Historically, China has been a patriarchal culture in which the subjugation of women is symbolized most cruelly by the phenomenon of bound feet, a practice that didn’t disappear entirely until the early 20th century. And it remains a male-dominated society today, never mind that ever since the ruling Communist Party came to power in 1949 it has trumpeted a phrase attributed to Mao Zedong: “Women hold up half the sky.” Indeed, the demographic imbalance between men and women speaks to just how male-dominated it remains. The combination of China’s one child policy and the advent of sonograms has meant that families who preferred a son could get what they wanted, aborting unwanted girls. The gender imbalance is a function of what Lauren Johnston, a Ph.D. student at Peking University writing a book on the subject, calls “the familial race to have an heir,” greatly intensified by the one-child policy, which has been in effect since 1980.
With that backdrop, the recent progress of women within China is significant. Ever since 1995, when it hosted a high-profile United Nations conference on women’s rights (attended by then–first lady Hillary Clinton) the government in Beijing has paid increasing attention to—and made some progress on—core feminist issues: access to jobs and higher education; stricter laws (and enforcement thereof) against domestic violence and sexual harassment; and more equitable divorce laws.
That there is still a long way to go is undeniable. The April arrest of five feminist activists for trying to raise awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace triggered a storm of criticism on Chinese social media—and was an abject embarrassment for a central government that this fall is scheduled to co-host with the U.N. a global women’s summit. Too much of the all-male leadership at the very top of the Beijing government “have not an iota of an idea about the women’s rights movement,” says Wang Zheng, a longtime feminist activist in China and a professor at the University of Michigan.
But the demographic reality of modern China—that the number of boys so greatly outnumbers the girls—has far-reaching effects. And one of them—in the social sphere, in the everyday interaction between the sexes—is empowering women. In Chinese cities, the evidence of that is pretty much everywhere.