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He Siyun, a teacher in China’s southwestern province of Guizhou, was horrified when she found out that a male colleague had been molesting female students.
Ms He petitioned the police and her school authorities, who instead fired her. In September, the teacher she had accused was sentenced to four years in prison; Ms He’s story went viral, and she was lauded as a feminist hero on social media. Yet a month later she discovered she had been put on a blacklist and falsely labelled as a drug user, which prevented her from finding a job or even taking a train.
“They thought I would create more trouble by raising more attention for this issue,” Ms He told the Financial Times.
The disconnect is typical of China’s mixed message to women. Its well educated female workforce and its high level of employment has seen the return of patriarchal gender norms. Even as the state nominally encourages gender equality, it cracks down on feminist activists and whistleblowers.
Nearly half of Chinese women enrol in tertiary education, compared with less than 40 per cent of men, according to the World Bank. While there is a gender gap in the workforce (63 per cent of women work versus 78 per cent of men) that difference is smaller than that in the US (56 per cent of women versus 76 per cent of men).
China has become wealthier but it has not become less unequal. It has dropped for nine consecutive years in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index. This year shows China ranking at 100, out of 144, below countries such as Senegal and Cambodia but above India and South Korea.
The ruling Communist party has become more hardline and for a decade has defined unmarried, often professionally successful women over the age of 27 as “left over”. The authorities aim to shame “leftover” women into marrying in an attempt to correct the gender imbalance that is a legacy of China’s one-child policy. This year, the Communist Youth League began organising mass matchmaking events for thousands of young party members. “The worry [of falling marriage rates] is real, given China’s large number of single young men whose frustration could be a threat to the state,” said Helen Gao, a Beijing-based social policy analyst and writer.
China now encourages women to have two children, a policy change that women say has worsened employment discrimination. “Companies now have to give you up to two periods of maternity leave, meaning they would rather hire a man,” said one woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. She works at a Beijing-based venture capitalist and says she rejected a well paid job offer last year after being asked to sign an agreement promising she would not have children in the next five years.
A once-in-a-decade survey organised by the state-run All-China Women’s Federation in 2011 found that urban women earn 67.3 per cent of men’s wages, while a smaller 2015 survey reported 87 per cent of female university graduates experience discrimination when seeking employment.
Market-oriented economic reforms have also taken their toll on gender equality. As Chinese citizens have more disposable income to spare, women say they have been tempted to forgo their careers.
“There are other women of their generation who saw what their mothers and aunts went through, and decided that there is nothing better than being a housewife,” said Alice Xin Liu, a Beijing-based writer and translator, whose female relatives were active in the Communist cause in the 1930s. She says her grandmother and aunts were particularly ambitious yet have seen others in their generation encourage their own children to seek domestic comforts.
“The traditional gender values that had never been completely buried by Communist beliefs made a comeback,” said Ms Gao.
This has not gone unnoticed. Over the past few years, young, media-savvy and gender-fluid women have drawn fresh attention to feminism. The most visible among these activists are the “Feminist Five”. In 2015, they were detained for more than a month on charges of disturbing public order after planning to hand out stickers on the Beijing metro to protest against sexual harassment on public transport. The criminal charges were never dropped, and they continue to receive harassment from state security, which they document on social media. Less than a year later, the non-profit Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counselling and Service Centre was shut down.
Women have been more successful in the corporate sphere, where their interests tally with talent-hungry executives. Lean In, a female empowerment movement named after the eponymous book by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, arrived in Beijing in 2013 and has become China’s most popular women’s group, active in more than 20 cities.
Lean In China runs mentoring events and consults with large companies and multinationals to develop female leadership programmes and standards for creating a healthier workplace for women. However, even Lean In China and its peers must be careful to frame their advocacy in a way that is amenable to the authorities.
“We need companies on our side so we are not forcing our message down people’s throats,” said Virginia Tan, the co-founder of China’s first Lean In community. She left her job as a corporate lawyer two years ago to run Lean In China full time. “For us, it is a focus on personal professional development, innovation and investing in female talent, which are all in line with China’s national agenda.”
Lean In China calls itself a “women’s organisation” rather than feminist, a word whose Mandarin-language equivalent has a more radical nuance than in English. Much like corporate empowerment programmes, Lean In China favours the approach of providing resources for women to work on self-improvement.
“Our programme is meant to cultivate the awareness of self and others, identify what’s holding them back from unfolding their full potential, in order to have greater impact and leadership,” said Bianca Yin, the director of ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing’s female leadership programme.
Still, activists attribute the rise of corporate-focused attention on female leadership as a strategic choice to stay away from politics.
“Authorities see mainstream women’s activities as having little to do with policy recommendations, while our work before was concerned with policy implementation,” said Wu Rongrong, one of the Feminist Five activists.
Ms Wu was given a 10-year travel ban in September, preventing her from completing a masters degree in Hong Kong, only to have the ban reversed after an international outcry. With few political allies, activists have become more careful in how they package their activities, using phrases such as “increasing your family’s happiness”, according to one organiser.
Despite the setbacks, these women remain upbeat, bolstered by the belief that they are moving towards greater equality. “One of the reasons we see a government crackdown on feminist activists is because their message is resonating with millions of women,” says Leta Hong Fincher, the author of Leftover Women.
More young women now have the language to embrace a message of gender equality, says Li Yong, the co-ordinator behind Mini Shadowplay Festival, a not-for-profit feminist theatre. “Some say few people attend our events,” says Ms Li. “We are trying to change how others think, and that takes time.”