Despite the Gains for Women in China, Conflicting Demands in the Traditional Society Remain

From the #MeToo movement and body positivity trends, to the pursuit of equal pay and the increasing number of women in prominent leadership positions, we’re seeing the results of equal rights movements from societies around the world. Women in China have been taking control of their life and are making their own decisions and choices for a while and this is thanks to gender equality in China is committed by the government.

China has committed to upholding the rights of women, with President Xi Jinping doubling down on this statement on the 25th anniversary of Beijing’s World Conference on Women in 2020.

However, recent events and movements have taken some by surprise and many are wary of the potential changes and challenges this awakening may bring to a conservative and traditional society.

Female role models are becoming more diverse 

Chinese female students wearing graduation gowns and caps
gender equality in China
Photo by Stephanie Hau on Unsplash

Current pop culture is reflecting the changing norms, with TV shows featuring more women who are single, single mothers, divorced, and women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, playing roles that aren’t just presented as passive and demure or only in relation to men or children. China has also been mirroring global trends in terms of education, with a lot more women participating in tertiary education. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics show that in 2018, the number of female graduate students in higher education was 1.36 million, accounting for 49.6% of all graduate students, and an increase of 1.8 percentage points compared with 2010. 

Women in China are not discouraged from seeking powerful positions or from making money, either. In 2018, women accounted for 43.7% of the workforce and two-thirds of the world’s self-made female billionaires are from China

Women in China also have more involvement when it comes to politics as the number of female representatives in the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) are currently at historical highs. Women made up 24.9% of national legislators at the 13th NPC and 20.4% of members of the 13th National Committee of the CPPCC.

A new wave of pride: Netizens are speaking up about female empowerment

Body positivity conversations in China are stronger than ever. People are welcoming a wider range of looks into the beauty standard spectrum and are becoming increasingly aware of issues related to body-shaming. In 2020, famous actress Gong Li, was photographed sporting a slightly curvier figure than what she was known for and there were plenty of nasty comments about her appearance on Weibo. The online trolls were slammed for being mean and having poor priorities, with many encouraging others to accept and love their bodies as they are and focus more on their health.

The pursuit of female representation is also apparent in the increasing number of children who are given their mother’s family name at birth, defying deeply entrenched traditions in the country. In 2019, 8.8% of newborns in Shanghai were given their mother’s last name and 2.5% had compound surnames. 

Female voices are driving change in business

One thing is certain, women in China are becoming increasingly conscious and vocal about inequality issues. The move toward more empowerment can also be seen in what’s called “The Sheconomy”. Women in China have increased spending power, both for themselves and the household. 42.7% of Chinese women in top-tier cities are willing to buy homes on their own instead of waiting until they are married or have children.

Gamers in China are also unique in that they have the largest national cohort of video game players in the world. About 290 million of them are women and girls. This has a strong influence on the kinds of games that are being developed in the industry; such as dating simulator games and palace intrigue games that revolve around plots, puzzles, and building up relationships with the characters. Many of the games are developed by all-female teams and women who compete at high-level esports.

However, conflicting expectations for women remain

With all the gains that have been made, there’s still much room for improvement and expectations of women can still be highly contradictory. China’s recent three-child policy is a prime example of this. 

It’s a big mindset shift for those who grew up under the one- and two-child policies. In much of the country, especially in top tier cities, having only one child and pouring the family’s attention and resources into them to give them the best chances of success has been the standard for a very long time.

Because of this standard, most women in China envisioned themselves as mothers to one child that they and their families can devote themselves to. Many, having seen the benefits of this approach in their own lives, won’t want to stray from this path regardless of what policies or incentives are introduced.

This competitive, helicopter parenting style, especially fine-tuned in a country with a very intense college entrance exam system like the gaokao, is difficult to repeat for multiple children and most prospective parents aren’t particularly excited at the idea of doubling or tripling this level of effort. Other women, who may have found this parenting approach too highly pressured or knowing that a substantial portion of the work, not only raising children but also looking after two sets of ageing parents, will fall on their shoulders, want to forego having children altogether.

Although there has been strong pushback from citizens and authorities, companies continue to discriminate against mothers or those who plan to become mothers. Pop Mart was the company most recently under scrutiny when a photo was shared online of a pre-interview questionnaire that included questions indicated for women only. Questions such as “Do you have plans to become pregnant in the near future?” and “If so, how soon?” were in the questionnaire.

On top of all this, the high costs of raising children, uncertainties brought about by COVID-19, and a worsening 996 working culture means that many people feel that raising one child is already beyond their means, never mind two or three. 

Conclusion: Far from perfect, but at least one step closer

So although factors like the three-child policy seem like a pushback when it comes to female empowerment in China, it is important to remember the great strides China has taken when it comes to women’s roles in China’s society. Two steps forward and one step back is still one step forward, after all.

Women will continue to find ways to make their voices heard and China will move toward greater gender equality and will continue to make progress in terms of taking the plight of women into account in all areas of life. As the push for new norms in terms of women’s roles and recognition continues, it is exciting to see what lies ahead. After all, this is a women-centred century and there is hope for a better place in terms of acknowledging and empowering women.

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