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Inside China's silent crackdown on feminism and queerness

May 30, 2024
topic:Women's rights
tags:#China, #feminism, #LGBTQ+, #women's rights
by:Hướng Thiện
In many respects, women's rights in China have improved. But as some repressive attitudes persist, speaking out can be risky, especially on issues of gender identity and sexuality.

In 2019, Maria, a European student in Beijing, set her sights on investigating domestic violence law in China for her master's thesis. A year before her thesis submission in 2020, she approached her supervisor, a renowned Chinese gender scholar who had suggested the topic. The supervisor agreed to support her research, and the university approved the supervision.

But just several months later, Maria's supervisor asked her to change the topic. She had no choice but to consent.

"She never told me the reason why," Maria, who used a pseudonym for privacy concerns, told FairPlanet. "I asked, but she always evaded it."

Her classmates faced similar challenges in getting their projects on LGBTQ+ topics supervised and approved by professors, despite their university being considered among the most liberal in China. The presence of a division within the sociology faculty that focuses specifically on gender research made their school more liberal than the other 3,000 higher education institutions across the country.

Generally, academic researchers in China often face challenges when conducting explicit research on feminist movements and LGBTQ+ issues. Home to the world's largest queer population, China agreed in 2019 to five recommendations on LGBTQ+ issues made under the Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review. These recommendations included adopting legislation to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity within a year.

Yet on the ground, gender remains a contentious and complex issue, where external and self-censorship mutually impact and reinforce each other.

How FEMINISM emerged in China

Dr Jiang Jue, a former professor at the University of London’s School of Law, identified two major different feminist movements in Communist-ruled China: top-down movements initiated by the Party-state and bottom-up movements mobilised by independent feminists.

Since 1954, the People's Republic of China has enshrined male-female equality in its Constitution, reformed marriage laws and passed the Law on the Protection and Rights of Women. The All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), informally known as Fulian, is a women-focused mass organisation affiliated with the Party. It is responsible for promoting women's status and rights across all levels of society.

Fulian has played a crucial role in creating political opportunities for women at both local and national levels.

Before 1949, the predecessor of the ACWF united women to fight against invaders for the nationalist cause. However, the ACWF was forced into dormancy during the Cultural Revolution. Socialist issues were regarded as 'rightist' views, and even the ACWF's core message that women still faced outdated feudal stigmas could be deemed politically unfavourable. As a result, the ACWF had to adjust its agenda to avoid being accused of promoting bourgeois feminist views.

It was only after Deng Xiaoping began opening up the country in 1978 following Mao's death that ACWF regained momentum. Nevertheless, as the PRC embarked on a market economy, gender equality took a backseat to economic development. 

In many families, women often sacrificed their own careers to take care of children, while men could pursue employment opportunities more readily due to greater access to resources. In other words, motherhood was seen not only as a barrier to women's careers but also as costly for both families and work units. This led to the policy of "letting the women return home."

It wasn't until the 1990s that the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on gender issues was challenged by emerging independent feminist movements, led by young educated women and local non-profit organisations. In 1995, China hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women, during which the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BDAB) was adopted by 189 countries.

The event paved the way for knowledge exchange with feminist peers and spurred the formation of several women's rights NGOs. Independent feminist movements in China gained recognition by advocating for initiatives such as increasing the number of public toilets for women and pushing for the adoption of anti-domestic violence laws.

Navigating stark contradictions 

In some spheres, China has made visible progress regarding women's rights.

Under President Xi Jinping, China donated USD 10 million to UN Women for the implementation of BDAB and the realisation of its Agenda 2030.

Peng Liyuan, the current First Lady of China and an active politician, serves as a special envoy for UNESCO, advocating for the advancement of girls' and women's education. Furthermore, nearly 1,000 Chinese women have participated in UN peacekeeping missions, with China being one of the major funders and the largest troop-contributing country among the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In other ways, however, China has stagnated or even regressed on women's issues.

Take the China Women Protection Law, for instance, which took effect in early 2023. While the law includes new regulations aimed at protecting women in the workplace, particularly against sexual harassment, it also contains a provision that promotes the notion of "respecting family values" for women.

When Xi took office in 2012, China ranked 69th in the Global Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum. As of 2023, the country has slipped to 102 out of 146 countries in the same index.

In numerous speeches, President Xi has claimed to advocate for feminism in China but has also emphasised the importance of women paying attention to family, family education and family tradition. (注重家庭,注重家教,注重家风).

The Politburo Standing Committee till this day remains an all-male body. 

Furthermore, the 2015 detention of the Feminist Five, leading feminists who fight against sexual harassment, marked a sharp decline in the government’s tolerance of independent feminist rhetoric.

Men are not exempt from state-imposed masculinity standardisation under Xi. 

In 2021, the General Office of the National Radio and Television Administration issued a notice on strengthening the management of literary and artistic programmes and personnel. Article 3 of the notice reads, ​​"We should establish the correct aesthetic direction for programmes, strictly control the selection of actors and guests, performance styles, costumes and makeup, and firmly eliminate abnormal aesthetics such as 'sissy' (娘炮)."

Chinese experts residing in China state that while significant progress has been made on gender equality, feminist movements and LGBTQ+ issues remain relatively sensitive topics.

"It challenges traditional power structures and social order, which goes against conservative forces," Professor Li from Beijing, who wished to provide only her first name given the sensitivity of the topic, told FairPlanet.

She added, "Additionally, two key factors need to be considered: First, the challenge to traditional family values and declining birth rates; secondly, the international struggle, where feminism might be seen as a destabilising factor influenced by foreign forces, which requires vigilance."

A male sociologist working in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, fully agrees. He noted that the practice of gender equity remains very limited, if not superficial, in Chinese contexts. He added that practical considerations often outweigh substantive advocacy for genuine gender equality in the workplace.

"For example, many gender researchers are well aware of gender issues. Yet, they prefer recruiting male candidates," he said. "It is easier generally for male doctoral candidates to find jobs, so their supervisors would have better statistics."


Lea, a European scholar and activist who attended three universities in China (two in Beijing and one in Wuhan), observed that reactions among educated groups to women-focused or feminist-themed events at universities ranged from genuine support to open hostility.

"Even within one institution, attitudes towards those events differ from individual to individual," said Lea, who asked to use a pseudonym. "While one Dean or administrative staff member might be against your event, other[s] might be very much in favour of it."

However, Lea finds it difficult to determine whether their attitudes stem from the sensitivity of the topic in the eyes of the Chinese central government or from the fear that these feminist gatherings, societies or conferences might attract negative attention to the university bureaucrats. Disagreement with women's activities is rarely expressed clearly.

"There were many paradoxical situations we encountered while organising events, but saw that this tug of war was ultimately leading to a bureaucratic attempt at moderation - whatever the topic may be," said Lea. 

"Even if the themes of these events fully align with Beijing’s official gender agenda, for example, against domestic abuse or in favour of gender equality, the prevailing logic is to avoid 'rocking the boat,' " she added. "Sometimes it seemed that the staff was preoccupied solely with the perceptions and the fact they didn’t know how that might be interpreted, not seeing that this aligned with many of the official political policies."

While encouraging her students to learn about these underlying issues, Professor Li discouraged them from joining street gatherings due to safety concerns.

"NGOs are particularly at risk. I just want my students to be safe," said Professor Li. 

She advises her students to focus on "positive aspects" of LGBTQ+, and argues that gender issues should be framed as women issues in order to avoid top-down suspicion and scrutiny.

"In China, the LGBT issue may not appear optimistic on the surface, but there have been some positive developments, such as the implementation of the 'guardianship by Will' notarisation system," she concluded.

"The progress in terms of laws is worth discussing and further promoting."

Image by Kris Krüg.

Article written by:
Hướng Thiện
Embed from Getty Images
Academic researchers in China often face hurdles when investigating feminist movements and LGBTQ+ issues, despite the country being home to the world's largest queer population.
Embed from Getty Images
Professor Li encouraged her students to understand underlying issues but advised them against joining street gatherings for safety reasons.
Embed from Getty Images
In China, the LGBTQ+ issue may not seem optimistic on the surface, but there have been positive developments, such as the implementation of the "guardianship by will" notarisation system.