International Women’s Day 2015 should have been a positive occasion in China. The day is a big deal in the country; women are awarded time off work and given gifts by their employers. This year also marks 20 years since 189 countries adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a roadmap for women’s rights and empowerment. And in the lead-up to the day, a Chinese official hinted at the country’s first domestic violence law becoming a reality in August.
But events quickly took an ugly turn: on Friday 6 March the Chinese government detained a number of high-profile feminist activists. Demonstrations were cancelled. Debate was effectively silenced. Several weeks later five of the women are still in custody. Two have been denied treatment for serious medical conditions.
Superficially at least, these incidents represent a major blow to China’s feminist movement, which desperately relies on a small, but increasingly vocal cohort.
Chinese women suffer from a catalogue of discrimination in the workforce, in the home, and in most other aspects of their lives. Clear indication of the need for change came in 2013, when China only managed to reach position 91 out of the 187 countries listed in the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index (Iran came ahead at 75).
The injustices Chinese women face largely go unchallenged. The upper echelons of the Communist Party, where policy is made, is a man’s affair. Only two women belong to the current 25-member politburo, and none made it through to the seven member politburo standing committee.
The government plays an active role in skewing gender relations, as is demonstrated through the emergence of the idea of “leftover women”. The term first entered common parlance around 2007, when newspapers became filled with cautionary tales of unmarried women over the age of 27. Its roots can be traced back to the Chinese government, as Leta Hong Fincher explained in her groundbreaking book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. It has had a very negative impact on women’s property and employment rights.
It is the Communist Party’s ability to control conversations that makes the feminist struggle particularly pronounced in China. Civil society is tightly controlled. Certain groups do exist to campaign for female rights, but they are limited in size and reach.
In spite of these barriers, Chinese women have in recent years shown amazing strength to stand up to injustice. Activists have paraded around in blood coated wedding dresses, occupied men’s toilets, shaved their heads to raise awareness — to name just a few examples.
Some of these measures have proven highly effective. Cao Ju, a 21-year old university graduate, raised the profile of workforce quotas when she successfully sued a company that did not employ her on the grounds of her sex. Meanwhile, Kim Lee, who was abused for years by her famous husband Li Yang, shed a spotlight on how prolific domestic abuse is in China when she uploaded photos of her bloody face to microblogging platform Weibo.
For these reasons, the detentions are incredibly significant. Chinese women can’t rely on the government to come to their aid. But when it does the exact opposite, and actually arrests them, the situation gets a whole lot worse. China’s current leader Xi Jinping has intensified a crackdown on dissent. While they have not had an easy ride, feminist activists had until this month largely been spared. These arrests send out a warning to anyone who might follow suit and are a blatant attempt to squash the country’s nascent feminist movement.
On the other hand, some prominent commentators have argued that the detentions will instead cement the feminist movement in China. In a conversation published by ChinaFile, Leta Hong Fincher argues it could be “the spark” needed, while writer Eric Fish says the government “risks planting seeds that could sprout into even greater opposition later”. Sixteen activists have already gone to a Beijing detention centre where one of the women, Wu Rongrong, is being held to demand she be given medical treatment. A petition is also calling for the release of the activists.
China watchers wait with bated breathe to see how the story will unfold, pinning their hopes on a positive outcome. After all, China desperately needs figures such as these. Without them, no one is fighting in the corner of Chinese feminism.