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Screenshot at right of the Youtube channel of Li Ziqi, an online star who presents an idealized image of traditional country life in China.

09:54 am | August 11, 2020

Conflicting Images

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. 

By Joan Lee

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.” 


Screenshot from 2016 SK-II television spot on “leftover women.”

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.

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Screenshot from a recent video on Li Ziqi's Youtube channel in which, while wearing traditional garb, she explains the traditional process of making zongzi, a Chinese treat made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, typically eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival. 

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.

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Screenshot of coverage in the county of Wuning, in China’s Jiangxi province, of a public ceremony to honor “Ten Good Wives” and “Ten Good Mothers-in-Law.”

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.

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An official notice posted to the website of the Women’s Federation in the city of Puyang, Henan province, announces an event to select local recipients of “Good Wife” and “Good Mother-in-Law” awards, in  line with Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.

Their outstanding educational performance, however, has not guaranteed equal opportunities.

Since China carried out larger scale market-oriented reforms in the 1990s, the disadvantages of women in the labor market have become more pronounced. Women have generally become second-class citizens in the labor marketplace, whether this concerns middle-aged women subjected to “priority” layoffs in the reform of state-owned enterprises (meaning they were laid off first, with the idea that they could return to the home while men remained in the workplace), young women with university educations, or women laborers from rural and inland areas seeking job opportunities in larger coastal cities.

The government, as an employer itself, does not set a good example when it comes to female employment. The government personnel system, for example, establishes age restrictions for various positions. Those over 35 years of age cannot apply for jobs as civil servants, and universities cannot hire PhD holders over 35 years of age. (Moreover, the earlier retirement age set for women means that their careers are also shortened.) These guidelines have effectively set the bar for other employers in the public and private sectors, and the age of 35 has become a shared employment standard in the labor market. Employees often worry as a result that they will be fired when they turn 35, and such discrimination on the basis of age and gender has put disproportionate pressure on women. The decade between their entry into the job market and the age limit by which they might easily be driven out of a job coincides with their prime age of fertility.

Women commonly face questions about marriage and family plans during an employment interviews. Lin Yue, the Guangzhou lawyer, often had clients ask how they could “legally" fire pregnant female managers, even though the Labor Law stipulates that companies cannot fire women during pregnancy and nursing. Lawyers do not support this kind of action, but human resource departments employ various strategies, such as switching employees to other positions and lowering salaries in an attempt to force pregnant employees out. In 2012, the women's website “PC Lady” forced its pregnant chief editor to quit that caused huge public debate.

In job advertisements in China, stipulations about job candidate being both male and Chinese Communist Party members have been openly stated as a privilege for more than three decades. This clearly discriminatory practice has never been censured by the labor department. Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, recently said in during a television appearance that women are not suited to harsh newspaper jobs even if they are outstanding, while male applicants can get hired "as long as he does not limp.”


Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin explains on a television program that he would prefer to hire male candidates over female.

Instances of gender discrimination, age discrimination and discrimination on the basis of physical appearance (favoring “attractive” females, for example) have seldom been censured. A hiring notice put out by the department of Marxist studies at one university specified that it was seeking “young and pretty female PhD’s, capable of singing and dancing, who can represent the image of this department.”

Sunmoon Education, a low-cost vocational training institute that has hundreds of branches across the country, hires almost entirely women. The CEO reviews photos of their faces and hands, and those who work with the CEO are required to wear high heels, see-through black stockings and uniforms that reveal more or their chests. Song Shanmu, the CEO, served time in prison in 2011 for rape. But though Song faced numerous accusations of sexual assault from women, the court found him guilty in just one case.

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Screenshot of Sunmoon Education Group website.

Setting quotas for admission of female job candidates is a discriminatory practice that has been transmitted from work units to colleges and universities. Chinese media reported in 2012 that early admission scores among females students for the National College Entrance Exam were 10 points higher on average than those of male students. The gap in scores was partly attributable to the inclusion of majors like foreign language and broadcasting, in which women have tended to perform above their male peers but where admission scores are set higher for women than for men. On the other hand, defense-related majors, including the army, the police and the customs, provide few vacancies for females. When feminist activists demanded that the Ministry of Education explain and amend this situation, they were told that exceptions could be made for “particular majors” on “the basis of consideration of the national interest.”

When women face gender discrimination in the academia in China, where women currently make up more than half of all research students, there is often no recourse. In 2013, Feng Gang, a professor at Zhejiang University, ranked among China’s top three universities, sparked a controversy when he remarked that there was a “gender imbalance” that year as female students outperformed male students in master’s interviews. Feng suggested it was a waste of resources to have so many graduate positions held by women, and he was seen as a representative voice in discrimination against women in academia.

Anxiety about female performance is not limited to higher education. Some in the education field have called for “respect for natural gender differences" and for “saving the boys,” which is code for maintaining male-only areas of activity and restricting those open to females. In 2006, a district education bureau in Guangzhou issued a demand that girls be restricted to gymnastics and boys to army boxing for between-class exercises, thereby instituting a form of mechanical gender typing. Education authorities in Shanghai, meanwhile, initiated a masculinity curriculum, and media reported the existence of a “boy crisis.”


An educational text called “Little Man,” created by the Shanghai Educational Press.

These anxieties continue to play out through university. In 2016, Fujian Normal University initiated a controversial free education plan for men. Their justification was that “the gender makeup of our province’s kindergarten and primary school teachers is problematic, male teachers being scarce, and there is a lack of ‘masculinity education.’” The plan allowed boys to enter college with far lower scores than girls, and guaranteed them test-free entry to master's degree programs, training and management positions.

On June 4, 2019, “China Police Net,” a website managed by China's Ministry of Public Security, posted a recruitment plan for a Shandong police academy to social media that specifying that “the percentage of women enrolled should not exceed 15 percent." This again has caused dissatisfaction among female netizens. The post was shared more than 22,000 times, and garnered more than 44,000 comments. But the most common response was that preventing women from joining the police force was actually a way of protecting them.  

Although the Chinese government was among the earliest signatories to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, China's laws have not yet established a clear definition on discrimination. This has resulted in widespread discrimination against women in the name of protecting female workers. In 2016, a young woman called Ma Hu sued a delivery company affiliated with the state-owned China Post  because it refused to hire her on the basis of her gender. The delivery company took exception to the “Regulations Concerning the Labor Protection of Female Staff and Workers in Post and Telecommunications," arguing that refusing to allow women to do physically demanding work was a form of protection. Ma Hu eventually received 2,000 yuan in compensation, but this did nothing to end such discrimination.

Sexual Violence

Sexual discrimination, including in the gender-based separation of majors and professional paths, is the primary reason for income disparities between Chinese women and men. This has also been a driving factor  behind rampant sexual abuse in both education and professional settings. The problem of systemic prejudice against women with the police and judicial system had also led to a general lack of sensitivity and compassion among grassroots law enforcement officials, when it comes to cases of sexual violence and abuse.

Since the start of the MeToo movement in 2018 in China, more than 50 prominent personalities have been publicly outed for alleged instances of sexual abuse. Most of these were in the fields of higher education, public welfare and the media, while cases of sexual abuse in the government and corporations were generally not exposed owing to tighter controls on reporting and discussion.

Over the past two decades, however, multiple criminal cases of sexual abuse have been reported across the country, most arising from the “unwritten rules” commonly applied in the Chinese workplace. One such unwritten rule is that female teachers, civil servants and company employees should drink excessive amounts of alcohol with male colleagues during work-related meals, an atmosphere of Chinese work culture that can leave them vulnerable to sexual abuse. In the summer of 2014, a female college student interning at a work unit affiliated with China Railway Group Chongqing bled to death after being raped at a work meal where alcohol was consumed. The same year, a female employee at China National Nuclear Corporation was forced to drink during a work gathering and was raped by her boss and colleagues. China National Nuclear Corporation later told media that the incident was unrelated to company business.

China’s first article dealing with sexual harassment was added in 2005 to the Law on Protection of Women’s Rights.  To date, however, not legal definition of sexual harassment has been introduced. The “Regulations Concerning the Labor Protection of Female Staff” do mention that work units are responsible for preventing sexual harassment. But both laws lack compulsory measures. Before 2019, there were just 34 sentences delivered on sexual harassment in China's courts, and most of these cases were filed as either personality rights or labor dispute cases. This accords also with more recent MeToo cases, where cases have been brought against victims by alleged offenders who claim infringement on their reputations.  

China’s first article dealing with sexual harassment was added in 2005 to the Law on Protection of Women’s Rights.  


Under the influence of the MeToo movement and activism for equal opportunity employment, China's judicial system had by the end of 2018 finally added two new case designations, “sexual harassment responsibility dispute" and “equal career opportunity dispute,” which increases the likelihood of legal recourse over cases of sexual harassment.

Before China’s first Anti-Domestic Violence Law was introduced in 2015, China's legal system had limited protections in this respect, which resulted in heavy sentences for women who resorted to killing their husbands after enduring domestic violence, and light sentences for men who killed their wives. One case to gain widespread attention on Chinese social media in 2009 was that of Dong Shanshan, who was imprisoned and beaten to death by her husband, who was later sentenced to just six and a half years in prison. After serving his sentence, he remarried, and continued to abuse his new spouse.

Before and after the introduction of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law in 2015, a number of women’s organizations campaigned actively for greater attention to domestic violence. On Weibo, one of China’s leading social media platforms, the issue of domestic violence has received a great deal of attention, and this has constituted one of the main forms of external pressure toward new judicial cases and legal reforms. Some recent cases have also demonstrated the impact such pressure can have, such as in the case of celebrity Li Yang, the founder of the teaching program “Crazy English,” who abused his American wife, or the case of Li Yan, who murdered her abusive husband and eventually had her death sentence overturned.

A Return to Child Marriage

Since the start of China’s reform and opening in 1978, the country’s total number of people living in poverty has decreased by 740 million, according to numbers by the National Bureau of Statistics. In the countryside, however, where material prosperity increased significantly, instances of child marriage also increased.

In the “Global Gender Gap 2020 Report” released by the World Economic Forum, which benchmarks progress on gender parity, China ranked 106th out of 153 countries surveyed. The new ranking shows that other countries have been advancing more rapidly on gender parity. China is being held back not just by a dominant culture of masculinity in politics and business, but more seriously by a continuously widening sex ratio at birth (just 885 females born for every 1,000 males), which puts China toward the bottom in the report’s "Health and Survival” index.

Since 1949, there has been a huge development disparity between rural and urban areas in China, despite its claim to be a socialist country. The urban population has enjoyed stable job opportunities and general social welfare provided by the state, while rural areas have been exploited to support the development of cities and industries through the “price scissors” mechanism, in which high industrial output is accompanied by low agricultural prices. Even today, cities and the countryside in China show huge gaps when it comes to social security and other benefits that are tied to a citizen’s household registration. Correspondingly, there are large gaps in gender equality between urban and rural areas.

Looking at the sex ratio, it is clear that China does not have "leftover women," and this term is a complete misnomer. In China’s total population of more than 1.3 billion people, there are 34 million more men than there are women. According to one 2006 academic study in China, men are likely to face serious pressures getting married after 2000. The study suggested that after 2013, the surplus male population (those, in other words, who cannot find matches) would surpass 10 percent, and that number would reach 15 percent between 2015 and 2045. About 1.2 million Chinese men every year will be unable to find matches.

Given China’s deep-rooted patriarchal traditions, Chinese families have a strong preference for male children and a longstanding tradition of drowning female infants. Even though it became illegal to reveal the sex of the fetus in prenatal exams after the “one child” policy took effect in 1979, many people still found ways to act on their preferences for male children, resulting in an abnormally high ratio of males to females. In many cases, local governments relented in the face of tradition, implementing “one and a half children” policies – meaning that if the first child was a girl under the “one child” policy, couples could opt to have a second child. This was tantamount to an official recognition that females were not true offspring.

Given China’s deep-rooted patriarchal traditions, Chinese families have a strong preference for male children and a longstanding tradition of drowning female infants.


Rural areas were also the first to experience the marriage pressures arising from the imbalance of males to females in the population. In villages of central China, the price paid to the bride’s family to consent to a marriage rose dramatically, reaching hundreds of thousands yuan. This would often involve the provision of a village house, an apartment in the city or county seat, a car, and lavish cash gifts to members of the bride’s family. Just as urban property prices were experiences sharp increases year by year, so were the costs of marriage in rural areas rising astronomically, to the point that many families with male children would begin making proposals as soon as they turned 18. This caused a corresponding increase in marriages in which the brides were much younger, between the ages of 15 and 17, essentially hijacking the lives of young women for rural marriages.

For rural women, the rising “price” of their nuptials directly damaged their autonomy in marriage. If these women had brothers, their parents would view the marriage of their daughter, often with inflexible price setting, as a means of soliciting money to aid in the development of the male. In some cases, girls who have become pregnant are pressed to undergo abortions because their boyfriend’s family cannot afford the expense of a wedding. To raise money for their sons’ marriage, parents have in some cases also forbidden their daughters from seeking work in the cities, instead arranging their early marriages to ensure that their brothers can profit.

As a matter of tradition, women after marriage are generally not responsible for financially supporting their parents, and they are not, as a result generally entitled to their parent’s family property. But the reality is that the extreme difficulties now facing men in finding suitable mates is now resulting in the serious exploitation of parents, and women in rural areas are ultimately taking responsibility in providing for the elderly. According to research by the scholar Xu Qi, women in rural areas contribute more than men in caring for and offering financial assistance to their parents.

Though daughters make immense contributions to their families, they continue to be regarded in rural areas as secondary citizens. Land in Chinese villages is held collectively by the village unit, and rural communities are bound by certain sets of autonomous rules in the form of “village pacts,” which are a way of accommodating traditional rural mores. Under certain “village pacts” in different areas in China, women who married outside and their offspring are denied membership in the village collective, depriving them of the right to shares in collective lands and collectively-held industry, and so on. In rich areas such as the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta, the assets to which “married-out women” are denied as a result of these pacts can reach hundreds of thousands of yuan per year.  

Beijing Zhongze Women's Legal Consulting Services Center, an NGO dedicated to helping women and was forced to close in 2016, reported in 2014 that the center received 600 such cases involving over 30,000 people from 2004 to 2013. Most courts do not accept such cases, and local governments often do nothing, citing respect for the principle of village autonomy. In addition to being left out when it comes to the courts and administration, married-out women face hostility from inside the family. In Guangdong, there have been cases in which promises by the government to look into cases after sit-in protests by married-out women have been answered with petitions to the provincial government by their sisters-in-law, who demand that village shares not be granted to these “outsiders."

Compared to young women in the cities, it is much harder for young women from rural areas to gain acceptance to elite universities, and they are less likely as a result to find jobs in larger companies or in the civil service. If, instead of going to college, they migrate to larger cities in search of work, they are more likely to work long hours and experience a lack of labor protections, including salary arrears and arbitrary dismissal.

Mothers Without Policy Protections

In 2015, China finally ended the one child policy, implementing what it called afull two-child policy.The policy, however, did not result in an increase in the fertility rate as policymakers supposed. After a temporary two-year rise in the fertility rate, the natural growth rate of population reached a new low in 2018.

The implementation of the “one child policy over a long period caused the government to underestimate the full range of policy measures that would be necessary to stimulate fertility. At the same time, the costs for women in giving birth were hugely underestimated.

To promote fertility rate increases, 30 provinces and autonomous region across China extended maternity leave periods to between six months and one year in 2017 recognizing that the lack of paid maternity leave was a disincentive to have children. Paternity leave, however, was not extended. Most fathers in China are allowed just one week to 15 days of paternity leave, which means the burden of postnatal care falls almost entirely to women. In fact, only civil servants and employees of larger companies in China are generally able to enjoy the maternity leave policies mandated by law. In factories that rely on migrant labor from the countryside, and in small businesses and informal sectors, female employees often have little choice but to quit after pregnancy, and most women do not have any access to labor protections or compensation, or any guarantee of a job after giving birth. When enforcement of labor laws is weak, prolonging maternity leave and implementing a “two child” policy only leads to more severe discrimination against women in the workplace.

The “one child” policy was not only a constraint on fertility rights in China, but also became a rationalization for highly-educated women without sons to avoid giving birth to a second child – because giving birth to a second child could mean losing a public-sector job or otherwise being penalized. Second-born children were generally a much larger burden for Chinese families than first-born children, particularly for middle-class Chinese. For the wealthy, who did not rely on public-sector jobs, and who could afford to pay penalties under the “one child” policy, having more than one child was never a real constraint. For ordinary laborers, on the other hand, who could not benefit from public-sector jobs or the same level of social benefits as urban couples, the only choice to escape punishment in the event of a second pregnancy was to migrate, thereby avoiding the reach of family planning officials.

Through the duration of the “one child” policy, the only group that strictly abided by family planning guidelines were military personnel, civil servants, and teachers, as well as middle-class Chinese with relatively high living standards. As the “one child” policy was relaxed, this was the group policymakers hoped would be liberated from restrictions on fertility. But lack of policy and welfare support meant that little changed for this group after 2015.

As enterprises withdrew from the provision of social welfare services after the 1990s, many of the nurseries and kindergartens that had previously served working parents in cities and industrial areas closed their doors. This meant few affordable childcare options were available, and less expensive kindergartens funded by the government were not open to society generally, but rather were reserved for government elites. In 2012, for example, the city of Guangzhou allocated 105 million yuan (13 million euro) to 10 government-affiliated kindergartens, almost half of these funds going to just two kindergartens that were given priority. These kindergartens, with cheap tuition and high-quality services, only serve the children of a small number of civil servants from a few designated government work units. Of the city’s more than 1,500 kindergartens, about 80 percent are privately run. Without access to public funding, these kindergartens must collect school fees families. In rural areas, meanwhile, affordable childcare options have never been available.

The development of commercial media in China after 1992, with new images of consumer life, also contributed to a re-envisioning of the role of women in the household. In the past, the “housewife” was seen as someone uncultured, without hopes of a professional career. However, the new generation of metropolitan commercial newspapers and fashion magazines emerging in the 1990s presented the full-time housewife as an educated individual with economic prospects, a high quality of life and having the choice to "return home." The new vision conveyed by commercial media at the turn of the century has today become a realistic choice for women. With the establishment of a market economy, the rate of female participation in the labor force has dropped significantly, and this rate has declined even more sharply for mothers of pre-school aged children. In 2010, the gap in labor force participation between men and women widened to 14.5 percentage points. Among unemployed people in 2010, “housework” was cited as the reason for unemployment for 27 percent of unemployed women, while just two percent of men were unemployed due to "housework.

According to a Beijing study of full-time housewives and professional working women based on more than 2,000 samples, women in the home full time cite “caring for the family” as the primary reason for remaining home, and “childcare” accounts for 56.1 percent of these cases. According to the author's observation, the anxiety of China’s middle class about maintaining their social status pushes them to continuously invest effort and money into the education and development of their children. Many mothers choose to interrupt their work in order to devote full attention to their only child’s academic and behavioral development. This often means interrupting their careers while their children are in primary and secondary school, returning to work only after the child enters university.

For parents who hope their child can be admitted to an elite university, the battle for educational resources begins in kindergarten, and they can expect to invest one or two hundred thousand yuan (12-25 thousand euro) for special tutoring and instruction. Teachers are also incentivized to turn their guidance and instruction of students into a market-oriented service, many running after-school tutorials that generate significant additional income. A large proportion of China’s middle-class population is dissatisfied with the domestic education system. According to an official study, children’s education is the most important motivating factor for prosperous Chinese who wish to emigrate. Meanwhile, Chinese students are the biggest oversea student group and important financial boost for US or British universities. But the costs of opting out of the Chinese system, can be astronomical. For this reason, having an additional child can mean millions in extra costs, generally equivalent to decades of earnings for middle-class families. The huge investments necessary for education have also exacerbated the problem of inequality of education in China.

For young women in China today, entering into marriage can entail a heavy burden even if they do not experience domestic violence, divorce and debt. To respond to these disincentives to enter domestic life, local governments, businesses and local chapters of the All-China Women’s Federation have conducted “women’s moral education” initiatives to encourage women to settle into family roles. These “education” programs encourage women to be chaste and to be obedient to their husbands. They are instructed to “not talk back when you are scolded, not fight back when you are hit, and to resolve against divorce.”

China’s Feminist Movement: “Leaning In” or Pushing from the Outside?

During the socialist period under China’s planned economy, Chinese women at all levels were represented by just one political organization, the All-China Women’s Federation through its local branches. The members of the federation were in fact civil servants, and independent women’s organizations were not allowed to exist. After reform and opening, the complex set of issues facing women, as outlined above, resulted in the creation of grassroots feminist movements.

As early as the 1980s, some cadres and intellectuals within the women’s federation system began establishing various women’s organizations to explore the new roles and problems facing women as the country underwent reforms. In the process of preparing for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, these women began accepting and introducing transnational feminist theories, and they also received funding for their work from such international groups as the Ford Foundation and Oxfam International. This early generation of women’s NGO leaders used their positions in the government, within women’s federations and at universities to conduct various grassroots studies on gender equality, and then, mobilizing their connections within the system, applied action research to expand the practice of gender equality and create new policies and laws. They remained low-profile in their activities, and often characterized the results of their work as government achievements, thereby gaining the acquiescence of the state.

Those feminists, now middle-aged or younger, who entered the feminist movement after the 1995 World Conference on Women, have demanded change through more direct action, including protests against gender inequality and media pressure campaigns. As they have turned increasingly to mobilization, this has prompted government concerns over national security. The arrest in 2015 of the so-called "Feminist Five," activists who were planning to commemorate International Women’s Day in Beijing by distributing materials about sexual harassment, was a stark turning point, clearly showing that the state was opposed to any efforts to mobilize the feminist movement. Similarly, the #MeToo movement has faced opposition from the state, which is wary of what it sees as “overseas anti-China forces” driving the movement.

The arrest in 2015 of the so-called "Feminist Five," activists who were planning to commemorate International Women’s Day in Beijing by distributing materials about sexual harassment, was a stark turning point.


On the other hand, the government has found it necessary to respond, whether in a moderate or an aggressive manner, to the questions raised by feminists. The 2015 Domestic Violence Law was the result of the efforts of the older generation of feminists spanning three decades. Meanwhile, ongoing protests by young feminists against gender discrimination and sexual assault have gradually impacted related policies and judicial reforms. Even though the movement for women’s rights is currently experiencing a low tide, given harsher repression, feminists have continued to search for possible areas in which to exert pressure and improve the human rights situation for women.

The longstanding actions and appeals of feminists, along with the new convenience brought on by social media platforms, have provided young women with a voice of resistance and brought wider attention to their cause. From 2018 to now, the #MeToo movement has exposed more than 60 perpetrators through social media. These instances also prompted an action involving more than 10,000 Chinese who sent petition letters to their alma maters to push for the establishment of  anti-sexual harassment mechanisms at universities.


Two contrasting images of women in China. Screenshot at left of the “Scumbag Handbook." The red characters, borrowed from the lyrics of the “Cell Block Tango,” read: “How could you tell us that we were wrong?” Screenshot at right of Li Ziqi’s Youtube channel, presenting country life in China.

In October 2018, a group of female internet users used the “Cell Block Tango” from the musical “Chicago” to tell the story of women of different classes and regions who chose to fight back against domestic violence, child abuse, sexual exploitation and harassment. The video, called the “Scumbag Handbook," was reposted over 100,000 times to Sina Weibo and received more than 500,000 views on the video streaming website Bilibili before finally being deleted (along with related discussions) from Chinese social platforms.

On January 3, 2020, another group of netizens collaborated on the original music video "I’ll Tell You What Girls Fear All Their Lives," which appeared on social media platforms. The lyrics recounted the instances of discrimination and violence Chinese women suffer throughout their lives, and included relevant television news reports. After more than 200,000 reposts, links to the video were finally deleted and re-posting restricted.

The unfortunate reality in China today is that while romanticized traditional roles for women, like that fabricated by Li Ziqi on her food and lifestyle video blog, are allowed to spread on the Chinese internet, alternative voices that speak to the concerns of many women in China are often silenced before they can have a deeper impact. But such voices have been insistent in recent years, and they can be expected to continue asserting themselves, offering new visions for women that reject a return to the past. 


China's Youth

With a focus on China's youth, this ECHOWALL series presents young Chinese authors from different backgrounds, offering their insights on why Chinese youth matters to the future.

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August 11, 2020
Joan Lee

Joan Lee is a scholar, investigative reporter, and long-time participant in the women’s movement in China.