Women's situation in China: Half the sky but not half the country | 18 juuli 17

Othmara Glass


The role of women in China has significantly changed over the past decades. The country’s rapid development has given Chinese women new rights and liberties. Although the government under President Xi Jinping is officially committed to gender equality, public promotion of women’s rights and reality misfit. 

It was only a few days before the International Women’s Day in March 2015 when Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, and Wang Man were arrested by the Chinese authorities for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.[1] What did they do?

The Feminist Five: Zheng Churan, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, Li Maizi. (Source: Amnesty International/Tumblr).

An issue for Feminist Fife

Feminists in China often face discrimination and public harassment. In the case of the five detained women their offence was to plan to hand out stickers about sexual harassment on the public transport in Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou.[2]


Until the crackdown of their campaign no one had really heard of these women outside of China. Because of the arrestments, they also became known abroad as the “Feminist Five” (see picture above). In Social Media, the hashtag campaign #FreeTheFive went viral. 

It was a coincident that at the same time China’s president Xi Jinping prepared to co-host a UN summit on women’s rights in New York. After 37 days of harsh interrogation the authorities finally released all five activists, also due to the pressure from international NGOs and foreign governments.[3]


Feminism in China has been encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party since it was founded in 1921. Yet, this state-sponsored feminism requires loyalty of women to the Party and the authorities. Newer feminist movements as the Feminist Five want to break out of this system, especially as the inequality is on the rise once again after decades of a decrease.


State-sponsored feminism

The CCP showed early interest to overcome the inequality between men and women. Already in 1922, the CCP called for an end of Chinese traditions that would repress women. Such traditions were e.g. foot binding and bride napping. Even before the end of the Chinese revolution the All-China Democratic Women’s Foundation (ACWF) was founded on 24 March 1949 as first country-wide women’s organization.


New Marriage Law poster "Freedom of marriage, happiness and good luck". Source: chineseposters.net

After the successful revolution, Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky.” As in the Soviet Union the Communist regime in China praised gender equality.[4] The first official legal act by the CCP after they had won the revolution was to reform the Marriage Law. Forced marriage, bride price, concubinage, and child betrothal were abolished. 

The new law granted women equal property rights and the right to ask for divorce. If women wanted they could also keep their own family name from this time on. However, the emancipation of women was not caused by feminism, but rather by economic reasons. The CCP was looking for ways to increase the workforce in order to enhance the economic development after the war.[5]


Indeed, the reforms such as equal pay or equal access to education made the access to the labor market easier for women. However, often at the cost of a double burden - after a day at work, the chore and children still waited at home.[6] 

In the beginning of the 1950s women were suddenly able to participate in public life and politics. They could gain posts in local governments and as higher party offices. According to Alice Hu, “the women’s rights movement had led to increased sexual freedom”, which met the resentments of men. Especially among the more conservative peasantry the liberalization of female sexuality was not welcomed by men. The authorities worried about the Party’s image and a possible backlash. In 1953, only three years after its introduction the CCP abolished the Marriage Reform Law.[7]


Growing inequality

While women were guaranteed a job in the state controlled economy under Mao, Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms in the 1980s put women in the competition with men. 

Propaganda poster from 1980 "Study hard to gain strength to contribute to socialist modernization". Source: chineseposters.net

The higher pressure on the labor market came along with severe discrimination. Women were more likely to get fired or forced to retire earlier, which would be followed by less social support. The worsened economic situation of women had serious repercussions on their social situation. Sexual harassment at the workplace and domestic violence re-increased.[8]


In 1995, the China hosted the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women. Although the Conference succeeded in the formulation of the Beijing Declaration that addressed 12 critical areas of concern, the situation for women and feminists in China has not improved. 

Leta Hong Fincher writes that since the 1990s the inequality is deepening again. The average annual salary of an urban woman was 77.5 percent that of men in 1990. 20 years later urban women’s average wage dropped to only 67.3 percent that of men, based on government data.[9]


The detention of the Feminist Five came at a time when Xi was preparing the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference. The government presented a White Paper on “Gender Equality and Women's Development in China”, formulating what has been done since 1995 and what still needs to be done.[10] According to the paper, the situation of women has improved: 

Men would take over more tasks in the household, and more women are asked in important decisions related with the family. One fourth of all entrepreneurs are female. State-initiated programs have helped improve the social security of women.


The paper also argues that women are more present in political life. By 2020, the percentage of women in village committees shall exceed 30 percent. In the first session of the 12th National People's Congress in 2013 the women representation was 23.4 percent, in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) national committee 17.8 percent. Overall, 24.3 percent of all members in the CCP are female, an increase of 8.7 percentage points since 1995. 

Although the CCP tries to sell this as a success, one can spot a general pattern of the underrepresentation of women in leading political positions. In the highest body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, none of the seven members is female. In the current 18th Politburo itself only two out of 25 are women.


Consequences of the one-child policy

The biggest influence on the changing role of women was the one-child policy (1979-2015). Being an only-child, girls did not need to compete anymore with brothers for attention and resources. 

A recent study suggests that the one-child policy contributed a lot to the access of women to higher education.[11] In 2013, more than half of the enrolled students in tertiary education were women.[12] However, different newspapers report discrimination against women, like higher thresholds in the gaokao, the nationwide university entrance exam.[13]


Unquestionable, the one-child policy has had drastic consequences for China’s demography. The fertility rate in China fell from 2.8 births per woman in 1979 to 1.5 in 2010.[14] The sex ratio between male and female births increased from 108 in 1982 to 120 in 2000. 

As the map below shows, particular in the more industrialised regions in the south and east of China, the sex ratio even reached 150 boys for 100 girls in some areas. Like in any other patriarchic society, Chinese parents have a traditional preference for sons. Many families aborted female fetuses or abandoned baby girls to make sure that the one and only child was a son.[15]


Source: http://blogs.transparent.com/chinese/files/2011/10/ChinaNewsMap2.jpg

Today, the ratio of men and women at birth is 118 to 100 in China. The global average is between 103 and 107 men for 100 women.[16] The Chinese government expects that up to 30 million men stay single by 2020. 

This is a danger for the social stability in China and the CCP’s rule. In the moment the only-child generation is paying for the social security of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. While the older generations will live longer than some decades ago, the number of younger generations will become relatively less (see graph below). 

Source: http://www.fdbetancor.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/China_population-pyramid_2010-to-2050.png

The current pension system, which was designed to support a small older population, is put under increasing pressure. The government is working on a tax and pension system reform to counter the imminent break-down of the social contract, but it is not at all guaranteed that this will fix the problem.



Looking at the numbers, Chinese women should have a huge choice of men. On the one side this is true. However, with the bigger choice the expectations have grown. In today’s China, not a few women expect a high income, and that their future husband own a flat or house and a car. A guy who cannot match up to these material requirements will have a hard time finding a bride. 

On the other side, the society puts constantly pressure on women to get married and “produce future generations”[17]. Women who are older than 27 years and still single are called “leftover” by Chinese media. Even the All-China Women's Federation refers to them as “leftover women”. 

In spring 2016, an emotional advertisement (see picture below) about China's “leftover women” went viral, causing a discussion how unmarried women are treated in the Chinese society.

Other issues facing Chinese women are equally worrying. The Feminist Five are the core members of China’s Women’s Rights Action Group who have got attention due to their creative ways of protest - occupying men’s toilets or walking through Beijing in bloody wedding dresses and with fake bruises on their faces.[18] 

The main topics of the group are domestic violence, sexual harassment, sex discrimination at the labor market and university admissions, and insufficient toilets for women. It was not until 2016 that China got an effective law on domestic violence.[19]


Although the All-China Women's Federation is registered as NGO, it is not an independent feminist movement. It relies on the state authorities and expects loyalty to the government and the CCP. China’s NGOs are oftentimes government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs). 

Some feminist movements strive to be independent of the state framework. The authorities fear of losing control over the civil society and take harsh actions against such initiatives. 

Li Maizi and Zheng Churan report how they were after their release still treated as criminal subjects and controlled by the authorities.[20] Some influential figures of the feminist movement already left the country to act freely “from Chinese government interference”, like Lu Pin, the founder of the website Feminist Voices.


Political implications

The growing number of educated and professional women may become a problem for the CCP. On the one hand, the expectations on men have increased. A man needs a high education, a high salary and property in order to compete on the marriage market. Often that will not be enough and they will stay single or try to get a wife from abroad. Despite the glut of bachelors in China, not every woman is willing to get married just for the sake of marriage. In addition to that, single men are known to be rather unruly. 

On the other hand, the one-child policy has put enormous pressure on the social system in China. To mock women in their late twenties as “left-over” may have the contrary effect: Instead of getting married and having children, these women will start to oppose sexism and discrimination, and eventually the government, as the case of the “Feminist Five” shows.


[1] Zeng, Jinyan: “China's feminist five: 'This is the worst crackdown on lawyers, activists and scholars in decades'”. The Guardian, 17 April 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/apr/17/chinas-feminist-five-this-is-the-worst-crackdown-on-lawyers-activists-and-scholars-in-decades [1 July 2017].

[2] Fincher, Leta Hong: China’s Feminist Five. Dissent (2016), Vol. 63 Issue 4, p. 84-90.

[3] Ibd.

[4] Ibd: 86.

[5] Hu, Alice: Half the Sky, But Not Yet Equal. China’s Feminist Movement. Harvard International Review, Spring 2016, pp. 15-18.

[6] The International Herald Tribune: “Holding up Half the Sky”. New York Times, 6 March 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/07/world/asia/holding-up-half-the-sky.html?_r=0 [1 July 2012].

[7] Hu (2016): 16.

[8] Ibd.

[9] Fincher (2016): 86.

[10] White Paper: Gender Equality and Women's Development in China, 22 September 2015. http://www.china.org.cn/chinese/2015-09/22/content_36651056_10.htm [2 July 2017].

[11] Matthews, David: “What future for women in Chinese higher education?” Times Higher Education, 21 January 2016. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/what-future-women-chinese-higher-education [1 July 2017].

[12] The World Bank: “Percentage of Students in Tertiary Education Who Are Female, China, 2013”. The World Bank Databank, 1 July 2017.

[13] Tatlow, Didi Kirsten: “Women in China Face Rising University Entry Barriers”. New York Times, 7 October 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/08/world/asia/08iht-educlede08.html?_r=1 [1 July 2017].

[14] Feng, Wang; Yong, Cai; Gu, Baochang (2012). Population, Policy, and Politics: How Will History Judge China’s One-Child Policy?. Population and Development Review. 2012 (38), 115–29.

[15] Reuters: “China says its gender imbalance 'most serious' in the world.” 21 January 2015. http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-china-onechild-idUKKBN0KU0V720150121 [1 July 2017].

[16] Ibd.

[17] Fincher (2016): 87.

[18] Hu (2016): 17.

[19] Fincher (2016): 86.

[20] Fincher (2016).

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