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Being Politically Correct?: China’s White Paper on Progress of Women’s Cause in 70 Years since Found

Image Courtesy: South China Morning Post

Article No. 40/2019

2019 witnessed the People’s Republic of China marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding. To mark the significance of the year, China celebrated several milestones, including international stature, military might and economic and technological advances. One wonders to what extent does the political participation of women in China help to propel the above mentioned spheres of success. In this light, one Chinese White Paper that may evoke intrigue is the September 2019 document on ‘Equality, Development and Sharing: Progress of Women’s Cause in 70 Years since New China’s Founding’.

An aspect that arouses interest is the wording in the 2019 White Paper, that indicates women’s political empowerment, as compared to a 2015 White Paper released on similar lines. The sub theme in the 2019 report in this regard is ‘Women’s Political Status Has Grown Significantly’. This is a contrast from the 2015 White Paper on ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Development in China’, which refers to political participation under the subheading of ‘Women and Decision Making’. Such a change in choice of terminology can mean either of two outcomes- that change has finally arrived in China- a country that is perceived to give vast economic rights to its women, yet is lagging behind in the political domain; or that China under an increasingly assertive President Xi Jinping prefers women to ‘participate’ more in politics, rather than ‘take decisions’.

Either way, both White Papers- there have only been two such reports released in the country’s 70 year history- claim that Chinese women have made remarkable progress in several spaces including political empowerment. Importance is also given to rural/grassroot politics. The question that is raised is, why this White Paper now?

The answer may lie beyond mere optics. The country’s increasing uncertainties amidst the tariff dispute with USA is affecting the Chinese economy. While the statistics are not easily available in the public domain, it is clear that China’s women will be affected too. The ratio of Chinese women workers is 40 per cent- no small figure in a country that aims to be the world’s economic powerhouse. Thus the White Paper and its accompanying declarations by the various government backed women’s forums in China, would attempt to prevent any potential discontent among this demographic.

Secondly, Chinese women may be economically empowered in the urban professional domains and the rural factories, but the fact remains that several social stereotypes and stigmas exist. In addition, there has been strict censorship of overt feminist trends in the country, even against any developments similar to the global #MeToo movement. Such an atmosphere may be causing rumblings of dissatisfaction among certain sections of China’s women; hence the White Paper could be an attempt to pacify them. Perhaps the 2019 White Paper on China’s women aims to may also seek to counter the increasing international discourse on the social and political status of China’s women, which cannot be categorized as entirely positive. These postulated reasons behind the White Paper’s timing need to be verified. However one wonders if China’s political populace will reveal the reality. Nevertheless, it is clear that Chinese women do face many hurdles in the socio-political arena.

Another interesting query is raised on which direction of empowerment does the White Paper represent for Chinese women. Does it refer to a top down approach, wherein increasing political participation of China’s women will trickle down to progress in other factors? Or does it indicate that for Chinese women, politics begins at home? In other words, do the economic and societal preferences, pressures and parental anxieties in China lead to a reflection in women’s political participation in the country?

Indications of a two-way approach may resolve these questions. On one hand, the increase in Chinese women’s political participation, as stated in the White Paper, as well as by the UN, can encourage other women in China to feel empowered about their gender and strive for progress in their homes, careers, society and political representation. In addition, the younger generations of Chinese women, with greater access and know how of technology, can discuss their concerns more widely, albeit without criticizing the government.

On the other hand, a case study carried out in Northwest China reveals that there are also linkages between rural Chinese mothers’ gender attitudes and their educational aspirations for daughters, with a preference for sons’ educational progress. This is significant, given that education of girls is closely linked to political empowerment of women. The scenario is not limited to rural areas. “Gender specific” courses are being floated in China, in cities such as Chengdu and Shanghai. These focus on teaching skills seen a traditionally feminine requirements to girls, such as knitting, apart from manuals for the female students ‘guiding’ them on relationships and social responsibilities. There are even manuals for boys, exhorting them to live up to their ‘manly’ responsibilities.

These trends may indicate more than mere inconsistencies in China’s policies towards women’s political participation. They could be a response to the increasing ‘degenderization’ in other areas such as women gaining economic clout and therefore potential to shape the country’s political landscape. It is scientifically proven that the more feminist a country’s political outlook is, the more it leans towards human rights emancipation, and less towards military engagement. China is a country that is known for being an important defence supplier to developing countries. A woman leader sitting at the helm could alter China’s position on the world defence trade map, and consequently its international influence.

China will continue to speak of achievements made in the cause of its women’s political participation, as was done in the 2019 White Paper. But it remains to be seen if and when, similar to the economic liberalization of the country in 1978, there will be an ‘opening up’ of attitudes towards encouraging maximum political participation of China’s women, and the manifestation of such empowerment in not only the corridors of power, but actual decision making authorities, including at the highest levels.

(Asma Masood is Research Officer & Programme Director – Internships, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). She has worked as an Independent Researcher on International Relations in the Asia-Pacific and interned at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She has an M.A. in International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai, and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from M.O.P Vaishnav College, Chennai. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.)

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