Protection of Women’s Rights in the National Governance of Contemporary China
April 07,2020   By:CSHRS
Protection of Women’s Rights in the National Governance of Contemporary China
ZHU Xiaohui*
Abstract: The development of women’s rights is a specific field in modern national governance. The essence of women-related issues in modern times lies in the political and legal systems based on gender inequality and the unequal male-female relationship established by male chauvinism, which has further created domination over and prejudice against women. Since the founding of the New China, especially after the launch of reform and opening-up, the Communist Party of China and the state have attached great importance to the protection of gender equality, bringing about the continued improvement of the protection of women’s rights. However, due to various economic and social barriers, there is still a long way to go to achieve full gender equality. To understand the issue of women’s rights from the perspec-tive of national governance and apply the concept of modern national governance to the protection of women’s rights, it is imperative to pay great attention to the substantive equality concept in the protection of women’s right during the national governance process, take empowering women as an important approach, raise women’s gender equality awareness, and recognize, grant, enhance and guarantee women’s individual rights.
Keywords: national governance   women’s rights   patriarchy   ideology
In the report of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee Xi Jinping made it clear that the overall goal of deepening reform across the board is to improve and develop the socialist system with Chinese characteristics and to modernize the national governance system and the government’s capabilities. The national governance system is an institutional system for the administration of the country under the leadership of the Party. It is composed of institutions and mechanisms, laws and regulations covering economic, political, cultural, social, ecological civilization and party-building fields. The core purpose of national development and modern governance is to promote the well-being of the people and the progress of human civilization, and the level of people’s well-being depends on the modernization degree of national governance and better incorporating the protection of the people’s rights into the concepts, systems and practices of national governance. Women make up half of the population, and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the Second World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 made it clear that women’s rights are human rights. Applying the concept of modern national governance to the protection of women’s rights is to solve the issue of equality for women in national governance by taking the protection of women’s rights as one of the value pursuits and empowering women as an important implementation approach.
I. Women-related Issues and Women’s Rights
Women-related issues have arisen as women have become consciousness of their identity as “human beings” like men and demanded equal rights with men.
In an abstract sense, human rights should mean that for any “humans”, regardless of their gender, origin, property status, educational status, etc., they should enjoy all rights equally. Are women “human beings”? This question seems to be a self-evident truth. However, for a long time in history, women have not been treated as “human beings” like men. When people determine whether a man is noble, they base their judgment on sense, virtue and knowledge, and tend to consider women to lack these qualities, and therefore, women should obey men, and women being obedient to men is regarded as the natural order. When Simone de Beauvoir put forward the question of “What is a woman?”, she pointed out that humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. “She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other”.1 Generally speaking, there is a possibility of interchange between subject and object, which means, under certain conditions, the subject will turn into the object and vice versa. This mutuality means equality between subject and object. However, man is the subject and woman is the object. This subject-object relationship is not interchangeable. Historically, women have always been subordinate to men, they have never identified themselves as the subject, and have always been the “second sex”.
The principle of the male individual as the subject of human rights was established along with the bourgeois revolution. However, from the perspective of women’s rights, whether it is the Declaration of Independence in the United States or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens in France, although the principle they adhere to is “natural rights”, that is, all humans are free and equal in terms of rights, the “humans” refered to are only men, women are excluded, and women still do not have subjectivity as “human beings”. Enlightenment thinkers did the grandest thing in overthrowing the feudal system and establishing the principle of the subject of human rights. However, even great Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau were stubborn in their belief that research into abstract and speculative truths, the principles and axioms of sciences — in short, everything that tends to generalize our ideas — is not the proper province of women. Their studies should concern points of practice; it is for them to apply the principles that men have discovered, and to make observations that direct men to the establishment of general principles. All the ideas of women that aren’t immediately relevant to points of duty should be directed to the study of men, and to the attainment of the pleasant accomplishments that have to do with taste. Works of genius are beyond the capacity of women.2
Why are half of all human beings considered the “second sex”? There are many different theoretical explanations for this. In the Origin of Family, Private Ownership and the State, Engels argued that the original gender division of labor — men going out hunting while women gathering and raising their offspring at home — did not lead to the oppression and discrimination by men of women. It was the emergence of private property that led to the degraded position of women and even their being reduced to servitude to men and families. The original meaning of the word “family” (familia) is not that compound of sentimentality and domestic strife which forms the ideal of the present-day philistine; the term was invented by the Romans to denote a new social organism, whose head ruled over wife and children and a number of slaves, and was invested under Roman paternal power with rights of life and death over them all. In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore of the paternity of the children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.3 Some theories cite Christianity’s statement about Genesis, saying that God created man first, and then used a rib in the man’s body to create a woman in order to have a spouse to help the man. This theory is drawn from a few lines from the Letters of Paul, stating that male domination of females is a principle set by God and is therefore sacred and immutable.4 According to the gender essentialism theory, the difference in the physiological structure of men and women leads to different psychological characteristics of men and women, making women shy, vain and in need of the guidance and help of men. As the physiological structure cannot be changed, women are destined to be inferior to men in the pursuit of truth and virtue. The essentialism theory still exists and exerts its influence in various forms so far.
No matter how different these theories are, their existence itself shows that historically, there is indeed a phenomenon of inequality between men and women, where women are oppressed and discriminated against. The sustained existence of this phenomenon is essentially due to the existence of patriarchy.
The essence of women-related issues lies in the system of gender inequality under patriarchy and the ideology that defends this system. Patriarchy is not only manifested in the system aspect, ranging from political, economic, legal to other systems, covering the right to social participation, the right of inheritance, the right to education, etc. At the same time, patriarchy is also an ideology that has given absolute authority and value to the roles and activities of men, thus establishing a power relationship that enables male rule over females.
If women willingly identify with this system, there will be no so-called women-related issues. However, where there is oppression, there is resistance. With the consciousness awakening of women and their demand to be treated as “human beings” like men, several large-scale movements for equal rights have emerged.
The struggle for women’s rights across several centuries, involving women of all ranks, has been changing human society and history all the time. After World War II, women’s rights were recognized and developed in the international community. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948 clearly states, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, nationality or social background, property, birth or other status. ”
Since then, the international community has adopted a series of declarations and treaties in order to elevate the position of women in an all-round way, and in order to make the concept and practice of protecting women’s rights more deeply recognized and implemented by the international community, the United Nations has held the World Conference on Women four times. On the basis of summarizing the practice of human rights construction for more than 40 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Second World Conference on Human Rights adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, in which the Article 18 states that: “The hu-man rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of gender are priority objectives of the international community.”5 The document, for the first time in history, linked human rights with women’s rights, marking the formal recognition and acceptance of the concept of women’s human rights by the international community.
II. The “+Women’s Rights” in the Governance of Women-related Issues
Despite the great impact of large-scale movements for women’s rights that resulted in the international community’s recognition and protection of women’s rights moving to a higher level, as mentioned earlier, patriarchy is a rather complicated phenomenon, not only in the institutional dimension, but also in the ideological dimension. The 20th century proved that it is comparatively difficult to change ideology, which involves a wide range of aspects from history, culture, religion and even to emotions and languages. Especially when it comes to the gender relationship, the ideology and values that have influenced people for thousands of years sometimes can settle down into collective unconsciousness and be accepted as part of natural order, rather than critical self-reflection. Thus the existence of the so-called “women-related issues” until today, that is, issues resulting from the inequality between men and women. Therefore, efforts must be made to solve this problem from two aspects, one is to reform state institutions while the other is to empower women and to raise women’s awareness of gender equality, both of which are indispensable.
A. The content of “+Women’s Rights”
In national governance, the protection and realization of human rights are taken as the starting point and destination. In “+Women’s Rights”, the “+” previously referred to the national governance system involving each governance field, institution and action, which is intended to protect women’s rights and promote gender equality not only integrally, but also individually. All kinds of rights constitute an interconnected and dynamic whole. It is to consider women’s rights from such a holistic, connected and developmental point of view to establish the purpose and aim of national governance institutions and actions, so that those institutions and actions can be closely linked and coordinated to form inherent value unity.
Applying the concept of modern national governance to the protection of women’s rights means to take the protection of women’s rights as one of the value pursuits in national governance. A good case in point is that although almost all of the job fields are now open to women, women’s employment is still concentrated in areas traditionally considered “women’s work”, such as fast-food service, hotel cleaning and nursing, where, to some extent, the “same work with different pay” still exists. Another factor leading to the widening of the income gap between men and women is the gender segregation of occupations and positions, that is, men are more concentrated in occupations and positions with higher social prestige and higher incomes. Gender segregation limits women’s potential for development and places them at the bottom of the division of labor, making them highly vulnerable to labor market fluctuations. In order to solve this problem, the government has introduced a series of policies, estab-lished a linkage mechanism for economic development and employment expansion, improved the government employment promotion responsibility system and standardized the system of recruitment and employment, which shows great importance is attached to the realization of equal employment rights for men and women, with certain results achieved. With the continuous improvement of the industry structure, the proportion of women in gender-balanced industries has increased significantly, from 15.7 percent in 2000 to 22.8 percent in 2010, indicating that more and more women have exited from industries with a higher degree of segregation to enter more gender-balanced industries.6 This achievement depends on a series of measures implemented by the government to protect women’s equal employment rights, and the success of women has encouraged more women to try the fields where men have reigned supreme, resulting in a change of public consciousness.
B. The implementation of “Women’s Rights”
Since the launch of reform and opening-up, the Chinese government has been proactive in exploring ways to protect women’s rights under the new situation, while actively signing and acceding to the UN conventions and protocols on the protection of women’s rights, demonstrating to the international community its determination and attitude in protecting women’s rights. For example, the Chinese government is one of the first signatories of the Beijing Platform for Action, pledging to the world that it will promote a gender mainstreaming strategy in China. In particular, President Xi Jinping pointed out at the World Women’s Summit in 2015 that the Chinese government would incorporate a gender perspective in all areas of the post-2015 new development agenda. This speech exemplifies the Chinese government’s interpretation of the relationship between national governance and the protection of women’s rights in the new era. The construction of women’s rights in national governance can better mobilize the enthusiasm of the majority of women to build a socialist modern power and strive to realize the Chinese dream, and ultimately achieve gender equality on the basis of protecting women’s rights.
Since 1995, the State Council has issued and implemented three Outline Plans for the Development of Chinese Women. These three outlines are of national action plans for the promotion of gender equality. In the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) outline, to “promote women’s comprehensive development” was specified in a special section for the first time; in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), “protecting the basic rights and interests of women, minors and disabled persons” was specified in a separate chapter for the first time. The national development plan also reflects the Chinese government’s endeavor to protect human rights and women’s rights. For example, all of China’s three National Human Rights Action Plans have emphasized women’s rights by proposing that women enjoy equal rights with men in all aspects and clarifying the commitment to promoting gender equality and eliminating gender discrimination. This series of measures reflects the ever-increasing efforts and ever-greater awareness of successive governments in terms of the protection of women’s rights and interests.
The Law Against Domestic Violence, which came into effect on March 1, 2016, marked another major step forward in China’s protection of women’s rights. Domes-tic violence has always been a major problem plaguing women. However, for a long time, due to deficiencies in laws and regulations and the traditional view that domestic violence is a private matter within the family that should exclude the involvement of public power, the vast majority of women who suffer from domestic violence have chosen a “grin and bear it” approach. A survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation and the National Bureau of Statistics in 2010 showed that “24.7 percent of women have experienced various forms of domestic violence, including spousal insult, abuse, beatings, restrictions on personal freedom, economic control and forced sexual life, throughout their marriage life”.7 The enactment of the anti-domestic violence law is to change this traditional view and systematize the governance of domestic violence, which reflects the change of the government’s concept on the governance of domestic violence, a persistent social problem, as well as an important measure to protect women’s rights.
In December 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which is a special convention for the protection of women’s rights. China gave a positive response by ratifying the Convention in September 1980. Since then, the Chinese government has submitted periodic reports on the implementation of the Convention in accordance with the requirements of the Convention, received a review by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and responded actively to the opinions of the Committee. The submission course from the first report in 1985 to the seventh and eighth combined report in 2012 clearly shows the Chinese government’s great endeavor to elevate the social position of women and protect women’s rights, as well as the great achievements it has made. In this process, it has gradually deepened its understanding of women’s rights as human rights.
As President Xi Jinping promised at the Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, “The rights and interests of women must be protected by laws and regulations and integrated into national and social rules and norms.”8 From this comes the conclusion that, with the continuous improvement of national governance, the construction of women’s rights and the institutional guarantee of the rights will be elevated to a higher level, which will be more conducive to fostering gender equality.
III. The “Women’s Right+” in the Governance of Women-related Issues
A. The content of “Women’s Rights+” and the factors influencing its implementation
“Women’s Rights+” is the concretization of “Human Rights+”, which refers to solving women-related issues during national governance by recognizing, granting, enhancing and protecting the individual rights of citizens. National governance does not merely rely on strengthening national power and compelling force, but on the interaction and synergy between rights and power. The governance of women-related issues, on one hand, requires government action; on the other, it requires women themselves make full use of the favorable conditions of national governance and become actively involved in the governance process. The other critical dimension in the meaning of empowerment is women’s self-empowerment. The Canadian International Development Agency’s definition of women’s empowerment speaks for itself, “Empowerment is the ability of people, women and men, to take control of their own lives, set their own agenda, gain skills, increase self-confidence, solve problems, and develop self-reliance. It is not only a collective, social, political process, but also an individ-ual process. It is both a process and an outcome. Others can’t empower women, and only women can empower themselves by making their own choices and voicing their own opinions”.9 At present, the improvement of laws and regulations that guarantee women’s rights has resulted in a continued decrease in direct and explicit gender discrimination, but indirect and implicit discrimination still exists. To solve this problem, it requires the continuous raising of women’s own consciousness about gender equality and the recognition, granting, strengthening and guarantee of women’s rights to participate in politics, economy and culture. In the meantime, it requires the guarantee of women’s rights to freedom of expression, whistle-blowing and complaint, as well as supervision of inaction or direct or indirect actions that harm women’s rights and interest by state organs.
Therefore, “Women’s Rights+” can be described as “Women’s Rights + State Affairs/Economic and Cultural Affairs/Social Affairs”. Applying “Women’s Rights+” is a manifestation of respect for the status of women as a governing subject and their ability to govern. Applying “Women’s Rights +” helps to mobilize the enthusiasm and creativity of the majority of women in participating in national governance, and helps to gain widespread recognition and support for governance decisions. This approach tends to be more effective than the mere reliance on power and coercion to solve problems. The use of “Women’s Rights +” is also realizing the rights themselves as a form of governance.
The fulfillment of “Women’s Rights+” depends on many factors, among which the core factor is the awakening and improvement of women’s gender equality consciousness. In theory, women have been discriminated against and treated unfairly as the “second gender” for a long time, and women themselves should have developed a deep understanding and motivation to change the status quo of inequality. However, the reality is much more complicated. The patriarchial system itself may be gradually changed under the constant impact of the feminist movement, but the ideology and values of patriarchy have settled into the subconscious of some people and have taken root through variant forms, which can be exemplified by gender stereotyping that still exists in society. Gender stereotyping refers to the attribution of a specific trait, characteristic or role to a female or male individual solely on the grounds that she/he is female or male. Gender stereotyping is an inductive view or preconception that women and men should have certain traits or characteristics, or that they should play certain roles. Gender stereotyping becomes harmful when it limits women’s ability to develop personal skills, pursue a career, and make choices about life and life plans. Women are irrational, or seem to be mild, more suitable for parenting, etc. These gender stereotypes seem to be reasonable and even complimentary for females, but they actually cover up sexism that is more difficult for people to detect and criticize consciously.
Being exposed to patriarchy and the patriarchal ideology for a long time, not all women can realize their loss of subject position and thus lose their power of criticism. Famous British philosopher John Stuart Mill once said, “The rule of men over women differs from all these others in not being a rule of force: it is accepted voluntarily; women make no complaint, and are consenting parties to it.”10 Why? Because “All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. ”11 Even more, some women are willing to lose their subjectivity in order to get a share of the profits from the patriarchal system. As analyzed by Simone de Beauvoir, to decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal — this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste. Women can evade both economic risk and the metaphysical risk of a liberty in which ends and aims must be contrived without assistance. Indeed, along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become a thing. But it is an easy way by which one avoids the strain involved in undertaking an authentic existence. When a man makes of woman the Other, he may, then, expect to manifest deep-seated tendencies towards complicity. Thus, the woman may fail to lay claim to the status of the subject because she lacks definite resources, because she feels the necessary bond that ties her to man regardless of reciprocity, and because she is often very well pleased with her role as the other.12
In the economic sphere, men and women can almost be said to make up two castes; other things being equal, the former hold better jobs, get higher wages, and have more opportunities for success than their new competitors. In industry and poli-tics, men have a great many more positions and they monopolize the most important posts. In addition to all this, they enjoy a traditional prestige that the education of children tends in every way to support, for the present enshrines the past — and in the past, all history has been made by men. At the present time, when women are beginning to take part in the affairs of the world, it is still a world that belongs to men
— they have no doubt of it at all and women have scarcely any. To decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal, this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste.
B. The implementation of “Women’s Rights+”
How can we break through the fog of patriarchal ideology, raise women’s awareness of gender equality and put “Women’s Rights+” into practice? There are two ways to start.
On one hand, the national governance system, covering each governance field, institution, and action, should aim at protecting women’s rights and advancing gender equality. With the change and improvement of the governance fields and institutions and enhancement in governance capabilities, ideologies suitable for a new economic foundation will emerge sooner or later. This is also reflected in the concrete implementation of “Women’s Rights+”. On the other hand, the positive and powerful retroaction of ideology to the economic foundation should be fully leveraged. With women’s sharpened awareness of gender equality and the continuous implementation of “Women’s Rights+”, it is possible to change the concept of women and even the whole society, so as to transform the society and advance gender equality in a substantive sense.
From the view of the Chinese women’s struggle for rights in the 20th century, without the awakening of women’s consciousness and their persistent struggle for rights, there would be no substantive improvement of women’s status and effective protection of women’s rights. Since modern times, China had suffered from invasions by Western powers and Japan. The Chinese people fought dauntlessly for national independence. Women worked shoulder to shoulder with men, making great contributions and sacrifices to national liberation and social liberation. In this sense, the emancipation of Chinese women was not “granted”, but it was secured by women themselves.
Since the launch of reform and opening-up 40 years ago, women’s rights have been further protected with more methods, and women’s awareness of gender equality has been further heightened. Women, who hold up “half the sky”, are playing an increasingly significant role. In terms of political participation, by joining the people’s congresses at various levels, women become part of the decision-making and management of major state affairs. With a clearer understanding of the current situation and demands of women, they put forward a lot of motions, suggestions, and proposals for the protection of women’s rights and promotion of gender equality, providing a strong guarantee for women’s rights. Economically, besides the high participation rate of women in the labor force, more importantly, women have made outstanding contributions in the field of high and new technology, scientific research and development, and enterprise management. All these achievements are owed not only to the continuous improvement of national systems, but also to the raising of women’s awareness of gender equality.
Although the society-wide consciousness about gender equality remains to be further improved due to the complexity and variability of patriarchy and the substantive gender equality remains to be further implemented, with continuous improvement of national governance system and governance capabilities and continuous implementation of “Women’s Right+”, women will become increasingly conscious-awaken and empowered in taking control of their own lives, setting their own agenda, building self-confidence and solving problems.
(Translated by NIU Huizi)
*ZHU Xiaohui ( 朱晓慧 ), Associate Professor of the School of Marxism, Researcher of the National Human Rights Education and Training Base, Fudan University. This paper is funded by the provincial-level joint project of the School of Marxism, Fudan University: “The Origin of Family, Private Ownership and the State: Study on Textual Logics and Ideological Implication” (Project No.: XWH6064203).
1. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Zheng Kelu (Shanghai: Translation Publishing House, 2015), 9.
2.Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, trans. Wang Chen (Beijing: The Commercial Press, 2007), 36.
3.Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, Collection of Marx and Engels (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 2012), 66-67.
4.“A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” Paul, The Bible Corinthians (Shanghai: The National TSPM& CCC Press, 2008), 296.
5.The Research Center for Human Rights of Peking Law School, Compilation of International Human Rights Documents (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2002), 43.
6.Song Xiuyan et al, Research on the Chinese Women’s Social Status in the New Era (Beijing: China Women Publishing House, 2013), 182.
7.Tan Lin et al, 2008-2012: Report on Gender Equality and Women’s Development in China (Beijing: China So-cial Science Press, 2013), 233.
8.Xi Jinping, “Promoting Women’s All-round Development and Building a Better World for All,” accessed Au-gust 25, 2018, http: //news, xinhuanet.com/politics/2015-09/28/c _128272780.htm.
9.“Improving the ability of social gender mainstreaming among the International Labor Organization members” China project team, Guidebook for Improving the Gender Mainstreaming Ability (Beijing: Chinese Society Press, 2004), 11.
10.John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (Beijing: the Commercial Press, 2007), 298.
11.Ibid., 300.
12.Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 14-15.
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