Why you should care
Here’s how to kick (gl)ass in an oppressive state.
On stage, celebrity Joy Chen is like a walking exclamation point. She speaks in rolling torrents and flashes a brillant white smile. Her poise and polish are hallmarks of her much vaunted sisterhood — call them the Alpha Females of China. Today, a hushed audience of tens of thousands of white-collar women — all young, educated, urban and all in black pumps — are eagerly eating up every word of her feminista rallying cry. “We don’t want to survive in society,” she says. “We want to lead society.”
It’s a brazen decree with a lot of lofty ideals behind it. But with doe-eyed looks and a certain gal pal appeal, Chen is a modern-day Joan of Arc. If anyone could launch a feminist crusade in China, it’s Chen. “It will take a revolution from within,” she says, à la Gloria Steinem.
For millennia, women in China have been hobbled by a long arc of sexist traditions and cultural barriers that stretch back to the time of emperors and concubines, all the way to last year, when the government officially ended its regulation of women’s wombs. But after chucking thousands of years of feudalist thinking, a new generation of high-flying millennial women is opting for a big ol’ dose of girl power instead. They’re coming of age during a boom time of double-digit economic growth and no shortage of female aspiration — 76 percent of Chinese women plan on becoming a senior business leader or high-level executive one day, according to a report from the Center for Work-Life Policy, compared to 52 percent of American women. Meanwhile, thanks to gender parity policies from the ’50s, the country currently boasts one of the world’s highest female employment rates at 73 percent, whereas the U.S. slightly trails behind at 62 percent. These are emerging middle class women leaning in — China style.
Mind you, none of it involves bra-burning in public squares, toting Rosie the Riveter picket signs or chanting feminist slogans for all to hear. Rather, it emphasizes honing your inner spirit and realizing your personal agency, Chen says — so that means leaning within, not exactly leaning in: solidarity circles, staying single or outsourcing child care. Because unlike other feminist movements around the globe, this particular one carries Chinese characteristics — constrained by the realities of living in an authoritarian state that strictly forbids organized protests and is not exactly a fan of, let’s say, constructive criticism. As with all things political, the male-dominated Communist Party of China has repeatedly called itself the sole bearer of women’s rights, meaning that women cannot strive for full liberation without the consent of the Party — that is, unless you want to chant from behind prison bars for any number of crimes including disturbing the peace or endangering national security.
So, since making a racket is politically and socially risky, feminists in China instead extol the virtues of quietly taking charge through self-actualization, with the hopes that a newfound inner confidence will wind through both their personal lives and professional careers and advance their rungs on the social ladder. Granted, it all sounds a bit New Agey, but it’s a message of self-courage that’s resonating deeply with droves of budding career women that span from Shanghai to Xiamen to Shenzhen. Despite the gains in gender equality over the last century, “we’re still imprinted with 5,000 years of indoctrination (jiao dao 教导) that a woman’s role in society is to be a wife and mother,” says Chen, who was crowned Woman of the Year by the state-run All-China Women’s Federation. “Our powers are unrealized.”
To be sure, sidestepping The Man is never easy. Sometimes it comes down to semantics — like choosing to identify as nuxing, rather than nuquan, which both mean “feminist” in Chinese, but the latter carries far more political overtones because it includes the character for “power” (quan 权). But more than any other generation, today’s young urban career women are perfectly poised to get a piece of the power once reserved for men in China, says Virginia Tan, the 32-year-old founder of Lean In China. Along with her 80,000 members, she worships Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as her guide, manifesto and bible. The country is undergoing a period of breakneck economic transformation which, Tan says, fits squarely into the ethos of leaning in for women: “They’re soul driven. It really resonates with that desire to move forward and this huge hunger to make something of yourself.” That’s why China is home to two-thirds of the world’s self-made female billionaires, according to the Hurun Report, and women make up about half of all university graduates and hold 46 percent of professional positions in China, according to Bain and Company. The nation’s top tech giants all sport female leadership at the highest levels of their multibillion-dollar companies, including Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. “The private sector is a real place for women to thrive in China, because there’s a shortage of talent — male or female,” says Tan. “You will see opportunities for women to rise up in the corporate sphere” and corner the corner office.
Surprisingly, the nation’s rise of matriarchs has its roots in communism. The demand for labor in communist industrial China drove Mao Zedong in 1968 to proclaim that “women hold up half the sky.” His motivation was perhaps not so much progressive as pragmatic: To complete its dream of self-sufficiency, China needed women laborers too. The country simply couldn’t afford for half the population to stay at home; all hands were needed on deck, on the farm and in the factory. So women were equal players in the workforce and positively encouraged by government campaigns to embrace all professions, including more “manly” ones in scientific and technical fields. They didn’t have to prove themselves, and their work was treated on par with men’s work. That means the notion of gender equality was stamped into the DNA of modern China from Day One, says Tan: “Mao’s legacy cannot be ignored. It’s been so ingrained into the psyche of the Chinese.” Today, China has national initiatives to encourage the education of girls and young women, as well as generous gender parity programs such as three to six months of paid maternity leave.
Beyond the professional sphere, women are bucking traditional gender stereotypes in their personal lives too. That’s the case with the growing ranks of women who are taking back the reins of courtship and marriage by — gasp — remaining single. It’s a giant middle finger to the government-run All-China Women’s Federation, which coined the term sheng nu, or “leftover women” who are still unwed at 27 years old and thus shamed by all. It’s just one of the many tools that women have in their arsenal to quietly resist the government’s heavy hand, says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. “These are lifestyle choices that women can do individually, to stand up for their own right because they love themselves and celebrate themselves.” In China, she says, mothers also face less social stigma if they outsource motherhood and don’t care for their own children than mothers in the West. In fact, the demand for yue sao — or nannies who do everything from breastfeeding babies to sleeping with the children at night — has skyrocketed to a monthly salary of up to 19,800 yuan (about $3,030). And luckily, with the overhaul of the country’s rigid one-child policy last year, women’s reproductive rights will no longer be as severely curtailed by the government, says Mei Fong, author of One Child: The Past and Future of China’s Most Radical Social Experiment.
Still, the communist model isn’t an ideal place to look for solutions to gender inequality. Women may participate in the workforce, but they certainly don’t occupy top roles in the upper echelons of politics or state-run businesses. China’s liquor-laden elite political circles edges out female would-be politicians, who make up only 4.9 percent of the ruling Central Committee, compared to a more sizable 7.6 percent in 1969. Plus, there’s not much “subversion” that women can get away with. Last year, five female activists, penned as the “Feminist Five,” were detained for planning to pass out leaflets protesting sexual harassment on International Women’s Day. Moreover, the rest of China’s track record for women’s issues only gets worse from here. To name a few serious setbacks, there’s the rising pay gap between men and women, the millennium-long practice of foot-binding and the widespread sex-selective abortion that’s caused an estimated 62 million girls and women to go “missing” from China’s now male-skewed population. So, if history is any measure, women who are “aggressive, outspoken and stand out will be marginalized,” says Beijing-born Haiyan Lee, a modern Chinese literature professor at Stanford University.
Although all movements typically evolve from the inside out, it’s not enough to just have an inner revolution, Lee says. “You have to fight for these opportunities; they’re not going to be there waiting for you.” So, for women to be fully emancipated within the framework of the communist system, there must also be change at the top. And for that to happen, for women to rise to the ranks of men in China, they must also engage in more public displays of female empowerment, much like second-wave feminists in the 1960s who single-handedly tackled all sorts of reproductive rights, sexual harassment issues and workplace inequalities in America, she adds. Unfortunately, the time for getting angry and shouting out loud will never come, says Tan, and it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon in authoritarian China — not in her lifetime. In any case, she’s not interested in burning bras in Tiananmen Square: “The most important thing to change is yourself.” You can’t combat the external barriers if you can’t confront the internal barriers first.
Inner or outer, quiet or loud — it’s tough to change course once the ball gets rolling. Women in China are slowly making headway in all sorts of fields, from entrepreneurship to child care. “The government isn’t powerful enough, no matter how much misogynistic propaganda it spews,” says Fincher, the expert on China’s leftover women. “This trend is not going to be reversed.” The tide is turning and the power of not only “leaning in,” but also “leaning within,” is starting to rub off on women like 29-year-old Zihan Ling, who founded TechBase after channeling the courage to leave her gig at Changyou.com, a testosterone-crazed gaming company that allegedly hired women solely to entertain its male employees. TechBase is the first and only startup accelerator for female-led companies in China that aims to churn out the next female Gates or Zuckerberg. There, she encourages women to show their talent, not their legs — just as Joy Chen inspired Ling. Because for her, women are “snow lotuses bursting into bloom on a cliff, seemingly incompatible with the cruel battlefield,” she says.
How poetic, and fitting. Because these lotuses are starting to find fertile ground in China. In the world’s fastest growing economy, the seasons shift so rapidly. So will women ever come to rule the Middle Kingdom? “Your guess is as good as mine. China changes so fast,” says Lee. But certainly, momentum matters. “Now that we want more, we can’t go back to wanting less,” says Chen. And with that, the glass ceiling rattled.
This is the first story in an OZY Special Series on “The Lady Bosses of China” resisting communist rule.