The censorship of a WeChat article about gender- and age-based employment discrimination against China’s post-1990s generation of women is but the latest indicator of the Party-state’s crackdown on women’s voices in the public sphere. Posted to the WeChat account @卞千南 (Biàn Qiānnán), the article detailed how women in their mid- to late 20s and early 30s have already become the target of age discrimination in the job market—essentially precluding professional women from pursuing graduate degrees and/or starting families, even as the state pushes natalist policies onto women. While it is impossible to determine precisely what precipitated the article’s removal, it may have been the author’s exhortation to “bravely wield the law as a weapon” to combat gender and age discrimination, which might be construed as recommending organized activism by women:
Justice for the disadvantaged must not be completely contingent on the generosity of those in power.
Instead, we must take action to raise awareness, work toward a common purpose, and leverage both the law and the formidable power of sisterhood to protect our rights.
Can vulnerable groups go toe-to-toe with the status quo?
This is a question that often leaves us perplexed and frustrated.
But in fact, the world is changing at a faster pace than we realize because people are pushing for change.
Once women had no right to education or work. Today we are independent individuals. It took untold centuries.
The process may be slow, but the results are astounding.
Yes, the world can change! The key is that people worked to make it happen. Myriad ordinary people pushed for change, without fear of the consequences. [Chinese]
Gender discrimination against female postsecondary graduate job seekers in China is rampant. A survey conducted by a top Chinese online recruitment platform in spring of this year found that the more education women had, the less likely they were to receive job offers. For women with postgraduate degrees, fewer than 50% received job offers upon graduation, compared with 71% of men with the same educational qualifications. A 2021 Human Rights Watch report found that widespread gender-based hiring discrimination remains a problem across China. Even buttoned-down state media has lamented the prevalence of discrimination against women job-seekers. In February of this year, top Party mouthpiece People’s Daily Online published a piece headlined, “The Awful Trend of Discrimination Against Women Seeking Jobs Must Stop.” Legal Daily, a Party-run outlet controlled by the powerful Central Commission for Legal and Political Affairs, also published an investigation into gender-based discrimination that detailed human resource departments’ invasive questions about boyfriends and family planning, as well as intimations that single women above the age of 27 must have psychological issues.
Despite widespread domestic and international acknowledgement that China has serious gender discrimination issues, feminist WeChat accounts are routinely censored. Content about women’s rights is also routinely suppressed by censors. Nevertheless, women continue to forge online spaces in which to discuss feminist issues. At Rest of World, Wanqing Zhang reported on how feminist discussion has shifted from large online platforms such as Weibo to smaller, more trusted platforms such as Douban and Xiaohongshu:
Lü, the activist, describes the retreat from Weibo to Douban and Xiaohongshu as a shift from “a public plaza” to “a friend’s living room.” In the latter spaces, female empowerment is less about trying to create structural change and focuses more on less sensitive everyday topics: conflicts with boyfriends or discussions about whether to marry, have children, or use makeup.
[…] Last year, Wan, 28, had a fight with her boyfriend. While she wasn’t ready to have children, he didn’t mind risking an unplanned pregnancy. She decided to get a contraceptive implant without telling him. When he found out, he thought this showed a lack of trust. Wan, who used only her family name for privacy reasons, wanted to talk to someone, but she couldn’t ask her friends — “They will think I’m too sensitive” — and definitely not her mother, who was anticipating grandchildren. Instead, she turned to the Douban Breakup Group.
[…] Both Zhuozi, who requested the use of a pseudonym for privacy reasons, and Wan have mixed feelings about the group’s popularity. “The reason that China’s feminism discussions mostly focus on intimate relationships is because we’re unable to effect changes in broader social issues,” said Wan, who works in the legal industry. [Source]
These online conversations can translate into real-world changes. At The New York Times, Olivia Wang reported on the women rejecting “beauty duty,” the unpaid hours women put in daily to conform to traditional aesthetic standards:
Ms. Zhu, 23, is among a number of young women inspired by a growing trend of rejecting what is known in Chinese internet parlance as “beauty duty”: the costly and sometimes painful devotion to mainstream notions of attractiveness. The idea is to spend time and resources not on beauty standards, but on personal development, including education and career growth.
[…] Women subscribing to this idea are also refusing to starve themselves, shunning the dangerous diet culture that has underpinned popular internet challenges, such as one involving a piece of A4 paper held vertically at the user’s midsection to try to obscure the waist. Only the slenderest can be completely hidden by an 8.3-inch-wide sheet of paper.
[…] State propaganda that promotes traditional gender norms, urging women to marry young and have babies, also pushes beauty standards. “So women who rebel against traditional beauty norms are viewed by the government as being more likely to rebel in other ways as well,” [Leta Hong] Fincher said.
Zelda Liu, a 27-year-old woman from the southeastern city of Suzhou, said that when she decided to get a buzz cut, she had to do it herself. Hairdressers hesitated, worrying that the close shave would hurt her scalp — a notion she found absurd: “Are female heads not heads?” [Source]