An Unfinished Political Agenda
Xi Jinping attaches great importance to family education and tradition and stresses that women should play an important role in the construction of family virtues. During his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Xi Jinping emphasized that gender equality is China's basic national policy. However, during his recent talk with All-China Women’s Federation leadership, he emphasized that women's work is not only related to women's development, but it is also related to maintaining family harmony. These developments have once again brought the unresolved agenda back to the forefront that women still bear the sole responsibility of taking care of the family and household
Women in Socialist China
Questions of gender equality (nan nu ping deng) and women’s development (funu fazhan) have been a part of the official discourse on gender in China. Mao’s famous slogan ‘Women hold up half the sky’ indicated that China pays great attention to women’s equal participation in the workforce, which can improve women's social status. During the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) mass mobilization campaign especially during the Great Leap Forward (GLF), women were encouraged to participate in economic production. It was not limited to agriculture and light industry, but rather women became a major workforce as almost 600,000 women worked in iron and steel-making industries in Hunan province, the native place of Mao. Women were freed from the feudal practices of foot-binding, arranged marriages, and child brides and they were mobilized as an important workforce in the countryside.
After China’s liberation in 1949, the CPC formulated a series of progressive laws to ensure women’s freedom in choosing their partners for marriage and addressed women’s right to landed property within the household. The Official magazine ‘Women of China’ (earlier known as Women of New China) created new images of women who have essentially been freed from the shackles of bondages of oppression. The new images of women were essentially those of carrying baskets, operating agricultural machinery, or toasting with CPC leaders while attending some state functions.
Previously in revolutionary China, women revolutionaries like Kang Keqing and Xiang Jingyu supported the rights and interests of women. Deng Yingchao (wife of former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai) was active in the women’s rights movement long before she joined the CPC. In 1923, Deng became active in women’s publications, eventually becoming the editor of Women’s Daily, the only women-oriented newspaper in China at that time. As a result of these efforts, women’s participation in the workforce had increased and women were seen as the most visible actors in social and economic production. However, women’s liberation was considered part of the revolutionary class struggle and was denied an autonomous sphere by the socialist regime in China.
Reforms and New Wave of Feminism
In the 1970s and 80s, there was a new wave of feminism in China that questioned the Cultural Revolutionary campaigns of ‘iron girls’ and ‘what men can do, women can do too’ in both academia and popular culture. The process of retrieving femineity and rediscovering a feminine self, began with more differences in dress, occupation, social roles and behaviour among men and women.
Scholars and women activists demanded gender equality by bringing forth differences between women and men regarding their income, wages, employment, economic participation, and social management. In the 1980s, the Women’s Federation began to acknowledge the occupation differences between men and women and organized a campaign for ‘Double learning Double competition’（Shuang xue shuang bi）in rural areas. In 1989, On Women’s Day, People’s Daily reported gender discrimination experienced by female scientific and technological workers at work due to childbirth and family responsibilities.
The Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing (FWCW) in 1995 signalled a new era of hope and optimism regarding women’s rights in China. The Platform of Action issued by the Chinese government, for the first time, talked about twelve areas of critical concerns and was given importance by the policymakers to address gender equality in China. It included women’s participation in economic production, education and training, poverty reduction, access to health and political decision-making. Besides, China also created new institutional mechanisms to address the questions of women’s empowerment in China. For the first time in 1995 and subsequently, in 1999, 2004, 2007 and 2012, the data set on gender differences in workforce participation, educational and healthcare statistics were released by the Chinese government.
Statistics show that gender discrimination persists in terms of wages, employment, and retirement age. Some companies don’t want to hire women because they will likely take maternity leave in the future while other businesses still believe that once women become mothers, they can’t concentrate on their work. Thus, urban economic enterprises were not willing to recruit female workers and female university graduates found it difficult to get a placement in companies. According to the statistics, women’s labour force participation especially those having children under 2 years of age fell from 89 percent in 1990 to 56 percent in 2005 and for women with children under 6 years, it fell from 91 percent to 77 percent over the same period.
A major factor in the declining workforce ratio seems to be the lack of childcare provisions as SOEs relinquished their social service responsibilities. The new Women’s Protection Law which was implemented in 2023 stipulates that “the employer shall not, due to marriage, pregnancy, maternity leave, breastfeeding, and other circumstances, reduce the wages and welfare benefits of female workers, restrict the promotion, and employment of female workers, dismiss female workers, unilaterally dissolve the labor (employment) contract or service agreement. Thus, it seems to be taking a more welfarist attitude towards women workers in employment.
All China Women’s Federation and Women’s Collectives
All China Women’s Federation was set up in 1949 as a mass organization of the CPC for mobilizing and channelizing women in the revolutionary movement. Women’s Federation used to organize a series of meetings at the provincial, county and village levels to facilitate women speaking out about the problems within the family and community and also ensured women’s participation in a series of mass campaigns organized by the CPC from time to time. However, since the goals and aims of the Women’s Federation were defined by the Party ideology, it often found itself in a difficult situation that demanded conflicting political role to represent both women and the state.
In the reform period, the Party has been reluctant to loosen its grip over the ACWF, and there have been counter-forces seeking to bring changes, particularly in terms of attaining greater autonomy from the state. During the 1980s, it advocated gender equality in employment and education and also organized public forums to acquaint women with their legal rights and assist them in their struggle against all forms of discrimination. However, it often found itself in a difficult situation in representing women’s interests and meeting the Party’s goal.
However, after the economic reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were a series of women’s studies research centres established in different Universities in Zhengzhou, Hangzhou, Beijing and Tianjin. There was an awakening of new women’s consciousness about their social experiences. There was a new interest in setting up women’s studies programmes in different universities and academic journals started devoting themselves to women’s issues. Popular organization like the Centre for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services, at Peking University, was established to provide legal aid and protection to women in times of their need. ‘The Media Watch network’ became a major platform for organizing sessions like Women’s Forums and started special columns in China Women’s News to promote awareness of gender discrimination and women’s rights in China.
Xi Jinping Regime and New Focus on Family Stability
However, a series of incidents like the arrest of young feminist activists and the crackdown on feminist organizations brought a setback for Chinese feminism. Moreover, with the aging population and demographic crisis in China, the issues of women’s development became largely confined to maintaining family stability and harmony. Xi Jinping attaches great importance to family education and tradition and stresses that women should play an important role in the construction of family virtues. During his speech at a high-level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly commemorating the 25th anniversary of the World Conference on Women in Beijing, Xi Jinping emphasized that gender equality is China's basic national policy. However, during his recent talk with All-China Women’s Federation leadership, he emphasized that women's work is not only related to women's development, but it is also related to maintaining family harmony, social cohesion and national development and progress.
In recent years, in Wanzhou district of Chongqing city, the Women’s Federation has started this initiative of 'Women's Micro Homes' to promote women's training in carrying out family culture construction. It once again emphasized that women have a unique role in promoting the traditional virtues of the Chinese nation and establishing good family traditions and thus, making an important contribution to the new development. Thus, these developments have once again brought the unresolved agenda back to the forefront that women still bear the sole responsibility of taking care of the family and household and the binaries between women’s roles in public and private life have got more sharpened.
Image Source: China Daily
Dr. Ritu Agarwal is an Associate Professor at Centre for East Asian studies, School of International Studies, JNU. She holds a Ph.D. in Chinese studies from University of Delhi. She completed her M.A. in Political science, JNU. Her Doctoral work explored the micro-level agrarian transformation in Yunnan province and she is currently engaged in questions of provincial transformation especially in Yunnan. Her research interests are: rural political economy, urbanization, gender studies and provincial politics. Dr. Ritu Agarwal studied Mandarin Chinese from Beijing language and Culture University, Beijing. She was a visiting scholar to Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, Kunming, and visiting fellow to Yunnan Minzu University and Yunnan University recently. She was also affiliated to Chinese University of Hong Kong and East Asia Institute, National University of Singapore, Singapore to collect material for her research work.
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