China contemplates better laws to promote gender equality, but remains hostile to ‘radical’ feminist campaigns

Society & Culture

New draft laws intended to protect women’s rights at home, in the workplace, and on the internet, have brought good news at the end of a bad year for feminists in China, but the men who run the government really don’t want anyone telling them what to do.

A cartoon from the Global Times makes sure you know that the only people allowed to write laws to protect women in China are, er, men?

Despite a year of setbacks and disappointments for gender equality advocates in China and those who came forward to say #MeToo, some good news finally — finally — appears to be on the horizon for Chinese women: On Monday, a legislative proposal to strengthen China’s laws on women’s rights was submitted to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country’s top legislative body.

The amendment is intended to better safeguard the interests of women in the workplace and society as a whole. The good mood around the laudable initiative, however, was quickly marred by an opinion piece published yesterday by the English edition of nationalist rag the Global Times, which reaffirmed China’s resistance to “radical civil feminist campaigns” and described the #MeToo movement as a “tool” used to foreign forces to “oppose the Chinese system.” 

Without a trace of irony, the Global Times illustrated the screed with a cartoon of a man writing  a law. That newspaper may object to women actually having a mind of their own, but the proposed revisions were created in response to problems to real problems faced by women, “new situations and problems that have surfaced amid economic and social developments in China,” according to the Legal Daily (in Chinese), a publication affiliated with the central government. While the old law has “significantly improved women’s rights and interest in all aspects during its almost three-decade-long implementation,” some issues “remained unsolved,” the publication added.

The suggested amendment to the Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law, which was first passed in 1992 and was modified most recently in 2005, includes revisions to 48 clauses and 24 new additions. The proposal is currently under review by national lawmakers at an ongoing meeting in Beijing, and could become a reality as soon as next year.

The new rules would make it illegal for employers to ask female job applicants about their marital status or child rearing plans, and reject them based on their answers — a discriminatory practice that is repeatedly criticized by offiicals but still surprisingly common at workplaces in China. Women who already have jobs are similarly protected from being fired or having their salaries slashed if they get married, become pregnant, or take maternity leave.

Educational institutions would no longer be allowed to set gender quotas or gender-based admissions requirements. In the realm of home and family, it says that if a woman does the lion’s share of housework and child rearing in her marriage, she has the right to demand financial compensation from her partner in a divorce. In order to address the gender asset gap in the countryside, where families’ longstanding preference for male children often puts daughters at disadvantage when acquisition of rural land is compensated by the government, the proposal says that fair distribution of compensation must be ensured, and that rural women should be treated equally to their brothers no matter what their parent’s wishes are.

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The draft also offers the clearest definition of sexual harassment to date in Chinese law. Built on the foundation laid by China’s first-ever Civil Code, which came into force in January this year and contains an article stating that sexual harassment may occur in both verbal and physical forms, the new amendment further clarifies that any comments with sexual connotations, inappropriate bodily behaviour, sexually explicit images, or suggestions of benefits in exchange for sex towards a woman without her consent constitutes sexual harassment. The new amendment also encourages schools and companies to set up mechanisms to effectively prevent sexual harassment against women and promptly handle such complaints (though legal ramifications for failing to do so are unclear).

Also included in the new proposals are solutions to specific issues faced by Chinese women. For example, in response to the rise of pick-up artists — men who attempt to coax women into having sex with them through a mixture of flattery, psychological manipulation and coercion — one the of newly added clauses says that non-violent behaviors that harm women are  illegal, including using superstitions and “mind-control practices” (精神控制手段) to manipulate women. And in a bid to address the longer lines for women often seen at public restrooms — a subtle form of discrimination against women in society, the draft asks local governments to alter the ratios of men’s to women’s toilets when designing public facilities.

A hopeful end to a depressing year for women?

The proposed changes to the law come at a time when Chinese women are struggling to remain hopeful that a more equitable future is possible as they head into 2022. The despair is particularly palpable among those who follow the #MeToo movement in China closely. Since the it took on wide momentum in China in 2018, a growing number of prominent Chinese men in different walks of life have been forced out of power as more women found the confidence to speak up about being sexual assaulted and abused. But this year, a Beijing court dismissing a high-profile #MeToo lawsuit and the recent saga surrounding Chinese tennis player Péng Shuài 彭帅 have shown the although #MeToo claims have fundamentally changed the public discourse around sexual assault and accountability, the government will not allow the movement to flourish. 

So naturally, the news of the proposed revisions were seen as a glimmer of hope by many internet users. On Weibo, the proposal was met with an outpouring of support. A video (in Chinese) posted by the official account of CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, where several legal experts praise the draft as a major achievement for women’s rights in China, has been viewed more than 12 million times and received thousands of positive comments.