China Takes up Protection of Women’s Rights as Unrest Grows

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is being forced to recognize the growing unrest within the country over the lack of proper legislation to protect the rights of women and respect gender equality and gender justice. A conscious movement of sorts is being witnessed in China, resulting in the government urgently seeking suggestions from the public in order to let off some steam.

In a country where Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan is the only woman in the Politburo, women occupy less than 10 per cent of official posts at the zonal level. Women occupy just over 5 per cent of secretary level posts in the cities. The figure drops to 3 per cent in the provincial level.

But a sea change in people’s attitudes to this laxity occurred this January after China was rocked by visuals of the mother of eight children seen chained by her neck to a post. It caused a national revulsion and the CCP felt the tremors of the sudden surge of unrest.

The government came down heavily at once, banning the circfulation of the video, stopping entry of the media to the village where the woman hailed from and blocking all information related to her. It is still not known if the chain has been removed from her neck.

This was followed by another video of an up market restaurant where a group of women is harassed and beaten up by Chinese men after a woman protested a man trying to lay his hand on her back. The video again caused a furore in the country.

The two incidents generated a lot of heat in the Chinese social media, especially against the deep-rooted sexist attitudes in Chinese society where women find it really bad to survive even today.

An Al Jazeera survey conducted last year about the current state of women’s representation in Chinese politics revealed that “of the nearly 92 million members of the CCP, just under 28 million are women — that’s less than 30 per cent”. Only a fifth of the National People’s Congress is made up of women.

The people’s agitation has prompted the National People’s Congress to launch a process for protecting women’s rights. Lawmakers are gearing up to amend the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests (LPWRI). Enacted in 1992, the LPWRI went through two revisions in 2005 and 2018. In a third attempt to streamline the law, the NPC aims to address some of the most intractable problems in Chinese society, including human trafficking, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, rising divorce rates and rural women’s continued struggles over landholding.

To tackle these problems, lawmakers have drafted two bills that would expand the LPWRI from 61 to 90 articles. Among the most notable changes in the bill are newly added measures against human trafficking. For example, marriage registration bureaus, township governments, residents’ committees and villagers’ committees would be legally obliged to report incidents of the trafficking of women to the police. The police would then have to conduct a prompt investigation.

Media reports said: “This requirement of mandatory reporting is not limited to the public sector. Hotels and other private lodging businesses would also be obliged to contact the police when suspecting illegal or criminal activities against women. In updating the LPWRI, lawmakers strive to articulate the public and the private sectors’ responsibility to protect women’s physical safety and dignity.”

The government is being forced to change attitudes of law enforcement agencies to complaints about women’s oppression. “When victims of sexual harassment approach government agencies and relevant bodies for remedies, authorities will have to handle their complaints in a timely manner and convey formal decision-making in writing. Also new in the bill are several articles prescribing schools’ roles in preventing sexual harassment, mandatory reporting and protecting victims’ privacy.”

Once the amendment of the LPWRI is finalised, employers can not limit hiring to males or give them priority in employment. “They will not be allowed to go beyond basic requirements to elicit information regarding job candidates’ marital or parental status or to impose restrictions on employees’ childbirth decisions. They will be banned from holding back women’s promotions, rank increases, or evaluations of technical titles on the grounds of marriage, pregnancy, maternity leave or nursing.”

Between December 24, 2021 and January 22, 2022, China’s Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests was opened up to the public so they could offer amendment proposals. Around 85,221 people participated in the first round of consultations in January 2022, with a total number of 423,719 amendments proposed — the largest number of proposals made during a consultation period. The high level of public engagement is worth noting given the increased repression of Chinese civil society under the current regime.

The Beijing QianQian Law Firm has emerged as one of the active voices to propose several amendments for protection of women’s rights. The firm has “addressed the male-centric language embedded in China’s law by proposing gender-neutral terminology to emphasise women’s independent subjectivity and equal civic rights”. For example, they recommended clause 2 of the General Provision — that ‘women enjoy equal rights with men in all aspects of political, economic, cultural, social and family life’ —be amended to ‘men and women enjoy equal rights’. They have proposed changing the wording of all clauses dealing with women-specific rights on the basis that the law’s original wording implies that men’s rights are the benchmark for women’s rights.

Yet to the disappointment of many, the first officially amended draft put forward by the legislature committee contained few of QianQian’s amendments.

QianQian have also highlighted the police force’s inadequate service provision and training as a major hurdle in law enforcement. Police officers receive “little relevant training and few women police officers are engaged in domestic abuse cases”. QianQian suggested that ‘names of personnel and offices shall be published when necessary’ be added to clause 88 — a section that originally stipulates that ‘penalties apply to government personnel and their supervisors’ in cases of gendered violence in which administrative justice fails. QianQian also proposed that ‘no gender disparity in college admission standards’ be included in clause 22 — a significant step towards breaking down male dominance in the police force and the military in the long term through education.

Another recommendation related to “decentralising the power of litigation”. Only the public prosecutor is allowed to litigate cases related to gender-based violence, so QianQian proposed that ‘all qualified social organisations should be allowed to act as public litigants’ in clause 78. This would empower civil society and improve law enforcement.

The second amendment proposal deadline passed on 19 May 2022. The Chinese women are eagerly awaiting the outcome, but have no clue how many of these recommendations will ever see the light of day.