"Women Carry Half of Heaven on Their Shoulders"

Young women in China are under enormous social pressure, and economic inequality between the genders is increasing as well: While women earned an average of 80 percent of their male colleagues’ annual salary in 1990, the ratio had fallen to 60 percent by 2010. So what is the current status when it comes to the role of women in China? A panel discussion in Berlin provided insight.

David Weyand | July 2017
Photo: Anita Back

"In the German media coverage of China, feminism hardly plays a role, though it is a highly relevant topic," Christian Hänel stated when opening the "Feminism and Women Empowerment: Redefining the Role of Women in Contemporary China" event. The Robert Bosch Stiftung’s head of the International Relations America and Asia department welcomed some 90 guests to the Foundation’s Berlin offices for the 10th edition of the "Engaging with China" event series.   

Young women in China are under enormous social pressure. Despite the fact that many are highly qualified and financially independent, they have to deal with parents who usually expect them to marry and have children at a young age. Many cities have state-supported marriage markets where parents try to find men willing to take their daughters off their hands. Women who are still unmarried at age 27 are shamed as ‘leftover women.’ This is also the title of Leta Hong Fincher’s first book, in which the American author investigates the renewed rise of gender inequality in China.  In Berlin, she shared the panel with the renowned Chinese women’s rights activist Lu Pin, a founding member of Feminist Voices, China’s number one media platform for women’s rights. She recently launched the Chinese Feminist Collective, an NGO to support the feminist movement in China from the U.S. The panel discussion was hosted by sinologist and China expert Janka Oertel of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Revolution and women

Leta began by going all the way back to the early years of the Communist Party of China: To drive the revolution, the party used the issue of gender equality to recruit women. "Women carry half of heaven on their shoulders," she reminded the audience of Mao’s famous quote. In the early years of the People’s Republic, progress was indeed made from 1949 onward: As a first, women were granted divorce and property rights and were treated more equally to men in the labor market, allowing them to have an income of their own. "Consequently, many women were enthusiastic supporters of communism," Leta explained. However, the progressive women’s rights politics didn’t last long.

While the socialist idea of equality may still live on in people’s minds, it didn’t have much to do with today’s reality, Lu pointed out, citing the increasing economic inequality between the genders: While women earned an average of 80 percent of their male colleagues’ annual salary in 1990, the ratio had fallen to 60 percent by 2010. "Today’s Chinese economy exploits women’s labor to the extreme," she concluded, adding that the situation was similar in terms of the distribution of wealth. Residential properties, initially publicly owned but privatized since the 1990s, are traditionally bestowed on men, Leta explained. While these homes were of little value in the beginning, real estate prices have since taken off, bringing about a massive redistribution of wealth for the benefit of men. Today, only very few young Chinese professionals with low starting salaries can afford to buy a home; most are fully reliant on the support of their parents, most of them social conservatives. "Women who strive for independence are pressured by their families or partners."

Lu refuses to accept tradition and culture as valid explanations for the current situation. The only way to achieve a better position for women in society, she argues, is with better-formulated laws and regulations - and their actual implementation. "We spent a decade fighting for a law against domestic violence - and now we can’t celebrate because it is not being enforced," she criticized. Leta confirmed that "China has plenty of laws, but only a few are actually implemented. That’s not what you would call a constitutional state." And even perceived improvements may not be great below the surface: The end of the one-child policy, for instance, does not give women greater freedom as it only applies to married heterosexual couples and not to single or homosexual women who want to have children.

Sexist sex education in Chinese schools

The direct relations between the genders in China are often problematic as well: Besides incidents of domestic violence, sexual harassment in public is a frequent occurrence. The American author sees the main problem not at the level of individuals, but in the public structures and political propaganda: "Sex education in schools is extremely sexist. This makes it hard for boys to rise beyond this environment and the respective paradigms." Leta is convinced that more men would be committed to the cause of gender equality if it weren’t for the public control and propaganda.

Feminist activities are rigorously suppressed by the Chinese government. While Lu attests to the existence of thousands of feminists in the country, "the organization of events, groups, and protests means crossing the red line." In 2015, for instance, five Chinese feminists were arrested when they attempted to hand out anti-sexual harassment stickers in subway stations on International Women’s Day. Thanks to internet campaigns, the ‘Feminist Five’ received international attention. Nevertheless, it took weeks until they were released. Having cooperated closely with the five women before their arrest, Lu decided to remain in the U.S. after her fellow activists were interned; she has not been to China since. So for now, she is organizing her women’s rights activities from the United States.

Feminism under pressure, also internationally

However, feminism was not only fighting a backlash in China, but also in other countries where it faced authoritarian, patriarchal governments, both experts emphasized. "The question is not whether feminism can only be achieved in democracies but how feminism can contribute to democratization," Lu clarified.

Both experts consider the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President a setback for international women’s rights. Following his election, assaults on women in China had risen exponentially, Lu stated. And Leta misses a powerful moral voice to shape, as previously, American foreign politics – a stand that also contributed to the release of the Feminist Five: "But I am not without hope. Chinese feminists have gone through so much, and they are still going strong. That should be an inspiration to people around the world."

Summary of the Evening in the Audio Slide Show