Author: Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS
Summary: For over a decade now, female undergraduates have outnumbered men in China. However, the country’s gender discriminatory (xìngbié qíshì) policies prefer men over women in entry into higher education and in the job market. Last month, hundreds of Chinese women have written to China’s “two sessions” legislatures to put an end to “gender quota” favouring men.
Over five thousand Chinese elite deputies and national committee members have assembled at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing this week for what is known as “two sessions” or lianghui, to deliberate and ratify the Chinese Communist Party’s social and economic vision for China’s next five years and beyond. “Two sessions” stands for the simultaneous week-long meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) – China’s rubber-stamp parliament, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – largely an advisory body comprising of representatives from public life and non-CPC organizations. The two bodies are known to the people of China as Renda and Zhengxie, respectively.
Chinese state-controlled media has called the event as one of the most important “two sessions” in decades. All national, provincial newspapers and television channels have for days publicized the significance of the event, defining its timely convening as the symbol of political stability and social order under the CPC rule led by Xi Jinping. According to the South China Morning Post’s John Carter, “two sessions” are also seen as “window on the central government’s priorities and plans for the coming year.” However, going by “two sessions” past track record, thousands of Party elite who gather once a year every March are too disciplined to even look at the people’s appeal(s) or any demand not already circulated in the agenda usually decided on and approved months in advance.
For several decades, Chinese women have been voicing their frustration and anger against gender discrimination they face while applying for enrolment into certain elite universities and professions. China’s education ministry has finally initiated rolling back of enrolment quota based on gender – but only partially. “Except for some special institutes such as military, national defense, and public security, institutions shall not stipulate gender ratios for admitting new students,” the Ministry announced last January. “Although the new regulation is welcomed by many as relatively progressive for a country as patriarchal as China (Emphasis added), some people are dismayed that the authorities apparently still feel that some study programs should continue to be the exclusive domain of men, calling this discriminatory,” according to recently launched English language “liberal” digital news platform Sixth Tone in Shanghai.
According to recently launched English language digital news platform backed by the Shanghai branch of the CPC, Sixth Tone – described in the foreign media as China’s new model for foreign propaganda under the tightening news censorship at home – as soon as the Ministry announcement was picked up by the domestic media, the news led to public debate, especially on the social media. The controversy centering round “quota for men” in the country’s Project 211 – an official consortium of elite universities which follow a gender-based admission quota and allow either limited number of women to enroll or deny admission to women applicant altogether. Angered by the outrageous gender-based quota regime, a gender equality advocacy group launched a campaign on social media and also wrote open letters to more than 1000 NPC deputies demanding to take up the issue at the forthcoming “two Sessions,” Sixth Tone reported.
In fact, the gender discrimination in higher education the Chinese women have been fighting against is of two kinds. Namely, limited proportion of seats for women in elite universities and several programs of study off-limit for women; for various majors such as science and technology, computer science, engineering, public security, seafaring, aviation and military etc, women are not allowed even to apply. Secondly, in China’s highly competitive university/college entrance examination system – Gaokao, not only the male-quota for admissions is higher but the qualifying score for men too is lower than for women. “The gender imbalance in many fields isn’t just limited to education, but employment as well,” the report in Sixth Tone said.
A NYT article two years ago observed, “Thirty years ago, when the country first began implementing market reforms, Chinese women earned just fewer than 80 percent of what men made. By 2010, according to the latest official data, the average income of women in Chinese cities had fallen to 67 percent than that of men, and in the countryside 56 percent.” Besides, experts have dismissed the CPC belief that by pushing women back to home to produce more babies, saying it is only going to impact China’s demographic scene more adversely. Since Xi Jinping took over in 2012, marriage rate has fallen to its lowest point, the birth-rate has dropped to a level unseen since the New China was established, and divorce rate – initiated mostly by women – has been climbing up. In Beijing, according to data made available by the city officials, one divorce was reported for every two marriages in 2017.
Mao Zedong once famously declared that women “hold up half the sky.” But that was socialist, egalitarian China half a century ago. Yet despite its many flaws – largely the result of Lenin’s “state capitalism” model aimed at achieving transition from the post-revolutionary economy to a genuinely post-capitalist economy – the Chinese Communist Party replicated the USSR model, observed Richard Wolff recently, an economics professor and radio host. But driven by the Marxist ambition of liberating women, Mao was not deterred by China’s recent turmoil and still persisting centuries-old patriarchal traditions, and mobilized women to enter “the work force in greater numbers and enjoy greater rights.”
But strangely, although Mao did celebrate Xiang Jingyu (1895-1928), who had joined the CPC within a year after its foundation in 1921, as the only woman comrade among the founding members of the party, no Chinese woman has been elevated to the CPC highest political body – the standing committee of the political bureau, since the establishment of New China in 1949. Now, under Xi Jinping, it is highly unlikely for any Chinese woman to rise to the upper echelons of the party or the PRC. Why so? Because Xi has become the first communist leader to openly call upon women to return home and take care of the families.
In a shocking statement made just a couple of months before starting his second term as the China’s top leader at the last CPC National Congress in October 2017, President Xi said: women should embrace their “unique role” in the family and “shoulder the responsibilities of taking care of the old and the young, as well as educating children.” How Liu Yandong’s hopes to advance further upwards from the 25-member CPC political bureau into 7-member standing committee of the political bureau, the country’s top political body, were crushed by Xi Jinping at the party’s 18th National Congress, serves a good example here. According to a report by The Guardian’s Tania Branigan, Liu was the only woman vice premier during Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao’s regime between 2007and 2012.
What is bizarre and unbelievable is, All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), socialist China’s and the party’s women’s rights organization founded in 1949 is fully behind the CPC leader promoting these traditional ideas.
Accusing the CPC of extolling Confucian filial pities, Leta Hong Fincher, author of the book on gender inequality in China, Betraying Big Brother: Feminist Awakening in China (2018), recently wrote: the CPC “aggressively perpetuates gender norms and reduces women to their roles as dutiful wives, mothers and baby breeders in the home, in order to minimize social unrest and give birth to future generations of skilled workers.” Reacting strongly to the party’s recent campaign to try to stimulate a baby boom, the main reason behind Xi’s drive to send women back to home, professor Wang Zheng, a gender studies professor at the University of Michigan, was quoted in the NYT two years ago as saying: “Instead of making it easier for women to both work and have children, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has led a resurgence in traditional gender roles that has increasingly pushed women back into the home. When the state policymakers needed women’s hands, they sent them to do labor.”
Reflecting on women’s liberation movement in socialist China, Wang (cited earlier above), recently delivered a talk in mainland China, in which she emphasized that social media debates soon die out until the next ‘assault’ on a woman.” Perhaps inadvertently, what Wang further stated was an explicit reference to President Xi’s anti-women remarks. “The origin of this trend [on social media] has a lot to do with the criticism of socialist women’s liberation by China’s elite in the 1980s, demanding women to be feminine and to be good wives and mothers,” she said.
On the other hand, a series of recent social media campaigns – Movement to occupy men’s toilet in Guangzhou, #woyeshi (#MeToo), Gaobie “yuejingchiwu” (Say no to ‘menstrual shame’), Gaokao “xingbieqishi”(Gender discrimination in University enrolment), including the most recent appeal to the NPC deputies to end gender discrimination by abolishing pro-men quota in higher education and in employment, are all resolutely conveying to the male-chauvinist ruling patriarchy: it’s time Chinese women themselves “hold up half the sky!”