(Bloomberg) — Chinese women found a new voice to demand change in 2022. The government’s tentative response suggests tensions may only deepen in the coming year.
Most Read from Bloomberg
Strains between China’s estimated 690 million women and the Communist Party’s male-dominated leadership rippled through the year’s political debates. Beijing’s efforts to celebrate the Winter Olympics were marred by a tennis star’s allegations that she was coerced into sex with a retired state leader. Outrage flared on social media over a video showing male restaurant-goers beating women, as well as a mother chained in a shack.
While President Xi Jinping’s government has said little about the emergence of this potentially potent political force, it did push through an overhaul of an almost three-decade-old women’s rights law in October. The Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law, which takes effect on Jan. 1, urges measures to eliminate discrimination against women, such as denying female employees promotions due to circumstances like marriage and pregnancy.
But provisions to water down the measure, including a reminder for women to “respect family values,” reveal the government’s reluctance to embrace sweeping change. At the same time, the party excluded women from its ruling Politburo for the first time in 25 years during a twice-a-decade reshuffle that saw Xi appointed for a precedent-breaking third term.
Even so, female leaders interviewed by Bloomberg News in the closing weeks of 2022 said the determination of Chinese women to defend their rights will only grow. How the party addresses anxieties among the increasingly well-educated and outspoken group could have long-lasting ramifications for the country’s stability and growth prospects.
“The natural duty of the government and the legislature is to listen to the people,” said Feng Yuan, co-founder of Beijing Equality, an advocacy group for women’s rights. “Updating the law is a response, but it’s not enough.”
Women’s demands for greater recognition have built quietly for decades as China’s now-abandoned policy of restricting families to one child spurred many parents to focus on securing a quality education for their only daughters.
China ranks among the countries with the most balanced enrollment in tertiary education, according to the World Economic Forum. Studies also show a higher percentage of Chinese women in corporate leadership positions compared with the world average.
Now, with the government incentivizing women to have more children as the country’s birthrate rapidly declines, some worry their gains could slip away. That includes a late-blooming #MeToo movement of sorts, something that the Communist Party’s censors have sought to suppress.
Back in January, a viral video of a mother of eight chained in a rural shack — an apparent victim of human trafficking — became a rallying cry for women, marring the Olympics and forcing the government to make arrests. Women also made up a large share of people who turned out for protests against Xi’s signature Covid Zero policy last month in places like Beijing and Shanghai, in an unprecedented challenge to the leader’s authority.
There have also been other, smaller efforts toward change, such as a woman who sparked a nationwide debate after she noted a lack of sanitary pads for sale on high-speed trains.
The prospects for a broader political response appear as dim as ever, though, given Xi’s signals in the latest party reshuffle. The sole woman on the previous 25-seat Politburo — Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who was tasked with leading the now-discredited Covid Zero policy — retired and was replaced with a man.
“My country is even reversing the trend of putting women on the Politburo, when everyone knew that the one female who was there was only there for show,” said Guagua, a IT worker in Europe who prefers to use her childhood nickname to speak more freely.
China ranks 139th out of 146 countries for its share of women in ministerial positions, World Economic Forum data show. No woman has reached the Politburo’s supreme seven-member Standing Committee, and just four have held the top job in a province since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, according to Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“There shouldn’t be just one or two women participating in politics,” said Feng of Beijing Equality, who has spent more than two decades working with women suffering from domestic violence. “They must reach a critical mass.”
The result is that there’s little discussion by policy makers on issues like financial dependency that affect women’s everyday lives, especially rural women, according to Yajun Zhang, co-host of the Wǒ Men podcast, which focuses on life in China.
“You don’t hear from them,” Zhang said in an interview. “They are totally silent and they are the majority and facing a lot of pressing issues every single day.”
Zhang considers herself one of the lucky ones. Born under China’s one-child policy, her parents funneled all their resources and attention to her and made her feel she could do anything that boys could do.
Without more women in senior leadership positions, Zhang said “you rarely hear about” the plight of rural women who are forced to stay in relationships because they lack the same land rights as men.
‘They Don’t Feel the Pain’
“Men just don’t feel that,” she said. “They don’t feel the pain. They don’t see the same perspective.”
While the National People’s Congress did revise the Women’s Rights Law, the top-down response left advocates for women’s rights disappointed. Late changes introduced and enacted behind closed doors by the NPC’s secretive Standing Committee showed resistance to change within the system.
For example, while the new law states that employers can’t ask job applicants whether they are pregnant, it doesn’t forbid them from asking about their future plans. The final law also omitted earlier draft clauses that allowed women’s organizations to “expose and criticize” acts that harm women through the media, instead calling for “objective and appropriate” reporting.
The omission was “quite regretful and concerning,” Feng said. “Amid China’s climate of positive reporting and discourse, the new policy may be restrictive and increases pressure and risks for media reporting on women’s rights.”
China’s plunging birthrate and rapidly aging population could lead to more challenges for women. In just a few years, authorities have swung from tight birth controls that permitted forced abortions to encourage women to have more children and embrace traditional caretaker roles.
That’s already fueling hostility between men and women, especially online. Some — often male — Chinese internet users accuse those that want change of creating “gender antagonism” and lash out at women who promote the ideas.
Young, urban Chinese women are “not only actively participating in social debates online, they’re becoming more vocal in their daily life when they see things that are upsetting,” said Li Yan, who headed an international environmental group’s China office for three years. “They make their co-workers, their own adjacent community more aware that it’s actually better to change.”
But Li worries the gathering demographic crisis could make disagreements harder to resolve.
“There’s still a divide in populations thinking about what it should be,” she said. “There’s a clear lack of reconciliation on what is the right way forward.”
–With assistance from Colum Murphy and Krystal Chia.
Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.