The erosion of gender equality in contemporary China is well documented. In her widely celebrated book, Leftover Women, Leta Hong Fincher traces the trend that is seeing young women "shut out of what is arguably the biggest accumulation of real-estate wealth in history." The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report saw China fall in the rankings once again.
In October, the Southbank Centre held the second edition of its annual China Changing Festival, with two events focused on women; Women, China and the Two-Child Policy, and Hidden Stories: Chinese Women Writers.
“Well, “hidden stories” is supposed to seduce you here, and here you are, but I am not sure there is anything hidden in our lives these days,” Guo Xiaolu, the London based writer who shared a panel with Beijing-based writer and journalist Zhang Lijia, told the audience at the Southbank centre.
Guo went on to describe her wonder at reading George Orwell’s 1984 after moving to the UK: “I thought, how did he manage to write a communist China, or a communist soviet? [This] English gentleman graduated from Eton.” Guo described her amazement at what she saw as Orwell’s ability to conceive of something with so many parallels to a China he had never known.
For Zhang, the hidden story is how the market economy has gradually undermined gender equality in China. “Women have shouldered too much of the cost and burden as China shifted from a planned economy to a market economy,” said Zhang. “For example, in the state owned enterprises, when they had to lay off workers, women [were] always first to fall victim.”
The retirement age for women in China is fifty—fifty-five for employees of state owned enterprises and civil servants—compared to 60 for men. This too serves to curtail women’s career development, most notably in the field of politics, and pushes them towards providing a form of free welfare on the behalf of the state. Retired grandmothers in China do a huge amount of the child care for new parents in China to allow their daughters or daughters in law to go to work.
China was always going to have a welfare crisis on its hands as the population aged and placed an enormous social care burden on the one-child generation. Some suspect that the CCP, under Xi Jinping, plan to manoeuvre women into filling this welfare gap. In public speeches, Xi has laid out ideal roles for women in society, which often focus on care of the elderly and the education of children within the family.
During the Southbank’s panel discussion on family planning in China, journalist and author of the book One Child, Mei Fong, described how “instead of having a one-child policy, it became a "please-have-one-more-child policy."”
The panel was hosted by Dr Liu Ye, lecturer in international development at Kings College, and also heard from Kailing Xie, a PhD researcher at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. The shift from the one to the two-child policy might look like a surefire sign of China changing, but Xie thinks otherwise: “from my point of view the governmentality of China hasn’t changed.” Xie sees continuity in “the bio-politics [the CCP] utilise to govern the nation [and] keep the conventional family model as the main welfare provider.” And she adds that, “the cost has been mainly borne by individual women.”
For some women, the one-child policy also provided a way to fend off in-laws keen for more children, and defend their right to lives that involved more than caring for multiple offspring. Xie described the impact of the policy change on women in her generation: “before I could say the policy does not allow it, but now the pressure is pretty much on me.”
According to Xie, the CCP not only wants to increase birth rates, but for that increase to be concentrated in the middle class, or at least not to lag behind among urban educated women as current trends suggest it will. “My generation of women are supposed to embody this kind of modern, successful nation but in a gender specific way. So for our children we are expected to use our educational background, our knowledge to take the scientific approach to raise the next generation.” So, Xie explains, “we see from Mao’s China the de-gendering of women, to re-assign[ing] women to their gender.’
Zhang Lijia also sees a turn back to pre-revolution gender roles in recent years: “some of the old attitudes towards women, which have been suppressed by Mao, have now made a return. For example, the growing culture of keeping a mistress,” which Zhang sees as a form of contemporary concubinage.
Zhang’s debut novel, Lotus, follows the life of a sex worker in modern day Shenzhen: “I do not expect this book will be translated into Chinese, because prostitution is a sensitive subject,” says Zhang, adding that “even academics find it very difficult to research on the topic.”
“For me,” Zhang says, “prostitution is just an interesting way to observe the social tensions brought by the reform. Prostitution touches on the most important issues in contemporary China; migration, rural urban divide, gender issues and the kind of tug of war between modernity and tradition.”
Zhang recounts for the audience at the Southbank Centre the response a French film director interested in making a film based on her book received at a conference in China: “prostitution does not exist in China.”
While the China Changing festival did a commendable job of relaying the kickback against gender equality in recent years, there are also signs of hope in China. Many young women come into contact with a very different set of ideas to the Confucian-inspired rhetoric coming from the CCP—a plethora of feminist groups that have popped up on university campuses and many follow popular social media accounts discussing gender issues. It is how these young women respond to the pressures from above which will truly determine how China continues to change for women.
Nuala Gathercole Lam is a graduate student at the London School of Economics. She is a founding member of Jiemei. Nuala is also a freelance journalist and has contributed to The F Word, Resonate and Sixth Tone. She tweets @NualaMai. Image credit: Southbank Centre.