‘No matter how good a woman, she will circle the kitchen stove. No matter how inferior a man, he will travel the world.’ This was a common saying in pre-revolutionary China, as was the answer to someone knocking at the door of a household: “There is no-one home” — there are no men at home.
The 1949 Revolution saw laws passed that, for the first time in China, allowed women to work outside the home. Women were granted the right to divorce, own land and other rights that enabled them to no longer be seen as a man’s property. Legislation passed that banned child- and arranged-marriage. However, despite the Maoist state’s rhetoric that “women hold up half the sky”, the reality was always different.
The revolution broke the powers of imperialism, the warlords, and Japanese occupiers. The millions of peasants welcomed it. But it was a nationalist revolution, not a socialist one, and the needs and aspirations of workers and peasants were always subordinated to the state’s aim of building a strong and independent economy that could compete with the rest of the world. While there were massive improvements in maternity care, and fewer women and children died as a result of childbirth, women still faced the double burden of both working and bringing up the next generation of children.
In the countryside, during collectivisation, the only way to eat was to work in the fields and earn “work points”. This forced women to go to work too soon after giving birth, resulting in many long-term medical problems. Collective childcare was never a reality for most rural communities. At best, older people would look after children in exchange for “work points”. At worst the children, and even babies, were left on their own.
Many of the women who lived in cities and towns worked in state-owned enterprises, where jobs were separated into heavy and light industries and skilled and unskilled posts. The majority of jobs in the heavy and skilled sectors were assigned to men, leaving women to take up often the lowest-paid employment. This division became particularly significant during the 1990s, when many state-owned companies were either privatised or restructured, often hitting the lowest paid. Despite women making up only 39 percent of the urban workforce, almost 63 percent of workers laid off during this period were women.
Many women welcomed China’s One Child Policy, launched in 1979, because it broke the endless cycle of pregnancies they had suffered. But the policy ended up hitting them as the state policed their fertility via fines, loss of jobs, forced abortions and sterilisation. And due to the structure of rural families, where women left their birth family when they married and joined their husband’s household, boy children were preferable to girls as they would be there to look after parents in their old age. The state has now begun to allow couples to have two children because there are now too few young people able to support their parents and grandparents.
China’s economic expansion over the past three decades has changed women’s lives considerably, but by how much depends on whether they are migrants from the countryside into the towns and cities, or whether they were always urban-based. This is because of China’s hukou system, which is basically an internal passport introduced in 1958 in order to control internal migration and distribute welfare and resources. Individuals are classed as having an urban or rural hukou which is passed from one generation to another irrespective of where children are born.
Migrant workers have no automatic rights to education or health care in the cities. As a result, many leave their children behind when they migrate, so that today around 61 million children — 22 percent of all children in the country and 37 percent of rural ones — are left either with one of their parents or with grandparents. Some 3 percent of children are estimated to be living alone. The 20 percent of rural couples who take their children with them when they migrate to the cities face a host of bureaucratic barriers when they try to get them into urban schools.
For example, in Guangzhou in the Pearl River delta, migrant parents applying for a school place have to produce work permits, proof of residence certificates from their place of origin and household registration cards. Many urban schools charge migrant families extra fees. Even if and when migrant children get a place at an urban school, they are treated as outsiders. One survey found that over 86 percent of migrant children did not have any local friends. Those migrant children who are unable to get into urban schools end up attending overcrowded, unlicensed schools that generally lack resources, and have a high teacher turnover and are often under threat of being closed down by the authorities.
This leaves migrant women workers who become mothers with the option of either fighting collectively with other workers for better conditions or, what is increasingly unlikely, returning to the countryside.
Meanwhile, women with an urban hukou have benefited from China’s economic expansion, particularly if they have daughters. There is now an increasing number of well-educated and relatively well-paid women. However, despite this, the gender pay and wealth gap between men and women has increased. Within married couples one of the reasons this wealth gap has increased is due to the ownership of the marital home. In 2012, only 30 percent of home deeds included the women’s name, even though over 70 percent of women had made a contribution towards buying the property. This is despite the fact there are now 20 million more men than women under the age of 30, so men can struggle to find wives.
Authoritarianism and repression can stunt the development of social protest for long periods. But they cannot remove its underlying causes, which are rooted in the fundamental nature of capitalist society. Throughout its history, women’s position has produced anger and activism, and has sometimes acted as a focus for discontent and a trigger for wider movements of anti-capitalist protest. As we reflect upon the events in France 50 years ago, we are reminded that students gave expression to long pent-up grievances and that the events rapidly turned into a massive movement that shook prevailing social and political structures to their foundations. Politics is not an exact science, and we cannot predict the shape of protest in China in the months and years to come, but it is far from inconceivable that the brave women and men who risk state repression by supporting the online movements and petitions mentioned below could initiate waves of protest and rebellion that impact just as powerfully on China (and beyond) as May ’68 did on France and the rest of the advanced world.
The fight against domestic violence and sexual harassment
The health of Chinese women has increased in relation to that of their mothers and grandmothers three or four decades ago. However, domestic violence and sexual harassment are still common throughout Chinese society.
For decades, activists have tried to expose the extent of domestic violence in the country. In 2011, Kim Lee, after many years of abuse, finally left her famous husband Li Yang, a celebrated English language educator. Using her brand new mobile phone, and wishing only to contact her friends, she posted photographs of her battered and bruised body on social media. But very quickly, she had thousands of followers offering advice and support, many of whom were themselves victims of domestic abuse.
When she tried to report her abuse to the police, she found what many victims of domestic violence discover — a basic indifference, with at best a response such as “you’re fine, he’s fine, just relax and go home”, to at worst a huge amount of red tape preventing reports being lodged such as having the wrong type of ID and claims that a medical examination was not proper evidence because they were not performed at “designated” crime hospitals.
It took Kim more than 18 months of battling through the Chinese legal system before she managed to get a restraining order on her husband. She was finally granted a divorce on the grounds of domestic violence. When she left the court she was hugged by supporters wearing white wedding dresses splashed with blood.
Some people still believe that China is very different to other capitalist countries, or that it is even socialist. Yet in China as elsewhere the private sphere of the family remains the root of women’s oppression and the public sphere is still dominated by men. Only in 2016 did the state make domestic violence illegal. Despite this, however, the government estimates that one in four wives are victims of domestic violence — a figure that is certainly a gross underestimate. Despite the campaigns, domestic violence is still seen as a personal matter not a public one; something that should be resolved in the privacy of the home. The state appears to be more concerned with silencing those who protest and blaming the victims, rather than providing any practical support.
On the eve of International Women’s Day in 2015 five feminist activists were arrested and jailed for 37 days for handing out anti-sexual harassment stickers. These women are still under surveillance. Their arrests made women’s rights activists feel less confident about speaking out or demonstrating in public. So online petitions began to be used more and more, making it more difficult for the police to target individuals.
Earlier his year, as International Women’s Day ended in Beijing, the micro-blogging site Weibo account of the online group Feminist Voices, was deleted. The following day its WeChat account (the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp) was closed too.
Despite the repression and censorship, the resistance continues. Weibo’s recent attempt to block any reference to LGBT content was met with online resistance, with 170,000 people using #IAmGay within 24 hours of the notice. The #MeToo movement in China has also started to expose the huge extent of sexual harassment in the country.
After the Weinstein story first broke, the state-run newspaper China Daily published an article online which claimed that merits of Chinese culture has resulted in a relatively low incidence of sexual harassment. It provoked a huge social media backlash that not only denounced the claim but also pointed to the low level of reporting on the issue of harassment. Even the official language used to describe sexual harassment is deliberately misleading, with universities referring to “inappropriate teacher-student relations”. A survey conducted in 2017 by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center found that nearly 70 percent of Chinese university students had experienced sexual harassment.
At the beginning of this year, inspired by the international #MeToo movement, Luo XiXi posted on Weibo an open letter describing how she had been assaulted by her supervisor when she was a young Phd student in Beijing in 2004. Within 24 hours the post had received 3 million hits. The professor was sacked from his job. Since then the authorities have slowly begun to take sexual harassment slightly more seriously. The People’s Daily wrote on 7 January this year that victims who come forward with their stories should be supported. In mid-January, the China’s Ministry of Education announced plans that it would “work with related departments to establish a long-term mechanism to prevent sexual harassment at universities and colleges”.
However, despite these encouraging signs, the government has quickly tried to block the movement growing on university campuses or online. Censors have been busy blocking not only #MeToo itself, but any related phases such as “anti-sexual harassment”. There is a growing suspicion that the sea of grey suits, also known as central government, is forcing the crack down on the exposure of sexual harassment because many of them have been guilty of carrying it out. They are also terrified of any social instability at a time when the economy is slowing down.
In the past the Chinese state has attempted to suppress movement after movement in order to stay in power. From Tiananmen Square in 1989 to people’s support for the Arab Spring in 2011 and the more recent Hong Kong Umbrella movement, each time the state succeeds another grassroots movement arises learning the lessons from the last. The toxic combination of exposés of domestic violence, sexual harassment and gender inequality is one that the state will struggle to ban, bury or legislate away, but ultimately to no avail.
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