CLAREMONT, Calif. – Nearly 100 years after the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, China has not built an equal society for women despite recognizing itself as a socialist, communist country. In fact, China ranks 103rd of 149 countries worldwide in terms of gender equality, according to The Global Gender Gap Report of 2018 by the World Economic Forum.

“In order to build a great socialist society, it is of the utmost importance to arouse the broad masses of women to join in productive activity,” Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader and founder of modern China, famously wrote in his “Little Red Book” in 1964. “In order to build a great socialist society, it is of the utmost importance to arouse the broad masses of women to join in productive activity.”

Sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse are all prevalent in Chinese society. A relative absence of laws against such actions has led to a relative absence of awareness in China’s law enforcement and the legal system. Traditional family roles are deeply embedded into society, but this sexism is masked by statements such as Mao’s claiming that it should not exist.

While 70 percent of Chinese women are in the workforce, they cease to rise through the ranks, primarily due to inadequate access to the Communist Party leadership. Of the members of the Party’s Politburo, the 25 highest-ranking officials in China, only two are women. No woman has ever served as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top governing body, and of the 89.4 million members of the CCP, just over a quarter are women.

To have a career of high standing, like elsewhere in the world, education is a must. Naturally, because only 58.7 percent of women in China aged 25 and older have completed high school while their male counterparts graduate at a rate of 71.9 percent, it is no surprise men hold the reins of power. In general, the mandatory retirement age for men is 60 and 55 for women, so women have significantly less time to compensate for their disadvantaged position and close the gap.

But in recent years, women’s activism has become a budding and heavily opposed movement. In a similar fashion to the rebellious, so-called Gang of Four led by Mao’s wife, five feminist leaders who have fiercely objected to societal norms in China have been nicknamed the “Feminist Five.”

Since 2012,  the five have “occupied” men’s public toilets to protest smaller women’s restrooms, donned faux blood-spattered wedding dresses to protest domestic violence and shaved their heads to protest education inequality. With widespread access to the internet, although often censored, the #MeToo movement has been brought to China and publicized through social media, motivating millions of women to share their stories.

In 2015, the Chinese government took action, showing the country its intolerance toward women’s liberation. China’s leadership is  deeply concerned about protests and any sort of objection to the norm; when the Feminist Five were planning to distribute information about gender equality and sexual harassment to mark International Women’s Day, they found themselves questioned by police and  imprisoned for 37 days.

The Feminist Five are a cultivation of everything the Chinese government has historically opposed since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. China’s feminists have such fierce opposition to the government  because they are astute activists, they expose inequalities that prick the public’s conscience and they threaten China’s party-state by communicating with labor activists, Diana Fu, a political scientist specializing in China at The University of Toronto, told the Los Angeles Times.  As with the student activists who protested at Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, the  Communist Party has substantial reason to loathe women’s rights activists.

Weeks after the jailing of the Feminist Five, President Xi Jinping spoke at a conference organized by China and the U.N. Women’s Organization and promised to “reaffirm (China’s) commitment to gender equality and women’s development.” Four years later, China has yet to take any action to show  Xi’s speech was anything but intended merely to silence activists, and women remain in a significantly lower position in society.

No modern authoritarian regimes are champions of women’s rights; China is not an outlier in this respect. However, as China continues to rise as a world power and amid spreading globalization, this national misogynistic epidemic migrates to center stage, and pressure is on Xi  and the Party to create an adaptable society for women.

(By Julia Foodman; March 10, 2019)

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