Almost 1/5 of the world’s women live in China.
The females “missing” in China due to female infanticide and sex selective abortion number about 33 million: as many as the entire female population of the UK.
And yet, as Sarah Ditum (fully paid-up feminist though she is) opened the event, she confessed that until reading Leta Hong Fincher’s new book she had known little about their situation. The same was true for me: much as I’d considered myself a feminist with a global perspective, when I read Fincher I was appalled by how little I had known.
As Fincher (Chinese-American, currently living in Hong Kong) puts it herself, “if you talk to Chinese students here they might say, ‘oh, we don’t have it so bad there.’” But, she says, “they are the elite.” Neither do these opportunities for elite girls and women actually mean that there is an equality of the sexes in China today.
Let’s start at the top: There is at present only one woman on the 25 member Politburo and has never been a single woman on its elite Standing Committee (which has historically counted between 5 and 9 members, presently 7). Female representation on the 204-strong Central Committee has actually been in decline (now at 4.9%).
Women who apply to China’s civil service facing mandatory gynaecological examinations – including pelvic examinations – STD testing and invasive questions about their menstrual cycles (the date of their last period, for instance) while there is no equivalent routine for men.
While the Communist government declared a policy of gender equality and “boasted the biggest female workforce in the world” from the 1950s through the 1970s, the “postsocialist” economic reforms that followed Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 have dismantled the policy of equal employment. The retirement age for women was forced down, and they outnumbered men among the tens of millions fired when state-owned enterprise laid off workers en masse. State enterprises also closed down their childcare centres, making it difficult for many women, the primary caregivers to children and elderly relatives, to remain in employment.
A “Women Return to the Home” movement emerged in the 1980s as unemployment increased, pressuring women to cede jobs to men. Gender discrimination in hiring has been rife since then, facilitated by free-market reforms although technically illegal. And the gender pay gap has increased: while urban women in 1990 were paid 77.5% of the average urban man’s salary, by 2010 this had fallen to 67.3%.
Although women are involved in a growing labour rights movement (and a number of feminist activists have made this a part of their work), the culture of androcentrism is such that even in factories with an 80% female workforce it has been common to find that 90% of bargaining leaders are men. (Or that, in one feminist activist’s experience, where strikes are publicised the female majority striking are not photographed by reporters.) There is a correspondingly narrow focus on wages and pensions alone, rather than the wider range of issues that affect women in particular, such as a lack of reproductive health-care coverage and maternity leave, unfair maternity discrimination, and sexual violence or harassment in the workplace.
While the Marriage Law of 1950 granted women equal rights over marital property, and the freedom to divorce, 2011 changes to that law specify that marital property will belong by default to the spouse whose name is on the title deeds for the home – which is to say, in the vast majority of cases, the husband. This is, as female lawyer Li Ying puts it, “a man’s law”. The upshot of this, Fincher demonstrates in her first book, Leftover Women, is that the women of China have largely been swindled out of their share of “what is arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history, worth around 3.3 times China’s GDP”.
These reversals confirm the suspicion that China’s much-vaunted gender equality in employment (achieved through the rather sudden and “mass assignment of work” that “took women out of the house and put them to work”) was never anything more than “a strategy it employed to boost the nation’s productivity”. It also highlights that gender equality has never been a question of simply letting women go to work, as black and working class feminisms have often tried to tell us, though these arguments have almost-as-often fallen on deaf white middle class ears; there have always been women who’ve worked, and work does not always make you free.
Similarly, the “relaxation” of the one-child policy that brutalised women (but won international commendation and the UN Population Award in 1983, that wild peak year of the 14 million abortions, the 18 million IUD insertions and the 16 million female to 4 million male sterilisations), should not be mistaken for an advance in female reproductive rights. The new two-child policy of 2016, and the offer to remove IUDs free of charge (tellingly, only for married women who have not yet had a second child, or who are suffering medical complications) have as little to do with female reproductive freedoms as the ubiquitous abortions of the one-child policy. (Just as the teaching I received about the horrors of the one-child policy didn’t lament the violation of female reproductive rights.)
On the contrary: it is only that the declining birth rate (and associated problems such as a very high ratio of dependent children and elderly people to working-age adults) has begun at last to be recognised as a problem by the state. The government is now more determined than ever to push women back into the home. “With the heavily gendered division of labor in families, most unpaid family caregivers are women, so the state is transferring the heavy, public burden of childcare and social security onto women in private families,” writes Fincher. Or, as, feminist activist Lü Pin very neatly puts it, “China’s model of economic development relies on the economic exploitation of women” – except that one rather wants to swap in “the whole world” for “China” in that sentence.
In an ironic turn, subsidies and financial rewards are now being offered to couples to have a second child; government propaganda uses images of beautiful young women in graduation gowns holding multiple infants to encourage women to have children before completing their studies, threatens that birth defects increase in babies born to women over 29 and that married mothers “stand a much higher chance of success in their job search.” Indeed, employers do commonly ask women whether they have got the marriage-and-babies out the way before agreeing to hire them.
Surveys suggest that the Communist Party is being served poetic justice for its cruel enforcement of the one-child policy with a generation of working women (the “high quality” women the state most wants to put to work as breeders) who do not now want to have a second child – or any children at all. Many of them want, instead, to conserve their energy for their careers. Whether the women will see justice and be permitted to make these choices freely for themselves, however, is in painful question. “Is it possible that control over reproductive decisions will move from the patriarchal state to the patriarchal family? That women will go from being forced not to have children to being forced to have children?” writes Lü Pin. And Fincher suspects that, in a grotesque about-face, abortion restrictions may soon be introduced.
It’s only a certain kind of woman being targeted for breeding, mark you: urban, educated, married Han Chinese women. Financial incentives are offered to the Muslim Uyghur population if they will agree not to have their legal quota of children. And unmarried women who have children are heavily penalised: they are frequently denied “reproduction permits”, meaning they can’t obtain birth and household registration certificates for their children (making access to education and healthcare very difficult). When they fail to produce reproduction permits upon giving birth they are often charged with heavy “social maintenance fees”. The result is that many women – including, presumably, some who are lesbian – get married simply so they can have a child legally and affordably.
What this reveals is that the Communist Party’s priority is not above all to raise the birth rate but to cement and maintain control of the population through the institution of marriage. To cement and maintain the control of women, one is tempted to caveat, but the two may be one and the same, for as Fincher argues, “it is impossible to understand the longevity of China’s Communist Party without recognizing the patriarchal underpinnings of its authoritarianism.”
That women who seek restraining orders under China’s (brand new) domestic violence legislation “are routinely told to return to their partners to preserve family “harmony” and social stability,”” and that the state as well as private bodies are increasingly running classes teaching women how to please and obey their husbands – “‘don’t fight back when beaten. Don’t talk back when scolded. And no matter what, don’t get divorced’” said one teacher in a leaked recording – reveals the extent to which an authoritarian state relies on the subordination of women – for the appeasement of men.
While “most analysts of China’s authoritarianism regard gender as a marginal issue”, Fincher argues that this subordination of women is in fact “a fundamental element of the Communist Party’s dictatorship and its “stability maintenance” system” – as of authoritarianism everywhere. For it can be no coincidence that all authoritarianism – in this world, at least – is patriarchal authoritarianism.
As Fincher introduced me to the mechanisms of China’s authoritarian state I began to feel that I was also learning a good deal about the workings of states not generally considered authoritarian at all. The chief difference may be that China permits itself to formulate its ideologies explicitly and to implement its strategies in the open; its moving parts are clearly visible, while the patriarchal articulations of our Western “democracies” taken place beneath the skin necessarily. True, they may not be moved by such conscious and centralised control. But then, China’s patriarchal motivations aren’t completely centralised and organised either. As Ditum put it, “you can’t talk about an ideology being successful – in the way that misogyny is a successful ideology in China – unless it is self-replicating.”
My rather bleak outline of the situation of women in China isn’t very representative of Fincher’s book, which gives equal space to a depiction of the truly remarkable resistance of the burgeoning feminist movement there. Listen to the recording of the event, or better still read the book, to learn more about their resourcefulness and resilience in the face of intense censorship and persecution. They have been harassed, evicted, threatened, blackmailed with the menace of their loved ones, detained for weeks and denied medical attention for serious conditions. Four of the famous ‘Feminist Five’ who were detained for 37 days in 2015 are extremely short sighted and all had their spectacles confiscated (never returned). They all emerged deeply shaken by the experience and questioning their own perception of things. “A powerful metaphor for the gaslighting of women everywhere”, quoted Fincher, for women are always being told we’re wrong about sexism, that it isn’t true. “You need to be able to see clearly – we have to be able to see our oppression to do something about it.” But this is exactly what the experiences of the Feminist Five and others like them in China offer to the rest of us: clarity of vision. “Feminism as glasses,” as Ditum put it, with a laugh.