Under pressure to reverse falling births and avert a population decline, China recently removed the two-child restriction. Married couples are now allowed to have three children. Beyond just birthrates, the latest policy is also a reflection of a fundamentally patriarchal political regime in China which views women as inferior to men and treat women’s reproductive rights as tools of the state, as Valarie Tan explains.
After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, chairman Mao Zedong rallied women to join the labor force, saying, “Whatever men comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too”, and proclaiming that “Women hold up half the sky”. China’s first constitution enacted under the CCP stipulated that “Women enjoy equal rights with men in political, economic, cultural, education and social life”. Fast forward to today, that has not translated to top party positions or high political office for women. Few women make it to the top of Chinese politics. According to MERICS research, female representation in the upper echelons of CCP leadership is dismal. There are no women at all in the party’s superior elite and only one – vice premier Sun Chunlan – has a seat in the Politburo, the 25-member central party administration and the CCP’s decision-making body.
Far from reforming the status quo, the CCP is doing quite the opposite. In more ways than one, the party has indicated it would rather women stay home to take care of the family. One reason for this push can be found in the 2020 census. As the party marks 100 years since its founding, the population it rules is undergoing dramatic demographic changes. China’s population is ageing rapidly. Adults over 60 now make up nearly one-fifth of the population while births have fallen for four consecutive years. From a shrinking workforce to lower productivity and dwindling national pension funds, the trends have serious long-term implications for China’s future. To arrest what has been called a looming population crisis, the party has turned to a tried-and-test formula - women’s reproductive rights.
Ending more than three decades of the one-child policy, the CCP has switched gears to engineer a baby boom. But instead of policies to assist women to balance work and family, the party has called on women to embrace their “unique physical and mental traits of bearing offspring and breast-feeding” (妇女特有的身心特点、生育和哺乳功能) to care for the family. Although President Xi Jinping has promoted gender equality in his speeches, he has also reinforced traditional family values extolling the role of a virtuous wife and mother (贤妻良母) as an important foundation of Chinese socialism and China’s progress.
The message is driven home through every channel. “The Most Beautiful Family”, a nationwide competition aired on state television annually since 2015, showcases wholesome loving mothers and housewives caring for their families. Its aim is to promote family values while underscoring the “unique function of the woman” (要充分发挥妇女独特作用).
Propaganda aside, there are more draconian measures. It has become harder for women in some provinces to get an abortion. Authorities claim the restrictions are in place to prevent sex selective terminations, which were common during the period of the one-child policy. Critics say those restrictions are less necessary now. Moreover, a majority of abortions were carried out on unplanned pregnancies in young single women, according to China’s National Health Commission in 2018. The government has also made it more difficult for women to file for divorce. A cooling-off period has been mandated forcing couples to wait 30 days before their application is approved.
Men still make the rules
Such policies with strong chauvinist undertones stem from the lack of female representation in top party leadership and political positions of power. Despite promises “to strengthen the work of training and selecting women cadres” and installing a quota for women in leadership positions, the CCP remains resolutely a male-dominated party and Chinese elites have stayed exclusively an all-boys’ club. Research by ChinaFile found that fewer than 9 percent of party secretaries and heads of local governments in China are women. Only 2 out of a total of 31 provincial governors in the country are female. Women almost never made up more than 10 percent of the Central Committee, the CCP’s highest-ranking party members. The words “female” and “women” each appear only once in the CCP Constitution.
For the CCP, the role of women is to fulfill socio-economic functions dictated by men. Greater female autonomy is regarded as a threat to the party’s patriarchal rule. Under Xi, the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), founded by the CCP in 1949 to safeguard women’s interests and advocate for gender equality, was restructured in 2015 to “listen to the party’s words and follow the party’s lead” (听党话, 跟党走). Xi has also resurrected Confucian patriarchal ideas which emphasize harmony in the household over equality of the sexes.
Outside politics, China has made laudable advances towards gender equality. More women than men are in tertiary education, 55 percent of Chinese tech start-ups are female-founded, and China is home to the most self-made women entrepreneurs in the world. There have also been a number of legislative reforms to improve protection for women. Notably, the 2016 Anti-Domestic Violence Law provides for restraining orders and victims’ protection, and the Civil Code, which came into force this year, requires companies to put in place measures to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.
But these are merely drops in the ocean when set against the deep-seated cultural norms and gender stereotypes now perpetuated by the party. In reality, women’s rights in China are more suppressed than ever. Feminists and women’s rights supporters who have voiced their opinions online have been viciously trolled and some have even received death threats. Earlier this year, Weibo, China’s Twitter, removed more than a dozen accounts belonging to feminists for, according to the social media platform, “illegal and harmful” content. Douban, a popular movie review website also banned messaging forums that discussed women’s issues, due to what it called “extremism, radical politics, and ideologies”. Offline, domestic abuse cases continue to spike, exacerbated by the pandemic lockdowns. Women still earn less than men and are discriminated at work with little to no avenue for recourse.
Half the sky remains far from reach.