"Men belong in public, women belong at home,"
Chinese Proverb (nanzhuwai, nanzhunei).
“There is a rule stating that one in every three class-monitors at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) must be male,” said 20-year-old Zhu Hua. “I don’t understand the logic behind this rule. We ended up with eight male class monitors in eight classes,” noted the student.
The logic that makes it harder for Zhu and her female classmates to become class monitors, is the same that makes it more difficult for women to climb China's corporate ladder. It is also the same patriarchal, at most times illegal, reasoning behind a nation ruled by men that often want women to stay out of their power game.
Media reports confirm that Chinese men, traditionally encouraged and praised for being manly, feel threatened by female counterparts who excel in fields traditionally dominated by men. On the other hand, instructing women to get married and keeping them at home to take care of the household and the kids, would solve several of the Chinese government's major problems. One of these issues is the unbalanced sex ratio of 108 males to every 100 females and a rising number of 'leftover women' that is making it even harder for men to find wives. Another of the Communist Party's predicaments is the pressure of an ageing population that cripples production and consumption, which can be eased by encouraging child birth. The recent relaxation of the controversial one-child policy, which has existed for 33 years, was a first step to combat an ageing population.
President Xi Jinping has espoused his notion of a “Chinese Dream” ever since he stepped into power in October 2012, a term that went viral after his speech at the end of the Chinese legislative meetings known as the Two Sessions in March 2013. This dream emphasises the improvement the material lives of the citizens of the PRC and "rejuvenating the Chinese nation." But in Xi’s reformist dream, while men should man up, women should focus on taking care of the household and the family, which only goes to show how China’s leader is using traditional patriarchal ideas to help reinforce the autocratic power of a male-dominated state.
In January 2013, Xi made a speech during his “Southern Tour” noting that no man in China had had the strength to contest the disbandment of the Soviet Communist Party. “Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist,” were Xi’s exact words. Current affairs commentator Chang Ping wrote about the President’s lamentation reflected the government’s stance over “a seldom-discussed issue in Chinese politics - gender equality.” Chang noted: “Patriarchy has made a comeback in Chinese society and is helping today to strengthen authoritarian rule.”
Reports of plans to establish all-boys schools and the growing popularity of “boys' classes” have come in response to the concept of a crisis of masculinity in China. Lu Qisheng, principal of the Shanghai No.8 high school told China's state news agency in 2012 that “the establishment of a boys' school would help to improve boys' academic performance, as many of them do not perform as well as their female peers.
Several experts support the idea that the physically and emotionally weak image of Chinese boys shows an erosion of masculinity. Fathers have also been encouraged to get more involved in their children's kindergarten education to ensure a "manly education.” “We tend to describe it as the feminization of men or lack of manliness,” Li Wendao, co-author of a book entitled “Save the Boys”, told the media.
In the meantime, alongside campaigns warning young women about becoming a shengnu, the man at the helm of the nation preached about women’s responsibility to stay at home. “Just two months ago, China's President Xi Jinping delivered a speech stating that women should take responsibility for the family as caretakers of the children and the elderly,” noted Lin Lixia, a lawyer and secretary general of the NGO Women Watch China, referring to the president’s speech at the 11th National Women's Congress of China in Beijing in October 28. “Only very few voices criticised these remarks. It is to be expected that state-affiliated organisations such as the ACWF will actin line with Xi's speech and propagate his message,” said Lin.
The fact that Xi’s speech might have been written by women elevates the lack of consciousness to a more insidious level. “My concern is that women, not Xi Jinping, wrote that speech. This reflects a terrible regression on the part of the ACWF leadership,” said Wang Zheng, a professor of history and women's studies at the University of Michigan. Disillusioned, she reminded that the federation traditionally sets the leadership's agenda on women.
Experts have no doubt that public discourse on women is at an all-time low.
"State feminism was once supported by the government; gender equality was part of the official narrative, everybody knew that women were equal and could do the same jobs as men. Women's integration into the workforce was in line with the country's productive needs. In Mao's era, nobody wanted to be a housewife; women had to be active in the public sphere," explained Wang Zheng.
Sociology doctorate Leta Hong Fincher agreed that, despite a measure of progress in affirming women's rights, the Maoist state was not successful in doing away with the patriarchal views of the social role reserved for women in China: "Mao declared his commitment to gender equality through his famous saying that “women hold up half the sky.” But the state-imposed equal employment of women and men failed to transform underlying gender relations. Behind the public celebration of gender equality in the Communist workplace, women continued to shoulder the heavy burdens of childcare, housework and cooking at home."
While post-Mao feminists have been marginalised, men have cemented their position. "Instead of talking about gender equality, men can openly brag about their misogyny and chauvinism and they will encounter no resistance," Wang warned.
A culture that emphasises guanxi - managing an intricate web of personal and professional connections -and a male-dominated political and business culture infamous for heavy drinking and keeping mistresses, are just some of the reasons that push women out from the higher ranks of politics, as well as stop them from climbing the corporate ladder.
"Men are simply perceived as more intelligent and politically capable than women," said Zhu Hong, who works under the ACWF. A Xinhua report also underlined that "the social costs of entering politics in China are higher for women than for men," citing the demands of family and of social standing.
Aside from the retrograde view of stereotypes undermining women's advancement in politics, the bigger picture is more worrying. Underrepresented and vulnerable to political crackdowns for speaking up against the government and its policies, feminists can easily be placed alongside dissident voices that are being pushed aside for not wanting to take part in Xi’s reformist dream. Until recently, human rights activists and intellectuals kept the leadership busy but in 2013, a crackdown on social activists and the so-called “rumour mongers” online was launched as part of a campaign to silence questioning voices. Online and off, feminists remain vigilant but they will not stop claiming for their rights and to have their voices heard until they enter the boys' club running the country.