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women and power: China

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Members of the ‘feminist five’ take part in a 2012 protest against domestic violence in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Media Monitor for Women Network.

Jacinta: We missed the boat with International Women’s Day, 10 days ago as we start this post, because of some unfortunate personal events, but of course any time is a good time to write about women and power. I’ve marked the day in a little way by reading a book, Betraying Big Brother, by Leta Hong Fincher, about the uphill struggle feminists face in both defying and positively influencing the increasingly repressive macho dictatorship/oligarchy in China. So I want to talk about events there, and then maybe we can go on to talk about the global picture.

Canto: Yes, am I right in saying there’s never been a woman on the politburo?

Jacinta: Well I won’t go into the details of China’s political system here, but if you’re talking about the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which currently has seven members (the numbers have ranged from five to eleven), you’re right. The Politburo itself is a larger body, but female representation there and in the Communist Party is depressingly small – and it gets worse the further up the tree you climb. But I want to talk about the regular harassment of feminist activists, who by western standards are by no means extreme, and what it says about China’s all-male leaders and their weird attitudes. Betraying Big Brother tells a depressing but also inspiring story which centres around the arrest of five women as a result of events commemorating International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2015. The story gives us a glimpse into the power elite’s obsessions as well as how it tries to maintain power and why.

Canto: I think you mean ‘succeeds in maintaining power’. The ‘power elite’ as you call it seems to have, for the time being, forced down any threat of democratisation, and to have managed a lot of modernisation and a great deal of capitalist enterprise while actually tightening its stranglehold on power.

Jacinta: Well yes, but I try to be optimistic and to look to the long term. The Chinese diaspora, from which Betraying Big Brother springs, is one source of hope for the future. The five arrested women, Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan and Wang Man, were planning to hand out material protesting sexual harassment – on public transport – as part of IWD. They chose this issue – such harassment is apparently a real problem in China – precisely because it seemed less controversial than other issues confronting women. Nevertheless they were arrested – three in Beijing and in two other cities – for ‘creating a disturbance’.

Canto: The same term used by the Israeli government whenever any protests occur about the mistreatment of Palestinians.

Jacinta: However, the timing of these arrests, coinciding with IWD and with ‘preparations for Chinese president Xi Jinping to cohost a UN summit on women’s rights in New York to mark the 20th anniversary of Beijing’s World Conference on Women’*, couldn’t have been worse for the Chinese government. There was an international outcry, suffused with mockery, and we know how macho thugs hate being mocked.

Canto: Even more than they hate being told what to do? By women?

Jacinta: Well they released the women within a month, make of that what you will. It was probably due to international pressure. Saving face. But what I learned most from this story was how the Chinese dictatorship harasses its subjects in subtle and not so subtle ways. These women and many of their associates are now under constant surveillance, and receive regular visits from party sycophants checking their activities. These thugs harass the feminists’ parents, scolding them for not controlling their ‘little girls’. They harass their employers, their teachers, their associates. They insist that they’re the dupes of ‘hostile foreign forces’, a favourite and very telling phrase, worthy of an entire separate post. And yet this clamp-down has backfired, to an extent. The feminist five were unknown before their arrest, now they’re the Famous Five – but only in a small way, and more overseas than in China itself, due to their government’s overwhelming control of social and other media.

Canto: So why is the Chinese government so afraid of feminism? I get that it’s an all-male government, but women’s education is well supported there, and the Chinese women I’ve met – granted that they’re outside of China – seem pretty strong-minded and outspoken, if just as politically naive as their male counterparts (granted that I meet mostly young students). You’d think the government would have other priorities, and if there’s a real problem with sexual harassment, shouldn’t they support these women for highlighting the problem?

Jacinta: The Chinese leadership is obsessed with total control – they’ve sold their soul for it. At the moment, apparently, they’re trying to turn women into breeders. The one-child policy, their once-proud piece of social engineering, is currently seen as disastrous, so they’ve switched to a two-child policy, but women aren’t buying into it. So maybe that’s why there’s a bit of a war on women at present.

Canto: So if ‘sexual harassment’ leads to more women getting pregnant that’s a good thing? Yuk!

Jacinta: Well I don’t think it’s quite that crass, but they hate the idea of any decision coming from below rather than above. So they crush any ‘dissent’, take note of the complaint, and then act on it months or years later if they feel it’s in their interest. For example, last year they enacted a domestic violence law for the first time, and I’d like to think that feminist pressure, no doubt thoroughly suppressed over the years, has influenced that decision.

Canto: Not to mention hostile foreign forces, haha.

Jacinta: But they haven’t actually criminalised DV. It’s treated as a civil offence. Nor do they have any law criminalising marital rape – one of only ten countries in that category. And rape can lead to pregnancy, after all.

Canto: Why are they so obsessed with engineering the nation’s population? Imagine an Australian, or any other western government trying to do that. They’d be instantly ousted.

Jacinta: Maybe, but clearly this kind of social engineering has become more acceptable to the Chinese. Of course they’ve created different rules for the Han Chinese than for the Uyghur of north-west China and other minorities, a not-too subtle form of discrimination. There have been rumours, though, that the government plans to give up on child-control policies. That would be a good thing. Governments need to just deal with the decisions of their citizens. Currently, women are being forced to retire early (in China). This would force them into dependence on their husbands, if they have one. It just doesn’t accord with the fact that women there are more highly educated than ever before, and form an increasing percentage of the workforce. The Chinese are producing more and more of a particular resource – female competence, skill and know-how – and refusing to utilise it effectively. Then again, that doesn’t make China very much different from other countries…

Canto: But getting back to that one child/two child policy stuff, which really intrigues me – they’re trying to get their economy right for the future. Ageing population is bad, that’s the mantra. And yet, modern economies are changing. It’s more brain than brawn nowadays, more geared, arguably, to an older, more experienced and knowledgable population. And people in retirement don’t all sit and watch TV. They’re active members of the community, active within families, they spend money on travel and so forth.

Jacinta: Yes, but this sign that they might give up on social control in one area, the production of children, is a positive. They might recognise that trying to control other things like workforce participation might backfire on them. They don’t want to be blamed for things going wrong. In Australia, it’s not about forced retirement, but availability of the pension – it might be like that for China too. And that has been complicated by the rise of superannuation.

Canto: In any case, I don’t see any great changes, in a more liberal direction, as long as their current dictator holds the reins. And with the government’s firm control over social media, demonstrations like the one pictured above will continue to be sad, solitary affairs.

Jacinta: But they’ll continue to be staged, there will still be brave, self-sacrificing women, and they’ll continue to be supported, in China and overseas, in all sorts of hidden and not so hidden ways. They have right on their side after all.


Written by stewart henderson

March 24, 2019 at 9:54 am