A quarter century on from the Fourth World Conference for Women in Beijing, how far has China come in terms of protecting the rights of women? The reality today, writes Joan Lee, is a study in stark contrasts.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference for Women, held in Beijing in September 1995, an event that was a pivotal moment for the development of the feminist movement in Chinese society. More than two decades after that milestone, however, women in China exist at a difficult intersection of values and expectations. On the one hand, they benefit from progress that has given them greater choice both personally and professionally. On the other, they are pulled back by traditional agendas and values, some newly asserted.
Just before China’s National Day holiday in October 2019, Lin Yue (pseudonym), a lawyer living in Guangzhou, applied for annual leave from her law firm and planned a two-week solo journey to Taiwan. It was a big-budget trip during which she hoped to enjoy the local food, culture and shopping. Lin, 31, had no boyfriend and had never been married. One influence on her choice of lifestyle was her personal astrologer, Ms. Wang, now in her forties, who had divorced her husband and found fame and success in her profession. Wang avowed little interest in restarting a close relationship. Instead, posts on her social media account showed her making several overseas trips a year, often to Japan.
Both Lin Yue and Wang are fairly representative examples of professional Chinese women over the past two decades, in the period following China’s entry to the World Trade Organization in 2001. As a deep process of globalization seized China during this period, new career opportunities emerged for these women, who benefitted from strong economic development and a rising middle class focused on consumption. These women are generally well-educated and earn an annual income of more than 200,000 yuan (25,000 euro), far higher than the average annual disposable income of just 28,228 yuan recorded for China in 2018.
Lin Yue, who earned a master’s degree from a well-regarded university of politics and law, does not consider herself part of the high-income group, owing to the high costs of living in a top-tier Chinese city, where the average purchase price of an apartment now exceeds 40,000 yuan, or around 5,000 euro, per square meter. She hopes to one day find a suitable boyfriend, and in the meantime, living on her own, calculates how long it will be before she can afford to purchase an apartment. But Lin, like other single professional women, no longer sees a husband as key to her economic well-being.
In recent years in China, property purchases by single women are a trend that has attracted much attention. A report by the People's Daily newspaper in May 2019, based on a survey published by a real estate trading website, revealed that 46.7 percent of the home buyers in 2018 were women, approaching parity with men. The majority of these women were single and between the ages of 30 and 50, and their share of home purchases is growing. Generally, they have either support from their parents, or substantial savings that allow them to make monthly loan payments.
More and more single women in China are opting against married life. These women have often been labelled with the vague and derogatory term “leftover women,” defined by the state’s designated feminist agency, the All-China Women’s Federation, as unmarried women aged 27 and over.
More and more single women in China are opting against married life.
As inland cities and major towns developed in China, many well-educated women who previously found work in major metropolises chose to return to work in towns and prefectural-level cities, usually in order to take care of their parents, a common expectation in a culture that emphasizes filial piety. By contrast, men of similar backgrounds were encouraged by their families to remain in bigger cities to pursue career success. In this way, the “leftover women” phenomenon has expanded in recent years from China’s major cities to smaller inland urban areas. Women who work as public servants or in the cultural and education sectors become a part of the high-income group in small towns, and are unable as a result to find matches that are suitable in terms of educational background and income.
The term “leftover women" first appeared and was discussed in the Chinese media as a social problem. Today, however, just over a decade later, public opinion on the issue has changed. In the spring of 2016, the high-end Japanese cosmetics brand SK-II released a television commercial featuring “leftover women,” clearly a key demographic for the brand, that depicted the pressures facing women of high income and high education in China’s cities. The commercial encouraged these women to speak out, enjoy single life and resolutely reject stigmatization by society, becoming instead part of a “global movement that encourages and empowers women to take their fate into their own hands.”
Latent Dangers in China’s Marriage Law
The phenomenon of “leftover women,” cast as the darlings of the country’s market economy by virtue of their spending power, is both the most eye-catching and the most superficial part of the story of gender in China.
China’s rapid economic development over the past 20 years has kicked off a gilded age. Some young women have benefitted from this development, even rising to the top. One prime example is Li Ziqi, a food and lifestyle blogger and internet sensation who now has over seven million fans on YouTube. In a society that has long celebrated the modern, Li capitalizes a traditional aesthetic and values, wearing ancient Chinese clothing, cooking and making handcrafts – all in an artfully decorated rural courtyard. This creates a kind of other-worldly Chinese style that draws fans all over the world.
Li Ziqi’s videos can often draw nearly as many viewers as CNN’s roughly two million. And state media have celebrated her as a triumph of Chinese culture. While Li had profited enormously from her internet videos and online store, her programs have never reflected the real concerns and problems faced by her female peers in China – or the battles they increasingly endure on the internet.
On Sina Weibo, China’s popular Twitter-like microblogging platform, college educated female users living in the cities account for 60 percent of subscribers to paid content. Weibo attaches great importance to this female customer base, and content producers on social media are encouraged to produce content about women’s rights that might appeal to their tastes. In order to cater to female readers, there has often been an emphasis on social media content expressing the view that avoiding marriage and motherhood can be a personal strategy for avoiding exploitation by men and their families. A number of confident female opinion leaders in workshops the author attended would say things like: “Now we are economically capable of buying sperm with favorable genes and weeding out those of lesser quality.”
This attitude is an overly optimistic view of the situation. Just as Lin Yue’s income as a professional lawyer in Guangzhou cannot represent the situation of all residents in her city, it must be recognized that Chinese women earn just 60 percent on average of what men earn, according to a 2010 survey on the status of women in China. If relative wealth is taken as a proportion of property income, the percentage drops to just 40. In fact, this gap has increased over China’s reform era. In 1990, women’s income in China was 77.5 percent that of men.
The risks of marriage are also very real. Lin Yue regularly collects news reports about women losing property in their marriages, and she warns herself to be prudent in her own relationships. More and more women now approach her for legal consultation regarding premarital property arrangements and related matters. With divorce rates, various speculative economic activities, and property prices all simultaneously on the rise in China, the country’s Supreme People’s Court has issued several explanations on the Marriage Law in recent years, some of which angered middle-class women.
The premise of China’s Marriage Law is common property, which refers to all property acquired and owned by the husband and wife through the period of marriage. For the party in the marriage contributing unpaid labor, there is no clause on compensation as in marriage laws in many other countries. A national survey finds that Chinese women in the city spend an average of 75 work days more on housework compared to men. In rural area, women spend 130 work days more than men on housework.
A 2011 judicial interpretation of the Marriage Law (Interpretation III) stipulated that when an agreement cannot be reached in the instance of divorce, the people's court can rule that a property belongs to the party that made the down payment for the property in question, and had the property registered in his or her name – even though the couple repaid the loan together. As China has a tradition of moving in to the husband's house after marriage, it is generally the husband's family that puts down the initial payment. Though the wife’s family may also contribute by paying for furniture and renovation, and in repaying the loan, the real estate certificate usually bears only the name of the husband. Moreover, the interpretation also stipulates that the interest and value appreciation in the properties of either party are not counted as the couple’s common property. This means that cases of divorce, women who devote more to their family are not only uncompensated for the value of housework and caring for children, but may also face huge financial setbacks.
In recent years, a large group of women in China were victimized in a debt crisis caused by unregulated internet loan platforms. In 2004, the Supreme People’s Court implemented another judicial interpretation of the Marriage Law (Interpretation II), of which Article 24 stipulates that, “Where a creditor claims rights on the debts owed by one spouse in their own name during the marriage relationship, these shall be treated as the joint debt of the couple.” This interpretation meant many women were financially ruined (about 87.1 percent of the women were not aware about the debts of their spouses) because of debt held by their former spouses. And because China does not have bankruptcy procedures for individuals, this means the debts must be repaid. From 2012 to 2016, there were nearly 200,000 cases of this kind. At least 15,000 defendants in 2016 cases in which Article 24 was applied said they had no previous knowledge of the debts in question.
One such case, researched by this author, is Ms. Ding, a deputy professor at a college in southern China. At the time that she and her husband separated, he had loan debt of six million yuan (750,000 euro). The court listed her as a “dishonest person” and as a result she could only afford to live in a small single room of the kind generally rented by migrant workers (for around 50 euro per month).
Women who suffered under the provisions of Article 24 eventually formed an “Article 24 Public Interest Group" online, where they investigated and documented the tragedies happening to them, and sought help from women's organizations and People's Congress representatives in an effort to influence court rulings and amend relevant laws. None of the women in the group could be considered among the least privileged women in the society. More than 80 percent of them received some level of higher education, and seven percent hold postgraduate degrees. 86.7 percent of them report having stable jobs and incomes. And yet, all have been fallen through the cracks of China’s current marriage laws.
Discussions over China’s unequal marriage laws have resulted in a general atmosphere of opinion among many women online that cautions as a matter of personal protection, “Don't get married and don’t have a child.” China’s Civil Code, which passed in May this year, added a one-month “cooling-off period” to divorce procedures. This angered many young women, who regarded this as a restriction on the freedom to seek divorce. According to the new law, within these period any party which does not consent to the divorce can withdraw the divorce registration application.
Discussions over China’s unequal marriage laws have resulted in a general atmosphere of opinion among many women online that cautions as a matter of personal protection, “Don't get married and don’t have a child.”
The first law ever to be passed following the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 was the Marriage Law, passed in 1950. Feminists in the Chinese Communist Party at that time were strongly motivated to see through legislation that could liberate women trapped in transactional marriages, particularly in rural areas. As such, they ensured there was clarity on the principle of no-fault divorce. Today, however, young women sense that society is returning in the Civil Code to the principle of male dominance – that it does not serve simply to caution prudence in divorce decisions, but also uses terms, such as “establishing good family traditions,” that are generally associated with women playing subordinate roles in the family. Despite huge criticism, this new clause was added to the marriage law as part of the Civil Code.
In a dialogue with the new leadership of the All-China Women’s Federation in 2013, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, mentioned for the first time in a high-level official speech the need to “pay attention to bringing out the unique role of women in promoting the family virtues of the Chinese nation and establishing good family traditions.” His speech emphasized the traditional role of women as being in domestic work and in morality, and these concepts have since become an important part of the work of the Federation.
Excellence is No Guarantee of Entry
The All-China Women's Federation is the country's official group for women. A legacy of socialism, it represents women's rights in policy making, and serves also as a means of motivating women to advance the political tasks of the nation. While the fresh emphasis on traditional domestic female roles should be viewed as a step back for gender equality, the Federation has had little choice, as an organization bound to fulfill the Party’s demands, but to establish such prizes as “The Good Wife" (another such local announcement here) and “The Good Mother-in-Law" at the urging of the CCP and the government.
Wang Zheng, a professor at the Institute for Women and Gender at the University of Michigan, has compared the situation facing Chinese women today to the 2010 film Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, in which professional “extractors” looking for information seek to implant ideas into the subconscious of their targets that can make them change their behavior in the present. While Chinese women stand in many ways at a historical crossroads in terms of economic opportunities and life choices, they are at the same time being bombarded, or implanted, with ideas and role that are relics from China’s past.
In the city, China’s “one-child” policy had the result of creating an entire strata of women who enjoyed the full parental support and resources without competition from male siblings. Their mothers also had more time to develop their own careers because domestic work was drastically reduced, and the rate of participation in non-domestic work among women increased as a result. In rural areas in China, girls have been much more likely to have access to good education as a result of economic development, declines in the overall numbers of children, and the prevalence of compulsory education.
In today’s China, there is no longer a substantial gap in terms of educational achievement between women and men. Data from 2010 shows that 30.4 percent of women under 30 had at least vocational school education, 4.5 percentage points higher than for men of the same age. In 2018, about 50 percent of the students in high schools, undergraduate studies and master’s programs are female.