Do women in China face greater inequality than women elsewhere? What’s their status in society and what kind of rights do they have in a country that’s single track about its authoritarian politics. China’s constitution guarantees women equal rights with men in all spheres of life. The country has committed to the UN Women to build health projects, but what status those projects are at isn’t deeply reported. In DemocraShe this time we speak to Fang Wang a journalist whose insights on the under-the-surface of law and rights is a true reflection of how Chinese women struggle. Every single day.
What is the real assessment of gender equality in China?
The general perception is that China enjoys relatively high level of gender equality because Chairman Mao Zedong famously said “Women uphold half the sky”, and that Communism is about “liberating men and women from all kinds of restraints” including their traditional gender roles.
In reality, a higher percentage of Chinese women continue to work after getting married and having children than in Korea or Japan. But “equality” stops there.
There are very few women in politics. Out of the 7-person Politburo Standing Committee, the top ring of the Chinese Communist Party, there’s no women. Out of the 25-person Politburo, one level down, there is only one woman. Discrimination against women, especially those who have children or are expected to have children in the near future, is common in workplace. Many companies would ask new female hires to sign contracts stipulating that they can’t bear children within certain years, although it’s against the law. By social norms, women are still expected to get married and have children before their mid 30th. Single women above 30 would often be called “leftovers”.
As China’s MeToo movement reveals, harassment by superiors of female subordinates at workplaces, universities, and even NGOs is a big undercurrent that has been largely neglected.
Many companies would ask new female hires to sign contracts stipulating that they can’t bear children within certain years
Are girls celebrated or is there a desire for families to want sons or grandsons?
Traditionally, Chinese families preferred boys because a girl, after getting married, was no longer considered a member of the family (instead she became an asset of her husband’s family). So boys not only provided labors but their parents relied on them for their retirement.
This has changed a lot, especially in urban areas where almost all households are covered with social security. In the past two or three decades, in big cities, some families even prefer girls nowadays because when young people get married, usually the husband, and his parents, is expected to make the down payment for the young couple’s first property, or for the wedding, which can be very expensive.
In rural areas, the cost for a young man to marry a girl can account for a significant chunk of the man’s family savings. This is largely due to a shortage of young women, which is the result of a combination of factors, including decades of the one-child policy, traditional preference for boys and many young women becoming migrant workers in big cities.
Do women feel they are safe in the PRC? If yes, how?
In most big Chinese cities, women feel safe because public security is generally not a concern for most people. Rape is a felony that comes with severe punishment, therefore is relatively rare. Rape cases make big headlines and are usually ubiquitously condemned.
Compared with rape, domestic violence is a bigger threat to Chinese women. Many men, even women, do not consider domestic violence a serious issue, and law enforcers are usually reluctant to intervene.
As a journalist, how would you describe the challenges of your working in China?
The challenge is to fight censorship and government propaganda at the same time. China’s media is highly controlled, so the biggest challenge is to strike a delicate balance between making critical stories and voices heard and surviving censorship.
Based on your society and its norms, would you say men in China are supportive of their partners and contribute to chores and other work?
I would say there are very supportive husbands and there are very elusive/irresponsible/incapable husbands. Husbands in certain cities such as Shanghai are well-known for being very supportive, and those in northern provinces have a reputation of not being family-oriented enough. But these claims tend to be based on anecdotal evidence.
What are the women at work benefits – for example, how is the maternity leave law in China? Just a big picture of workplace norms?
Maternity leave is at minimum 98 days by law. Many women can negotiate with their workplace for a bit more. I myself took a 4.5 month maternity leave. Other than that young mothers get little support from the government. It’s typical for grandparents to stay with the young couple to help take care of their grandchildren. My parents have been living with me and my husband since my son’s birth. Kindergarten starts at 3. Day care centers accepting younger kids are all privately run and usually very expensive. Because of the time and financial pressure, more and more women are becoming full-time mothers.
For you personally, who would be your role models from within China and even internationally?
In China, my role model is Hu Shuli, founder and editor of Caixin magazine, the most independent, professional and vocal financial magazine in China. Internationally, my role model is Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist who challenged many political strongmen in interviews.