Several shocking cases out of China in the recent past—from rape to domestic violence to social stigma attached to single women called the ‘sheng nu’ or leftover women—may be few and far between, but indicative of the massive social upheaval in China where a few decades ago this would have been unthinkable. China has long been applauded as where women ‘hold up half the sky’. Is that slogan now a blur of a cry from the past? Clearly, what is falling flat is, as China-hand Jude Howell noted, “the gendered effects of an increasingly globalised and marketised economy and society.”
Cases such as that of a pregnant 10-year-old Chinese girl by a 20-year-old man who met her online, a 12-year-old pregnant girl who had been trafficked into China from Vietnam and sold to a 35-year-old man, a 15-year-old Chinese girl with two children born of rape, raped by a 74-year-old man (Sixth Tone, 2016) and, of course, the documentary ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ (2016), which chronicled an activist’s effort to get justice for six schoolgirls raped by their principal in 2013 in Hainan, have taken the country by storm.
These would shock China’s revolutionary forefathers who enshrined gender equality in the Constitution (1954), forced women out of the kitchens and highlighted the productive role of women in the state—at some cost: single dress code and assuaging women that they were the same as men.
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Socialist China had its paradoxes, but violence against women was nothing short of an aberration and abomination of the lowest kind. The mandate for gender equality came ‘top down’ and filtered right down to the bottom via revolutionary models such as the ‘Iron Girls’ who could play basketball, fix wires, work at a factory and yet naturally take stock of domestic tasks. That dissipated in market times, where the desexualised, androgynous woman went out of the window and in came the fashionable, westernised woman who could still naturally be the ‘virtuous wife and good mother’.
In 2016, taking note of the expected reproductive and domestic role of women in China, came SK-II’s advertisement (cosmetic brand), which highlighted the predicament of single women in China (over 27 years of age), the so-called leftover women—who, like their Indian sisters, bear the cross of being singled out as marginalised rejects. The advert was an intimate look at a cross-section of women who were single for various reasons, who wanted to live life on their own terms without making compromises, yet disparaged as losers who had failed to get married. Shockingly, a Chinese official writing for a government-backed newspaper in China called Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen ‘extreme’ because she was single, as he generously explained. Perhaps this comment was born more out of the current animosity between China and Taiwan, and he was playing loyalist to the hilt.
The pressure for girls to marry exists in India, which we all know about, and sadly in China too. Sociologist Leta Hong Fincher has noted of the pressure—even the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF) website (in 2011) extolled women to get married lest they miss the bus, saying “…as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their MA or PhD, they are already old, like yellowed pearls.”
Many dating websites have mushroomed. It is well-known that big cities in China (Shanghai) or smaller ones (Nanjing) often have ‘marriage markets’, which in recent years have turned into a curious spectacle of sorts for tourists. In Shanghai’s People’s Park, ageing parents congregate to put up posters/pictures of their children on parasols or on the notice board. A laminated sheet with a photograph describes hobbies, income and age. ‘Leftover’ women are often delicately coerced by their families to look for a groom at such informal marriage markets.
There has been a spurt in domestic violence. In 2011, the high-profile multimillionaire Li Yang (the founder of Crazy English, a school that imparts English education) was found guilty of hitting/injuring his American wife Kim Lee (who posted her pictures with the bruises online).
The case made legal history as it highlighted domestic violence. The court ruled in favour of the victim (2015) and led to the enactment of a national law against domestic violence (which came into effect in 2016). But just days before the law came into effect, the 24-year-old Li Hongxia was strangled by her husband (whom she had earlier accused of domestic violence)—yet another tragedy.
In post-socialist China, such cases have come to the fore, reflecting either of the two realities—that these are nothing new, but were unreported, or that this is a new reality in new times and climes. Either way, it does not reflect well on a rising China.
It is hard to quantify the increase/decrease of rape and violence in China because of the thin data. Beyond the increased reporting, there are a number of cases which are simply swept under the carpet because of a huge social stigma—China is notorious as a ‘culture of silence’ or as a ‘culture of face-savers’.
Ironically, China’s social indicators are praiseworthy. Female literacy is high in in the country, at 94% (UNESCO 2015), and labour participation rate is among the highest in Asia (63.9% in 2013, ILO in China). Naturally, women in China are choosing to marry later than before (the mean average was 25 years in 2015, compared to 23 years in 2011).
But China’s social indicators obscure the changing ground realities of a marketised society where female labour participation is declining, gender-ratio continues to be skewed and a gender gap in employment exists. Beyond the market, China’s traditional preference for boys continues to drive a skewed gender ratio of 117.7 boys to 100 girls in 2012, and 113.5 boys to 100 girls in 2015. This is even worse than in India (110 boys to 100 girls, 2012; 107.6 boys to 100 girls in 2015). Women in China in blue-collar jobs retire earlier than men, at 50 years of age, and women in managerial occupations retire at the age of 55 years. Men retire at 60.
As much China has made strides in various fields, one glaring lacunae has been the marginalisation of women in political life, despite millions of female members in the Communist Party. According to the Information Office of the State Council (2005), China boasts of 13 million female Communist Party members (18% of Communist Party, a small increase of 3 percentage points over 1995). In 2013, as many as 20 million, or 24%, were party members.
Political scientist Zheng Yongnian, Zhao Litao et al (2009), using a comprehensive index of women’s participation in party, government, legislature (from 1995-2004), noted that women’s participation has been shrinking. They concluded that though affirmative policy exists, it is a “general guideline” for women representation, “while no other quantitative index exists to measure female participation in various Party and government committees, including standing committees.”
The top echelon of the party, the Politburo Standing Committee, is marked by the absence of women. Two women, Liu Yandong (vice-premier) and Sun Chunlan (head of the United Front Work Department), are members of the 25-member Politburo. Will a woman make history by becoming a member of the Standing Committee at the 19th Party Congress slated later this year? That remains to be seen.
The moral of the story is simple and universal—as ‘top down’ mandate flails and social attitudes remain entrenched, the market takes its toll on the quarter century of hard-won rights of Chinese women. This point cannot be wished away.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. She is the author of Finding India in China.
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