Asma Masood is a Research Officer with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. This article is based on interactions with Chinese government officials and think-tankers during a visit to China as part of a delegation organized by the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi from 21-29 April 2016.
“Don’t worry,” an Indian lady friend from Shanghai advised before my China visit. “This is Ram Rajya. You will be safe.” These words were reassuring, but I felt a smidgen of doubt. After all, living in India as a woman, one becomes accustomed to keep glancing over one’s shoulder.
Little did I know that these fears would be washed over by the waves of safety and security in China. These waters held afloat the statement of another Indian well-wisher, “It’s China, no monkey business!”
The Communist Party of China has ensured that there is no room for violence against women. The psychological reason behind atrocities against women is that the perpetrator wants to exercise control, and attain a feeling of power. But in China, the Party is supreme. Power is an alien concept to the people. Instead, the Chinese busy themselves by doting on a single child, working efficiently, enjoying economic benefits and living liberal lifestyles. The demands on their time and efficiency seem to have made them respectful towards women. Besides, they are very sensitive to criticism. This is despite the absence of Confucian concepts of hell or punishment in the afterlife.
In this life, however, the law is paramount. Signboards declaring the same are galore on the streets. One law is based on Article 48 of the Constitution of China. It states that, the women in the PRC should enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life and receive equal pay for equal work. Despite these principles, there exist in China some societal ideas which undermine the women’s equality. One is of Sheng Nu or “Leftover Women”, i.e., single women past perceived marriageable age. They are not condoned for their choice by either government or society. Another is women with a Ph.D, who are dubbed as “Third gender”, as they may opt to focus more on careers than family. As a female academic, one finds this perturbing.
However, there was no room for anxiety when walking the streets of Beijing and Chengdu. Surprisingly, women paced alone in the corridors of commercial areas even at 10 p.m. They seemed content with their borrowed sense of Western style, and laden shopping bags. It was encouraging to watch a large group of ladies even practice aerobics besides a busy highway in Chengdu after dinnertime, while Chinese tunes blared from a speaker. One felt safe enough to even join them! This is truly a contrast from India, where such scenarios would draw teeming crowds and catcalls.
In the daytime, one encountered not a single, but several Chinese women who seemed to be surprised by the progress we Indian women in the delegation have made, both on personal and professional fronts. However, there also seemed to be a sense of envy: of the distinct cultural attributes we displayed, be it in clothing, jewelry, traditions or symbols of marriage. The Hans of China are the largest ethnic group, but they lack a cultural identity. Perhaps, this is the reason that Confucianism is being promoted vigorously to fill the cultural vacuum. It remains to be seen how far contemporary Confucianism can gel with modern political ethos.
For instance, we encountered women in many dynamic professions in China. But it cannot be ignored that according to UN data Chinese women hold only 23.4% of seats in the national parliament, while Chinese law states that women should occupy at least 50% of government positions at the national, provincial and city level.
This is not surprising, given that China is a land of contradictions. Women are encouraged to progress economically, yet are expected to behave via societal traditions at home.
China believes that the only thing constant is change. One believes that as time progresses, Chinese women will find a way to grapple with inconsistencies they face at work or home. Until then, one thing is clear, that they can walk on the Chinese streets with their heads held high, with no sense of fear.
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