China moves to overhaul protections for women’s rights, sort of

For many
women in China, the response was: Hmm, really?

The proposed
revisions are the latest in a series of conflicting messages by the Chinese
government about the country’s growing feminist movement. On paper, the
changes, which China’s Legislature reviewed for the first time last month,
would seem to be a triumph for activists who have long worked to push gender
equality into the Chinese mainstream. The Women’s Rights and Interests
Protection Law has been substantially revised only once, in 2005, since it was
enacted nearly three decades ago.

The government
has also recently emphasised its dedication to women’s employment rights,
especially as it urges women to have more children amid a looming demographic
crisis. The official newspaper of China’s Supreme Court explicitly tied the new
three-child policy to the revision, which would codify prohibitions on
employers asking women about their marital status or plans to have children.

At the same
time, authorities, ever leery of grassroots organizing, have detained outspoken
feminist activists and sought to control the country’s fledgling #MeToo
movement. Sexual harassment lawsuits — already rare — have been dismissed.
Women have been fired or fined for lodging accusations. When Peng Shuai, a star
tennis player, recently said on social media that a top Chinese leader had
pressured her into sex, she was censored within minutes, and many worry that
she is under surveillance.

Women have
also been increasingly pushed out of the workplace and into traditional gender
roles since China’s leader, Xi Jinping, assumed power. Some fear that the
campaign to encourage childbirth could turn coercive.

contradictions were clear in a recent article in the Global Times, a Communist
Party-owned tabloid, about Chinese feminist advocacy. While the article hailed
the proposed legal revisions as a “landmark move,” it also denounced “spooky
‘feminism’” and derided the “so-called MeToo movement” as yet another Western
cudgel against China.

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activists have warned against giving the revisions too much weight.

Feng Yuan,
founder of Equality, a Beijing-based advocacy group, welcomed the move for its
potential to impose “moral responsibility and pressure” on institutions. But
she noted that the draft does not specify clear punishments for the violations
it outlines. Instead, it uses phrases such as “will be ordered to make
corrections” or “may be criticized and educated.”

“This law,
to be honest, is more of a gesture than a specific plan of operation,” Feng

The gesture,
at least, is extensive. As revised, the law would offer the most comprehensive
legal definition yet of sexual harassment, to include behaviors such as sending
unwanted sexually explicit images or pressuring someone into a relationship in
exchange for benefits. It also instructs schools and employers to introduce
anti-harassment training and channels for complaints.

The law
would also codify women’s right to ask for compensation for housework during
divorce proceedings — following the first-of-its-kind decision by a Chinese
divorce court last year to award a woman more than $7,700 for her labor during
her marriage.

provisions would go beyond those in other countries. In particular, the draft
bans the use of “superstition” or other “emotional control” against women.
While the draft does not offer further details, state media reports have said
those bans would cover pickup artistry. Pickup artistry — a practice that
arrived in China from the United States — commonly refers to the use of
manipulative techniques, including gaslighting, to demean women and lure them
into having sex. It became a booming industry in China, with thousands of
companies and websites promising to teach techniques, and it has been widely
condemned by both the government and social media users.

bans on emotional coercion are spotty. Britain banned it in 2015, while the
United States has no federal law against it.

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Yet the
truly novel aspects of the Chinese law are limited. Many of the provisions
already exist in other laws or regulations but have been poorly enforced.
China’s labor law bans discrimination based on sex. The
compensation-for-housework measure was included in a new civil code that went
into effect last year.

While the
law affirms women’s right to sue, its emphasis is largely on authorising
government officials to take top-down action against offenders, said Darius
Longarino, a researcher at Yale Law School who studies China.

priority should be on bottom-up enforcement, where you empower individuals who
have been harassed to use the law to protect their rights,” he said.

It is rare
for victims of harassment to go to court. An analysis by Longarino and others
found that 93% of sexual harassment cases decided in China between 2018 and
2020 were brought not by the alleged victim but by the alleged harasser,
claiming defamation or wrongful termination. Women who have made public
harassment claims have been forced to pay those they accused.

complaints can bring heavy consequences, too. In December, Alibaba, the
e-commerce giant, fired a woman who had accused a superior of raping her. The
company said that she had “spread falsehoods,” even though it had earlier fired
the man she accused.

Even when
women do sue their harassers, they face steep hurdles. Perhaps the most
high-profile #MeToo case to go to court was brought by Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former
intern at China’s state broadcaster, who asserted that Zhu Jun, a star anchor,
had forcibly kissed and groped her. But the case faced years of delays. In
September, a court dismissed the claim and said she had not provided enough
evidence, though Zhou said the judges had rejected her efforts to introduce

In an
interview, Zhou expressed skepticism that the revised law would change much.

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judicial environment won’t be changed by one or two legal amendments,” she
said. “It will take every court, every judge really understanding the plight of
those who suffer from sexual harassment. This is probably still a very long,
hard road.”

control could prove even harder to substantiate, especially in a country where
open discussion of mental health can still carry a stigma. Guo Jing, a feminist
activist from Wuhan, noted that psychologists are rarely admitted as expert
witnesses in Chinese courts and that judges might be skeptical of claims of
depression or other mental health conditions.

And patriarchal
attitudes still remain deeply entrenched. After the draft revisions were
published, several male bloggers with large followings on social media platform
Weibo denounced the provisions against degrading or harassing women online,
saying they would give “radical” feminists too much power to silence their

Still, some
women remain optimistic about the possible power of the proposed changes.

A woman in
southern Guangdong province who asked only to use her last name, Han, out of
fears for her safety, said that she had endured years of physical and emotional
abuse by her ex-husband. Even though she managed to secure a divorce last year,
he continues to stalk and threaten her, she said. She obtained a restraining
order, viewed by The New York Times, that cited chat logs and recordings.

Yet even
with the restraining order, when Han called police, they often told her that
threats alone were not enough for them to take action, as he had not physically
harmed her, she said. If the law were revised, she continued, police would be
forced to recognise that she had a right to seek their help.

“If the law
changes, I will be even more convinced that everything I’m doing right now is
right,” she said.


© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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