CCP Gestures Towards Women’s Rights to Sweeten Pro-natalist Shift

A shifting tide of demographic policies has brought renewed attention to the status of women’s rights in China. Given the historic plunge in the national birth rate and widespread public skepticism toward the three-child policy, the Chinese Communist Party finds itself in the position of needing to boost the birth rate in order to avoid a potential future tsunami of social instability, but its success depends on persuading women to get on board with the government’s new pro-natalist agenda. Recent demographic policies have used a combination of carrots and sticks, revealing the CCP’s dilemma: how much autonomy to grant women in its quest for long-term stability. 

So far, there appear to be more sticks than carrots. New policies regarding contraception have prioritized fertility over women’s reproductive rights. Guidelines released by the State Council late last year called on local governments to reduce abortions conducted for “non-medical purposes,” without defining what constitutes a non-medical purpose. In January, China’s Family-Planning Association followed up on the guidelines by outlining a “campaign of intervention” to reduce unplanned pregnancies and abortions among adolescents and unmarried women. Liyan Qi from The Wall Street Journal reported on the announcement of the new plan:

The plan stressed it was important to “reshape the parenting culture of multichild families.”

[…] Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that while it is unclear how the goal to reduce abortions will be implemented, “given the government’s history of restricting women’s reproductive rights through abusive—and sometimes violent—means, this is certainly a cause for concern.”

[…] It was unclear from the family-planning association’s plan what alternatives to abortion would be available to unmarried women who become pregnant.

[…] Wang Pei’an, a former top official in China’s family-planning bureaucracy, which was created to enforce birth restrictions, is now the top Communist Party official at the Family-Planning Association. Mr. Wang is urging young people to be more responsible and have children. [Source]

Women have raised doubts about these plans. “To be honest, I don’t think that women’s rights are one of [the government’s] targets. But the birthrate is something they’re really worried about,” Chinese feminist Xiong Jing told the Guardian. “What will they sacrifice if they can’t achieve it all? Maybe it’s women’s rights.” Last year, in response to a state media hashtag that read #Eliminate Backward Concepts Like “Men Are Superior To Women” and “Beget Male Heirs To Carry On The Ancestral Lineage”#, one netizen commented, “As soon as they want access to your uterus, they start sweet-talking you. Bear in mind that the divorce ‘cooling-off period’ started not so long ago!” 

Lu Jun, co-founder of the influential health-focused human rights NGO Yirenping, expressed his concern to Radio Free Asia about what these measures will look like on the ground: “There will definitely be a lot of arbitrary implementation in governments at all levels, and across the country, including abuses of power. There will be targets and quotas set for abortions prevented.” 

Implementation is already altering the health-care options available to Chinese citizens. In December, a Washington Post investigation found that 12 hospitals in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou were no longer offering vasectomies, to the frustration of many young couples interviewed. There are no official bans or specific restrictions on the surgery, although contraceptive surgeries for both men and women must be approved by county-level health departments. The de facto restrictions on these surgeries stand in stark contrast to the CCP’s campaign of mass forced sterilization of Uyghur women, whose reproductive health and well-being clearly play no part in the government’s pro-natalist policies to increase “high-quality” births among Han Chinese citizens. 

Other policies hint at a possible expansion of assisted reproductive services. In December, the National Health Commission quietly announced that it had “started revising rules and standards relevant to assisted reproductive technology, based on wide consultations with experts,” and that it would push for more legislation allowing assisted reproductive technology, while strictly prohibiting its misuse. Access to such technology remains extremely limited in China, as only married women with specific medical conditions are permitted to freeze their eggs, and any form of surrogacy is illegal. 

For single women, the latest policies are a mixed bag. At local levels, access to improvements in the social safety net remains skewed towards married couples, as has been documented in Guangdong, but single mothers in Shanghai have recently won access to maternity benefits after the municipal government simplified its bureaucratic procedures. The push for greater reproductive rights for single women is also playing out in local courts, such as the Chaoyang People’s Court in Beijing, where feminist Theresa Xu has launched a case to freeze her eggs at public hospitals. Emily Feng at NPR described the background to the case:

Xu is suing the Beijing Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital at Capital Medical University, arguing that no national law says a woman must be married to have the procedure. She filed suit in October 2019 and has gone to court hearings, but is still awaiting a decision.

[…] “It comes down to conservative values, and unmarried women who have children are usually found to have violated the catchall legal rule of, quote, ‘keeping up public order and morality,’ ” says Liu Minghui, a lawyer who testified in support of Xu in court last year.

[…] “There are rules that say reproductive assistance services are only available to married couples, and while they don’t mention egg freezing specifically, it’s considered such a service,” says Liu, who is a legal expert who specializes in gender discrimination cases. She points out unmarried men can freeze their sperm in China. 

[…F]amily planning officials continuing to bank on only married couples having more kids may keep struggling to bring the birthrate back up. [Source]

The demographic crisis has motivated the government to update policies that touch on women’s rights at a much broader level, in areas that extend far beyond reproductive rights. The official newspaper of China’s Supreme Court explicitly tied the three-child policy to a revision of the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests, which will be updated for the first time since 2005. Major revisions include redefining sexual harassment, affirming prohibitions of workplace discrimination, and banning forms of emotional abuse. The expanded rules also target employer restrictions on marriage and childbearing

Exactly how, and to what extent, these laws and protections will be enforced remains unclear. In a recent article in The Diplomat, Darius Longarino, Changhao Wei, and Yixin (Claire) Ren delved into the weak enforcement mechanisms of the law as it relates to sexual harassment:

Not-so-new Enforcement Tools for Women

The draft revisions do not significantly improve the enforcement tools available to women. Like the 2005 LPWRI, the draft says women can bring civil lawsuits against harassers and report sexual harassment to employers and government organs. In a new provision, it calls for the setting up of a nationwide hotline for women to report rights violations. Importantly, the draft does not provide that survivors can sue employers who failed to adopt or implement anti-harassment policies. Nor does it address the judicial procedures and practices that make it extremely difficult for survivors to prevail in court.

Weak Administrative Sanctions

The draft provides for limited administrative enforcement of its sexual harassment provisions. Under article 83, the police may “reprimand and educate” harassers (a power already provided under several provincial regulations) or may issue written warnings to them. Yet these police actions are neither mandatory nor considered penalties, and there is no adverse consequence if a harasser chooses to ignore the police’s reprimands or warnings.

Employers that fail to adopt reasonable measures to address sexual harassment will be ordered to rectify, if their inaction harms women’s rights and interests or has “a vile social impact.” For a governmental employer, the order will be issued by its superior authority; for others, it will come from the government agency with oversight authority (e.g., education departments for schools). If an employer refuses to comply with such an order or the violation is serious, then its individual officers who are directly responsible for the violation will be disciplined under separate laws, which likely include the one governing public employees’ conduct. The draft does not impose any liability on the employers themselves, however. The subjective standards for sanctions and scattered enforcement authority among a variety of government agencies also raise doubts as to whether enforcement will be rigorous and consistent. [Source]

The draft law was open to public comments after it was published. Zhang Wanqing and Luo Yahan from Sixth Tone collected some of the most popular online comments from feminists and anti-feminists, with many negative reactions from the latter: 

Widely shared anti-feminist posts on social site Weibo argue that the revised law gives so many rights to women that, if passed, it will have a discriminating effect against men.

“We men also need to get involved in this, otherwise this law that is oppressive for men will pass,” reads a popular post by a male Weibo user who encouraged people to submit opposing opinions.

[…] A section of the draft law about hiring practices inspired anti-feminist users to suggest employers should be able to review the social media accounts of job applicants to see whether their political views are “in line with national policy,” a reference to an often made accusation that people who want gender equality are anti-China and are being supported by unidentified “foreign forces.” [Source]

Even as the CCP pursues demographic policies that it regards as essential for future stability, the Party’s antipathy toward greater gender equality continues to impede the expansion of women’s rights. Prominent #MeToo figures, such as Peng Shuai and Xianzi, are routinely thwarted and silenced, and the censorship and closure of feminist social media accounts is commonplace. As recently as December, Alibaba fired a female employee for accusing her manager of rape, and subsequently fired ten more employees for leaking her accusation to the public. Such exploitation of women by powerful men in the private and public sectors may prove resistant to change. As Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks recently argued in Foreign Affairs, women’s empowerment is inherently destabilizing to the autocratic foundation of the CCP

Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women’s political participation: when women participate in mass movements, those movements are both more likely to succeed and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy. In other words, fully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders—and so those leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist. 

[…] Established autocrats and right-wing nationalist leaders in contested democracies are united in their use of hierarchical gender relations to shore up nationalist, top-down, male-dominated rule. Having long fought against social hierarchies that consolidate power in the hands of the few, feminist movements are a powerful weapon against authoritarianism. [Source]


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