Here is another story, one that is much more familiar to modern Chinese women: Wu Mei (not real name) is thirty-one years old. She makes around one million RMB (roughly $150,000) a year as an attorney in Beijing, a salary that likely places her in the top 1 percent income bracket in China. The perfect cover model for a magazine feature on “China’s richest women.” Wu recently managed to obtain a divorce from her abusive husband after five years of marriage, but only by giving up her home, her life savings, and most of her belongings. Women’s rights in marriage, finance and especially property ownership are under assault in China.
Women in China face a strange kind of paradox today. Almost an anachronism. In the early part of communistic rule, especially during the Mao Zedong era (1949–1976), it was a time when overcoming traditional forms of male-female inequality was proclaimed as an important revolutionary goal. In fact, both the communist regime and the republican revolution that preceded it made it a top priority. But now, those gains made during a bygone era are being rolled back and women now find themselves in a peculiar situation: as civil society grows in China, and as the burgeoning middle class becomes even wealthier, women’s rights are being diminished.
Wu Mei divorced around the same time that China’s Supreme People’s Court issued a new interpretation of the country’s Marriage Law, reversing a cornerstone of the Communist Revolution. The Marriage Law of 1950 granted women rights to property and over the years, subsequent revisions of the law strengthened the notion of common marital property. The government’s latest amendment of the Marriage Law in 2011 specifies that, unless legally contested, marital property essentially belongs to the person who owns the home and whose name is on the property deed. According to Leta Hong Fincher, an American doctoral candidate in sociology at Tsinghua University, a 2012 Horizon Research and ifeng.com survey of thousands of home buyers in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen found that over 80 percent of marital homes are owned or co-owned by men, while only 30 percent of marital home deeds include the woman’s name. As a litigator, Wu is very familiar with the flaws in China’s legal system and believed that a divorce lawsuit with her ex-husband would be lengthy and traumatic. Rather than go through the court system, she decided to let her ex-husband keep all the assets, and pay him an additional 100,000 RMB in cash in exchange for his agreement to a divorce.
Marriage and property rights are not the only issues that are considered irritable topics in China. Issues of gender equality and feminism in general are often ignored or avoided despite the fact that appreciation for women is openly celebrated on International Women’s Day. Five Chinese feminist activists were arrested and detained in March last year for planning to distribute stickers on buses to raise awareness of sexual harassment on public transportation. Although the arrest had been condemned by organisations worldwide, including Amnesty International, and the activists have since been released, there has been very little reaction in China itself. In a country where people go to great lengths to avoid controversy, this is perhaps unsurprising.
Another blow to women’s legal rights: the closure of the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counselling and Service Centre earlier this year. The legal service centre for women has been in operation for over 20 years, and its closure sent shockwaves through the Chinese activism and NGO communities. According to UK’s The Guardian newspaper, human rights campaigners, NGO workers and diplomats are convinced the legal counselling group is the latest victim of President Xi Jinping’s escalating clampdown on civil society. Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the authorities’ decision to shut it down was designed to send a message that only those toeing the Communist party line would now be tolerated.
Women’s rights are far from mainstream culture in modern China. Against the backdrop of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate his power on Chinese society, it is now more important than ever that we understand the state and plight of women’s rights in China.