Much of American political debate today comprises of a cultural and legislative war over gender equality, from the from the #MeToo movement to the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh and its implications for reproductive rights and views on sexual assault. Amidst the ever increasing scrutiny of the intersection of gender, race, and culture, China offers a fascinating case study which puts into perspective the values of the US and shows the impact of a society ordered around different cultural priorities and with a different population pyramid.
Out of the 144 countries in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index of 2016, China ranks 99th in terms of gender parity. It’s easy to point to the underrepresentation of women in many professions. But even before looking at women in the upper echelons of academia, politics, and business as we tend to do in Westernized society, there is a glaringly obvious imbalance that that is often forgotten – as of 2016, there were approximately 34 million more men than women in China. Uneven ratios of men and women exist in every country. For example, the US has 96.95 men for every 100 women, so disparity itself is not a good indicator of gender equality or a lack thereof. However, in China’s case, this imbalance is symptomatic of decades of systematic cultural and ideological gender inequality.
For many, the cause of such a discrepancy in China’s demographics was the One Child Policy, which has long invited scrutiny and criticism for being a harsh legislative measure which infringes upon civil liberties. In effect from the late 1970s to 2015, couples could only raise one child, and women who became pregnant with a second child were often forced into abortion or faced the consequences of either heavy fines or loss of employment. In some cases, exceptions were made for those with dangerous occupations, or if you lived in a rural area and your first child was a daughter. Others might have chosen to simply pay the fine. Due to the One Child Policy, China’s population pyramid is now heavily skewed as the aging population far outnumbers the youths growing into the workforce. When the One Child Policy ended in 2015 in favor of a Two Child Policy, this was already a major concern for the government. The government has been quietly trying to encourage couples to have two children by offering incentives such as tax breaks or even housing and education subsidies. A respected, state endorsed newspaper recently published a piece by academics suggesting that China establish a “reproductive fund” which would tax all adults under the age of 40. This tax would fund rewards for couples for having more than one child, and if an individual remained childless, their contribution would be kept until their retirement or death, whichever came first.
Clearly, China’s aging population is a ticking time bomb which has many worried. Yet the age demographics were by no means the only thing affected by the One Child Policy. A closely related issue is the matter of China’s sex imbalance. During the years it was in effect, many couples aborted female fetuses after illegally bribing doctors to know the sex. In the last year of the policy, in 2015, 113.5 boys were born for every 100 girls. But even after birth, baby girls can find themselves quietly abandoned or even murdered. The one child policy had the marked effect of exacerbating China’s gender imbalance by ensuring that couples who were determined for their only child to be a boy often took extraordinary measures to do so. But it is, of course, by no means responsible for creating the culture which valued baby boys more than girls in the first place. Rather, this preference is best understood in relation to the underlying Chinese world view which revolves around a traditional family unit.
There are many ways China’s family-oriented culture compels many to prefer sons to daughters. For one, the nuclear family unit spans across multiple generations. It is not uncommon for grandparents to be heavily involved in the rearing of their grandchildren. The concept of filial devotion is heavily emphasized. This is a cultural phenomenon that spills over into legislation. In recent years, China has passed laws stipulating that adult children are legally responsible for their parents, and not just financially – they are also responsible for their emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Under the act, titled “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People”, a woman in the city of Wuxi, China, successfully sued her daughter and son-in-law for neglect. The subsequent trial ended in a court mandate for the young couple to visit her at least once every two months, and pay additional monetary compensation. Parents all across China can sue their children for not visiting enough or failing to provide spiritual comfort. The consequences for children include being placed on a credit-score blacklist, which could affect their ability to open bank accounts and have loans. In a country where welfare can be very unreliable, both culturally and legally, parents may come to expect to be taken care of by their children.
The great value that Chinese society confers upon the familial ties between children and parents is inseparable from the importance of marriage. While China’s Marriage Law stipulates that all children, whether born in or out of wedlock, have equal rights, the reality is much more complicated. For Chinese citizens, one of the most important forms of identification is a document called hukou. A hukou determines a person’s ability to be admitted anywhere from schools to hospitals, and is also important for real estate, banking, and loans. In order to register a child for a hukou, a variety of official documents must be presented. In many cities, such as Beijing, China’s capital, this includes a marriage licence. Alternatives include paternity test results which confirm the identity of the child’s father, or paying a “social maintenance fee” of up to tens of thousands of yuan (depending on exchange rates, this is upwards of thousands of USD). Hence in China’s society, having children is important socially, culturally, and in many senses, economically. And in order to have children, marriage is crucial.
China’s society is, in the most original sense, patriarchal, as well as heteronormative. While Chinese couples do not practice taking each other’s surnames upon marriage, it is traditional for children to take the surname of their father, and women tend to be omitted from both their fathers’ and husbands’ family trees. Hence continuation of the family name relies on sons, not daughters. With the importance of family being so high and sons being the only ones able to legitimately pass on the family name, it is no wonder that under the One Child policy, if couples can only have one child, many prefer it be a son. Additionally, as in many other cultures, upon marriage a woman is considered a part of her husband’s family. Hence the other incentive for sons – they are the children who do not leave to become part of another family.
The gender imbalance is often talked about in terms of the detrimental effects it has on the day-to-day lives of Chinese men. In a culture which already places enormous pressure on young people to marry, the shortage of women only heightens the urgency for men who are of a marriageable age. Ironically, the pressure to marry comes from the family-oriented culture. The difficulty of marriage due to the unbalanced sex ratio is now threatening the very culture which created the imbalance in the first place. There are many accounts of adult men living with their mothers or even grandmothers, having never married. The traditions of the family unit are being distorted, and the disruption has nothing but its own patriarchal and heteronormative dictates to blame.
Aside from what many call the “epidemic of loneliness”, the sex imbalance is also responsible for detrimental economic effects on Chinese society. Labor markets are becoming distorted as many migrate to larger cities in hopes of making a good match. The savings rates in China has gone up as men try to accumulate their earnings to present themselves as more suitable matches. Property values are artificially inflated as they buy houses to prove their financial stability, and smaller scale consumption is driven down by their focus on having property and savings. All of these pressures contribute to the decline of mental health among Chinese men.
It would be narrow-sighted and patriarchal to only focus on the negative impacts this has on Chinese men. To some degree, the fact that women who seek marriage are outnumbered by their suitors can be beneficial as women are sometimes able to better their socio-economic status by marrying wealthier men. However, this is a double-edged sword which exacerbates classist stereotypes of women who are “gold diggers”, marrying men for their money and houses. Another dire consequence is that in many rural areas, the shortage of local women has increased violent crime and foreign bride trafficking. It is a common, ubiquitous stereotype in China that women ought to prioritize families over career. With marriage being more difficult for men, this – explicitly or otherwise – increases the pressure women face to get married. With the family-oriented society that places an enormous importance on children, and with children out of wedlock delegitimize as an option, the view is that there is little reason not to. After all, it should be easier for them to find a husband than for a man to find a wife.
With the consequences of the sex imbalance and aging population becoming more and more pressing, China’s cultural views on women must change – for not making the problem worse and preserving the cultural value of family and if not for the sake of simply striving for gender equality. Chinese culture does not reward women who value careers or education past a certain level. There is a special term for women who remain unmarried – sheng nu, meaning “leftover woman” with the implication that she is no longer desirable. The age at which this term is applied begins anywhere between 25-30. This has the effect of discouraging many women from pursuing higher education beyond undergraduate, for fear of being labelled as a nu buo shi – “female academic”. Far from being a complementary term, women with higher education degrees such as PhDs are mocked as being a “female academic” which is a “third gender” separate from male and female. Women who pursue an education over marriage are labelled this way as unfeminine for defying social norms and pursuing an education over starting a family, and are thus seen as unsuitable for marriage. This is made worse by the prominence of academics who feel comfortable publicly publishing blatantly misogynistic sentiments such as “history has proved that women don’t belong in academia”.
China has never had a female president, or even a female member of the Standing Committee, the highest orders of parliamentary power. Of the Politburo, the next level down in government leadership, only one member is female out of the 25 in total. Retirement policies mandate female public servants to retire at 50 or 55, while men can work up until age 60. Not only does this stem from the idea that women are physically weaker, but also contributes to the problem that women are simply worth less economically. This is another subtle push to have women prioritize family, when they are legally valued less, career-wise, than men. Women in leadership positions face double bind situations when it comes to business and culture. Drinking is a large part of networking in business – baijiu is a highly alcoholic grain spirit common in China, and drinking baijiu is a large part of many networking and business dinners. Women are criticized if they drink, but miss out on networking opportunities if they don’t.
In many ways, women in China are set up to be disadvantaged in their professional lives in comparison to their male counterparts. And the imbalanced sex ratio does not help professionally inclined women. Instead, it drives up the cultural value of marriage, and places further pressure on women to choose marriage and children over careers. Discouraging women from pursuing an education or career for the sake of retaining their idealized attractiveness and femininity will have a negative effect as more and more women are willing to forsake the former to advance their careers. As time goes on, the idea that family and personal ambitions are mutually exclusive pursuits for women will not be enough to keep women out of higher academia. But perpetuating the false dichotomy will keep more and more men from fulfilling familial cultural values.
Notably, in all the above policies from the One Child Policy to the proposed reproductive fund, these laws deal with women as the means to a reproductive target. Women are the ones being valued by both law and culture as vessels for potential offspring more than individuals with the right to choose how many children to have, to do it in or out of wedlock, or even whether or not having children is a personal priority over other choices such as education or career. As the US heads into ever increasingly partisan debates on women’s rights, it’s important to remember that everything mentioned in this article, from policing female reproductive rights to societal views which disadvantage women in the workplace, is not unique to China. Gender inequality on all levels is interconnected, whether one looks at it from a cultural, legislative, demographic, or economic perspective. As current events such as the hearing of Brett Kavanaugh continues, it is important to remember this – sexism does not exist in a vacuum of individual behavior, nor nationwide generalization. Everything being interconnected, it is imperative to address it in whatever form it occurs, whenever we can.