Academic journal article China Perspectives

Equality, Did You Say? Chinese Feminism after 30 Years of Reforms

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Equality, Did You Say? Chinese Feminism after 30 Years of Reforms

Article excerpt

For almost a century, equality between men and women has been a recurring theme in political, economic, and social discussions in China. In the early twentieth century, it was invoked in pioneering reformers' discourses on Chinese modernity, and was seized on with the formation of the Communist Party of China in 1921. Up until the end of the Cultural Rev- olution and Mao Zedong's death, it seemed to be a frequently asserted con- cern in mass campaigns launched through the People's Daily and the powerful All China Women's Federation (ACWF).

This article seeks to take stock of the handling of equality between men and women in China after 30 years of reforms and at a point when China has emerged as the world's second largest economy. Economic reforms opened the path to liberalisation, creating the impression of under-emphasis on socialist ideology and thus on talk of social equality as well as equality between the sexes. But the situation is more nuanced than it would appear with regard to the two periods - before and after the reforms. On the one hand, the Maoist state had discriminatory practices when it came to jobs for women, often disregarding official discourse(1)to lay them off or offer them only intermittent work, as during the Great Leap Forward (1959-1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1965-1968). On the other hand, in recent times, even under a liberalised economy, the Chinese regime deems itself to be a people's democratic dictatorship, and political actors remain focused on social issues, including the inequality between the sexes. In this context, the question arises as to how these inequalities are handled. What concrete actions have been taken by the government, the ACWF, and women's asso- ciations that have proliferated since the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995)? Further, what role does the ACWF play today, and what can we make of Chinese feminism?

Feminism is widely defined as a current of thought favouring women's rights and the elimination of inequalities between men and women and also, more recently, among women themselves. It is manifested in state or- gans as well as in civil society (associations and non-governmental organ- isations), thus creating what Laure Bereni terms the "women's cause arena."(2)In China's case, given the stranglehold of the heavily state-depen- dent ACWF, there is talk of "state feminism," which prevailed at least until Mao's death in 1976,(3)and in some feminists' eyes, persisted afterwards.(4) While the term "state feminism" generally refers to a particular segment of actions in support of women's causes, in China's case, it could suggest that there is as yet little or no room for feminist movements outside of the gov- ernmental framework. The real situation is more complex. The institutional existence of a women's organisation constitutes an impressive arena for some feminists to make their voices heard, and moreover, the government's own quest for equality has also helped the development of other NGOs and active women's rights networks from the mid-1990s onward.

This article tackles the issue of the expressions and challenges of contem- porary Chinese feminists, looking into the social reality of inequalities be- tween the sexes as well as the concrete actions taken to counter them. The first part of the article presents a rapid assessment of the inequalities be- tween men and women, and the second examines concrete actions and programmes the Chinese government has adopted since the 1990s. The third and last part looks into the Chinese state's legitimacy and monopoly in matters of equality and into the quest for women's and feminists' au- tonomy, presenting a few profiles of prominent Chinese feminists.

Equality between men and women: Some elements for consideration

Although the principle of equality of men and women has figured in the Constitution since 1950, it remains far from being realised. In all major ac- tivities and junctures of life - birth, family, marriage, education, employ- ment, political participation, salary, old age, or illness - Chinese women suffer numerous forms of discrimination, overt or covert. …

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