Ng Han Guan / AP

The coming of age of Chinese feminism

Female activists must navigate a landscape of economic growth without political reform

May 17, 2015 2:00AM ET

When China’s “New Year Gala” — a four-hour annual variety show watched by 690 million people — aired on Feb. 18, the country’s feminists were jolted out of their chairs. One comedy sketch ridiculed “manly women” for not being marriage material, comparing them with what it cast as the feminine ideal, a professional model. Another bit suggested that female officials traded sex for prominent positions.

The response from feminist bloggers was quick. One post, which went viral on social media while the show was still live, described its sins simply:

The gala’s discrimination of women is surprisingly exhaustive — from appearance discrimination (based on weight and height) to employment discrimination to marriage discrimination (based on age). It basically exhibits an overall misunderstanding of women.

The gala, “the most widely watched television show on earth,” according to The Washington Post, has long provided excellent fodder for bloggers, with parodic commentary on it a tradition in its own right: a lighthearted slap in the face — or tu cao, literally, “to spit into one’s bowl” — of CCTV’s political and cultural hegemony as allowed by the world’s strictest censors. But this year’s jokes about women offset the typically jovial mood and shed light on a graver concern: how China will deal with an awakening feminist sentiment amid disorienting changes of economic life, with the possibility of political and social stalemates.

A changing tide

Since 1983, when it first aired, the gala has morphed from pure entertainment into a ritualized event that unofficially serves as a platform to disseminate nationalistic narratives and political campaign messages. But its complicity in supporting and spreading misogyny has hit a nerve, with protesters taking to social media and, on International Women’s Day, the streets.

The root problem is a changing set of political and social mores. Under the unifying mantle of communism, being politically correct used to be essentially the same as being politically in line. Now they are being spun in drastically different directions, propelled by invincible and capricious forces: China’s growing economic diversity and increasingly vocal ethnic minorities, fueled by increasing wealth disparity and a renewed energy for dissent.

With sociopolitical norms in flux, what only recently was acceptable or even unifying can backfire at any moment. For instance, the ruling party has, for decades, skirted addressing diversity in any real (i.e., nontheoretical) way. But it is an issue that can’t be put off any longer, with The China Daily recently conceding that it would be a shame “if political correctness in this country does not incorporate respect for the dignity of its citizens.”

Women are among those struggling for political visibility and recognition. But ordinary citizens still find feminism deeply controversial. Even educated middle-class women often shy away from “unfeminine” proclamations that subvert traditional gender roles, which have long anchored traditional familial and social values.

Activists are voicing their grievances anyway. Essays that explore gender discrimination fill China’s cyberspace. “Our readers are quite familiar with the basic opinions and theories about feminism,” said Miao Ying, a doctoral candidate at Cambridge University’s Center of Development Studies who regularly writes for CNPolitics.org, an opinion blog hosted by young Chinese intellectuals. But, she said, they are less informed about “what the actual social status of Chinese women is.” The biggest task for Chinese feminists is simple but challenging: getting the definition straight. According to an anonymously written blog post on Douban.com, a messaging website popular among young educated Chinese, any discussion of feminism should cease until clearer ideas about women and rights have been established.

Feminist aspiration runs counter not only to China’s social norms and political restrictions but also to its drive for integration with global capitalism and consumer culture.

But establishing women’s rights will be difficult in a climate that has produced intense economic expansion but emasculated political expression. As the journalist Evan Osnos noted in his award-winning book, “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China,” the recipe for China’s invincible growth in the 21st century has “the makings of a paradox”:

Greater freedom in economic activities in exchange for less political life … was sparking individual ambition and self-creation in one half of life and suppressing those tendencies in the other.

Feminist aspiration is firmly rooted in that neglected half. It runs counter not only to China’s social norms and political restrictions but also to its drive for integration with global capitalism and consumer culture, where commodification of women is rampant. 

The new frontier

To succeed, China’s feminists will have to establish a stable ideological reference point to which they can anchor their cause. This won’t be easy. In a society in which history is often manipulated in the service of political priorities, knowledge about Chinese feminist tradition is scattered, leading some to turn to Europe and the U.S. for a traceable lineage of feminism. Yet Chinese activists realize that Western feminism — largely told in a narrative of ever-expanding suffrage — is ill fitted to their current situation. Without watershed political reform, wealth — the leading virtue of President Xi Jinping’s “core socialist value” campaign — remains the most expedient way to empowerment for China’s citizens.

Contemporary research might yield more fruitful insights. As China scholar Leta Hong Fincher observes in her sociological study about China’s “leftover women”a pejorative term for women who remain unmarried in their late 20s and beyond — the country is experiencing a resurgence of gender inequality. For instance, while the free market promises economic empowerment, it does so unequally. Fincher describes how Chinese women are largely shut out of the biggest accumulation of real estate wealth in human history because of their social and legal status. Even Hu Shuli, the editor-in-chief of Caixin Media and purportedly one of the most powerful women in China, is not exempt from widespread gender discrimination: Her political rivals recently attempted to defame her by alleging an illicit sexual affair.

To say these events constitute a resurgence of discrimination, of course, is something of a misnomer. Gender discrimination has long been a feature of China’s sociopolitical life, with women nominally recognized for, as Mao Zedong put it, “hold[ing] up half the sky.” Invasive monitoring of women’s reproductive lives and forced abortions are still raw memories for many women. And while the government has loosened its grip on childbirth policies, the battlefront for women’s rights has simply migrated from the body to the mind.

For instance, policymakers and law enforcement officials have failed repeatedly to act on domestic violence, brushing aside such issues as family concerns rather than policy matters. Is it then unsurprising that abused women — battling physical and psychological trauma and facing insufficient support — have resorted to violence to be heard? According to Feng Yuan, a representative of the Beijing-based Anti–Domestic Violence Network, the number of women who have been imprisoned for injuring or killing abusive husbands is telling. “When power cannot deliver justice, abused women will find their own way of achieving justice, sadly and wrongly,” she said.

As many Chinese — and even the wider world — are forced to consider the possibility that China might become a fully developed economic power without substantial political reform, it is easy to mistake growth at all costs for a sort of collective aspiration. Too often, today’s dissenters, including China’s feminists, are pushed aside by the oversize heroes — the real estate developers, the political celebrities, the dot-com CEOs — of China’s economic success.

Meanwhile, the state is capitalizing on the gender debate for its purpose of asserting social control. Its crackdown on women’s rights activism on International Women’s Day underscored the lay of the land. Ten activists were arrested across China for planning small-scale gender equality protests. Five of them who wound up in a detention center in Beijing faced foul language and threats. The use of such interrogation techniques is emblematic of the state’s growing unease over civic action. Social tensions created by greater economic opportunities and less political participation are growing, and China’s leadership is anxious about incendiary political passions that could swerve in unpredictable ways. A recent purge of “Western” values from college campuses has been construed largely as a pre-emptive move to quell such rebellious energy.

The current moment in Chinese feminism is remarkable because it is the first time that the movement has taken a bottom-up approach. Female activists are demanding rights that have been promised to them on paper and yet remain withheld in practice. Li Yinhe, China’s leading voice on feminism and LGBT issues for the past few decades, recently remarked during her keynote address at the Brown China Summit that the ideology of China’s Communist Party is against not feminism per se but “against grass-roots reform … of any kind.” This is exactly what makes the current movement formidable. The disturbing truths that female activists have sought to underscore will not come to light — or grind to a stop — overnight. But China’s tinkering, gradualist approach to reform is being tested against the worn patience of grass-roots activism. 

Di Wang received her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College and her M.A. from Washington University in St Louis. She is currently a high school teacher in her hometown in China.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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