For Valerie, a 30-year-old from Guangzhou, China, growing up in the 1990s meant growing up in a country that was both modern and traditional—“the best of both worlds.”
“My family supported my education. My dad took care of the money. My mom liked cooking my favorite dishes—especially before I had an important exam or interview,” she told Fortune.
Her grandma was a housewife, and her mother too, but Valerie, who asked that only her first name be used, is from a generation of women that was allowed to imagine a different kind of future for themselves, and now works in marketing for financial firms.
Women like Valerie have benefited from China’s reform era of market-oriented policies, which began in the late 1970s and expanded educational and career opportunities. “I know I was really lucky. My life could have been very different if I was born a generation earlier,” she says.
But in recent years, China has increasingly turned away from more progressive policies towards women. Chinese authorities have increasingly cracked down on feminist discussions online, muzzled sexual assault allegations from Chinese women, and continued take a lax approach to enforcing gender discrimination in the workplace. During China’s 20th Party Congress last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his Politburo members—the elite committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It included no women for the first time in 25 years.
China is currently facing its greatest economic downturn in decades, coupled with record low birth and marriage rates. And as Xi begins a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, activists and academics worry that Beijing’s priorities over the next few years will only further erode gender equality and women’s rights.
A life of contradiction
China’s “reform era”—the period after 1978 when the country ushered in market-oriented policies to kickstart its stagnating economy—provided greater opportunities for economic advancement for everyone.
In the 40 years after 1978, China’s economy grew an average of 9.4% annually—outpacing the rest of the world. During that same period, the government reduced national poverty rates from 30% to 4%. It also closed the gender gap in post-secondary education.
China’s one-child policy, implemented from 1980 to 2016, helped to close that gap. Chinese families traditionally favored boys over girls, but when parents were restricted to one child, girls “benefited from being the focus of all their aspirations and investment,” Ye Liu, a senior lecturer at Bath University, wrote in The Conversation.
Valerie’s family, for instance, lavished all of their attention and resources on her; they encouraged her to obtain a good education and learn English.
Yet as China’s market reforms accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, they inadvertently allowed gender discrimination and inequality to flourish. While the previous Maoist system largely treated men and women the same in the workplace, the state’s loosened grip on the marketplace gave companies—both private and state-owned—more leeway to “discriminate against women in the workforce and pay,” according to a 2020 report from Washington-based think tank, the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE). China’s gender gap in labor force participation grew from 9.4% in 1990 to 14.1% in 2020, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency that sets international labor standards.
Women in China today face a “deeply contradictory situation” upheld by the state and society, Fran Martin, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne who focuses on women and culture in China, told Fortune.
While Valerie’s family invested in her schooling, they simultaneously warned her about becoming “too clever” and “overconfident” around men—it could ruin her chances of finding a husband, she says.
“I needed a good education. But I should still look delicate, beautiful and know how to cook well, clean well, and look after a man and kids.”
Good wives and mothers
A focus on boosting low birth rates over the last 15 years, considered crucial to maintaining economic growth and social stability, has led China to promote traditional Confucian values.
In 2007, the Ministry of Education launched a nationwide campaign to stigmatize unmarried women—what the state coined “leftover women,” a term that has since proliferated in Chinese society. The authorities have spread the narrative that unmarried women are “self-serving and oblivious to family morality and imperatives of national development,” Maria Jaschok, senior research associate at Oxford University’s contemporary China studies programme, told Fortune.
Xi’s time in power has seen the government double down on the idea of women as “good wives and mothers,” enshrining the CCP’s view that women are first and foremost “reproductive tools to sculpt the nation’s destiny,” Leta Hong Fincher, an author and researcher who focuses on feminism in China, wrote in Dissent Magazine in 2016. In 2006, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked China 63 out of 146 countries in its Global Gender Gap Index, which measures gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities. China’s rating has plunged to 102 since then.
Those attitudes are reflected in the job market. Recruitment ads from big tech firms to state-owned enterprises routinely discriminate against women, despite domestic laws prohibiting gender discrimination in hiring and the workplace. Many civil service postings for instance, specify that men—or women without kids—are preferred. China’s Big Tech firms have posted overtly sexist job ads; in 2015, e-commerce giant Alibaba sought female candidates with a “stunning appearance.”
With no more women left in China’s Politburo, policies that affect women will exclude female input, Lynette Ong, a political science professor and China scholar at the University of Toronto, told Fortune. There will also be fewer top female mentors within China’s one-party politics, something she calls a “step backward.”
But at the same time that the state has been promoting patriarchal norms, China’s feminist consciousness has exploded—leading Beijing to increase its efforts to silence female voices and activists both online and offline. That Chinese women have felt more empowered to speak out and fight against sexual harassment and gender-based violence reflects that progressive ideas of women’s rights have taken root in Chinese society, despite a state crackdown, Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch told Fortune.
China’s #MeToo movement largely began in 2018, when student Luo Xixi publicly accused her former Ph.D. advisor of sexual assault, sparking a massive wave of women to share their own stories online. The movement gained more momentum when TV presenter Zhou Xiaoxuan, best known as Xianzi, went public with her sexual assault claims against popular state television host Zhu Jun. Last December, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s made sexual assault accusations against former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli. And a few months before that, a former Alibaba employee’s 11-page account alleging that her boss raped her during a work trip which went viral on the Chinese internet.
But China’s growing women’s movement has had many setbacks. Chinese courts last year threw out Xianzi’s case citing insufficient evidence. According to Xianzi, the courts blocked her efforts to provide supporting evidence. The government barred her from posting on Weibo, a popular microblogging site.
Peng has since retracted her accusations against Zhang, although her denials have been met with skepticism from the public. Zhang, the former vice premier, attended Beijing’s 20th Party Congress last week; it was his first public appearance since Peng’s initial accusations against him. Meanwhile, Chinese social platforms like popular online forum Douban, are shutting down feminist accounts after Beijing repeatedly fined and punished the company (and others) for weak censorship and “content violations.”
China’s feminist movement—uncontrolled by Beijing and about women making decisions for themselves—is “extraordinary threatening” to the government,” Wang says.
National priorities vs. rising feminist consciousness
China was already facing record low birth rates. But now anxiety has been compounded by a dramatically slowing economy.
During Beijing’s Party Congress last week, Xi reiterated that the government will continue to prioritize boosting marriage and birth rates.
“We will improve the population development strategy, establish a policy system to boost birth rates, and bring down the costs of pregnancy, childbirth, childrearing and schooling,” he said.
But these national goals don’t align with many young women’s ambitions for their lives—and some experts worry that this clash could further restrict feminist speech and hinder gender equality.
The Chinese authorities will encourage policies that facilitate “an even greater domestication of women” to ensure their compliance with state goals, Jaschok says. “With women assigned to such a crucial (reproductive) role, they are too important to be allowed to [make] choices detrimental to state interests,” she says. Wang worries that Beijing’s ambitions may translate into more oppressive tactics to coerce women into having children—and lead a retreat of women from the workplace since childcare is still considered women’s work in China.
Valarie Tan, an analyst at China-focused think tank MERICS, told Fortune that Beijing’s persecution of feminist activists—like its arrest of the “Feminist Five” in 2015 for organizing a protest to increase awareness of sexual harassment—and lack of protection for women’s rights is “set to continue. Dissent in any form will be heavily dealt with in the name of maintaining stability.”
So far local policies to boost birth rates through tax rebates, cash subsidies and longer maternity leave, hasn’t convinced young women to have more kids. In 2021, China registered 7.6 million new marriages and recorded 7.52 births per 1,000 people—both record lows for the nation.
Urbanized, educated and middle-class Chinese women in particular won’t be easily swayed to get married early and have kids at a major personal cost if they don’t want to do so, Martin says.
Valerie and her circle of friends say that personal ambitions trump politics and having kids for the sake of the country.
“We’re just regular girls,” Valerie says. “Some of my friends have kids, some of us don’t. For now, I’m prioritizing my career—but who knows? Someday I might want children. Why shouldn’t we be allowed… to do what we like and choose our own paths?”
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