Burden of nationalism on Chinese women
| By Francesca Chiu
Greater gender equality is one of the catchphrases that President Xi Jinping often mentions as one of his administration’s goals for China. Indeed, in September 2015, UN Women and China co-hosted a meeting of high-level world leaders and chaired by Xi himself on gender equality and women’s empowerment at UN headquarters.
At the end of his opening remarks, Xi said that “every Chinese woman has opportunities to excel in life and make her dreams come true”, and further promised that his country “will do more to enhance gender equality as its basic state policy… and support [women] in realizing their own dreams and aspirations in both career and life.”
Xi’s administration has without a doubt woven his visions into its policy guidelines. The National Working Committee on Children and Women under the powerful State Council in Beijing published a book late last year titled “Implementation of the Basic State Policy of Gender Equality” to guide officials at different levels on how to best promote gender equality.
Yet the major hurdles to gender equality in China are not merely a lack of legal protection or education, rather they arise from the same nationalism that enables women to improve their socioeconomic standing in the first place.
"Women hold up half the sky", a proclamation made by Chairman Mao, has often been read as a powerful statement supporting women’s participation in the workforce and recognizing their contributions to Chinese society.
But while such nationalism provides opportunities for women to contribute to their country’s development and allows them to expand their presence in a traditionally male-dominated society, the ways in which they participate in China’s political, economic and social spheres is not simply a matter of personal choice.
Instead, the state decides for them.
During the 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party encouraged women to get married, work and have as many children as possible for the betterment of society by publishing a series of propaganda posters framing women as wives and workers – but more importantly, mothers, as women were often shown with infants and children in the propaganda. Subsequently, the notorious One-Child policy, introduced in 1979 and only recently relaxed, did not just restrict how many children a woman could have, but also compromised her interests and personal liberty in a nationalist drive for better development through population planning.
In elevating nation-building to the top of its development agenda, the Chinese government often emphasizes the need to maintain social harmony at all levels. Economic growth has long been the top priority of the Chinese government, especially after the introduction of open-door policy in 1978. After the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, Deng Xiaoping said “stability is the highest priority” for the country, and his successors have followed this doctrine, advocating unity for the sake of stability, which further leads to prosperity.
In this context women who do fulfill their expected nation-building roles in both the public and private spheres are likely to receive better support and protection from the state compared to women who with to deviate even slightly from existing norms.
This surface-level empowerment is especially visible in matters of female reproductive health, one of the areas of achievement often mentioned by the Chinese government when discussing gender equality. According to the State Council, 90% of pregnant women received basic health care in 2014. Yet at the same time women’s reproductive freedom has been infringed upon by a government ban imposed in 2015 forbidding unmarried women from freezing their eggs. The message sent by this ban was clear: even the timing and specific circumstances of childbirth are not for women themselves to decide.
In terms of political participation, the number of female delegates among the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference has increased, according to the recently published “Implementation of the Basic State Policy of Gender Equality”. Yet while the appearance of gender equality is promoted by the government in a top-down style, feminism is consistently suppressed and viewed as a threat to the national unity.
In 2015, five feminists were arrested on the International Women’s Day because they had attempted to organize the handing out of fliers decrying sexual harassment and groping on buses and trains in several cities. They were finally released after a month after receiving much attention from the international press. Their detention put the lie to Xi’s pledges of greater gender equality, demonstrating how under his administration protests have become more tightly controlled amid a broader crackdown on civil society that precludes feminists from raising their voices in public.
The economic well-being, health and education of Chinese women today are vastly improved compared to older generations.
Yet the emphasis on nationalism and social harmony has never let up and instead been reinforced by the Chinese government to maintain control over citizens who cast no vote in selecting their political representatives.
Despite enabling some progress in terms of gender equality, nationalism ultimately marginalizes women whose needs are not compatible with the high degree of unity required for government control in China. Gender equality is not just about enhancing women’s status as a whole, but also respecting women as individual citizens and accepting they have different needs based on their socioeconomic backgrounds.
In that sense, while more laws and protections have been granted to Chinese women and more educational and career opportunities are open to them, their demands for equality will not be fully answered without major systemic changes.