“The birth of a boy is welcomed with shouts of joy and firecrackers,
but when a girl is born, the neighbours say nothing.”
When Zhao Ping was born, her grandmother was furious. “She told my father that he should get rid of me, that he should kill me,” said the 26-year-old tutor. Until today, Zhao doesn’t know where her grandmother lived. “I just know it was close to Baoding, Hebei Province, where lots of girls were killed at birth. My mother never wanted me to go there because my grandmother never liked me,” she recalled.
Zhao Ping survived to tell her tale, but according to official statistics released by the country's health ministry in March, China has performed an estimated 336 million abortions over the past four decades as part of its enforced family planning policy, also known as one-child policy. “I remember one of my female colleagues at school was named Pandi (盼弟, Anticipated Brother) because her parents wanted a boy instead of a girl,” Zhao said. Female infanticide is explained by a persistent preference for male heirs in China, who are more likely to find a well-paid job, allowing them to maintain the parents in old age, and carry on the family name.
"My dream was to be a nuclear engineer," recalled Zhu Hua, one of the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) students who participated in the project "My Vagina Says" in November. The 20-year-old is in the third year of a major in English Language and Literature. "I studied science in high school before I came to Beijing, but my parents believe girls should study arts or literature because they can't be competitive in the scientific field," Zhu explained.
For women who survive birth, another fight awaits when they apply to university. Two thirds of China’s top universities still have policies that limit the proportion of women students, according to the Media Monitor for Women Network NGO. Women systematically must score higher than men in the annual National Collage Entrance examinations to gain admission and face unofficial but widespread gender quotas that favour their male peers and challenge government regulations. In August, the Education Ministry went as far as to say that the practices were in the "national interest."
"We shaved our heads in protest against the gender quotas; we were truly outraged," said Xiong Jing. "It's unacceptable and illegal. The Education Law is clear in forbidding discrimination on several grounds including gender, and the Education Ministry is allowing this to happen," said Xiong. About 20 people, including some sympathetic men, joined the action around the country. Statistics show that women are increasingly doing better than men in the gaokao, the gruelling college entrance examination, to occupy more and more places at universities around the country.
Once the fight for a college place is over, more gendered discrimination awaits as women look for a job. "I applied to work as a web-designer with an advertising company and they called me back to say that they 'were not considering women' for this position. I asked why, because this criteria wasn't even mentioned in the ad, and they told me I'd be welcome to apply as a receptionist or a PR person," recalled Li Peng, of her first job market experience. The 26-year-old decided to look for a job with international firms in China, she said while visiting a job fair a job fair for foreigners held in Beijing in May 2013. "I think this is more of a Chinese principle [not hiring females to perform certain jobs], because women are seen as caretakers and household managers, not career-oriented subjects," said Li, who was advised by her parents not to sue the hiring company for fear of hindering her job hunt permanently.
Other female applicants at the job fair complained of job advertisements that require a long list of desired qualities, including a specific height and weight. China's state television reported in October 2013 that inequality for women in the workplace is at an all-time high. A study on gender discrimination in job ads has found that 10 percent state a gender preference, despite strict regulations outlawing this. The central government imposes fines from US$1,600 to US$4,800 against employers discriminating against applicants’ nationality, race, gender and religion but discrimination persists.
One in four women has been denied a job due to their gender, according to data by the Center for Women's Law and Legal Service of Peking University released in 2009. A study by two researchers from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, states that the taller a woman is, with every additional centimetre in height corresponding to a 2.2. percent increase in salary.
"Women with higher degrees tend to be stereotyped. Employers consider them less employable than men because they believe women will drop out of the workforce to attend other priorities, namely getting married and having children," said Zhang Jian, who has been teaching women’s studies and equality at China's Women University in Beijing since the mid 1990’s. The professor says education is key to change a mindset that confines women to the household and to counter the stereotypical images promoted by the media. "Education is crucial, from primary school all the way to college, for women and men," explained Zhang, adding that education makes women more independent, competitive and self-reliant.
Women who make it through the recruitment process often need to negotiate hard to get a fair salary. "Women are traditionally paid less to perform the same job as me. That is one of the reasons we hold sessions on how to negotiate assertively for a higher salary," explained 34-year-old Carol Rafferty from the local chapter of the Lean In group, an association focused on female empowerment. "In a male-dominated business sphere is more difficult for women to progress in their careers and assume leadership positions," the lawyer remarked. For every five Chinese men who rise to a senior position in the workplace, only one woman achieves the same level of advancement, a study by the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the New York-based Asia Society published in 2013 confirmed.
Women in cities earned only 67 percent as much as men and 56 percent as much in rural areas, a 2010 survey by the state-run All Women's China Federation found. Statistics from the United Nations in 2012 also confirmed that women lagged behind men in labour-force participation and education level in China.
Outside the professional realm, women's overall situation has not improved either. Domestic violence is rampant, with a quarter of Chinese women having admitted experiencing abuse, assault, restriction of personal freedom, economic control, and/or forced sex during marriage, as per a government survey on the social status of women in China that was released in 2011. Women's federations in China receive about 50,000 domestic violence cases each year, said Tan Lin, an official with the All China Women's Federation said at a seminar jointly held by China and Australia in November 2013. Tan described domestic violence as a cancer of social development.
Women are more at risk of rape from a partner than a stranger, stated the Third National Survey of Women's Social Status in China conducted in 2010 by the National Bureau of Statistics and the All China Women's Federation. Over 50 percent of Chinese men admitted having had physically or sexually abused their partners in the past in a World Health Organization multi-country study conducted in partnership with Tianjin Normal University. Analysts have warned that these figures are likely to understate the problem due to the common underreporting of domestic violence due to traditional norms that suggest domestic violence is a private affair and acceptable behaviour.
Despite China's ongoing sexual revolution, women are also the weakest link in sexual relationships. Abortion is widespread and reports tell of thousands of women who undergo surgery to rebuild their hymens before they get married. In 2010, the director of gynaecology at Beijing Wuzhou Women's Hospital, Zhou Hong, told the Washington Post that more and more women are turning to a surgery called "hymen restoration" after lying to their fiancés about their sex lives. Zhou is one of the Chinese doctors performing the procedure. "The ideal of marrying a virgin still prevails in China; only about 70 percent of the population has admitted to having pre-marital sex," noted famed sociologist and sexologist Lin Yinhe. "For men, the more sex the merrier; but sex and sexual pleasure are still seen as a bad thing for women. Men are praised for keeping several women and mistresses, while women are slutty if they have the same approach towards sex," said Lin, adding that female orgasm is still a taboo in females magazines and conversation in social circles.
Chinese legislation flatly fails in protecting female rights. A good example of such rules is a revised marriage law approved in 2011 that has made matrimony a bad deal and divorce even more of a gruelling battle for women, whether they are or not financially independent (See Leftover and left behind for details). Almost invisible representation of women higher up the echelons of real power (See A boy's club), makes it even more difficult for them to strive for gender equality and protection of their rights.
A combined effect of mass media and state-controlled media makes matters worse, by portraying a limited set of female stereotypes in the media. Chinese women are often featured as naive and weak, fetishised as sexually desirable or exposed as evil and manipulative. Some of China's most famous and powerful women left terrible legacies, deepening the bias against women in politics. Mao's wife Jiang Qing was imprisoned for her participation and incitement of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. The last powerful woman of imperial times, the Empress Dowager Cixi who died in 1908, is either seen as a weak and manipulated leader or by a lens that focusses on her corrupt and despotic ways, with both being responsible for throwing China into anarchy and a civil war. In her latest book Empress Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China, celebrated author Jung Chang, who wrote the acclaimed memoir Wild Swans, argued that the Chinese ruler was neither tyrannical, nor incompetent, but more of a protofeminist visionary who managed to struggle against a retrograde and misogynistic male elite that constituted the imperial bureaucracy, "bringing medieval China into the modern age."
But China entered the modern age without setting itself free from Confucian ideology. "Confucianism valued men and despised women," said Lin Yinhe. "One of the most famous Confucian dictums stated that women should follow the 'three obediences and the four virtues,' which required women to obey their fathers before marriage, their husbands in marriage, and their sons in widowhood. Women were to maintain morality and practice proper speech, modest manners and diligent work. This ideology has permeated Chinese culture for over 2000 years," the expert said.
The list of ways that women are discriminated against in China is long, analysts have warned. "It is really systemic discrimination ranging from the sex ratio to the marriage law and the job market. There is a misogyny and sexism throughout Chinese society that starts from before birth, with the fact that parents prefer boys to girls, that's why there is such widespread abortion of female foetuses, and it is extremely broad ranging," concluded US doctoral student at Tsinghua University Leta Hong Fincher, who is working on a book on 'leftover women' (see Leftover and left behind).
The author notes that media reports tend to trumpet China's achievements backed up by statistics that overlook the real situation of Chinese women and conflict significantly with other studies that show Chinese women have actually been losing ground in the labor force, politics and society in the post-socialist era.
The proportion of women in senior management in China climbed to 51 percent this year, up from 25 percent in 2012 and outpacing the global average of 21 percent, according to a study published by the Beijing arm of accounting firm Grant Thornton. In a survey of 200 businesses in China, 94 percent of them employed women in senior roles, the study added. In the past few years, the Hurun Report has shown annually that more Chinese women are joining the ranks of the world's wealthiest people.
"China is a vast country and there are successful business women who have become multimillionaires and have certainly achieved success. But the problem is when you look at the status of women overall and find that these extremely successful women are really the exception. There tends to be a lot of media reporting about these few women who are really successful and not enough emphasis on the problem faced by the vast majority of women, and that goes for urban, educated women too, who are losing a lot of the game that they have achieved recently and that also goes for rural women, who have traditionally struggled a lot with poverty, tend to have very few land rights and whose income gap is also increasing," said Fincher.
The feminist word ushering in university hallways and the female quandaries moving and shaking NGOs in China’s biggest cities have little echo among the fields and hardship in the countryside. Experts and activists constantly recall that the relative liberalisation of Chinese women that has occurred in the cities has not occurred in rural areas, where many still believe that education is unnecessary for women. “China still has in the rural areas a huge sway of a patriarchal family norm,” explained Rebecca Karl, co-author of the book The birth of Chinese feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory . “Women continue to be very oppressed so even though some young women now are able to go out and earn a living or find work in the city, the expectation is that they return home, get married and take care of their families,” said Karl.
The situation for women overall, both urban and rural, is worsening as compared to men. So, what you see is a quite significant increase in gender inequality. If you just look at absolute numbers, the poverty levels for all Chinese are decreasing, so the lives of both men and women are likely to have improved, but what is increasing is the gender inequality between women and men," Fincher remarked.