Chinese Women: A Social Context Analysis for Understanding Gender Equality in China

Zhongxin Sun. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


China has one of the longest histories of any civilization, and for most of that time it has been a patriarchal society. At 1.3 billion people, modern China has the largest population in the world. Chinese women account for half of its total population, which in turn comprises about a fifth of the world’s female population. After adopting market reforms and its opening-up policy in 1978, China has experienced a sustained period of rapid economic growth and dramatic social change. During this period, significant changes in gender relations and women’s participation in political, economic, and social life have become increasingly evident.

The purpose of this essay is to provide an overview of women and gender issues related to gender equality in China. Beginning with a brief overview of sociohistorical transformations in recent Chinese history, this essay then focuses on the cultural, political, social, and economic context needed to understand the roles of women in China. While acknowledging the reality of achievements made in women’s participation in political and economic life, this essay tries to explore the institutional and structural factors that continue to limit women’s participation in contemporary China.

Historical Context

The old patriarchal system in China remains part of the traditional culture of Chinese society, placing more value on men than on women. This patriarchal system can be seen in numerous Confucian texts and canons still referenced today. Chinese women, as a social category, were largely prohibited from entering the public sphere throughout much of China’s long history. Despite these roots, or perhaps in spite of them, women and women’s issues have always been a primary subject for change. Intertwined with several key revolutions in China, the role of Chinese women has at those times been hotly debated, transforming during these specific periods of sociohistorical change.

Throughout the early 20th century, whenever Chinese intellectuals struggled to develop a vision of a united, strong, and free China, the oppression of women was criticized as a major obstacle to the realization of that vision (Honig and Hershatter 1988, 1-12). The May Fourth Movement of 1919 was the first mass movement in modern Chinese history. Chinese intellectuals began attacking Chinese traditions, typically Confucian, and turned to “foreign” ideas and ideologies. The movement promoted women’s education and women’s political participation and mobilized Chinese women to fight for women’s social rights, such as an end to foot binding and arranged marriage. Before the May Fourth Movement, the early 20th century witnessed a women’s movement focused on advocating equal rights in social, economic, and political fields. One of the pioneers of Chinese women’s emancipation, Qiu Jin (1875-1907), spoke out for women’s rights, such as the freedom to marry, freedom of education, and abolition of bound feet. During the same historical period, women’s schools were established in big cities. The first of these to be run by local Chinese people was set up in Shanghai in 1898. Women’s education was considered the first step for Chinese women to break away from the traditional lifestyle (Y. Li 2003, 124).

The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. As the ruling party of new China, the Communist Party advocated the liberation of women, though often subordinating it to other revolutionary goals (Honig and Hershatter 1988, 3). Women’s equality was guaranteed in the constitution of 1950, and that same year the marriage law gave women the freedom to choose their own marriage partners and to demand a divorce. Chinese women no longer needed to bind their feet.

Women also became more active in politics, and a few became well-known government leaders. In 1949, the government established the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) to safeguard the interests of women. In the early 1950s, female party members who had rich experience in women’s issues from the communist revolution led the ACWF and established a national network operating at all administrative levels in the cities and countryside (Z. Wang 2005). Marxist theories became the dominant ideology used to support gender equality in China, and women were largely encouraged to participate in economic production.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a period when gender relations—especially the definition of femininity—were radically reconstructed, although it is a complex task to evaluate its effect on women’s status and gender equality in China. During the Cultural Revolution, it was common to see Chinese women wearing the same dark colors and unisex military uniforms as men, instead of more traditionally feminine clothes. Hairstyles, too, were largely uniform and, when viewed beneath the matching caps, different from the men’s only in terms of length. However, women’s appearance (e.g., clothes, hair style) was not the only aspect of cultural transformation.

As Mao said “time is different; women and men are the same,” so women were encouraged to challenge the traditions and pursue a career, just like their male counterparts. Women models or women heroes at work, like the “Iron Girls,” were chosen from the Chinese peasants and factory workers, emphasizing strong, tough, and aggressive personalities, hard work, and incredible on-the-job abilities. Women workers started to enter traditionally male-dominated fields, such as heavy industry and political leadership at various government levels. Chinese women were encouraged to do whatever men could do and to act with confidence, strength, courage, and “revolutionary enthusiasm,” all of which were very different from the characteristics of the traditional role of women. These new roles also conveyed different implications for Chinese femininity.

The Cultural Revolution came to an end in 1976. An entire generation who had spent their youth during the Cultural Revolution became the “lost generation.” Once the aftershocks of the Cultural Revolution had subsided, society as a whole started to rethink gender roles and gender relationships. The first task was to start with a decisive rejection of the experiences of the Cultural Revolution. This in turn led to efforts to redeclare clear gender roles, ones based on new models.

Beginning in 1978, the Chinese government launched its market reform and opening-up policy. The introduction of a more or less market-based economy and China’s opening to the West generated a rich academic discussion on how Chinese women stood to benefit or lose from the market reform era. Though some saw mainly benefits, others argued that women were encountering increasing discrimination when the government as “protector” retreated from many spheres. The emergence of gendered labor division and job desegregation redefined women’s work and men’s work, and many women were among those laid off from their jobs. The socialist state-owned “iron rice bowl,” which refers to an occupation that guarantees job security and benefits, had been destroyed and replaced by a “rice bowl of youth,” in which young Chinese women could make a living simply by their beauty and youth, with emphasis on traditional femininities (Hanser 2005). Then, during the late 1980s, the public debate began over whether women should return home from the job market, freeing up their spots for men who were out of work.

In the two decades since China opened up to the outside world, the interaction and communication between the Chinese people and rest of the world has rapidly accelerated. The United Nations (UN) held the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, making a big difference in terms of gender equality in China. The Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action adopted at the conference have had great influence in promoting gender equality in China and abroad. The contemporary women’s movement in China has adopted the strategy of “think globally; act locally” in order to fight for women’s rights and achieve gender equality in China. Research conducted since the 1990s has highlighted the double-sided impact of market reform on Chinese women. A more complex picture is being painted in which the disadvantages faced by women in various social, political, economic, and cultural spheres are measured against the gains made by different groups of women in other areas.

Values and a Woman’s Place In Society

The gender image of Chinese women has long been focused on women’s family roles, and little emphasis has been placed on women’s political or economic participation.

The foundation of the patriarchal order in Chinese families and society lies in Confucianism, a set of social structural principles, ethical precepts, and behavioral norms with deep historical and ideological roots (Stacey 1983). A woman’s value and ideal position in traditional Chinese culture was reflected in the still popular phrase, “virtuous wife and good mother” (xian qi liang mu), which can be considered the epitome of Confucianism’s definition of an ideal woman. It suggests that the family role is the most, if not the only, important role for a woman; thus, all she is entitled to do is to serve her family, including her husband and her children.

This ideal position of women is further expressed in another old Chinese saying, sancong, which means a woman is subordinate to her father as a child, to her husband as a married woman, and to her son as a widow. The traditional labor division was nan geng nu zhi, which means men farm and women weave, or nan zhu wai, nv zhu nei, which loosely means men are career oriented and women family oriented. All these sayings share a common point: women’s positions are largely confined to the family context.

Research shows that some male intellectuals or officials in historical China advocated education for women, though with a patriarchal bent. These men desired educated women in order to “produce better filial sons and virtuous daughters, which would enhance the family, and solidify the Throne and foundations of civilization” (Barlow 2004, 44-45). During the socialist revolution period, women were largely encouraged to participate in economic production, but there is evidence for the reinforcement of women’s family roles. One such example of the mainstream traditional practices was the ACWF’s wuhao jiating (model family competition) campaign, in which women’s family roles have been reinforced and advocated.

The old Chinese saying, “men are afraid of taking a wrong profession; women are afraid of marrying a wrong husband” further suggests that women’s happiness seems to be realized only through family life. Or, put it in a more serious light, a woman’s happiness depends on her husband’s success as a substitute for her own self-actualization. The current popular saying on Chinese university campuses, “finding a rich husband is better than finding a good job,” also shows that although female college students in urban China have achieved academic success, when ready to pursue a career they still confront the traditional expectations toward women’s value and positions.

Although the progress China has made in terms of gender equality is undeniable, it has been argued that the patriarchal concept of the ideal Chinese woman has varied at different times and in different regions of the country (Weeks 1989). Recent research also suggests that although Chinese women remain egalitarian in gender ideology across urban China, the percentage of their male cohorts who hold egalitarian gender attitudes is significantly smaller (Pimentel 2006). The overall cultural definition of women’s value and women’s positions in general remains “at home.” At the same time, women have been encouraged to keep their distance from political or economic participation in contemporary China.

Political Participation and Representation: Country-Specific Data

Chinese women were granted suffrage in 1953, when China promulgated the Electoral Law of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which states that women have equal rights to election. The constitution of the PRC, as adopted on December 4, 1982, states the equal rights of women in China in Article 48: “Women in the People’s Republic of China enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life, in political, economic, cultural, social and family life. The State protects the rights and interests of women, applies the principle of equal pay for equal work to men and women alike and trains and selects cadres from among women” (National People’s Congress 1982).

Mao’s slogan “women can hold up half the sky” is well known in Chinese society and has been encouraging and accompanying many Chinese women in their pursuit of gender equality for a few decades. However, Chinese women’s political participation and representation, especially at the village and township level, remains low in recent years. Regarding China’s position in the global society, according to the Human Development Report 2005, China ranked 85th among the 177 countries or regions in the world, with only 6.3 percent of women in government at the ministerial level (United Nations 2005, Table 30). Only 21.0 percent and 20.2 percent of the seats in parliament were held by women in 1990 and 2005, respectively. Women are far from holding up “half the sky” in contemporary China.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded on July 1, 1921, and has been the ruling party of the PRC since 1949. The party’s highest leading body is the National Congress of the Party and the Central Committee. The National Congress of the Party is the highest leading organ of the CPC and is held once every five years. The Central Committee is the highest body of CPC when the National Congress of the Party is not in session. The Politburo of the Central Committee and its Standing Committee are the core leadership, presiding over all the routine work of the Party.

To examine the current extent of women’s participation of the aforementioned core political organizations in China, it is necessary to first trace back to the founding of the CPC in 1921. At that time, only three women were full members of the party’s Political Bureau, and two others served as alternate members. The first three women honored with Politburo membership, Jiang Qing, Ye Qun, and Deng Yingchao, owed their political status to their far more powerful husbands—Mao Zedong, Lin Biao, and Zhou Enlai (Rosen 1995). The two alternate members, Wu Guixian and Chen Muhua, did not have influential husbands. Wu was born in a poor peasant family and became a model worker in a cotton mill in Shanxi Province. Chen remained one of the most powerful women throughout the reform period in China, acting as vice premier, minister, state councilor, president of the People’s Bank, and president of the ACWF (Rosen 1995, 317-318).

As of 2007, the highest-ranking female member of China’s Communist Party leadership was Wu Yi, the only female standing committee member of the Politburo. Born in Hubei in 1938, Wu was vice mayor of Beijing (1988-1991) and a member of the Central Committee in 2002. She also served as vice premier of the leading party member group of the State Council, adding the post of minister of health in 2003 (People’s Daily Online n.d.). Since Wu Yi retired in October 2007, there is not a single female member of the current standing committee of the Politburo. Table 1 shows that female membership in the Political Bureau in post-1949 China has always been very low.

The National People’s Congress (NPC) of the PRC is the highest organ of state power. The Standing Committee is the permanent organ of the NPC. Members of the NPC and its Standing Committee are elected for a term of five years. Representatives of NPC can be nonparty members. The percentage of female representatives to the National People’s Congress has been higher than women’s participation in the Political Bureau of the central government. Table 2 shows the highest percentage was reached in 1975, and later the percentage of female representatives remained above 21 percent during the 20 years from 1978 to 1998. Among its standing committee, women composed 12.6 percent of all the members in the 8th session (1993); 12.7 percent in 9th session (1998), and 13.2 in 10th session (2003) (National Bureau of Statistics 2004a, 86).

The CPC is the only party in power in China, and it adopts multiparty cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of CPC, which is considered China’s basic political system. Political consultation takes the organizational form of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), with members from both the CPC and nonparty members. The CPPCC typically holds a yearly meeting. Chinese women’s participation in CPPCC has experienced a big drop since the late 1980s (14.5-9.2 percent) but reached its highest percentage, 16.8 percent, in 2003 (see Table 3). However, the female members of the Standing Committee of CPPCC in the 8th, 9th, and 10th sessions were only 9.7 percent, 10.0 percent, and 11.4 percent, respectively (National Bureau of Statistics 2004a, 86).

Table 1. Female Members of the Political Bureau in Post-1949 China
Central Committee Total Members Female Members Percentage of Female Members
Sources: Rosen (1995, 318); (n.d.).
Female Members 8th (1956) 17 0 0
9th (1969) 19 2 10.5
10th (1973) 21 1 4.8
11th (1977) 26 0 0
12th (1982) 25 1 4.0
13th (1987) 14 0 0
14th (1992) 20 0 0
16th (2002) 24 1 4.1


Table 2. Female Representatives in the National People’s Congress
Congress (year) Female Representatives Percentage of all Representatives
Source: National Bureau of Statistics (2004a, 85).
1st (1954) 147 12.0
2nd (1959) 150 12.2
3rd (1964) 542 17.9
4th (1975) 653 22.6
5th (1978) 742 21.2
6th (1983) 632 21.2
7th (1988) 634 21.3
8th (1993) 626 21.0
9th (1998) 650 21.8
10th (2003) 604 20.2


Table 3. Female Members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), 1954-2003
Session and Year Number of Female Members Percentage of all Members
Sources: Rosen (1995, 318); (n.d.).
1st (1954) 12 6.1
2nd (1959) 83 11.4
3rd (1964) 87 8.1 4th (1975) 107 8.9
5th (1978) 293 14.7
6th (1983) 281 13.8
7th (1988) 303 14.5
8th (1993) 193 9.2
9th (1998) 341 15.5
10th (2003) 373 16.8

Turning from the central government to lower government administrative levels, Table 4 shows that the number of Chinese women holding leadership positions is still low. Chinese women are largely underrepresented, especially when considering the fact that approximately half of China’s population is made up of women. However, women’s political participation has been increasing slightly over the past few years. Table 4 also shows that the further up the hierarchy one goes, the fewer the number of women officials. This phenomenon is referred to as the “pyramid-shaped distribution” of women in leadership. Women ministers who hold top positions represent only 3.4 percent of all ministers. In 2002, among 668 cities, women mayors accounted for about 8.8 percent of all mayors, whereas conversely, 99 percent of deputy mayors are women (H. Li 2006).

At the grassroots level, there is a significant gap between representation in rural areas and urban areas. The number of female members in urban resident committees is usually high. As Table 5 shows, more than half of the resident committee members in cities are women, but only about 15-16 percent of the village committee members are women. The gap may be partially explained by the fact that gender-equality concepts are generally better developed in Chinese cities than in the countryside. The high percentage of women on urban resident committees is also due to the nature of resident committee work itself, which has always been considered “women’s work” (in Chinese it is explained as grandma and mama’s work) and does not involve policy making or much political power.

Women’s political participation in China has been relatively low in general, and the higher the level is, the fewer women leaders there are. Research also shows that among female government leaders, many are engaged in so-called women’s work or had women’s work experience before their promotion. This so-called women’s work typically refers to working experience in family-planning associations or offices, children’s sections, or in the ACWF and its branch offices. This pattern is even more pronounced at the village level, and the majority of women holding political positions in China are still restricted to doing what is deemed women’s work (Rosen 1995). In addition, women leaders are more likely to hold deputy positions instead of the top leadership positions. For the most part, women are still at the margins of mainstream politics in China.

Table 4. Percentage of Women in the Leadership Cadre at All Levels, 2000-2002
Year Province (Ministry) and Above Prefectual (Director General) Country (Director)
Source: National Bureau of Statistics (2004a, 87).
2000 8.0 10.8 15.1
2001 8.1 11.0 15.5
2002 8.3 11.7 16.1


Table 5. Sexual Composition of Members of Village and Resident Committees, 2000-2002
Gender 2000 2001 2002
Village Resident Village Resident Village Resident
Source: National Bureau of Statistics (2004a, 89).
Women 15.7 59.1 15.5 58.7 16.2 60.6
Men 84.3 40.9 84.5 41.3 83.8 39.4


Limits To Women’s Political Participation and Representation

To explain Chinese women’s low political participation and representation, different approaches can be used based on data collected by social scholars. Surveys have found that women respondents are more passive toward achievement, are more accommodating in conflict situations, and have a higher preference for conflict mediation by traditional authority. These traits are also found to be negatively correlated with political culture and participation measures (Rosen 1995). One nationwide survey that collected data by using a multistage, stratified, random sampling design supported a few dominant explanations of the gender gap in political orientation, such as socialization and situation theories (Tong 2003).

The low political participation of Chinese women can be seen as the direct or indirect product of the political socialization process. A gendered socialization process in contemporary China stems from parents, schools, peer groups, and mass media, all of which continue to reinforce traditionally patriarchal roles for women and men, specifically by limiting women’s roles and the positions open to them for a political career. Family roles as a good wife and mother are much more highly valued over career development. Women who are successful in business and politics run the risk of being stereotyped, as expressed in the gendered term “strong women.” Young people still consider politics men’s work and therefore not suitable for women. Compared with men, women in general are not interested in participating in political activities or organizations. Some women even eschew politics, even while seeking achievements in economic participation.

Women’s political participation in contemporary China can be divided into three phases (H. Li 2005). The first phase (1950-1970) had a strict quota system that guaranteed women an increasing number of spaces for political participation in cadres. In the second phase (1980-1990), the emphasis shifted to competition, and the quota system was nearly stopped. As women’s political participation dropped, a third phase (1990-present) is now trying to integrate the competition and quota systems. Even in this third phase, however, there is a common attitude that women should not rely on a quota system to “protect” them under the market economy reform in China.

Concurrently, the idea of a “no lady-first rule in politics” has appeared in Chinese media, which suggests that women in China should improve their own “quality” (suzhi) instead (China Youth Daily 2003). Suzhi refers to a series of qualifications, such as education, personality, working experiences, and working abilities. Complaints about the quota system also lie in the fact that some women leaders in Communist Party positions have no real political power or lack the ability to participate in politics and are merely filling a quota. According to the Chinese government document General Goal of Women’s Development 2001-2010 (Xinhua News Agency, 2003), in order to raise the proportion of women in administration, the goal should be to “ensure that there is more than one woman in the leading bodies of more than half of the ministries and commissions under the State Council and in the leading bodies of more than half of the government departments at provincial and prefecture levels.”

It is evident that Chinese women still lack the resources for equal participation in politics. Institutional factors have contributed to gender inequality through the role of party membership, which has proven to be especially true in the Chinese countryside (Jennings 1998). Membership in the Communist Party is an essential qualification for various political positions in China, both in the city and the countryside. However, women’s representation in the Communist Party is rather low, which is partly reflected in the lower percentage of women’s political participation in Congress and other decision-making organizations. The percentage of female members in the Chinese Communist Party was about 14.5 percent of all members in China in 1990 and 17.8 percent in 2002. In 2004, the number of female Communist Party members was about 12.956 million, or about 18.6 percent of all the Communist Party members in China (State Council 2005).

Traditional cultural prejudices toward women have had a pernicious effect on women’s political participation in China. Although the government has defined its objectives for training and selecting women cadres, many male leaders or voters tend not to trust women’s leadership abilities simply because they are women. Some arguments point to undemocratic elections as also contributing to the lower rate of women’s participation in the political arena. No matter what the obstacles are, the Chinese government and women’s organizations have gradually been making more efforts to promote women’s political participation. For example, the ACWF and its branch offices have developed talent pools (ren cai ku) of women who are suitable for recommendation to official positions or for promotion in government organizations.

Economic Participation: Country-Specific Data

China’s constitution stipulates gender equality in all spheres of life, and China’s labor law outlaws all forms of discrimination at work. The Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women, promulgated in 1992, more specifically examines legislation on gender and employment in China. Although gender equality is promised on paper, social realities suggest that there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in China.

Based on China’s 2000 population census, men’s participation in labor is 82.47 percent and women’s is 71.52 percent. Although women’s labor participation may still be high compared with women in other countries, it is still 10.95 percent lower than their male counterparts in China. Among the entire employed population in urban areas, at ages 16-39 years the proportion of women is higher than that of men, but at the ages of 40 years and above it is lower than that of men. As for the average annual wage gap between women and men in China, statistics from Ministry of Labor and Social Security show that women’s average annual wage is lower than men’s in all industries, ranging from 74.5 percent to 88.5 percent of men’s average annual wage in 2002 (National Bureau of Statistics 2004a, 51).

Before market reform, the socialist-planned economy assigned urban residents a permanent job in a state or collectively owned enterprise, and urban Chinese women were guaranteed employment because the state ideology believed women would achieve liberation only through participation in social production. Since the 1980s, many women workers in the state or collective enterprises have been laid off, and these middle-aged women have more difficulty finding jobs than laid-off men. In response, the government, including women’s organizations, conducted the 4050 project to provide job training for laid-off women workers who are in their 40s and 50s. Assistance for laid-off women workers also emphasizes self-employment. Reemployment or self-employment jobs are usually in the informal sector and have lower pay and fewer benefits. It was reported that the proportion of women entrepreneurs is only 20 percent of all the entrepreneurs in China (Xinhua News Agency 2005). In 2002, the number of registered unemployed persons in urban areas was 7.7 million, a rate of 4 percent in general, but women’s unemployment rate is 1 percent higher than men.

Since China adopted its market reforms and opening-up policy, more and more foreign companies have expanded their businesses into China. Much has been written about specific Chinese regions, especially the special economic zones in southern China, where many rural-urban migrant women are employed in labor-intensive positions within the export-manufacturing industry (Jacka 2006; Lee 1998; Pun 2002, 2004, 2005). Research in this field usually provides a framework for understanding the working conditions of women migrant workers and portrays women factory workers as an underprivileged class lacking the benefits of resident citizens. On the other hand, there is a rise in the number of young women professionals in big cities like Shanghai, women who belong to the independent only-daughter generation in urban Chinese families. These women find white-collar jobs in foreign companies after successfully completing their higher education and become very competitive in the job market.

In Chinese cities, Chinese women migrant workers and laid-off women workers have been receiving intensive academic and media attention. In rural areas, male farmers may migrate to city or local factories to work, but women tend to take full responsibility for farming while continuing to take care of the elderly and children. Still, many rural women also leave the farm to work as migrant workers. The trend toward feminization of agriculture is in many parts of the country linked to the feminization of poverty.

Gender desegregation in employment has become more common in China since market reform, and jobs are often described as “women’s work” or “men’s work.” Among migrants, a typical city job for men is to find employment as construction workers whereas women work as waitresses and domestic workers. Many companies, especially in the service, commercial, and entertainment industries, still advertise for female employees by specifying gender, age, height, and looks. This phenomenon is called the “rice bowl of youth,” signaling the formation of an urban mass culture and a new sexual politics (Zhang 2000).

Research conducted on “the gendered rice bowl” in Chinese society states that “the shift from the iron rice bowl to the rice bowl of youth involves a process that feminizes and sexualizes women’s bodies in the workplace and distinguishes productive bodies from unproductive ones” (Hanser 2005). The introduction of market reforms and China’s opening-up policy provide different opportunities for different women’s groups in China, and some women’s groups are more disadvantaged than the others. The complex nature of the modern gendered workforce demands different strategies designed to target the problems facing these vulnerable women’s groups in order to protect women’s equal rights to economic participation.

Limits to Women’s Economic Participation

China’s labor law outlaws all forms of discrimination in employment, including discrimination against women in employment, salaries, and promotion. However, women’s retirement age has been a controversial issue in recent years. According to China’s labor law, the working age for women is 16-54 years, but for men it is 16-59 years. This regulation has been challenged by Chinese women, particularly white-collar professionals, civil servants, and women scholars. The early retirement regulation for women was formulated after the PRC was founded in 1949, for the sake of alleviating the burden placed on women who are responsible for bearing and rearing children. Yet now women workers and women’s studies scholars have argued that women’s early retirement can have a negative impact on women’s income and career development. It is also unconstitutional and runs contrary to the government commitment regarding equality between men and women as a basic state policy. In this instance, it seems that resistance to revising the labor law is still deeply rooted in the traditional and persistent patriarchal ideology even among intellectuals and policy makers. One saying sums up the current attitude: if the government allows women to work for another 5 or 10 years, it will be like “adding frost to snow for current unemployment” (China Daily 2003).

It takes time to revise or improve a law, but changes are being made gradually under efforts from various women’s organizations (including ACWF) and individuals who advocate gender equality in China. One instance of this is that China enacted its first anti-sexual harassment law in 2005. This law was passed by the top lawmaking body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, as an amendment to the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women. Although China has introduced the concept of anti-sexual harassment into its legal documents later than many other countries, such progress in legislation will have a positive effect on changing people’s attitudes on gender-related issues.

The Chinese government published the General Goal of Women’s Development 2001-2010 to ensure equal access to employment and economic status for women and men, seeking to ensure that women account for over 40 percent of the total employed population and to ensure that coverage of urban workers for maternity insurance reaches at least 90 percent. According to the second national women’s social status survey in China, conducted in 2001, only 60 percent of employed women were provided with maternity leave or maternity insurance in 2001 (National Bureau of Statistics 2004a, 52). However, migrant women or women from the countryside were largely neglected in these documents. Benefits like maternity insurance still remain a hard-to-get luxury for many migrant women and rural Chinese women.

A large part of society, including many women, still lacks gender-equality awareness. For example, some women who were fired during pregnancy or maternity leave do not know that their employer violated their rights as women. Numerous discriminating advertisements still specify gender, age, and appearance, and many Chinese people are not aware that the contents of such ads feature gender discrimination. The number of government officials, university professors, media workers, police, judges, and other opinion leaders and relevant personnel who have serious misunderstandings about gender equality is discouragingly high. The World Bank report China: Country Gender Review states that public information, particularly with regard to legal options, should be open to women who believe their rights have been violated. Such information also needs to be better disseminated, especially in rural or outlying areas (World Bank 2002).

Progress has been made in the past five years, but winning the fight against gender discrimination in employment will take more time and require more organizations or agencies to participate. The emergence of new issues such as female graduates’

Family Planning Policy and Women

Launched in 1979, China’s policy for family planning—conventionally known as the one-child policy—was one of the most radical acts of social engineering attempted by any state in the 20th century. The state’s birth control policy received widespread resistance, especially from rural China (for the origins of China’s birth policy, see White 1994; for the patterns of resistance, see White 2003). Under China’s general population policy, described as “controlling population quantity and improving the quality of life,” the basic principles of Chinese family planning policy promoted late marriage, deferred childbearing (wan hun wan yu), and the practice of “one child per couple” and encouraged people to have fewer but healthier births (shao sheng you sheng) and a longer birth spacing for couples who have practical difficulties if they only have one child. The role Chinese women have played in the construction of this family planning program was well documented by scholars, too.

The family planning policy, as the core of China’s national population program, was initiated by the central government and carried out through a top-down network. It is mainly managed by the State Family Planning Commission with support from other government agencies and various NGOs, such as the China Family Planning Association and the ACWF. Policy regulations do not necessarily limit all Chinese couples to one child. In cities like Shanghai, for example, there are very few exceptions allowing couples to have two children, but since 1984, the strict one-child policy has been progressively relaxed to make the policy “acceptable to the peasants.” As a result, rural couples whose first-born is a daughter are eligible for a second child.

China’s family planning policy has had some positive effects on women’s groups. For example, it helped to reduce women’s burden of childbearing and childrearing, which the mainstream culture still considered the woman’s job, in addition to effectively slowing down China’s population growth. It also enhanced reproductive health for women and promoted women’s economic and social participation. The one-child policy also contributes to the education of only daughters and other investment from the one-child families. It might also help to explain some increasing gender equality achievements, such as the high college enrollment and school performance of women in China.

China’s population policy has also had some negative implications for women. One of them is that the policy makes compromises to or even strengthens the traditional, patriarchal preference for a son. The policy regulations in many rural provinces actually allow a couple to have a second child if the first is a girl. Research has suggested that “gender inequalities embedded in the culture influence population policy and practice, generating a two-way process that continually reinforces distortions in sex ratios” (Murphy 2003).

Abnormal sex ratios at birth in contemporary China were widely raised as a big concern by scholars both home and abroad. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (2004b), the imbalance in sex ratios among young children remains high. The Survey on Population Changes in 2004 shows that the sex ratio (males per 100 females) is 124.69 for 0-4 year olds, 119.20 for 5-9 year olds, and 108.8 for 10-14 year olds. The cause of these imbalanced sex ratios has been the topic of much scholarly debate, which includes explanations of female infanticide, underreporting and abandonment of girls, and sex-selective induced abortion (Murphy 2003). All of these reasons have the same roots in China’s traditionally patriarchal culture, reflecting a preference for a son when that tradition comes up against policy limiting the number of childbirths. The official one-child policy slogan “giving birth to a girl and a boy is the same” is well known among Chinese people. Still, many Chinese couples—especially rural ones—still prefer to have at least one son, if they could not reach the ideal concept expressed in the Chinese saying “one son and one daughter is a flower” (Greenhalgh and Li 1995).

Traditional Chinese families saw childbearing as their best long-term guarantee of family strength, respect, and stature. The traditional concepts of “more children, more happiness” and “valuing males over females” are still prevalent, especially in rural China. It has been widely believed that only male offspring could provide economic security, carry on the family’s ancestral line, take care of elderly parents, and perform the ancestral worship rites. Daughters were considered a member of their husbands’ families after marriage and undertook duties for their husband’s households.

Other than the sex preference, it has been argued that the implementation of the one-child policy might violate women’s privacy or rights. High instances of coerced abortion and employment termination were reported if the women violated family planning policy. According to the Family Planning Law passed by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress December 29, 2001 (National Population and Family Planning Commission of China n.d.), the current practice of China’s family planning policy will remain unchanged for the near future but with more efforts placed on reproductive health issues, integrating birth control with other socioeconomic programs, and promoting gender equality.

employment rates and migrant women’s access to health information (including HIV/AIDS) and health care will pose more challenges for protecting women’s rights and interests in China.

Impact of Transnational Feminism

With the ongoing process of globalization, there is an emerging body of feminist scholarship on transnational feminism from a diverse disciplinary perspective. When encountering global feminism, as the official body representing women in China ACWF has faced numerous challenges. China, as the host country for the official UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, has experienced a profound impact on the development of nongovernment women’s organizations, and various feminist practices. Researchers suggest at least four ways in which the conference has made a difference to ACWF: organizational prestige, exposure to global gender issues, experience of foreign women’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and material assets. Besides those, the conference was also an occasion “when the priorities of the ACWF and the Party were juxtaposed” (Howell 1997).

The proliferation of quasi-official or nongovernment women’s organizations in the 1990s was also the direct or indirect product of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. NGOs were quite a new idea in China before the preparations for the conference (J. Wang 1996). Hundreds of women’s studies centers were set up in the late 1990s and with the number still increasing; there is no doubt that the Fourth World Conference was a major catalyst for Chinese women’s groups.

The Platform for Action passed by the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 requires commitment from governments and the international community. Before the conference, the Chinese government put forth a Program for Women’s Development in China (1995-2000) to promote women’s participation in politics, labor market, education, health, family, and marriage. As sponsor of the UN conference, the Chinese government signed the Beijing Declaration to take action for the empowerment and advancement of women. Statistics show that by the end of 1996 the number of women leaders at the level of town, county, provincial, and national government or party institution had increased to 50.9, 38.7, 22.6, and 13.9 percent respectively (Feng 1997). Later on, Chinese women involved in follow-up meetings to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, such as Beijing Plus 5 and Beijing Plus 10, reinforced legitimacy and new frameworks for achieving gender equality in China.

The Fourth World Conference on Women provides a perfect example for examining the impact of current transnational feminism on China. Aside from the conference, numerous international conferences or workshops on gender studies have taken place in mainland China. Many international organizations, including some foreign foundations, have set up offices in Beijing or other areas in China aimed at working on promoting gender equality in China. Local Chinese women have played active roles in cooperating with the transnational feminist forces originating from outside China. All these efforts not only helped the development of women or gender studies in Chinese universities or research institutions, but they also marked changes in government policy and illuminated/enlightened feminist activists to commit to advocate women’s rights in different fields.

The impact of transnational feminism on Chinese women established broader global links of feminist scholarship, activism, and communication with women’s groups from Asia and other countries. These links have been further enhanced through transnational dialogues among women from different countries, cultural backgrounds, races, socioeconomic classes, and even sexual orientations. Chinese women’s participation in the process of transnational feminism will continue to make a difference in global feminist discourses and, more importantly, help them focus on improving local Chinese women’s lives.

The Nature of Civil Society: Women’s Mobilization And Civil Society

The economic reforms and opening-up policy led to a relaxation of party or state control over the economy, society, and public discourse. This left spaces open for the development of a wide range of activities and organizations in the sphere that has been proposed as civil society in China (For a rich discussion on civil society in China, see Chamberlain 1993; Madsen 1993; Ma 1994; and White, Howell, and Shang 1996). Nongovernmental women’s organizations or groups are often considered as part of this emergence of civil societies. Among the discussions about different organizations and civil society in China, women’s organizations, along with the environmental NGOs, are increasingly visible players in China (See Yang 2005 and Howell 1996).

Women’s organizations are diverse in organizational forms. Borrowing the typology framework Yang (2005) uses to describe the types of environmental NGOs in China, the women’s organizations in China fall into the following seven types:

  • Registered NGOs (registered as social organizations [shehui tuanti] or private, nonprofit work units [mingban fei qiye danwei]);
  • Nonprofit enterprises (registered as business enterprises but operating as nonprofit organizations);
  • Unregistered voluntary groups (unregistered organizations that function as NGOs);
  • Web-based groups (unregistered groups that operate mainly through the Internet);
  • Student associations/clubs (registered on university campuses yet functioning and perceived as NGOs);
  • University research centers/groups (affiliated with institutions of higher learning but operating as NGOs);
  • Government-organized NGOs (social organizations established by government agencies, also known as state-owned NGOs or GONGOs).

Among the seven types, the ACWF, is the biggest and most influential women’s organization in contemporary China. Founded on April 3, 1949, the ACWF is “a mass organization dedicated to the advancement of Chinese women of all ethnic groups in all walks of life” whose mission is “to represent and to protect women’s rights and interests, and to promote equality between men and women.” According to the ACWF’s official Web site, this organization has about 60,000 grassroots organizations above the township and neighborhood committee levels across China and more than 980,000 women’s representatives’ committees and women’s committees at the grassroots level. There are 18 national group members and about 5,800 local group members at various levels throughout the country (ACWF, 2008). The hierarchical top-down organization ranges from national to grassroots-level structure.

Although the ACWF’s contribution to promoting gender equality and keeping gender issues on the political agenda in China has always been widely acknowledged at home and abroad, its own self-acclaimed NGO status has been debated (see Barlow 1994). However, as China is experiencing dramatic socioeconomic change, and given the rise of new women’s organizations over the past decade, especially Beijing’s hosting the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, the ACWF is desperately trying to find a new identity in addressing gender issues. This new identity must be able to address the “dilemma of how best to reconcile the often competing and conflicting interests of its members and the Chinese Communist Party” (Howell 1996).

The rapid development of various new women’s organizations in post-Mao China brought to an end the decades when the ACWF was the only registered women’s organization in China. Among these new types of women’s organizations, research centers, associations for women’s studies, and gender studies programs are increasing in numbers and are often affiliated with universities or research institutes. By the end of 1999, 34 women’s studies centers had been established in universities in China, and more than 100 universities in Mainland China were providing women’s studies courses (Du 2005). Conferences, workshops, gender-related courses, research, and publications or other activist activities are the usual practices undertaken or provided by these organizations.

There are also migrant women’s groups, lesbian women’s groups, media and women’s groups, legal aid (law counseling) groups, women’s health groups, women’s development groups, women’s religion groups, and other professional women’s association or clubs. (For a close look at different examples of women’s organizations in China, see Hsiung, Jaschok, Milwertz, and Chan 2001). They are often not as visible as ACWF or the university research groups, and many ordinary Chinese people may not know that these organizations exist. Some may lack formal registration and some might develop different ties and strategic cooperation with ACWF while keeping their autonomy. But all these organizations have important functions providing support among the group members and mobilizing women and other resources to fight against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.

All the women’s organization branches in China more or less have an aim to promote gender equality and advocate women’s rights. They have common goals but diverse interests. Cooperation among women’s organizations is both the reality and the goal in China. ACWF, of course, provides support for women’s studies programs in many ways to “promote women’s studies into the social sciences and the educational system” (Hsiung, Jaschok, Martinez, and Chan 2001). Cooperation among NGOs is not rare either. For example, according to one organizer, all Beijing’s women’s NGOs were invited to participate in the first National Women Tongzhi (e.g., lesbian, gay, queer) conference and the preceding fund-raising activity (He 2002).

Domestic and international social forces have urged changes within the ACWF and the emergence of more autonomous women’s organizations during the reform period of China. In general, Chinese government regulations on the registration of social organizations are still strict, so some women’s organizations have to remain unregistered, and the degree of autonomy among them varies. Research shows the relationship between women’s organizations and the party/state is very complex, and the future of women’s organizations, like that of other social organizations, will hinge on the pace of political reform (Howell 2003). However, unlike other social organizations, the expanding number and empowering activities of women’s organizations point to the development of civil society in the reform period, under the legitimate protective umbrella of gender equality as part of national policy. Chinese women remain some of the most vital civil society actors among other social groups.