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The challenge from China

What are the superpower’s plans for the future?

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February 9, 2021

On the face of it, China’s new Civil Code wasn’t supposed to be controversial. In fact, when it was introduced at the start of this year, its very purpose was to focus on the mundane. Take, for example, the growing problem of so-called “train seat thieves” — railway passengers who refuse to move from their seat despite not having a reservation. Here in Britain, that hardly seems a big deal. But in China, where it’s simply not the done thing, a number of videos exposing “thieves” have gone viral on Weibo, its version of Twitter. So the new Code empowers train conductors to kick them off.

So far, so inoffensive. And yet over the past month, the Code, which is now the binding authority over all civil disputes in China, has become the subject of fierce internal criticism. Its origin? China’s increasingly outspoken new generation of feminists, who are furious at its introduction of a one-month “cooling-off period” before a divorce is finalised.

During that time, a husband and wife now have the power to revoke a divorce application without the other’s consent. That may seem like a mere technicality, but for China’s feminists it represents an infringement on women’s freedom to divorce, as well puts the victims of domestic violence in a potentially dangerous situation. They are also concerned that the ultimate purpose of the “cooling-off period” is to remedy China’s decreasing birth rates by keeping marriages afloat. In essence, they argue, it treats women as resources instead of rights-bearing individuals.

Since it was first mooted last year, Chinese feminists have launched a number of anonymous online social media campaigns against the move. And while they would seem to have failed, they have certainly succeeded in making their presence felt. Whether China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) likes it or not, over the past year the country’s nascent feminist movement has become a force to be reckoned with.

Indeed, Beijing was so rattled by this new feminist opposition that in recent months it has felt compelled to call in in legal experts to cite foreign precedents to the “cooling-off period”, as well as to emphasise that in extraordinary circumstances such as domestic violence, either side of a marriage can file a divorce lawsuit. Suffice it to say that these explanations did not convince China’s feminists, who pointed out that divorce is not easily granted by Chinese civil courts — not to mention that disadvantaged women may not be able to afford the lawsuits.

And so, last October, President Xi decided to take matters into his own hands — and in doing so, inadvertently assured China’s feminist movement a place in the history books. “Gender equality is China’s basic national policy,” he said in a speech to the nation. “Women are the pioneers of human civilisation and the promoters of social progress, and they have written extraordinary achievements in all walks of life.” Although he did not directly comment on the “cooling-off periods”, a clear attempt was made to placate China’s feminists; Xi identified gender equality as a principle in China’s post-pandemic recovery plan, and promised that the government will provide concrete help to females affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Xi’s response, as well as the recent opposition to his new Code, raise two important questions: just who are China’s feminists? And how did they become such a powerful force?

The typical Chinese feminist is, to put it simply, the embodiment of a new progressive activism which is often — and some might say paradoxically — rooted in support for the CCP and its scepticism towards capitalism. To make a direct comparison with today’s Western feminist movement is, to say the least, a frustrating, near-impossible task. China’s feminists are, after all, the product of not just a different culture, but an entirely different political system.

What both movements do share, however, is youth. According to sociological research, Chinese feminists are predominantly born after the 1980s. It’s telling that this coincides with the country’s one-child policy, which was a binding rule in China between 1980 and 2016. Without having to compete with any brothers, these young women were usually well-educated and privileged. In terms of where they live, my own research has found that 57% of the feminist advocates on Chinese social media are from major economic centres in China. This partly explains why they tend to hold conscious or unconscious contempt for men from poorer regions — though this is partly a result of the boy-favouring traditions in those places. In the eyes of young feminists, such traditions are backwards, and often lead to the cruel treatment of women and girls.

As one might expect, it is the habits and interests of Chinese feminists which sets them most apart from their Western counterparts. Brought up in a culture that places an extraordinary amount of existential capital on the internet, they are huge fans of online shopping and are the driving force behind China’s $670 billion ‘sheconomy’. They also spend a lot of time cultivating a robust digital presence — in particular by browsing online forums dedicated to TV shows, films and ACG (anime, cartoon and games) fandoms. More recently, their craze for yaoi — female-oriented anime with a focus on fantasy erotic relationships between men — has made them natural allies of China’s LGBT community.

But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that China’s feminists content themselves with passing their time on online frivolities. When feeling threatened or attacked, the young feminists can quickly turn into a highly organised force. In this sense, at least, today’s well-educated, liberal-minded feminists draw inspiration from activists in the West, such as Emma Watson. And they are not afraid of challenging the CCP’s policies. In fact, the recent battle over “cooling-off periods” represents just one area in which they are starting to campaign.

Only last year, China’s feminists led a protest campaign against the disturbing rise of media monopolies in the country. It all started on February 27, when the fans of Xiao Zhan, a poplar Chinese actor and singer, reported the global fanfiction sharing website Archives of Our Own (AO3) to the Communist Party because one of its stories portrayed him as a cross-dressing sex worker who falls in love with a teenage boy. Xiao’s fans felt that the fictional portrayal tarnished their idol’s image and complained to the Chinese authorities about AO3 “showing pornographic content to underage audience” and “promoting child pornography”. The Chinese government responded by blocking access to the foreign site, as well as several other Chinese fanfiction hubs.

Concerned that this violated authors’ freedom and constituted an attack on China’s LGBT community, China’s young feminists quickly mobilised. Together with other subculture groups, they launched a series of campaigns on Weibo — only to find that their posts were being suppressed: even though one thread had 700 million hits, it was somehow excluded from Weibo’s “trending stories” list. Meanwhile, supportive messages for Xiao topped the list almost every day.

Believing that Weibo was kowtowing to Xiao’s management company, feminist campaigners urged the Party to control media monopolies and impose stronger regulation on China’s wild “idol economy”. After facing a barrage of online protests, the Chinese government finally stepped in, and fined Weibo for “manipulating the display of information”. Its “trending stories” list was also taken down for a week as punishment.

No doubt China’s feminists chalked it down as a step in the right direction, although the CCP is yet to heed their calls to bring back AO3. What is particularly interesting about this emerging movement, though, is its symbiotic relationship with China’s ruling party: it both puts pressure on the CCP to enact change, while also embodying many of its values.

Take the feminists’ recent campaign against commercial surrogacy, for example, which is inextricably linked to the CCP’s antipathy towards capitalism. Commercial surrogacy is prohibited in China, though wealthy would-be mothers tend to get round this by travelling to the West to find a surrogate. Only last month, Chinese actress Zheng Shuang was effectively “cancelled” by the feminist movement after it was reported that she’d had two surrogate children through overseas services, whom she later abandoned. But while her treatment of her children was, of course, a source of criticism, it was the method of their conception which attracted the most ire.

For while some members of the LGBT community support surrogacy — largely because they cannot conceive naturally— China’s feminists refuse to stand with them. One post by an anonymous user on social media platform Zhihu summarised their concerns: “Let’s use some imagination. What will happen if surrogacy becomes legal in China? The giant e-commerce companies will lead the price war. They will try to attract customers by promising the best surrogate mothers and the desired gender of babies. What do you think they will do to keep the promises? Don’t think I’m talking nonsense. Capital will trample on all human laws for profit.”

It was a comment typical of today’s generation of feminists in China: in many ways, despite feeling empowered by consumerism, much of their ideology is also rooted in the CCP’s political project. No doubt that will sit uneasily with a number of Western feminists. But just as Western women are a product of their culture, so too is the case with Chinese feminists. And while their priorities are certainly rooted in a different world, it is increasingly becoming clear that they do have the power to change it.