Case Study: Why is Feminism limited in China?

image: Feng, J, “Hard times for feminists in China”, SupChina, 2017
  A year after the #MeToo movement spread on social media with the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations breaking out in The New York Times, it is fair to say that Feminism has been everywhere in the Western hemisphere lately. However, whilst we regularly hear stories from Europe, North America, the Middle East and South Asia involving women being mistreated, we barely ever mention what is happening in China regarding women’s rights.

  To put things into perspective, there are currently an estimated 3.8 billion women on earth. China, the world’s most populous country, holds approximately 700 million out of those 3.8 billion women. In other words, nearly a woman out of five is from China. This means that one out of five women is underrepresented in medias with very little attention being drawn to them or their rights. Hence, it is essential  to shed a bit of light on a relatively unknown issue and hopefully contribute to spreading awareness on this issue in the near future.

  Today, gender inequalities in China are high to say the least. The reasons for that are mainly cultural and ideological.

Gender inequality has long been an integral part of Chinese culture. Historically, Chinese society is a very patriarchal one, with beliefs such as that a women’s primary job is to look after the household and raise the children. This view is actually quite similar to how the Western view of the traditional family was before it started slowly evolving in the post-World War II era with the rise of Feminist movements. As an example of this patriarchal society that downplays the role of women, the term “Sheng Nu” (剩女) is particularly striking. According to certain polls, up to 9 out of 10 men in China believe that women should be married before they turn 27. This led to unmarried women that are 27 and above being stigmatised as “Sheng Nu” or “left-over women”. What is even more striking is that whilst the use of the expression “Sheng Nu” is becoming more and more frequent in China, only one out of five women is unmarried when reaching the age of 27 against a third of men at the same age. However, whilst there are more “leftover men” than “leftover women”, being a “leftover man”, whilst not seen as a particularly positive, is often justified by the population imbalance left by China’s one-child policy as well as the high cost of getting married. Nonetheless, the discriminatory term “Sheng Nu” can be seen as symbolic of China’s perpetuating patriarchal tradition in 21st Century China.

Whilst culturally speaking, there are similarities between China and the West in terms of how males have had a historical tendency of dominating society, differences in ideology have caused gender inequality in the two areas of the world to take different paths. What makes China a particularly interesting case when looking at the evolution of women’s rights in the world over the last half century is that compared to a majority of areas in the world where women’s rights have increased and a higher attention given towards the subject, it is fair to say that the Chinese government’s advocacy of women’s rights has practically regressed in the mater. Indeed, when Mao Zedong and the communists took over China in 1949, the government decided to enforce a “State-Feminism” and took it very seriously that gender inequality should be reduced and women considered equal to men. But this quickly vanished when Deng Xiaoping opened up the country’s economy to the world in 1979. Surprisingly enough, whilst most countries have seen women employment rates soar in the last decades, China’s trajectory has been the opposite with women employment rate going from 80% to 60% in the last 20 years. Yet, comparing the situation of Chinese women in 1949 and 2018 is no easy task. Yes, it is true that the Maoist regime may have openly advocated for gender equality which is not the case in Xi Jinping’s regime. Nonetheless, Chinese standards of living have increased quite dramatically over the last half century with the country evolving from being a third-world country under Mao to being a rising power today. Therefore, it is important to clarify that Chinese women have overall a much better lifestyle now than they did during the Maoist regime, which had terrible human rights policies and caused the death of approximately 50 million people.

Moreover, when speaking of the influence that the Communist regime (CCP) had over gender inequalities in China, the one-child policy, which was established in 1979 in order to avoid its population reaching staggering heights comes to mind. The one-child policy has drastically reinforced the image that Chinese women are worth less than men as many Chinese couples resorted to selective breeding via means such as abortions and infanticide in order to have a boy rather than a girl. Not only did this lead to a great imbalance, leaving China with 30 million more men than women, it also reinforced the marginalisation of Chinese women in society.

   The mixture between China’s patriarchal culture and some policies enacted by the CCP in the last half-century has left long lasting consequences over its society.

This is most notably the case in the Education sector where still more men get to receive an education than women. A majority of top Chinese universities have admitted to discriminating women’s university applications due to their gender as they believe that men make better university students than women, hence maintaining the education gap in the country between men and women as men are more likely to get a higher education than women and women being discouraged of applying to universities. There is also a great gap that persists in China between urban and rural areas, with women in urban areas more likely to get a decent education than their rural counterpart for both economic and cultural reasons, though men in rural areas are also affected by this rural-urban education gap.

This strong gender inequality regarding education logically translates to inequalities at the workplace. As mentioned previously, women employment rates in China have been constantly on the decline over the last few decades, which is quite peculiar when World Bank statistics show that women employment rates have been on the rise in a majority of countries over the same period of time. Furthermore, women tend to earn less than men with again great differences between urban and rural areas with women earning on average a third less than men in urban areas and half less in rural areas according to a 2016 survey co-led by the National Bureau of Statistics and the All-China’s Women Federation. Finally, up to a quarter of women would see their job application denied due to their gender according to a 2009 survey by Peking University.

Inequalities at the workplace are also very much present in the political sector where women are clearly underrepresented. Sun Chunlan, the head of the party’s United Front Work department, is currently the only women in the Politburo, China’s leadership composed of 13 people. Additionally, there are only 10 women out of the 205 members at the Central Committee. Statistics show that women mostly represent only between 5% and 10% of China’s high political institutions, which confirms that it is harder for them to enter a political career in the first place.

Finally, women have  suffered quite a fair amount health-wise due to China’s one-child policy with 330 million abortions having been performed over the last 40 years according to China’s Health Ministry. Moreover, a quarter of Chinese women (or approximately 175 million women) have declared being victims of abuse and, according to certain statistics, China is the only country in the world where female suicides are more frequent than male suicides, with rural women more likely to commit suicide.

Overall, an important number of Chinese women still suffer of numerous abuses and injustices whether physical or social to this day. However, this could possibly evolve with the rise of Feminist movements across China.

  With an increasing access to internet and social medias coupled with an overall greater  access to higher education than in previous decades, widespread Feminism is on the rise in China.

However, one problem persists for feminists in China: Government censorship. With the Communist Party controlling most of internet in China including popular social medias such as WeChat or Weibo and blocking Western social medias such as Twitter or Facebook, it is hard for Chinese feminists to plan marches or national movements using social medias whilst avoiding censorship. A recent example involves the government banning the use of the “#MeToo” on Chinese social medias to avoid women coming together and marching across China to demand that women get treated equally to men. A famous recent example of how to avoid censorship includes feminists using creative keywords on social medias such as “Mi Tu” (米兔) which translates to “Rice Bunny” but phonetically resembles to “Me Too”.

But it is not the first time that feminism in China has received media attention as the 2015 case of the “Feminist Five” certainly marked the first time that Chinese feminism received widespread global attention. The story originated when five Chinese women, preparing for International Women’s Day, distributed stickers on public transportations denouncing sexual harassments. This resulted into the five women being jailed by the Communist party for over a month with the story gaining international recognition.

With feminism on the rise in China but seriously limited by government censorship, what could be potential solutions to fixing China’s great gender inequality problem? Obviously, the easy solutions would just be to counter any negative aspect that contributed to the widening of the gender gap over the decades such as sensitizing schools to the issue, legislating laws to promote and protect women’s rights or even instituting short-term quotas to bring women into the government. Nonetheless, these solutions are practically applicable to any country and reducing inequalities in China will take a very long amount of time as this issue is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and ideology.

  The main purpose of this article was to sensitize potential readers about persisting gender inequalities in China as the issue is quite rarely addressed in western media. Whilst far from perfect, the situation regarding women’s rights and gender equality has improved tremendously over the last half century in Western countries. However, it is important not to forget that this is not the case for all women across the world and that a great number are still marginalised, hence this is why it is important to research and write on the situation of women in China, but also in other areas of the world where women are despised. Obviously, a small article like this one isn’t long enough to quote all the statistics and facts that show that there are gender inequalities in China, however, it is hopefully enough to give to the reader a quick overview of the situation. It can be said that the future does not look too promising for Women’s rights in China as inequalities are deeply rooted into its culture and causing it to practically widen the gender gap over time. This, of course, is not helped by a government that is not doing much to change the problem and is trying to block any attempt at a feminist uprising that could possibly change the situation of some 700 million women. On a brighter note, despite government censorship, feminism is slowly on the rise in China, with women having greater access to higher education and social medias, therefore becoming more independent and willing to act for higher equality between genders.


Louis is a second year Ba. International Relations student at King’s College London. He is an editor for Sensus as well as manager of its social media.

His particular interests lay in the region of China and South-East Asia. He also writes for the KCL International Relations Today blog as a contributor.


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Image source:

– Feng, J, “Hard times for feminists in China”, SupChina, 2017

Hard times for feminists in China

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