I have never felt the need to call myself a feminist, no matter how often my late-developed gender awareness tells me I ought to be one. In my primary school in China in the mid-1980s, the most ferocious person in class was a girl. She used to carry a tree branch to beat boys with and absolutely no one dared to offend her. Our desks were designed for two, usually a girl and a boy; the better student was supposed to help their neighbour. We drew a line (called the ‘38th parallel’ after the line separating North and South Korea) down the middle of the desk and neither side was allowed to cross the border. I had a compass with one needle leg as a weapon, ready to attack the boy when his elbow strayed into my territory. One day his mother found some blood on his sleeve when she was washing his clothes and asked him what had happened. He told her that he had had a minor nosebleed: it was too shameful to admit that he was being bullied by a girl (male pride prevented him from retaliating). Poor boy. After the bloodshed I stopped using the compass and adopted a softer tactic: pinching.
Academically, girls weren’t, and aren’t, in any way inferior to boys. The Chinese education system favours cramming, and girls are more focused and better behaved than boys, at least at certain ages. For us, the one-child generation, the gender ratio in school was about fifty-fifty, and girls’ academic scores varied from the middle to the upper range; very often they came top. In 1999, Chinese universities expanded enrolment by 48 per cent (1.6 million freshmen compared to 1.1 million in 1998), and it’s no surprise that more girls than boys have been getting into university ever since. In 2018, the proportion of female college students is 52 per cent. Women are on the whole more qualified than men in the job market. In fact any HR expert from the big Chinese firms will tell you – in private – that it’s difficult to find qualified men. So they have to improvise, which means lowering the standard of recruitment to get the gender balance they require. Some feminists see this manoeuvring as systematic discrimination against women, but if they look more closely they are liable to find that the story doesn’t fit their narrative of oppression.
Many of today’s successful Chinese startups were founded by women in their thirties, and I’ve seen companies with all-female staff. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, who has access to the data of the billion or so Chinese consumers on the Taobao and Alipay platforms, says that ‘women are the economy, today and in the future.’ One recent report suggests that 79 per cent of technology firms in China have at least one female executive; in the US the figure is 54 per cent and in the UK 53 per cent. According to Bloomberg, ‘women launch more than half of all new internet companies in China.’ It’s hard to imagine that men could conspire to stop the rise of women in the Chinese economy. The younger the age group, the less the gender distinction seems to matter. When it comes to millennials, you see hardly any signs at all of male dominance. Male pop idols are styled as ‘little fresh meat’ (the unisex look), partly to appeal to the ‘female gaze’, but maybe unconsciously they want to look feminine – girls are better and cooler in school after all. Under the one-child policy, many mothers who wanted a girl but had a boy would dress the baby boy like a girl to make themselves feel better. Young men demand the right to wear make-up without being shamed. It’s not that they’re seeking an artsy androgynous ideal, nor are they gay men who want to look dramatically feminine: many are heterosexual men who want to enjoy the flawless look and glowing skin associated with femininity; sometimes they like to cross-dress too. The change of aesthetics is a clear sign of a disembedding from patriarchal society. It seems that no one is looking for a macho father figure to tell them what to do.
We should, of course, keep in mind that the cities and the countryside are like different planets. Rural life is still dominated by the patriarchy, untouched by modernity. Women are expected to fulfil their duty as wives and mothers, otherwise they are viewed as flawed goods and cast away; it is unthinkable for women to initiate divorce proceedings. Husbands beat wives for no reason. Many women go to cities to be cleaners, care workers or housekeepers and don’t want to go back to their villages. My housekeeper has a lazy husband and a jobless, videogame-addict son in the countryside, and to feed them she has to work for several families, seven days a week. I asked why she doesn’t get divorced and save up some money for herself; she said that if she did she would lose her purpose in life.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that China’s top leadership are all male, which could easily lead to accusations of misogyny in politics. But I think it’s more of a generational than a gender issue. The seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee are of my parents’ generation, and came of age at a time when, thanks to the Cultural Revolution, higher education was unattainable for many. In ten or fifteen years’ time, when the one-child generation ascends to power, the leadership of China is likely to reflect the gender balance of my university cohort. Education matters here. The present party leadership has no particular reason at the moment to object to female power. President Xi Jinping himself has had to learn to live with it: when he worked as a provincial official his wife was a superstar singer and a household name, and their only child is a daughter. Yet in her new book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening, Leta Hong Fincher claims that the subordination of women is fundamental to the Communist Party’s dictatorship and the ‘stability’ of the system.[*] Xi, she maintains, sees patriarchal authoritarianism as critical to the survival of the party. But she doesn’t pay enough attention to the Chinese bureaucratic system, in which rank counts much more than gender. Male officials have no problem following a woman’s lead if she has a higher rank. One of the strengths of the party is its ability to welcome talent from all quarters. Jiang Qing was the leader of the Gang of Four and there were plenty of female zealots in the Cultural Revolution.
A large part of Fincher’s book tells the stories of five young Chinese feminists – Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong and Wang Man, the ‘Feminist Five’ – who were arrested in 2015 for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ after planning a demonstration against sexual harassment on public transport. They were released on bail a month later after the domestic outcry and a show of interest from Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power. In Fincher’s view, this ‘popular, broad-based movement poses the greatest threat to China’s authoritarian regime today’. If only … The reality is that with ever-tightening censorship, feminists are among the few who are still allowed to voice non-official opinions online. But this doesn’t mean that those in authority have any sympathy for their cause: they are tolerated because their influence is limited and they pose no threat to the regime. Political dissidents, human rights activists, liberal media influencers on Weibo were all shut down a long time ago. The absence of other kinds of critical discourse has amplified the feminists’ voices and led to a certain degree of ‘survivor bias’. For the authorities, it is organised protest (whatever its form) that provokes alarm, not feminism in particular.
This is not to say that things are easy for feminists in China. There is no lack of news about the crackdown on feminists’ activities; but compared to the human rights lawyers and political dissidents, feminists are handled rather gently by the authorities. Xiao Meili, a close friend of the Feminist Five in Guangzhou, gave an account on Weibo of a visit by National Security officers in 2017:
National Security officer: The political tasks in the second half of this year will be really, really heavy [the then upcoming 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China] … You girls are too famous. Could you please co-operate and move to the lake area [far from the city centre]. Have you ever been there? The scenery is very beautiful.
Xiao Meili: Why don’t you move there then?
NS: I have to go to the office every day.
Xiao Meili: We really don’t want to move. This is too much trouble.
NS: We’ll help you find the apartment and relocate, and pay for your first month’s rent.
Xiao Meili: You should cover the agent fee and all the rent …
NS: If it was up to me, you girls could remain in Guangzhou. No problem. But it’s not up to me any more; we’re just passing on the directive from above. You girls are too famous now, and you should know what happens to fat pigs … When you move, don’t forget to mention on Weibo that you are being forced to move away from Guangzhou city centre. You have to say it loud and clear, so my boss knows that I’m doing my job.
Xiao Meili says that NS officers also harassed her landlord and her friends’ landlord to push them to move to the suburbs.
Hung Huang (some people call her the ‘Chinese Oprah’ but I think she’s more of a Tina Brown) once said that gender equality was handed to us overnight by the Communist Party at the end of the Civil War in 1949, and because Chinese women didn’t have to fight for it we don’t cherish it as much as Western feminists, who fought for voting rights, equal opportunity, equal pay and so on. In China, few universities have courses on feminist theory, and even fewer students study the history of feminism.
My lack of interest in organised feminism is partly due to the inability of the various factions to agree on anything. They can’t agree on how to treat men (hate them or ignore them or pity them), or what to wear (frock or trousers), or whether to wear make-up (is it to please men or ourselves?), or sex, or marriage, or childbearing (artificial insemination and surrogacy are highly divisive topics), or how to divide property when you get divorced, or how to react to harassment or rape, or even how to define harassment. After a while, I just want to get away from the noise and work out the answers for myself.
If any institution has fundamentally worked against women in China, it is marriage. The traditional Chinese marriage not only confined women to the role of housewife (serving the elders, serving the husband and raising the child): it also put immense pressure on men, who are expected to be the main, if not the sole, providers, responsible for the whole family. In big cities, the cost of a mortgage alone kills many men’s hope of marriage. And on top of that, he is not marrying one individual: he’s marrying the whole family.
The marriage market in China is a horror show. The short window for a woman to find a husband is between 22 (fresh out of college) and 27 – after that you become a ‘leftover lady’, meaning you’re too old for an ‘ideal match’. Before 18, any form of puppy love is strictly forbidden, by the school and the parents. For men, the criterion isn’t age: it’s wealth.
At weekends public parks in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai function as matchmaking venues. Anxious parents put out advertisements for their single children – printed on sheets of paper or hung on boards – noting their age, appearance, height, salary and skills, while scouting around for suitable matches. Men should be equipped with a house or an apartment, a solid job and a decent salary; women should be young, good-looking, healthy, have a sweet/gentle/nice character, and some education but not too much (a BA would be adequate; an MA a bit too much; a PhD absolutely intimidating). Some signs of the Zodiac – both Western and Chinese – aren’t welcomed, such as Virgos, or those born in the Year of the Goat (Dragon, Tiger, Horse are the most popular among the 12 animals). In 2016, Ian McKellen went to the People’s Park in downtown Shanghai, holding a piece of paper: 5'11", 77 years old, Cambridge University, house in London, still active. His fans loved it, and it was very funny.
Not that funny is the experience of Guo Yingguang, a 34-year-old photographer, who decided to document the humiliation she experienced in the same park. Guo is beautiful, a graduate of the University of the Arts in London, and she began her search for a husband confidently. Before long she had to stop, almost in tears. The first thing every parent asked her was her age, then, mocking her bravery, said: ‘You are too old.’ ‘Here men are shoppers,’ one man told her, ‘with enough money, they can buy a house. Women are like the houses. Look at you, not bad looking, never married, would like a proper house. But you are too old, which means the location of the house is not ideal, too far away from the city.’ Many men don’t have it easy either. If you aren’t local Beijingese, and have no decent property within a certain distance from the city centre or, even worse, if you are one of the unlucky, Virgo or Goat, all you get is rolling eyes. Parents say ‘love won’t feed you.’ They’re right: marriage is never about love.
Again, the generation gap plays a large role here. Most parents go to the park behind their children’s backs, and most children would be furious or disgusted if they found out that their parents were peddling and bargaining their future. On the other hand, I know quite a few men and women who still live with their parents and didn’t get married because their parents sabotaged every opportunity: no one was good enough. The parents not only press the children to get married, they also want their children to catch the biggest fish in the pond.
A freak industry has burgeoned to exploit women’s anxieties about getting married. A few years ago a woman calling herself Ayawawa launched a successful business teaching inexperienced women how to get a good husband, and then how to manipulate him into staying in the marriage. What she preaches is nothing new: Stepford wives training, more or less. If your husband leaves you, Ayawawa says, it must be because you didn’t try hard enough. Of course a woman can land a husband by being a pretty robot, and doing the man’s bidding in everything, but there’s always the danger of being replaced by some advanced AI sex-bot one day soon – when the real Stepford wives become available, who will want a feeble human copy? Ayawawa had more than three million followers on Weibo, and her influence offended the party media. After several official outlets denounced her preaching earlier this year as ‘poisonous chicken soup’ that promoted inequality and enslaved Chinese women, she was shut down by Weibo, and netizens gloated.
Marriage as an institution will not last for ever. Not in China at least. Numerous economic factors undermine the status of marriage. In the 1990s, at a time when most people struggled to buy property, well-funded state enterprises such as TV stations would give apartments to newly-wed employees. People were getting married just for the apartment. Now, after almost thirty years of rising real estate prices, if the Shanghai government were to issue a new regulation taxing couples who wanted to buy a second property there would be lines of couples filing for divorce at the Civil Affairs Bureau the next day, so that the couple could each own a property without paying any more tax. They might get back together, or not.
Baby talk has become hot in China. When the one-child policy was officially replaced by a two-child policy in 2016 – the Population and Family Planning Law in China now grants married couples the right to have up to two children – the official number of births grew by less than anticipated (an extra 1.3 million, to 17.9 million, against 16.6 million in 2015); in 2017 the number dropped (to 17.2 million). If a single woman is pregnant and decides to have the baby, she may face a considerable fine, and the sum varies in different regions. She may have difficulty registering the baby in the hukou (household registration) system, which is tied to education and social security provision. Allowing single women to have children by law would mean a complete change of the hukou system, which plays a key part in controlling migratory movement within China. The government worries about the ‘ageing society’ and ‘the disappearance of the demographic dividend’. It keeps saying that China needs more labour, even though machines are likely to take over most labour-intensive work in the near future. What do we need more labour for? If the ageing society is so imminent and so threatening, maybe it’s time to allow single women to have babies without fear of punishment.
Instead of giving back people’s right to make their own reproductive choices, the state media have been testing public reaction to a series of proposals: a tax on childless couples of prime childbearing age; a tax on single people; setting up a childbirth fund, deducting a portion of household income from every family (the money could only be withdrawn from the fund when the couple has a second baby). Although the latter was ridiculed by netizens – and the authorities denied it had ever been a plan – taxation of childless couples and single people seems to be already on the way.
Punishment won’t get more babies from Chinese women. I’m not sure even Scandinavian-style policies on childcare and parental benefits would boost the birth rate. After more than thirty years of the one-child policy, urban women are used to having the same professional opportunities as men, and have proved equal to men in all areas. It’s not likely that these women would willingly give up their careers and become housewives again. There’s a joke about childrearing:
Raising a child is like launching a satellite. You spend a dozen years making sure every step is right. When the child finally gets into university, your launch is deemed a success. Then the satellite disappears into outer space, and from time to time you receive the same weak signals – ‘send me some money for this’, ‘send me some money for that’ – so you send the money to ‘the satellite’, tell him or her to eat well and dress warmly. The satellite sends back a few more weak signals: ‘stop nagging … stop nagging.’ When the signals stabilise, you have to start saving to build a space station for ‘the satellite’. What a rip-off and the government is calling for us to launch another?
Given the escalating trade war with the US, soaring living costs and gloomy economic prospects, many people are downgrading their consumption, thinking twice about marriage and kids. Posterity is all about prosperity.
MeToo, like so many hot topics in China, is likely to be ephemeral: comes fast, dies fast. When it hit the country this year the movement focused for a while on universities, NGOs and journalists before the discussion was shut down by the online censors. Every day a few new stories broke, then the old conversation resumed. Every day some predators were justly punished, but more got away. Every day stories burned out and were forgotten.
Here too, the generational gap is evident. Before the 1980s, most marriages were set up by the family elders, making freedom of choice precious for people who didn’t have a chance to enjoy it. For the MeToo generation, at least in cities, lack of freedom is never a problem: unwanted attention and abuse of power is the problem. Yet the older generation can’t understand why younger people are giving up ‘the right to be a slut’: ‘Do you want to go back to the time when holding hands in public was a criminal offence?’ They deplore prudishness as a retrograde step in the march of sexual liberation.
Another group of people think MeToo has gone too far and that accusations of sexual harassment or assault should be judged in the courts. Since the Chinese police usually turn their backs on such reports (they would rather spend time talking to individuals who are selling or buying the ‘wrong’ kind of books), I’d say public shaming of sexual predators is quite a suitable way to warn off potential victims. But public shaming doesn’t always do the trick. In 2012 a celebrated middle-school physics teacher, Zhang Datong, was accused on Weibo of molestation by a former student now living in the US. Afterwards many men who had similar experiences came forward, indicating a history of harassment, which led to Zhang’s dismissal. In China there is no law prohibiting sexual predators from working in the same field as before, and Zhang is now one of the most sought-after private physics tutors in Shanghai. Anxious parents worry more about kids not passing exams than being molested.
Maybe every high school has somebody like Hector in The History Boys, loved by the students despite his wandering hands. Most of the time young girls and boys just joke about this sort of thing behind closed doors, even pitying the poor old bugger. We thought of it as part of growing up, preparing you for the real world. One of the bestselling novels in the 1980s and 1990s was Chiung Yao’s Outside the Window, which romanticised a high school student’s affair with her teacher. In those times, the idea of dating a much older man, even your teacher, didn’t seem so repellent. But now technological advances have made the generational gap even larger as the older generation’s experience has come to seem increasingly irrelevant to young people.
Some people dismiss MeToo for being petty and for diverting attention away from more pressing scandals – such as the mass-produced fake vaccines that endanger lives. There is also a far-fetched conspiracy theory suggesting that MeToo has secretly been pushed by the government in order to undermine the reputation of liberal dissidents, many of whom have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past months. The censors, perhaps with a degree of schadenfreude, did allow the MeToo conversation to continue for much longer than might be expected. Many netizens spotted the irony: ‘Those free speech-loving liberals never wanted the censor to shut something down so badly.’
What the MeToo movement really provides in China is an opportunity for a paradigm shift, as well as greater awareness of abuses of power. Men now complain about not knowing what women want; when is it proper to hold hands, to kiss, to have sex, without risking an accusation? Perhaps it’s time for women to take the lead. If women could take the initiative, would there be less confusion and misunderstanding? Would both sides be happier, and the game more fair?
I always enjoy watching a Shanghainese colleague giving marital tips to young people. ‘Before marriage,’ she says, ‘you lovebirds won’t even think about the unromantic housework arrangement. After you get married, it will come naturally. Just remember, don’t be the first one to clean up. Let the plates pile up in the sink, let the dirt accumulate on the floor, let the clothes stink, just hold your position. Because usually the one who yields first will clean up for the rest of his/her marital life.’ We all laugh, and it sounds perfectly fair.
[*] Verso, 240 pp., £16.99, September, 978 1 78663 364 4.