victims of DV. But there is still no anti-DV law in existence. Organizations such as ACWF have long advocated such a law, but so far with only limited success. For example, in March 2008 the Chinese Supreme People’s Court issued hearing guidelines for “matrimonial cases involving domestic violence”. 

Courts across China have also carried out pilot experiments on safety protection measures for survivors. But it was not until US citizen Kim Lee successfully sued her celebrity Chinese husband Yang Li over domestic abuse in February last year that the central government began to take the issue seriously. The Beijing court also issued a three-month restraining order against her husband that state media described as “unprecedented”, and granted Lee full custody of the children. It ordered Li to pay child support and a sum of $1.9m, including Y50,000 in compensation for the abuse. Partly as a result of the case the State Council listed an anti-DV law as a part of its legislation plan for 2014.

The low priority given to DV legislation in China reflects the generally low level of political participation by women in China. Take, for example, the proportion of women members of the National People’s Congress (NPC). Even with a gender quota aimed at promoting women’s engagement in politics, from 1978 onwards the percentage of women in the NPC has fluctuated around 21%. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the figure increased slightly to 23.4% this year, but China still ranked 62 out of 189 countries regarding women’s political participation – although this was above both the UK and the USA.

Scholar Qi Wang of the University of Southern Denmark views the quota system merely as “a symbol of good will, gesturing a sense of moral justice and politically correctness, without the necessary mandatory power and effective policy tools in place to make them actually work”. She says there is a significant mismatch between formal gender equality (gender quotas) and the overall political agenda for social and political development over time. He makes the point that women’s political participation has actually declined from the radical days of the 1970s.

However, there are deeply ingrained anti-feminist views in China. This author – who is studying for a PhD in Gender Studies – was recently invited to give a talk to a group of students at a Shanghai university where a (male) professor remarked that women’s status in China today “is higher than men”. Of course, he presented no evidence to back up his assertion.

The ACWF and National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) have conducted surveys on the social status of Chinese women at the beginning of each decade since 1990. Based on the report released in 2010, some indicators of women’s status, such as average years of schooling, have improved compared to 20 years ago, but many have declined.

Compared to men, women work almost 40 minutes longer, but rest one hour less, every day. Strikingly, when it comes to the income gap, women in urban households earn only 67.3% of men’s wages – and this percentage has fallen every decade since the surveys began. Moreover, 10% of women claim that they encountered gender discrimination in the workplace. And it is noteworthy that the disparities between urban and rural women regarding social benefits coverage, average year of schooling, and income gap, are still vast. Therefore it is hard to tell whether women’s status overall has improved or not. What is certain is that there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in China.

In recent years, feminist activists have become increasingly vocal. The most well known actions include occupying male public toilets in an attempt force the government to face women’s need to have more toilets in the public areas. As a result, Guangzhou’ local government agreed to increase the number of women’s toilets based on a gender quota of 1 (male) versus 1.5 (female). Some feminists have even marched through the streets dressed in wedding gowns smeared with red paint to highlight the extent of violence against women. Others have shaved their heads to express their anger on the gender discriminatory admission scores for girls and boys at the national college entrance examination.

One of the people involved in these protests is Xiao Meili, who in September last year began her latest project, ‘Beautiful Feminist Walk – A protest against Sexual Abuse to promote Women’s Freedom’. Xiao, the lead actor in the Chinese version of the “Vagina Monologues”, set out to walk all the way from Beijing to the southern city of Guangzhou – a distance of about 2,000 kms – to protest against sexual harassment and child abuse. Along the way she has been collecting signatures, staging performances and handing out information to local governments. She has been sharing her experiences on her blog.

There are two dilemmas elicited from these kinds of actions. First, due to the sensitivity about public protest movements in China, the government sometimes intervenes in feminists’ actions. Even when activists are allowed to organize events, reports seldom find their way into the state-controlled media. Their actions are marginalized.

However, more and more protests are now appearing online. Some NGOs such as Women’s Media Monitor Network and Women Awakening, have created social media accounts to promote gender mainstreaming and gender equality. The former organization was established in 1996 in the wake of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in September 1995, and is primarily funded by Oxfam Hong Kong. It now has 36,000 followers on Sina Weibo. The latter was established in 2004 and initiated by a group of media practitioners and is followed by 8,000 fans on Weibo. Both of them aim to eliminate gender discrimination in the media and promote fair media reporting on women and gender issues.

Second, these feminist actions have aroused controversy, with some people supporting their actions whilst others find them to be too aggressive and a distraction that prevents them from achieving their goals.

In the short term, we can expect that the women’s rights movement in China will continue to grow. For now, it is primarily women mobilising women so as to increase their rights. With little overall consensus or unity, and numerous dilemma and difficulties, it is unlikely that the marginalised status of feminist activists and NGOs will be changed in the short run. Even if their voices and actions continue to be heard, for now at least, the male-dominated structure of Chinese society is likely to continue.

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