Why don’t young Chinese want to be feminists? What discourages young people from embracing feminism? The two questions kept leaping out during my fieldwork for a research project on Youth Attitudes towards Gender, Homosexuality and the Migrant Underclass in collaboration with my colleagues from Peking University in 2017. We interviewed 68 university students born between 1993 and 1999. These students were selected from a variety of social backgrounds and from different geographical origins, and they are also from different types of universities with representatives from the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
Our female respondents were vocal about gender inequality in the job market. Their stories include daily sexism, a lack of opportunities in the labour market and ‘female liabilities’. For example, Xiaonan Cheng a 20-year old undergraduate studying Business, was frustrated by the fact that women were constantly reduced to economic measures, productivity and efficiency in her Economics lectures. She was appalled that women’s responsibilities in the private sphere, including child-rearing, were completely bypassed in the external male-dominated rhetoric of competitiveness, cost and returns. Xiaonan believed that she was living in a very unequal society, where women were under-valued and under-appreciated and were increasingly subject to positional competition with men.
When I asked about whether feminist movements would be effective in promoting gender equality, the interviewees were suddenly withdrawn. I was curious about the abrupt shift from vocal narratives against gender inequality to apparent reservations when feminism was mentioned. I tried different wording, switching from女权 to女性 in an attempt to continue the conversation. I also used specific examples that I observed on campus including feminist organisations to draw further narratives on feminism.
The majority of the informants were skeptical about objectives of NGOs (non-profit organisations independent of government) such as feminist societies, and almost all interviewees (66 out of 68) expressed such doubts in the interviews. Moreover, they seemed to have developed ‘distant and distrustful’ attitudes towards feminist movements.
Jiamei Li, a 25-year-old postgraduate student in Media Studies in one of the elite universities in China, reflected on her encounter with the NGOs and feminist activities on campus: ‘I appreciate what they are doing. I encountered two NGOs in my undergraduate years. The girls were circulating free condoms and promoting sexual consent. Another society was helping women who experienced violence. I am very sympathetic with what they are doing.’ However, she did not volunteer to support or be associated with these projects. I asked further how she related herself to women’s issues at the societal level, and she elaborated her understanding of gender equality and feminism:
There is no society with equality. Men and women are different. I don’t think we should ask for equality. I think there is still a lot to be done to treat women fairly. But I don’t think feminist approaches would work in our society. The feminists are so angry. They all sound very radical, which I find difficult to relate to. My education and upbringing made me rational. A rational and calm approach would be much better. I don’t think I want to be a feminist.
Jiamei’s impression of ‘angry feminists’ was shared by almost all informants. Xing Yu, a 23-year-old undergraduate from engineering, discussed his understanding of gender equality and feminism:
My generation is much better than my parental generation. We respect women. I am sympathetic with the lack of opportunities in the labour market. For instance, a lot of companies hire male only. It’s employment discrimination. I think more should be done to deal with this kind of discrimination.
Having acknowledged equal rights and the importance of women’s contribution to society, however, Xing expressed skepticism about feminist movements:
The feminists seem to be very angry about everything. Our country has improved a lot in gender issues. But feminist agendas are so radical. It does not win them any sympathy. Our culture and society do not appreciate outspoken and angry women.
Both Jiamei and Xing’s narratives resonated with the Confucian cultural roots of female virtue, which prescribe personal qualities including obedience, endurance, self-sacrifice and the capability to maintain harmony in the family and the State. The ‘angry’ feminists had no place in Confucian womanly virtue; rather, women should exemplify a ‘rational’ and ‘calm’ ideal. The dilemma was evident for the feminist activists in contemporary China. On the one hand, the feminist activists needed the public to recognize gender inequality and violence against women at the societal level by voicing their concerns and addressing the issues publicly. On the other hand, there was no cultural precedent to accept the means of presentation and expression utilised by the feminist activists or to appreciate gender equality or any related cause that would run counter to the societal harmony.
The overwhelmingly conservative attitudes towards feminism and feminist activists might also suggest the long-term impact of the Communist legacy. The Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and the subsequent ten-year Cultural Revolution ending in 1976 were characterized with radical activists and political campaigns. The destructive consequences of radical ideology-oriented social movements seem to have had a lingering impact on both policy-makers and individual citizens. Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978 and distanced himself from the radical Socialist past by introducing rationalization in policy-making, including the Four Modernisations and population control.
At the societal level, the protests and demonstrations were tightly controlled by the State, partly due to the symbolic association with the radical past. The narratives from the respondents seem to suggest that the social memory of the destructive political campaigns in the past has evoked an unquestioned rejection of grass-roots civic activities targeting public awareness of social issues, such as gender equality and violence against women. Therefore, there is little ‘cultural’ or ‘public’ space in which feminist activists can articulate their cause and engage in public debates to raise public awareness of gender equality. Higher education also seems to play an important role of educating youth with ‘rational’ minds. However, the priority of university education in knowledge learning and skills production leaves little room for cultivating ‘civic minds’.
Social memory of the radical past, the Confucian cultural codes and an absent civic dimension of higher education might explain why highly educated Chinese youth do not want to be feminists. But in the background feminism is addressing questions that resonate with the female students’ concerns about their future job prospects and workplace discrimination.
Dr Ye Liu is a Lecturer in International Development at Kings College London. Prior to her post at King’s, she was a Senior Lecturer in International Education at Bath Spa University between (2013-2016). Her first monograph entitled: Higher Education, Meritocracy and Inequality in China was published by Springer in September 2016. She has published in The Conversation, Times Higher Education and was invited to speak about Chinese women and the two-child policy at the Southbank Centre, London.