Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in China: The Development and Struggle in Chains of State Feminism
Sarah Biddulph and Joshua Rosenzweig (eds.), Handbook on Human Rights in China, Edward Elgar Publishing 2019, pp. 253-273.
21 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2019 Last revised: 9 Jun 2020
Date Written: October 1, 2018
This chapter examines the key issues of women’s rights and gender equality in China today, looking in particular at healthcare, education, employment, politics and public life, as well as marriage and property rights. A changing balance between two competing approaches emerges from the discussion. The first is state feminism, which emphasizes the primacy of top-down regulation and policy in promoting the rights and interests of women as part of the state’s broader development policy and regulatory agendas. The second is the rights-based approach taken by NGOs and feminists working mostly at the grassroots levels.
State feminism, which incorporates the achievement of equality of the sexes into the authorities’ wider political agenda and underpins a patriarchal protective model of laws and policies, exacerbates gender inequality and harms women’s rights in a traditionally ingrained patriarchal society. Since the mid-1990s, a rights-based feminist movement has gained momentum and challenged the ideology of state feminism by advocating gender equality. However, this movement has faced intense suppression from the Party-state seeking to maintain its control in the sphere of women’s rights as part of its desire to exercise overall control.
This chapter shows that, despite the existence of numerous state programs, women still face systemic discrimination and disadvantage in China. The supremacy of state feminism makes women dependent upon state initiatives for redressing disadvantage and overcoming discrimination. Civil society actors face many difficulties in their attempts to address these problems through rights-based advocacy. Currently, the state allows little space for NGOs and individuals to pursue rights-based feminist advocacy, with many prominent feminists detained and the operations of many women’s NGOs curtailed. In this sense, an observation of the fate of contemporary Chinese feminism also provides a lens through which to understand the relationship and interaction between authoritarian power and counter-power movements in China.
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