Buried in an article criticizing Chinese culture, the New York Times drops this bombshell: “News reports that women across China are applying for and receiving spousal protection orders from courts since the Anti-Domestic Violence Law took effect on March 1 showed that they were seizing new opportunities to ensure their safety. Feng Yuan, a feminist who has just returned from a work trip to a rural county in the southwestern province of Yunnan, said that women had inundated the local authorities with requests for information.”
The recent crackdown on spousal abuse is yet another step in the Chinese leadership’s near century-long effort to improve the status and conditions of women. Since its inception, the Chinese Communist Party has sought to reverse the patriarchal traditions and attitudes that have been instilled in Chinese culture over the course of centuries. The Communist Party was born in 1921 as the Chinese division of the Communist International, and like all of the Marxist-Leninist parties of this era, it included the struggle for women’s liberation in its overall program for radically changing the world. While criticism of modern China in relation to gender issues is abundant in the western press, rarely do analysts admit that the Communist Party is primarily responsible for the huge advances that have taken place. An honest scholar of history will admit that the party’s record on gender issues is astoundingly good.
Pre-revolutionary China was known for its horrendous practices toward women. The most famous example is “foot binding”: women’s feet were crushed as children in order to prevent their growth and make them sexually attractive with dainty, infant-sized feet as adults. Chinese women were the chattel property of their fathers and husbands in the feudal order of the countryside, or forced prostitutes and impoverished wage slaves in urban centers.
During the 1930s, Mao Zedong’s Eighth Route Army that battled the Japanese invaders became an iconic favorite of feminists around the world. Among those who went on Mao Zedong’s historic long march were 3,000 female combatants. By the end of the Long March, the Communist fighters had eliminated gender segregation and women served in the same units as male combatants. Agnes Smedley, the iconic American feminist, embedded herself with Chinese Communist fighters and marveled at their belief in gender equality.
In the areas controlled by the Communist army, women were granted a level of equality previously unheard of in Chinese society, including the right to own property, to divorce, to vote and even hold public office in peasant associations and local governing bodies. These rights were enshrined in the constitutions of both the “Chinese Soviet Republic” of the 1930s, and the Peoples Republic that came into existence after the US-backed Nationalist Party was driven from the mainland in 1949.
During the 1950s, as China began to industrialize with Soviet aid, women became electrical engineers, bricklayers, and steelworkers. Furthermore, huge efforts were made to include women in the educational system that was constructed during this period. Women attended universities alongside men and were trained to become scientists, intellectuals, and academics.
Jiang Qiang & The Cultural Revolution
From 1966 to 1976, a woman named Jiang Qiang was one of the most influential figures in Chinese society, probably second only to Mao Zedong himself. Jiang Qiang had been a famed stage and screen actress during the 1930s. When her city of Shanghai was seized by Japan, she fled to Yanan in order to join the Communist Party. She subsequently married Mao Zedong in 1939 and became a well known representative of the Communists and their allies.
Qiang was key in pushing the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” launched in 1966. The campaign began with Qiang’s efforts to reform Chinese theater, literature, and cinema to reflect Marxist-Leninist ideology, but soon expanded into something much larger. Millions of young people were organized into units called “Red Guards.” These radicalized youth clung to Qiang’s words as she spurned them to destroy the remnants of China’s past, rebel against their teachers and parents, and move China closer toward an egalitarian vision of communism. This vision, of course, included the abolition of patriarchy and the oppression of women.
When the Cultural Revolution came to an end after Mao’s death, Jiang Qiang was arrested and put on trial along with the infamous “Gang of Four.” Many saw the scapegoating of Jiang Qiang for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution as an example of sexism in Chinese society. Chinese media almost seemed to hold Jiang Qiang personally responsible for everything that had gone wrong from 1966 to 1976.
When the Cultural Revolution concluded, and Deng Xiaoping moved into power, the Communist Party’s attitude toward women’s equality shifted somewhat. During the height of Jiang Qiang and the gang of four, Chinese women had been forbidden from wearing make-up, high heels, and in some cases even dresses, as these were all seen as “bourgeois” and “patriarchal.” When the Red Guards raided the homes of alleged counter-revolutionaries, they specifically looked for pornography, romance novels, and other items that seemed to degrade or objectify women.
The extreme policies, intended to push for gender equality, were relaxed in the Deng era. Chinese women are now free to dress as they choose. Despite changes in perspective, the Chinese Communist Party remains committed to the overall goal of gender equality. Pornographic videos remain illegal in China, though the regulations regarding erotica and sexually themed literature have been somewhat relaxed. Eighty percent of the world’s sex toys are manufactured in China.
Abortion and birth control is very easily accessible to Chinese women. The “one-child policy,” introduced in 1978 and resulting in gender-specific abortions in rural areas, was formally abolished in 2015.
When China invaded Vietnam in 1979, women served in combat alongside men. The Chinese People’s Army remains gender-integrated with women serving important roles through its ranks.
Pressing Ahead in the 21st Century
Among China’s growing number of millionaires and billionaires are many female CEOs. About 2.5% percent of Chinese corporate executives are women, just slightly lower than the 3.2% in the United States. Six Chinese women are listed by Forbes magazine among the top 100 “most powerful women” on earth.
Article 48 of the Chinese Constitution declares: “Women in the People’s Republic of China enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life, in political, economic, cultural, social and family life. The State protects the rights and interests of women, applies the principle of equal pay for equal work to men and women alike and trains and selects cadres from among women.” In the 1970s, a mass campaign to add such language to the US constitution with the “Equal Rights Amendment” failed.
One of the most beloved sayings of Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China was “Women hold up half the sky.” The saying was included in the Little Red Book of his most treasured quotations.
The Communist Party, from the armed female fighters during the 1930s, the enshrining of gender equality into law after the revolution, or its recent crackdown on spousal abuse and domestic violence, has been the key driving force in advancing the position of China’s women.
Meanwhile, it has been the United States and western capitalism that resisted the party’s efforts, and propped up feudalism, the Nationalist Party, and other forces that stood in the way of social progress. The major allies of the United States and its campaign against the Chinese government are outspoken opponents of women’s equality. The Falun Gong or Falun Dafa, a strange anti-Communist religious sect that is supported by the United States, openly decries women’s equality as a negative development, proof that the world is entering a “Dharma Ending Period.” The Tibetan Separatist movement openly calls to restore the feudal kingdom of the Dalai Lama. In pre-revolutionary Tibet, women were chattel with no rights whatsoever, though the Dalai Lama’s flock portray it as a kind of mystical paradise.
While there is certainly room to criticize Chinese society on gender issues, one cannot logically blame the Communist Party for the shortcomings. Such deceptions from the western press must be dismissed and ignored.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.