This summer I taught a course on American education policy at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China, with 55 undergraduates, mostly women, who were smart, inquisitive and surprisingly bold. Despite the lack of support for women’s rights in the country, several of them identified as feminists, and many chanced government backlash by writing about wanting more rights in education, marriage and employment in the course’s online discussion board and on social media sites such as Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter.
During my three weeks there, I found that under China’s economic, political and social modernization, the most profound change may be the burgeoning number of feminists. While feminism as a widespread and cohesive political movement has yet to arrive in China, young college women are getting out their messages of gender equality on the Web. For example, last year at the prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University, 17 female students promoted an upcoming performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues by holding up signs that read “My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom” and posted photographs of themselves with the signs on Chinese social media.
In 2013, after the Women’s Legal Research and Service Center revealed widespread gender discrimination in college entrances that left women who scored much higher than men on the gaokao (the all-important national college admissions test) out of the top institutions, some young women shaved their heads in protest and posted their photographs on social media platforms.
Twenty-something college students are also getting offline and staging protests in public areas. This past spring, just before I arrived in China, six topless women stood on a roadside in Guangzhou displaying signs that called for female equality. Similarly, activists occupied men’s toilets in a Guangzhou park to demand more public toilet stalls for women.
It’s not just college women who are risking taking action. Urban pockets of Chinese women are following Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra of “leaning in” or, in the Chinese translation, “taking one step forward.” Following the release of the Chinese version of Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, “lean-in circles” have sprung up in Beijing and other large cities with well-educated, ambitious, striving women. One young woman in my summer course explained how there were a handful of these circles in Xi’an, mostly comprised of students and young professional women. She didn’t think that they were doing anything that would be censored by the government, but one can never be sure, she warned.
All of this is remarkable because gender discrimination seems to be increasing in China since economic reforms began in the late 1970s. Alicia Leung, a researcher on the women’s movement in China, argues that gains made by women in China are limited by the patriarchy. As shown in the 2009 work of Lily Harper Hinton [pdf], then a postgraduate researcher at Victoria University of Wellington, women’s wages in China have lost ground to men’s. Their rights to marital property were reduced in 2011, leaving most of China’s assets in the hands of men. Only two women serve on the Politburo, and the party’s central committee of 200 officials now has less than 5 percent women, a figure lower than during Mao’s reign.
The feminism of Chinese women is also remarkable because being a feminist in China is risky. Women’s rights activists are pressured, harassed and punished by the government, especially if their activism involves collective action, public protests or is seen by the ruling Communist Party as threatening social stability. The Party often shuts down group demonstrations and places strict enforcements on the Internet.
Clearly, isolated protests by college and urban women and growing global recognition of Chinese women’s activists do not necessarily equate to the rise of women’s status in China. Significant improvements in that status will require changes in attitudes that are deeply embedded in the country’s culture and history. But the young women I taught are ready for that challenge. They reason that time and the Internet are in their favor. Because things are changing so quickly in China, and globalization has already placed China in the world’s view, they believe that a large-scale wave of feminism is inevitable in their lifetimes. Of course, they hope it is sooner rather than later.
As the international community remains highly attuned to the economic and political rise of China, we should also watch and cheer for feminists who are pushing against the country’s entrenched gender inequalities and misogynist leanings. And let’s help them by publicly opposing the Chinese government’s restriction of online communications, because that is their lifeline for activism. The students in my upcoming fall courses in Arizona will freely debate issues about social inequities, including gender discrimination, online. Shouldn’t Chinese students have the same right?
Top: Chinese versions of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues have been performed in the country for more than 10 years.
Jill Koyama, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. She is coeditor of U.S. Education in a World of Migration: Implications for Policy and Practice.