By Mai Corlin, Ph.D. student, Aarhus University
Gender inequality is not simply the unfair treatment of men and women. It is a complex issue tied to a whole range of disparities in society at large, argues Professor Min Dongchao, who has just been awarded a Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship and will be a guest professor at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies for the next few years. Her object of study is the travels of gender theory between the Nordic countries and China.
Just another day at the factory
Like many other researchers and academics of her generation, Professor Min Dongchao was young during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Most of China’s schools and universities were closed down during that period, and the youth were sent to the countryside or to factories to learn from the working class. Professor Min spent the Cultural Revolution as a worker at the Tianjin Machinery and Tool Factory, beginning her factory career at the age of 15 in 1969 and staying there for eight years.
“During the Cultural Revolution, society was turned upside down. We grew up in a transformed environment with no language to talk about gender or differences between the sexes, because there wasn’t supposed to be any difference. Everybody wore the same kinds of clothes, did the same job, got the same pay, and so forth. There was basically no sexual division in society — at least not on the surface,” says Professor Min Dongchao.
The open door
It was only after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 that schools and universities reopened, and it became possible for at least some of the so-called “sent down youth” to return to the education system. Once again, society was turned upside down: Foreign cultures and influences entered the country, spurring an irreversible development of Chinese society.
“Suddenly we could watch films and television from abroad, films that often demonstrated a clear gender differentiation, where men looked like men and women looked like women. So we wanted to look good, and we wanted to look different from men. Women started wearing makeup, and clothes in general became more colorful. Suddenly, a more diverse expression and mode of behavior were allowed again,” explains Min.
But there was another side to the new developments. It soon became more difficult for women to find employment, and they were paid gradually less, as men were generally favored in job situations. The factories started to lay off workers, and women were often the first to go. Other problems such as prostitution and men taking second wives also resurfaced and, according to Professor Min, this laid some of the foundation for why women and gender studies started taking off in China in the 1980s.
Professor Min returned to China in 2004 after almost ten years in the UK, and discovered a country in rapid transition. The new generations of young girls had reversed the Cultural Revolutionary tradition of going to the countryside. Instead, they were heading to coastal cities to work in factories — a mixed experience, to most. On the one hand, they experience the freedom of getting their own job, earning their own money, and freeing themselves from the pressure of country life. On the other, they work under exploitative conditions, are paid very little, and without any unions to protect them.
The introduction of gender
United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women Opens in Beijing, September 1995. Photo: UN Photo/Milton Grant
Gender as a concept was introduced into China in connection with preparations for the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing in 1995. There was growing awareness of increasingly visible gender inequality, and a new conceptual language to discuss these issues was made available to concerned academics and activists.
One of the gender-related issues under discussion in recent years is quotas. During the Mao era, the sex ratio was 50-50 in most party and government organs. In 2008, the government introduced gender quotas stipulating that 22% of the congress should be female, and last year, in collaboration with the All-China Women’s Federation, it was decided that there should be at least one woman on village committees. Professor Min, however, argues that the solution to gender inequality issues doesn’t lie only in quotas or the recognition of gender issues. Rather, it is a matter of general inequality in society at large:
“Gender equality should be addressed as a very important issue, and by this I don’t just mean gender difference — it is not a matter of achieving complete similarity between the sexes. Gender inequality has to do with general inequality in the society at large, the gap between rich and poor, inequality between the regions, between city and countryside. There are males and females of all classes and walks of life, so there are very rich females and very poor males. Gender inequality exists and can only be understood in the context of all levels of society, and within all classes. The inequality gap in general is growing bigger, which in turn affects gender inequality. When you conduct your research you may forget this, you may think in different categories, but you always have to see the society as a whole. The conditions for life in China are so dependent on geography and class. In many rural places, there are no proper schools, and children run around hungry. And then you have Shanghai with its multimillionaires — even billionaires. If you only look at one class or one geographic location, you get a skewed picture of what is actually going on in China,” Professor Min emphasizes.
The local is not subordinate to the global
Many academics agree that you cannot separate globalization and the local; they are two sides of the same coin. In other words, you cannot take the local out of the global. Globalization happens in the local. Professor Min argues that this is the case even for places with myriad global connections, like London: Even though all the money flowing through the financial center influences London from abroad, there is still a feature of something “local.” Understanding the global in relation to the local is a way to give prominence to people, because they are the ones who experience the changes on an everyday basis, and they are the ones who actually “practice” globalization.
As Professor Min notes, “We often see the railway as a symbol of globalization, because it links places together, but what we tend to forget is that there are places and people in between the stations. As with railways, there are different routes for gender studies in China. Some people go to Beijing and Shanghai and read Judith Butler, and then others go to the poor areas, like Yunnan. In Yunnan they have gradually changed the gender discourse and related practice, and as a result, the Yunnan Province Women’s Federation has managed to obtain more funding for larger projects than they have in places where they have not yet incorporated the new discourse.”
“Yunnan Province Women’s federation is a good example of how the global and the local are linked, of how things change in a local environment,” she argues.
The next generation
The new generation of women has begun to stir up radical performances and protests in the big cities. One example is a domestic violence protest last year in which young women painted their faces so it looked like they’d been beaten, and posted pictures of it on the Internet. Another incident was the Occupy Toilet Movement, where women occupied men’s rooms to protest the lack of women’s toilets in most public places.
“They might have gotten the idea from Taiwan or Hong Kong,” Professor Min adds.
Last year, some universities refused female applicants even though they had the same scores as their male counterparts. The Ministry proclaimed that for the sake of the country the universities needed more men, not girls. The women reacted by staging a happening where they shaved their heads and stood out on the street in defiance.
“Because of the Internet, this protest became a big deal. I think it’s good that young women have started to react to society’s gender inequalities; it is a good sign. I think it’s important that they protest, that they fight for something. My generation is about to retire, and we need the younger generation to take over and do the job. I hope that is what we’re seeing now,” Professor Min concludes.
Professor Min Dongchao, director of the Centre for Gender and Culture Studies at Shanghai University, has received the Marie Curie Actions International Incoming Fellowship and will be a guest professor at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) at the University of Copenhagen from April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2015.
Professor Min’s project is titled “Cross-Cultural Encounters — The Travels of Gender Theory and Practice to China and the Nordic Countries” and is concerned with the cross-cultural translation of knowledge and practices that may or may not take place when different cultures interact, and the resulting production of new knowledge. Taking the travelling routes of gender theory and practices to, and also between, China and the Nordic countries as the empirical object of study, the project will focus on the crucial questions of why and how knowledge travels or fails to travel.
This interview with Professor Min Dongchao can also be found on ThinkChina.dk – Blogging on Denmark and China.
Elisabeth L. Engebretsen
Watching television images of the Chinese 60th anniversary celebrations on 1 October, I was struck by the prominently displayed rainbow color people-formations on Chang’an Avenue – the very heart of Chinese political governance. The intended, official meanings of the rainbow theme undoubtedly were those of common themes related to the Community Party’s rhetoric of nationalist hope, purity, and yearning for progress and development; and thereby providing a visual support for slogans such as “Socialism is good”, “Develop Science and Technology,” and so on. But, the rainbow flag is moreover known worldwide to symbolize lesbian and gay (‘lgbtq’ henceforth)[i] pride. Over the course of the last decades, concurring with increased economic and cultural globalization, the rainbow flag has taken on a somewhat globally recognized symbolic and political meaning for lbgtq people and communities in numerous non-Western locations, where homosexuality tends to remain at least sensitive and taboo, if not illegal.
This is also the case in mainland China. Yet, the current status and situation of lgbtq communities there are far from a clear-cut situation of repression and exclusion, as many would readily believe based on the autocratic political regime and innumerable media reports of (usually ethnic) minority repression and surveillance. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, and delisted as a mental disorder in 2001. Still, lgbtq people have no legal protection, suffer homophobia by employers and family, and activists experience periodically intense persecution and surveillance in accordance with macro-level political priorities to ensure ‘harmony’ and ‘stability’ at crucial times – such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the recent Uighur and Tibetan unrest, and the current 60th Anniversary celebrations this month. Based on little independent, unbiased research of homosexuality as a social (not medical) phenomenon, titillating, sensationalist media reporting, and popular yet traditional folk ideologies, homosexuality is invariably considered immoral, an illness a par with cancer, synonymous with AIDS, abnormal, and un-Chinese.
Due to this situation, few lgbtq Chinese ‘come out’ (i.e. explicitly declare sexual identity) or live openly in same-sex relationships. Most seek a tacit, complicit strategy of, on the one hand, adhering to normative expectation at ‘face’ value, whilst engaging in relationships and communities of their preference in a kind of un-declared, semi-public/private personal life on the other. However, this pervasive difficulty has not prevented a vocal and diverse lgbtq community to emerge; in fact, it has probably enabled and, certainly, fuelled it. Starting in the mid-1990s, social and activist networks have developed in several large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Dalian, and Kunming. The introduction of and popular access to the Internet and personal cell phones contribute enormously to the general establishment of a semi-private, public sphere in Chinese society, with the potential for alternative expressions and life styles. Combined with the relative decrease in governmental direct control of everyday life, for lgbtq people this change has meant the ability to establish longer-term community projects to raise consciousness, produce validating and self-affirming positive knowledge such as documentary films, magazines, and oral histories. Outside NGOs, especially from Taiwan and Hong Kong – two culturally and linguistically Chinese societies – provide long-standing experience in aspects of lgbtq activist concerns.
This seeming paradox of official constraints and alternative possibilities are increasingly being played out in the Chinese media public, thanks to bolder, more pronounced initiatives taken by some lgbtq networks. To cite an example, on Valentine’s Day these three last years, Beijing lgbtq activists and supporters have organized same-sex marriage campaigns in downtown Beijing to draw the public’s attention to same-sex love and identity in general, and the inequality in current marriage legislation in particular.[ii] This year, the campaign took place at the opposite end of Tiananmen, where the rainbow colors where displayed for rather different reasons on October 1. In the popular tourist and shopping area of Qianmen, two gay men and two lesbian women posed as brides-to-be and grooms-to-be, dressed in white gowns and black tuxedos, respectively. Local and foreign media covered this unusual and rather bold event, and activists documented the proceedings with film cameras.[iii] Other activists distributed red flowers to passer-bys, to which they attached leaflets advocating equal rights to marry for all, and noting that lgbtq people are “just like regular folks.” One long-time lesbian activist in Beijing noted in conversation with me this summer that the marriage focus should not be read the same way that gay marriage campaigning in Western societies are. Whilst gay marriage in the West has turned into the seminal yardstick for determining lgbtq equality and a society’s progressive attitude to sexuality, same-sex marriage works politically quite differently in the Chinese context, more like a eye-catching means to a more basic end already achieved, more or less, in North-Western Europe. In China, marriage is an institution everybody knows and deals with, due to the consistent cultural imperative to marry. It is therefore used symbolically by lgbtq activists to advocate not simply and primarily equality, but more importantly, advocate the basic shared humanity of Chinese lgbtqs with the general, heterosexual population, in wanting romantic love, relationships ‘till death do us apart’, and ‘simply’, stable, normal lives.
The paradox remains that the popular media and the blogosphere allow for increasing representations of ‘gay’ issues as basically about lifestyle, fuelled by three decades of open and reform policy’s acceptance of consumerism and material wealth as primary indexer of the ‘good life’. A lifestyle focus, in turn, ensures a categorical divorce from the sensitive political domain; thus, any activist efforts that remotely resemble political rhetoric or public unrest carry risk for authorities’ surveillance and closure, and worse. This summer, a local tongzhi centre in Beijing was shut down, any lgbtq event will still be visited by police and public security officials demanding paper-work, identity cards, etc. Local activists exhibit remarkable humor, stoicism, and creativity in their dealings with these officials. In a society where alternative approaches to sensitive topics and ways of life are deemed to be political destabilizers and potential threats to Party governance, it is likely that these versatile, brave activist strategies must proceed for quite some time in years to come.
Dr Elisabeth L. Engebretsen is a social anthropologist specializing on gender, sexuality, subjectivity and identity, and social change in PR China. She is currently Faculty Lecturer at McGill University’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. More information at: http://www.mcgill.ca/igsf/faculty/
[i] I use ‘lgbtq’ to mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer, in an attempt to recognize the difficulty, and impossibility, of fixing sexual identity categories. Note however, that commonly used categories in Mainland China include lala (a collective identity category used by women who love women), T/P (tomboy/po “wife”, a Chinese version of masculine butch and feminine femme roles), tongzhi (meaning “comrade”, gender neutral), tongxinglianzhe (“ho
mosexual”, a direct Chinese translation of the English term). In addition, there are numerous slang words and terminologies.
[ii] Chinese law does not recognize same-gender marriage as valid, but neither does it specify the opposite-gender implication of current legal code.
[iii] A documentary film has since been made by the China Queer Independent Film Group, titled “New Beijing, New Marriage” (Xin Beijing, Xin Hunyin) (2009, 20 mins., Fan Popo, David Zheng). It specifically documents this event.
Sino-Icelandic relations in times of intense globalization – Mutual respect and benefits for all? By Lilja HjartardóttirPosted: June 8, 2009
Sino-Icelandic relations are a recent and undertheorised phenomenon compared with Sino-Nordic relations that were already established early in the 20th century. Once business relations took hold in the 1990s Icelanders moved quickly into the immense Chinese market. While trade relations have maintained their priority status in the execution of foreign policy, participation in the international human rights regime has taken a backseat. Icelandic authorities have pledged to promote and protect human rights and gender equality in their foreign policy and foreign trade policy. In spite of public support to find and develop new markets, neither private nor public enterprises are part of the policy to enforce international human rights, including workers and women’s rights, and they are not legally bound by international human rights treaties.
Iceland has been an active, albeit small, member of the international trade regime. From the early 1990s ministers of governments, members of the Reykjavik city council, business leaders and business enthusiasts all travelled to China to experience a new and promising market. As a new member of the European Economic Community in 1994, Iceland worked on deregulation and privatization of its economy with the now well known catastrophic consequences. New legislation and regulations were meant to ensure that the business environment would enhance foreign investment in Iceland (Ásgrímsson 1998, 2005).The Icelandic President, who has participated in promoting and supporting the Icelandic business community abroad, led a large delegation to China in 2005. The trip was successful in preparing for many new business contracts between the two states. During the same period Chinese dignitaries visited Iceland. In spite of the great contrast between the two states, current relations have been grounded in mutual trust and admiration for the economic advancement reached by both countries before the economic crisis. China appreciates that Iceland was among the first West European countries that recognized China’s status as a complete market economy while neither the United States nor the European Union has done so. Iceland was moreover the first European country to work with China on the feasibility of establishing a free trade zone. Iceland and China are making good progress on their comprehensive bilateral free trade agreement.
Forces of globalization shape our daily lives and the functions of the international trade system benefits us even while betraying us. There is no lack of rules on behaviour and guidelines on how international companies should respect workers rights and be responsible actors in the international market. The rules are, however, voluntary and a system of implementation and enforcement has yet to be developed. Examples are the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Corporations and the Global Compact initiative by the United Nations. What is needed is an international legal framework to deal with a new reality where over 2400 bilateral free trade agreements exist and the transfer of trade and finance is almost unlimited (Ruggie 2008).
Globalized forces affect the life of women and men at global and local levels. A close look at local communities, e.g. coastal villages around Iceland, shows that their existence has been threatened by lack of job opportunities. Since the early 1990s jobs in fish processing have declined by more than 60% (Sigurmundsson 2007). The reasons are not simple but the privatization of the fish industry in the early 1980s and the relatively high price of fresh fish do matter. In addition to the fact that in spite of low salaries in fish processing the workers cannot compete with cheap labour or labour made cheap elsewhere (Enloe 1990, Pun 1999). While China is by far the greatest fishing nation and a competitor on the market, Iceland is on the list of the world’s 15 main fishing countries. More than being the land of ice and fire, Iceland is the land of fish and fisheries.
Gender division of power, resources and labour
Women have protested the ancient divide between the powerful public sphere of active men, the political citizens, where resources are distributed and decisions made, and the powerless private sphere of excluded women. This tradition in liberal Western democracies has proven a major hindrance for women. It transferred into the dominance of international institutions in the 20th century, inter alia, the international finance and trade institutions (Pateman 1989, Tickner 2001). The gender division of power, resources and labour is clear in the Icelandic fish industry (Karlsdóttir 2006, Skaptadóttir 2000). The political decision to privatize the fish industry in Iceland was accepted in the early 1980s when men dominated national and local politics. The control of marine resources and the majority of business enterprises continue in the hands of men. In addition, they are the skippers and owners of the fishing vessels.
Do gender relations matter in international trade relations? Are ideas about feminity and masculinity traded along with goods and services? Are the same gendered forces of our global market economy at play in the small village plant in the capitalist, democratic far North and a huge factory in communist China? Is the gendered division of labour in the Icelandic freezing plants exported and perhaps reinforced, to the Icelandic owned freezing plants in China? Known as the most valuable resource for global business (Peterson and Runyan 1999) and the ideal workforce (e.g. Caraway 2007) women in production are said to be cheap, as well as ‘docile and willing to work lon
g hours in dead-end jobs’ (Caraway 2007). These attributes have been ascribed to women in labour intensive production especially in export processing zones (EPZ) in Asia. The research done by Pun Ngai (e.g., 1999, 2004) shows how ‘despotic labour regimes’ are created by global, national and not least local factors in China to the detriment of the well-being of the young migrant working women. While labour legislation is enforced in Iceland and freedom of movement is secured, could similar forces be at play in the (then) wealthy Nordic state known for its gender equality and welfare polices?
According to a study on Icelandic women, who have worked in fish processing most of or all of their working lives (Karlsdóttir, 2006), there are some similarities. The women are hard workers and serious about their jobs. Nevertheless, they receive low salaries and little respect and the public image of their jobs is poor. Most of them have never been offered promotion and they are hard to find in management or quality control positions. Commencements are exceptional, complaints are not. The gendered division of work in the high-tech fish processing and freezing plants of Iceland is clear. It seems that women can and will do all the different[SP1] tasks while most of the male workers will neither pack nor debone. This work requires ‘nimble fingers’ and men are not understood to have such skills. The packing and deboning task seems to be the one most related to femininity and it is one of the most repetitive and strenuous types of work. One factor explaining why women kept their dead-end jobs in the plants was that it was easy to control the number of days they worked. The way women organise their paid work ensures responsibility for their families and thus for most of the caring in the community. Should they be labelled a ‘docile workforce’?
Despite different working and life conditions between women in Iceland and China there are similarities. The gender division of labour is a factor that has to be reckoned with in order to promote and protect human rights in foreign trade policy. To what extent are the economic and trade ties between Iceland and China based on mutual respect and benefit, also for women in both countries? Women in the fish industry in small communities in Iceland seem to lack status to pursue power to influence local and national politics of the industry. Are they glued to the ‘sticky floor’ in the plants and stuck in their local communities, while their Chinese co-workers are at least temporarily mobile and even experiencing personal and financial freedom for the first time? Will ongoing trade relations and the free trade agreement between Iceland and China reinforce the gendered hierarchies in these two societies or is it possible for both trade relations and human rights to thrive? This is a major challenge in a globalized world.
Ásgrímsson, Halldór (1998) Report of the Foreign Minister to the Althing. Gazette of the Althing, B-deild 1997-1998.
- (2005) Speech at the Business Forum of the Chamber of Commerce, February 2005.
Caraway, Teri L. (2007) Assembling Women. The Feminization of Global Manufacturing. New York: Cornell University Press.
Enloe Cynthia (1990) Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. London: Pandora.
Hjartardóttir, Guðbjörg Lilja (2009) “Performance and Contribution of Iceland in the International Human Rights Regime 1946-1994.” Forthcoming.
Karlsdóttir, Anna (2006) “Women’s dilemma in times of changing labour conditions in the Eastern part of Iceland” (Tvístígandi konur á tímum atvinnuháttabreytinga á Austurlandi). Public lecture at the ReykjavíkurAkademía 10. October 2006.
Pateman, Carole (1989) The Disorder of Women. Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press & Basil Backwell.
Peterson, Spike V., Anne Sisson Runyan (1999) Global Gender Issues: Dilemmas in World Politics. Colorado and Oxford: Westview Press.
Pun, Ngai (1999) “Becoming Dagongmei (Working Girls): The Politics of Identity and Difference in Reform China.” The China Journal 42 (July) pp 1-18.
Pun, Ngai (2004) “Women Workers and Precarious Employment in a Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.” China Gender and Development Vol. 12, 2 pp 29-36.
Ruggie, John (2008) Protect, Respect and Remedy: A Framework for Business and Human Rights” Human Rights Council, A/HRC/8/5, 7 April. (available http://www.reports and-materials.org/Ruggie-report-7-Apr-2008.pdf)
Sigurmundsson, Arnar (2007) Skýrsla stjórnar og ræða formanns Samtaka fiskvinnslustöðva á aðalfundi 28 September.
Tickner J. Ann (2001) Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the post-Cold War Era. New York, Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press