ANASTASIIA ILINA examines the relationship between women’s organizations and the Chinese authorities.
On April 13, 2015, the world sighed in relief as five female activists, later referred to as the “Feminist Five,” were released from prison after a 37-day detention. Their offense? On the eve of International Women’s Day, they were caught planning to hand out leaflets protesting sexual harassment on public transportation services. During their detention, Wei Tingting, Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Wang Man and Zheng Churan received support from public figures and international media. The support was not only coming from abroad. Women all around China posted photos in support of the “Feminist Five.” Although the feminist movement in China is still fragile, feminist activists are gaining ground through a variety of channels that seek to negotiate a hostile institutional environment constructed by the Chinese authorities.
Feminism in China does not consist of a Chinese woman with bands on her arms and posters in hand, ready to publicly protest. Chinese feminists are fighting a calculated battle so well-planned that authorities may see their actions as politically destabilizing and therefore subject to crackdown. Unlike the planned demonstration by the Feminist Five, most organized feminist activism operates within small circles on social media platforms such as Sina Weibo or WeChat. Vera Peneda is a journalist and author running the online project Feminism in China, a cause that grew out of a university task force and that has developed into a portal raising awareness about women’s issues in China. “Feminism is not widely discussed, while feminists have a hard time and are looked down upon,” she commented.
Feminist organizations in China are certainly not new. The first official NGOs advocating women’s rights were established in the late 1970s following the Chinese government’s enshrining of gender equality in its 1950 Marriage Law. In March 1995, Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women, attracting over 50,000 delegates and feminist NGOs to draft the Platform for Action, a pledge to advance gender equality for all women in the world.
Despite their visible presence in civil society since the late 1970s, feminist organizations have faced limited success in advancing the goals outlined during the Fourth World Conference. According to a special issue on women’s organizations published by China Development Brief in 2015, the main concerns facing women include equal participation in the workforce, domestic violence, prostitution, and sex trafficking. In fact, according to a 2009 report from Peking University’s Center for Women’s Law and Legal Service, 1 in 4 women in China has been denied a job due to her gender. While the Communist Party of China officially upholds gender equality, claiming to support cooperation with civil society actors on legislating new governmental policy, these NGOs derive their true influence on the government by raising public awareness of women’s issues, relying on public pressure to capture the attention of China’s legislative body.
Domestic violence is a concern that clearly illustrates the constrained power of feminist activists while working under unfriendly conditions fostered by the government. The All China Women’s Federation reports that 25 percent of women in China have experienced domestic violence in their homes yet only forty thousand to fifty thousand complaints have been registered. The Anti-Domestic Violence Network (ADVN) was the only NGO in China centered on domestic violence issues, but it was forced to close in 2014, taking down affiliated organizations such as Peking University’s Women’s Legal Aid Centre this past January. Both organizations experienced management issues as some of its leading members were scholars and opinion leaders who may not have made the organization’s work their top priority. Sustainable funding also became more difficult after the 2009 global financial crisis with the main funding sources of the ADVN dropping off significantly in the years leading up to its closing.
Lack of external support in the face of an unresponsive government brings women to voice their concerns through personal campaigns such as the ‘Blood Brides.’ In 2012, two members of the later-known “Feminist Five” walked down the streets of Beijing in wedding gowns stained with blood while distributing anti-domestic violence pamphlets. Although it was one of many demonstrations, the strong public reaction they provoked combined with a significant number of recently reported domestic violence cases bore its first results. On March 1, 2016, China passed its first ever law against domestic violence.
Female workforce participation is another issue that Chinese feminist organizations have been limited in addressing due to institutional inaction. Although more women have taken on professional careers since the late 1970s, female labor force participation still lags far behind that of men. A survey published in the Harvard Asia Pacific Review reveals that 63.4% of female graduates become employed straight after university compared to 72.1% of male graduates. In the absence of governmental legislation for bolstering women’s presence in the workforce, women unite in support groups to help each other climb the career ladder. Charlotte Xu Han, one of the co-founders of the first Lean In circle in Beijing, an international initiative first introduced to China in 2013, shares that group members aim to encourage “women in China to achieve their own definition of success and happiness through leadership, mentorship and mutual support.” In less than three years, the organization has grown to have chapters in 16 cities and 40 colleges in China.
While the Chinese government has undertaken some institutional initiatives to aid and support women, their effectiveness as well as intentions are questionable. The All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), an organization whose leadership has always included Communist Party members, was first established in 1949. The Federation sponsors affiliates such as Women of China magazine, a news source for issues concerning Chinese women as well as a media platform for promoting ACWF. Jane Willborn, a journalist working for Women of China, observes that although the Federation “sponsors events and charity organizations to get women training, at the same time they have to follow the Party line and they are not going to say anything radical.” In fact, the China Development Brief identifies the ACWF as the most dominant yet the least Party-independent women’s rights organization. The publically influential position of ACWF creates a uniquely complex relationship between itself and other feminist civil society actors. The ACWF’s strong social presence, thanks to official Party support, may minimize the importance of other non-Party affiliated feminist organizations, giving the public the wrong impression that women’s issues are already being adequately addressed by the government. Strong Party ties and the ability to mobilize mass media attention, however, may make the ACWF a valuable ally for feminist grassroots organizations, providing them a political channel through which they can exert pressure on government policy-makers.
Unfortunately, much of the power to resolve these issues is still vested in the government.
In early April, China’s state-regulated microblogging site Weibo suspended all user accounts and denied new registrations that contained the words “women’s rights” (nü quan). While a New York Times report from the United Nations’ Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in September 2015 quotes Xi Jinping as vowing to “reaffirm China’s commitment to women’s rights”, his promise rings empty as long as unofficial channels through which feminists voice their concerns are cut off. In order for the Chinese Dream to be truly realized by all, men and women included, greater operational freedom must be granted to feminist organizations.
Anastasiia Ilina is a master’s student at the Yenching Academy of Peking University in Beijing. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image provided by http://en.hkctu.org.hk