As China and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon get set to co-host a U.N. meeting of world leaders on gender equality and women’s empowerment, Hillary Clinton decided to crash the party.
On Sunday, Hillary tweeted:
Xi hosting a meeting on woman’s rights at the UN while persecuting feminists? Shameless.
This came as a surprise to many Chinese, including me. Women’s rights is one of the most important achievements of the communist revolution. Mao has famously pronounced:
Women hold up half the sky.
Since the founding of the PRC, freed of religious ideological baggage, the Chinese Communist Party quickly and successfully integrated women as an important part of modern Chinese society.
According to this 2012 Economic Times Article:
Historically, Chinese women were among the most oppressed in the world. They bore the brunt of child marriage, illiteracy and forced prostitution, among other evils. Mao Zedong changed it all. He famously said women hold up half the sky.
He understood the importance of women in the growth of society. Women in modern China couldn’t be more different than their counterparts of the past. Women were handed equal rights and their emancipation in all aspects of life — political, economic and social— was as rapid as it was epochal. It is thanks to this high regard for women that I don’t mind living in China, despite all the problems associated with language.
China is safe for women. There are no perverts on the road. There is no eve teasing or bullying. For me, that means I can go out at 11 in the night in search of a cake for a friend’s birthday without the company of a male or the comfort of friends. In Beijing, I am usually dropped back by a cab driver who happens to be a woman. I am no longer frightened of the night when I step out.
For these luxuries, I have to thank China’s laws and the authorities who implement them. Committing rape in China may lead to a jail term of up to 10 years. If the crime falls under the “serious circumstances” spelt out in the PRC Criminal Law, the culprit is handed death penalty. More often than not, death sentences are routinely handed out in rape cases. Such cases are publicised by the state media to act as a deterrent.
Besides the high conviction rates in crimes against women, there’s also surveillance. If you are groped or even eve-teased in a public transport in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, all you need to do is call the police hotline. Before you know it, the cops are there at the next stop to arrest the guilty. The law is fast, simple, efficient and decisive.
Even the Economist, which is usually quick to criticize things in China, admit in this 2014 article,
Mao Zedong destroyed China, but he succeeded in raising the status of women. Almost the first legislation enacted by the Communist Party in 1950 was the Marriage Law under which women were given many new rights, including the right to divorce and the right to own property. … [W]omen played an active role in Mao’s China, and still do today. By 2010 26% of urban women had university degrees, double the proportion ten years earlier. Women now regularly outperform men at Chinese universities, which has led to gender-based quotas favouring men in some entrance exams….
Compared with women in most developing countries Chinese women are still doing quite well. Even compared with Korea or Japan, in many areas of society their status and participation are high.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are definitely rooms for improvements for women’s rights in China today.
Before Deng’s reforms, gender equality was prioritized by the state, and women were actively appointed to leadership positions and agricultural collectives throughout all segments of society. After Deng’s reforms, with the country’s transitioning to a social market economic system, the government took a more back row seat to managing many things in society, including, some might argue, women’s rights.
Still, compared to most other developing countries – or even developed countries such as Japan and S. Korea – women are not doing that bad in China. (Rural women do have tough lives – but so do rural men, but that’s another story.) I have many friends from Mainland China, many of them female, who now live in America. But not once have I heard them say that the reason is women’s rights. The reason is usually better economic opportunity or living environment.
The fuss behind Hillary’s rant appears to be the arrest of “five feminists” for a few weeks in April after they had tried to organize a public demonstration on public transportation regarding sexual harassment on buses and a march in a Beijing park where stickers advocating safe sex would be handed out.
The government has explained through articles such as this:
“The arrest was not because they promoted the women’s rights development, but because they have violated Chinese laws,” Li [Junhua, director general of the department of international organizations and conferences at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs] explained, stressing that the whole nation is in full support of protecting women’s rights.
“The government does not oppose to the anti-sexual harassment issue,” said blogger Chen Yaya, an expert with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, on March 29. Chen added that the authorities, however, stood firmly against those in alliance with their foreign counterparts to challenge the leadership of All-China Women’s Federation, a government-related organization to protect women’s rights.
I think people who know China knows that the Chinese government cannot have anything against the public agenda of women rights. The problem is how these supposed “activists” go about promoting the issues … and whose interests these women are really working for.
A brief research reveals that five women activists all were affiliated with a foreign-funded NGO called Yirenping. Throughout their “activist careers,” they have purposely chosen to bypass the existing institutions (such as the All-China Women’s Federation) and to bring about reforms through stunts and antics that in my opinion disturb the public peace (consider another example, in 2012 they had organized a campaign to “occupy” public men’s toilets in an effort to persuade the local government to build more public stalls for women).
This is not about women’s rights, it’s about who has the right to drive change in and decide how change is brought within China.
A few years ago when I was visiting Tibet, I met two families that had pictures of Mao and large Chinese flags in their living room. They told me that the government has done so much for them and their community. When I dug deeper, I found that some of the “help” they got were actually from private NGOs – NGOs that worked in coordination and in complementary fashion with the government.
This is the way it’s supposed to be. The way many Western sponsored NGOs go about doing thing in developing countries is to bypass and disrupt the domestic system. Russia have laws restricting how foreign funded NGOs operate. So does India. China doesn’t yet … and only asks foreign-funded NGOs to observe relevant Chinese laws.
It is for all the above reasons that I think Hillary’s tweet this last weekend is so vulgar. It’s selfishly opportunistic. It trivializes women’s rights.
Over the years, China has worked hard to elevate the status of women domestically and has long contributed money as well as resources to the U.N. to advocate for women’s cause. What has Clinton herself done?
Being female and selfishly focused on personal success does not per se make one a women’s right champion…
Perhaps it is election season. But that really ought to say more about the decrepit state of American democracy … than alleged wretched state of women in China.