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Women’s Councils: A Practical Exploration on the Construction of Democracy, Autonomy and the Rule of Law at the Grassroots Level
March 02,2021   By:CSHRS
Women’s Councils: A Practical Exploration on the Construction of Democracy, Autonomy and the Rule of Law at the Grassroots Level
 
QU Xiangfei*
 
Abstract: The women’s councils are an innovation advocated by the All-China Women’s Federation for women’s participation in social management and grassroots democracy. They are a beneficial exploration for women to participate in public affairs according to the law in accordance with Article 2 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, and are a model of “the combination of autonomy, rule of law and rule of virtue.” The women’s councils have aroused the enthusiasm of women to participate in public affairs, stimulated their autonomous vitality and creativity, and helped to solve the problems of women’s lack of representation and voice in decision-making. The process of deliberation is also the process of developing the awareness of rights, rules, consultation ability, the concept of the rule of law and even thinking about the rule of law. The women’s councils not only help to protect the rights and interests of women and children and promote women’s development, but also has unique value in enriching grassroots consultative democracy, developing grassroots mass autonomy, building a society ruled by law and promoting the implementation of the Constitution. We should therefore fully affirm, support and perfect the women’s councils so as to make it long-term, standardized and institutionalized.
 
Keywords: women’s councils    deliberative democracy    society ruled by law    combination of autonomy    rule of law and rule of virtue    implementation of the Constitution
 
The report delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) put forward that “the rural governance model which combines autonomy, rule of law and rule of virtue should be improved.” Article 2 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that “the people administer state affairs and manage economic and cultural undertakings and social affairs through various channels and in various ways in accordance with the provisions of law.” Women’s councils provide a beneficial and innovative exploration for the implementation of the Constitution, the promotion of grassroots democracy and autonomy, and the construction of a society ruled by law. Besides, they can serve as a model of “ the combination of autonomy, rule of law and rule of virtue.”
 
Ⅰ. Women’s Councils and Their Development
 
The women’s councils are an important measure advocated by the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) for women’s participation in social management and grassroots democracy. It is “a deliberation form led by the Party’s grassroots organizations, organized by women’s federations, and taking members of executive committees of local women’s federations in villages (communities) as its core members and whose participants are mainly ordinary women.” It aims to “guide and mobilize women to express their demands in a reasonable way and in accordance with the law, and to participate in the management of public affairs, and to solve problems concerning women’s interests and overcome practical difficulties that are of most concern to them and are directly related to them for the moment.” 
 
A. Development of the Women’s Councils
 
Louzhuang Town, Jiangyan District, Taizhou City, Jiangsu Province, which embarked on the exploration of the establishment of the women’s deliberation system in rural areas and produced positive social effects in 2001, is the cradle of the women’s council.  In 2005, after summarizing regional experience, Jiangsu Women’s Federation issued a Notice on Promoting the Women’s Deliberation System and the System of Spokesperson for Women’s Federation that stipulated the participants, contents, rules and form of a women’s council, and made the decision to establish a women’s council throughout the province.
 
The women’s deliberation system, which originated in rural areas, was recognized, supported and promoted by the ACWF. In 2011, the ACWF issued the Directive on the Promotion of Women’s Federation’s Participation in the Work of Innovation in Social Management, which officially put forward that “systems like the women’s council and Women’s Administrative Committee should be promoted and women should be organized together to make contributions to social management and public service at the grassroots level.” After that, the women’s deliberation system was established progressively nationwide. In 2015, the ACWF issued the Directive on Strengthening the Construction of Service-Oriented Women’s Federations at the Grassroots Level, which demanded that “organization networks should be improved, and women’s self-organizations like women’s councils, women’s administrative committees, women mutual aid groups and women fellowship societies should be developed.” One of the important aspects of the reform scheme of the ACWF put forward in 2016 was to “bolster the universal establishment of women’s council in the ‘Women’s Home’ in urban and rural communities, and to arrange for women to carry out activities to deliberate and discuss the formulation and revision of citizens’ conventions and township rules and regulations.” In 2018, the report delivered at the 12th National Women’s Congress (NWC) of China restated that “women’s councils in ‘Women’s Homes’ in urban and rural communities should be established and women should be guided to participate in the practice of grassroots democracy and autonomy in an orderly fashion.”
 
Constantly propelled by the ACWF, the women’s councils have become more and more institutionalized and standardized. In 2012, Fujian Women’s Federation formulated and issued the Trial Directive on Promoting and Implementing the Women’s Deliberation System, the System for Making Complaints and Proposals on behalf of Women or Assisting Them in this Respect, and the Women Mutual Aid System, and later compiled and printed “A Handbook on the Work of Women’s Deliberation System in Fujian Province.” Shanghai Women’s Federation issued the Directive on Grassroots Women Organizations Promoting the Women’s Council System in 2013. Jiangsu Women’s Federation, having issued the Notice on Promoting the Women’s Deliberation System and the System of Spokesperson for the Women’s Federation in 2005, enshrined the promotion of women’s deliberation system in the newly edited Regulations on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests of Jiangsu Province in 2018, a local ordinance providing a legal guarantee for women’s deliberation system in Jiangsu. According to the Regulations, the Women’s Federation bears the responsibility to establish and improve the women’s council, and it should arrange for women to participate in activities deliberating and discussing the formulation of village rules and regulations and residents’ conventions and other activities concerning the rights and interests of women and children. It should also present the suggestions and proposals put forward by the women’s council to villagers’ committees and residents’ committees for deliberation; besides, it stated that these committees should provide access for women to participate in villager autonomy and resident autonomy with ease. 
 
Years of efforts have witnessed the development of women’s councils at different levels throughout the country. According to the research by the ACWF, by 2017, the regions that had taken the lead in carrying out activities concerning women’s deliberation had basically established women’s councils at five levels — the provincial, city, county, township (street) and village (community) — as was the case in Jiangsu Province, and of the rest grassroots organizations in other provinces and cities, over 90 percent had established a women’s council.  By the end of 2019, provinces, municipalities, autonomous regions throughout the country and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps had implemented activities concerning women’s deliberation, and the number of women’s councils nationwide had risen to over 260,000, with a total of more than 700,000 activities being carried out. 
 
B. Working forms of women’s councils
 
In order to promote the sound development of women’s councils in the long run, the Department of Women’s Rights and Interests, by studying, analyzing and summarizing the experience of women’s councils nationwide, compiled the “Questions and Answers on the Work of women’s councils” in October 2019. It gives comprehensive guidance for activities concerning women’s deliberation on their procedures, entities, purposes, means, values and concrete plans, and serves as a reference for women’s federations at the grassroots level to guide, organize and carry out activities concerning women’s deliberation in accordance with local conditions.
 
According to the Questions and Answers on the Work of Women’s Councils, women’s councils should be convened and organized by the president and members of the executive committee of the Women’s Federation in villages (communities) and female college-graduate village officials, and if necessary, be co-convened with the “two committees” in villages (communities), which refer to the Party branch committee and villagers’ committee in a village and their counterparts in the community. The main participants in a women’s council should be ordinary women, including officials of the Women’s Federation at the grassroots level like its president and members of its executive committee, the leaders of women’s groups, heads of communities, retired officials, social workers, female entrepreneurs, capable women, directors of the buildings, volunteers and so on. Based on practical needs, interested parties and professionals can also be invited for deliberation, and members of the “two committees” in villages (communities) can also participate in the discussion on major issues relating to women and children in their villages (communities).  The women’s councils do not completely bar men from participation. For example, the “Green Housewife” women’s council in Meilong Sancun, Lingyun Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai, takes women as backbone members, and also involves male residents in the effective management and service of resident autonomy. 
 
The topics for deliberation should be selected from problems directly involving women, as demanded by the superior departments and the “two committees” in villages (communities), problems emerging in the work of executive committees at the grassroots level, and problems concerning women in the village (community) the most and raised by them. The chosen topics should generally include: the implementation of laws, regulations and policies concerning the rights and interests of women and children and family, and the basic national policy of gender equality in the village (community), or the problems emerging during the implementation process; the hot and difficult issues concerning the immediate rights and interests of women and children, and practical problems in dire need of resolution, such as the difficulties and demands of special groups and families such as left-behind and migrant women and children, women and children living in poverty, women and children with disabilities and illnesses, single mothers and elderly women, and deep-rooted problems awaiting urgent settlement raised by women in the village (community); the formulation and revision of residents’ conventions and village rules and regulations; major events in the village (community), such as the confirmation of the membership of the rural collective economic organizations, land contract management, homestead confirmation, reform of the collective property system; other issues that concern women such as the problems concerning their rights and interests including the transformation of outdated weeding traditions and customs, and the prevention and settlement of marriage and family disputes; the implementation of the main work of the Women’s Federation in the village (community). 
 
The forms of women’s deliberation are flexible and they can be various depending on the situations. Besides attending traditional conferences, women can exchange their opinions via new media platforms, such as WeChat and QQ groups, and in different places, including teahouses and local residents’ yards. As for important matters, they can gather together and discuss face to face in the “Women’s Home” and if necessary, discuss where the relevant persons or interested parties are. They can meet regularly and collectively, or whenever and wherever there are important matters to be discussed. The discussed results of matters that involve collective interests or rights and interests of most community members or that need the attention and solutions from “two committees” in villages (communities) should be reported to the “two committees” and the Women’s Federation at a higher level. Meanwhile, the women’s council needs to follow up the results and request timely responses, so as to promote the inclusion of significant issues concerning women in the discussion list of “two committees” so they get solved. 
 
Ⅱ. Development of the Construction of Democracy and Autonomy at the Grassroots Level 
 
One of the functions of the women’s councils is to enrich the forms of grassroots consultative democracy, making the grassroots public decision-making more scientific, legitimate and democratic, and developing the construction of democracy and autonomy at the grassroots level.
 
A. Consultative democracy as a national strategy
 
After 1949 and before the launch of reform and opening-up, the central government realized its overall planning, management and control over social affairs through grassroots organizations including people’s communes that integrate political and economic functions in rural areas and workplaces, sub-district offices and residents’ committees in urban areas and through top-down instructions and arrangements from governments at all levels, resulting in highly reduced freedom of social autonomy and single and rigid social life.
 
One of the outcomes of reform and opening-up, especially of the development of a market-oriented economy, was the appropriate separation between government and society which enabled economic agents both in rural and urban areas to gain more power over independent production and management and members of society to have more autonomy. According to Article 2 of the current Constitution, which was drawn up in 1982, the state is under the people’s democratic dictatorship, which is known as the principle of popular sovereignty, in which people administer state affairs and manage economic and cultural undertakings and social affairs through various channels and in various ways in accordance with the provisions of law. The Constitution also stipulates that both villagers’ and urban residents’ committees are grassroots autonomous organizations which are affiliated by people’s mediation committees, public security committees and public health committees to handle local public affairs and welfare undertakings, mediate civil disputes, assist with maintaining public order, report to government the public opinions and carry out autonomy. With the implementation of the Constitution, the “Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees” and the “Organic Law of the Urban Residents’ Committees” were approved successively, completing the forms of grassroots autonomy progressively.
 
However, due to the state-oriented concept and the fact that the government had controlled and managed social affairs, social agents in many regions had little freedom to carry out autonomy, weak awareness of autonomy, and limited capability for autonomy. As the main forms of grassroots autonomy, the villagers’ committees and urban residents’ committees contained different degrees of administration. And the social affairs were mainly handled through administrative means in a top-down manner, delaying the development of grassroots autonomy. The social management model at the grassroots level that put the general public and social organizations in a passive position, could not fully understand and respond to public demand, and hindered the democracy from moving healthily toward a higher level.
 
To achieve social autonomy, the independent status and free will of social agents needed to be respected, their vigor and innovation capacity be inspired and moral level lifted. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the new concepts of the CPC and government on social management were firstly reflected in their focus on the function of the autonomy of the grassroots and the ideology of “small government, big society” began to take shape. In 2004, the transformation of China’s social management system was launched during the Fourth Plenary Session of the 16th CPC Central Committee; in 2008, the State Council formally put forward the requirement to “strengthen the organizational construction of the society, improve the social management system at the grassroots level, exert the role of social organizations in expanding social participation and reporting public demands, and enhance the function of social autonomy.”
 
Consultative democracy can effectively reinforce social autonomy and take advantage of the function of social autonomy so as to release more freedom for grassroots autonomy. Since the 18th CPC National Congress, consultative democracy has been fully implemented in the innovation of social management and the construction of a society ruled by law. In 2012, “developing the system of socialist consultative democracy” was included in and became an important part of “following the path of political development of socialism with Chinese characteristics and promoting the reform of political system” in the report delivered at the 18th CPC National Congress, featuring the first occurrence of consultative democracy in a report of the CPC National Congress. According to the 18th CPC National Congress, socialist consultative democracy stood as a significant form of China’s people’s democracy, the system and working mechanism of consultative democracy needed to be improved and consultative democracy be advanced in a more extensive, multilevel and institutionalized way. Moreover, major questions concerning economic and social development and real-life affairs relating to people’s own interests needed comprehensive deliberation to absorb public opinions, gather people’s wisdom and enhance consensus and concerted efforts. It also pointed out that “democratic consultation at the grassroots level should be carried out” and the “democracy system at the grassroots level should be improved.” In 2013, the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee further proposed that consultative democracy needed to be advanced in a more extensive, multilevel and institutionalized way. In the new era, the consultative democracy has developed from a local and regional practice into a national strategy, extended from politics to economy, society and other areas, and emerged from a way of working to a system. 
 
B. Gradual implement of consultative democracy at the grassroots level
 
Rural and urban communities and mass organizations provide favorable conditions for the development of consultative democracy at the grassroots level. In 2015, the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council issued the Directive on Strengthening Deliberation of Urban and Rural Communities which made overall arrangements for the deliberation of urban and rural communities, stipulated that “the advantages of mass organizations and social workers should be explored and citizens encouraged and mobilized to participate in deliberation” and that “the forms of deliberation should be expanded and various deliberation activities be launched based on occasions and platforms such as ‘the day for people to express their opinions to local governments’, ‘the day of police rooms in communities to be open for the general public to know more about them’ , ‘villagers’ (citizens’) forum’ and the ‘Women’s Home.” In 2017, the report delivered at the 19th CPC National Congress further pointed out that “we will advance extensive, multilevel, and institutionalized development of consultative democracy, and adopt a coordinated approach to promoting deliberations carried out by political parties, people’s congresses, government departments, Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) committees, people’s organizations, communities, and social organizations. We will strengthen the institutions of consultative democracy and develop complete procedures and practices to enable the people’s broad, continuous, and intensive participation in day-to-day political activities.” In 2018, seven departments, including the Committee of Political and Legal Affairs of the CPC Central Committee, Ministry of Justice, and the ACWF, jointly issued the Directive on Implementing Village Rules and Regulations and Residents’ Conventions which stressed that the formulation or revision of village rules and regulations and residents’ conventions should adopt the suggestions of members of the executive committees of Women’s Federation and a certain proportion of women should participate in the voting. In 2019, the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council issued the Directive on Strengthening and Improving Rural Governance which raised that “discussion and deliberation system at the village level should be perfected to form the multidimensional grassroots deliberation layout featuring people discussing, handling and managing their affairs and the forms and platforms of deliberation and discussion be innovated to inspire the implement of deliberation activities, such as villagers discussing their affairs, people expressing their opinions to local governments, the general public talking over relevant events, and women exchanging their opinions on matters around them, based on local villagers’ assembly, villagers’ representatives assembly, villagers’ council, villagers’ administrative committee and villagers’ supervisory conference.”
 
C. Functions of women’s council in consultative democracy at the grassroots level
 
Under such historic and social circumstances, the women’s council has become an innovative practice of consultative democracy at the grassroots level and of social autonomy. A large number of men in grassroots villages choose to work outside their hometown, which results in more space in the social management model, which was dominated by men, for women to participate in public affairs. In urban communities, women account for over half of the permanent population at the grassroots level. Grassroots social management relies on the active participation of women. It is, therefore, the practical need to organize and guide women to participate in democratic consultation and grassroots social governance. The women’s council established in grassroots villages (communities) covers a relatively wide range of women. It can organize and guide women, especially those with responsibility and influence, to actively exert democratic political rights, inspire their enthusiasm to safeguard the rights and interests of women and children and to participate in public affairs, fulfill their right to stay informed about, participate in, express views on and oversee public affairs, and encourage them to carry out self-government, self-service, self-education and self-supervision, disregarding age, identity, qualification, specialty, industry, career and working in or out of government institutions.  Thus, the women’s council provides more channels and platforms for grassroots consultative democracy and social governance. As the times progress and the reform of Women’s Federation at the primary level deepens, with offline and online (such as WeChat and QQ groups) deliberations, the platforms and channels for community-level consultative democracy and social governance have become more diverse, especially in recent years.
 
The pioneering women’s council in Jiangsu Province has made notable progress in community-level consultative democracy and social governance. For example, Honglin Village, Louzhuang Town, Jiangyan District, Taizhou City, takes the women’s council as the main means for organizing women to actively participate in decision-making and management of village-level public affairs, making them both engage in rural life and work and be an important force for developing community democracy. With regard to improving the rural environment, women representatives from the Center for Mediation and Consulting in Honglin Village successfully transferred the use rights of 180 mu (29.65 acres) land within a month.  Relying on the Women’s Federation of family farms, Qiaotou Town established a women’s deliberation organization which effectively promoted the development of large-scale agriculture and agricultural intensification. The women’s council of Loudong Village, Louzhuang Town, organized the female deputies to the National People’s Congress, female members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and the female representatives of the National Party Congress to carry on online and offline consultative meetings simultaneously, negotiating with the “two committees” in the village and working together to solve the development problem of high cost and low effectiveness in improving the village environment.  In the group of north street, Huicun Village, 46 household representatives, mainly women, participated in the deliberations. After seven consultations in six months, the problem of land fragmentation was resolved.  Shuixiu Community, Binhu District, Wuxi City, adopting the working method of “Five Steps and Three Publications” (namely suggestions from villagers, proposal from village Party branch committee, discussion by the “two committees,” deliberation by the general meeting of Party members and resolution issued by the villagers’ representatives assembly; and the publicizing oh the resolution of villagers’ council, the working procedures and the results of village events) in women’s deliberation, wisely allocated the funds raised to add a new children’s playground, set up equipment for children’s fitness and sports activities and conduct regular inspection and maintenance. Guanghua Community, Haimen District, Nantong City, after centralized consultation, decided to hold a series of activities to promote safety and security education and the protection of minors’ rights and interests with the help of the community during the summer vacation. Organizing summer classes and social practice for minors was part of those activities. 
 
Fujian Province was also one of the early provinces to introduce a Women’s Council. In 2012, Fujian Women’s Federation, in conjunction with Fujian Provincial Department of Agriculture, Department of Civil Affairs and Department of Land and Resources jointly carried out Opinions on Further Standardizing and Improving Village Rules and Regulations to Protect Rural Women’s Land Rights and Interests. The whole province was required to extensively solicit and absorb opinions from residents, especially female villagers, on the management and service systems of village committee through women’s council or other forms, and fully supervise the articles stipulated in village rules and regulations.  The women’s council in Qianyu Village, Jinan District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province discussed the leasing system for the stores along the street, putting forward a proposal for “renting out the whole stores for subletting” which was adopted by the “two committees” in the village.  Weitou Village, Jinjin Town, Jinjiang City, Quanzhou Province, is the closest fishing village on the Chinese mainland to the island of Taiwan. The Village-Level Conference of Women Representatives of Weitou, participated in the practice of creating the “pioneering village of cross-Straits exchanges” through the women’s council, conducting the activity called “Trace My Family” to promote women’s cross-Straits communication. This activity assisted the Chinese Women’s Party of Taiwan to liaise with and encourage the “Weitou Girls” in Taiwan to actively participate in the annual event of “Mainland Bride Model Family Selection and Commendation” held in Taipei, making those girls envoy peaceful cross-Straits exchanges. 
 
Considerable achievements were made in this aspect by women’s councils in other regions of China. For example, the women’s council in Zhangjiagang City, Jiangsu Province, looked at the needs of grassroots women and focused on pressing issues such as combating domestic violence, childbirth subsidies for a second child, rural women’s entrepreneurship and creating “beautiful courtyards,” and organized and led women to engage in the management of village affairs through consultative democracy. Women thus became an important driving force of the democracy in village affairs.  In the past two years, the women’s council of Gucheng Xindu Community, which is located in the urban-rural fringe in Shenbei New Area, Shenyang City, has promoted the maintenance of bulletin boards, the construction of Lefu Weekend Cinema and Joyful Baby Parent-child Paradise, and the rebuilding of its environment. The women’s council has also helped to resolve many problems relating to the personal interests of women and community residents, such as the random incineration of waste at recycling centers, the difficulty of getting gas for some residents, and the employment of poor women.  The women’s council of Guangyuan City, Sichuan Province, has played an active role in solving the problem of community environmental governance. Through women’s deliberation, a decision was made to improve the community environment with domestic hygiene as a starting point. After six months, the community environment has been greatly improved. The women’s council in this region effectively realized autonomous management of the community, further unblocked the channels for women in the community to participate in and discuss the state affairs, and played a positive role in creating a more harmonious and beautiful community environment.  The women’s council of Qiaocun Village, in Hubei Province, not only coordinates and deals with family conflicts, neighborhood relations, elderly support and child care in the village, but participates in the village election, low-income family identification and poverty alleviation work. 
 
On the whole, the women’s council, through grassroots consultative democracy, has achieved certain results in safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of residents, enhancing the their well-being, enriching their material and cultural lives, resolving conflicts and disputes, stopping infringements, solving social governance problems and promoting social harmony and stability. It has paved a way for grassroots autonomy in “self-education, self-management, self-service and self-supervision” with women as its main body, advancing the transformation of the society management model from “making decisions for people” to “democratic autonomy.”
 
III. Promoting the Building of a Society Under the Rule of Law
 
A. Significance of building a society under the rule of law
 
Advancing law-based governance in all fields is a profound revolution in China’s governance model. In 1997, the CPC put forward the grand goal of “building a socialist country based on the rule of law” in the report of the 15th National Congress of CPC. In 1999, the overall plan of “implementing law-based governance and building a country of socialist rule of law” was written into China’s Constitution, and law-based governance formally became China’s governance strategy.
 
Building a society under the rule of law is the foundation of law-based governance. A society based on the rule of law requires democratization and the rule of law in social life. It also requires all kinds of social subjects, including social organizations, enterprises and institutions, social groups and individual citizens, to respect and observe the law, uphold regulations and have a spirit of contract. And they are supposed to be brave and skilled to understand how to safeguard their own legal rights and supervise and restrict state power. Other than building a government and a country based on the rule of law from the top down, a society under the rule of law must be formed from the bottom up. Therefore, to build a society under the rule of law the focus has to be on the grassroots of the society, to respect, cultivate and strengthen the self-governance capacity of the grassroots, and to set law-based grassroots self-governance as a goal of building a society under the rule of law.
 
Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, the concept of law-based governance has been further emphasized and explained, and social management innovation and social construction have also been further strengthened. On December 4, 2012, at the meeting Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Promulgation and Implementation of the Current Constitution in Beijing, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, explicitly mentioned, “We must pursue coordinated progress in law-based governance, law-based exercise of state power, and law-based government administration, and promote the integrated development of rule of law for the country, the government, and society.” This important proposition marked the first time the concept of a society under the rule of law was proposed in China. The fifth part of the Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Advancing Law-based Governance of the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC is entitled “Rising public awareness of the rule of law and promoting a society under the rule of law.” The Decision elaborated the specific requirements for building a society under the rule of law, proposing to promote the whole of society to establish awareness of the rule of law, strengthen the awareness of rules, and advocate the spirit of contract. The integrated development of the rule of law for society has been an innovative decision since the 18th National Congress of the CPC. It has also been another landmark decision since the grand goal of building a socialist country under rule of law was put forward in the report of the 15th National Congress in 1997. China thus stepped into a new stage of developing a society under the rule of law. Being an essential aspect of advancing law-based governance in all fields, reforming social governance structure and model and improving the capacity of social governance, building a society under the rule of law is also an inevitable requirement of human rights protection and democratic development.
 
B. Role of women’s councils in the promotion of a society under the rule of law 
 
One of the major achievements of the women’s council is that it helps women learn how to approach social issues with the thinking of the rule of law and law-based methods so as to promote the building of a society under the rule of law. As the management of state and social affairs must be based on laws, regulations and policies, women, for their participation in the management, are first required to learn about those laws, regulations, policies and rules related to the issues under discussion. That makes law popularization the groundwork of the ACWF for the healthy development of the Women’s Council, especially publicity about the Civil Code, the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests, the Law on the Protection of Minors, the Law on the Contracting of Rural Land, the Anti-domestic Violence Law and other laws, regulations and policies. This raises the legal awareness among women, cultivates their thinking of the rule of law and trains them in legal methods, laying a solid legal foundation for women’s participation in the deliberation of state and social affairs. To push forward the development of the women’s council, the ACWF has supported women’s federations at all levels in training women in the deliberation of state and social affairs, particularly the officials of women’s federations, members of executive committees of Women’s Federations and woman participants in the management of state and social affairs in villages and residential communities, as a way to help women participate in the management of state and social affairs to gain knowledge of the basic national policy of equality between men and women, state policies and guidelines and the latest policies and laws about democratic consultation, grasp the methods and procedures of deliberating in a consultative manner and boost their capabilities to discuss affairs. 
 
The process of deliberation is also a process of cultivating the awareness, concept and thinking of the rule of law and grasping law-based methods for women. The mature and perfect deliberation procedures and processes of the women’s council reflect by themselves the ideas and principles of democracy and the rule of law. “At the core of consultative deliberation by women is the construction of rules.... A set of rules enters the public view through deliberation, such as the rule of openness in the collection and publication of issues for deliberation, the rule of equality in dialogue and discussion, the rule of neutrality upheld by moderators and the democratic rule of the minority being subordinate to the majority with the former being respected by the latter in the process of reaching a consensus, making the awareness of rules and the spirit of the rule of law get more fully accepted by women, permeate all people and all corners of social life and become integrated into every citizen’s ability and a common lifestyle.” 
 
The women’s council enables women to directly participate in the enforcement of laws and regulations, and the formulation and implementation of local regulations and Village Rules and Regulations. For instance, the women’s council of the Wenmiao Community, Zizhong County, Sichuan Province, took part in the formulation and implementation of local village rules and regulations, removed those involving gender discrimination and built gender equality and the rule of villagers’ autonomy in the village rules and regulations.  “He Ladies,” the women’s council founded by the women’s federation of Yonghe Community in Nanfeng Town of Zhangjiagang City, based on the types of issues, invited community leaders, lawyers, psychological consultants and other experts and heads of relevant authorities in the local administrative area to participate in the deliberations. The women’s council helped incorporate anti-domestic violence into the civilized family evaluation and link it to residents’ welfare benefits, assisted the executive committee of the Women’s Federation in one-to-one assistance for children living in difficulty and participated in the formulation of several residents’ conventions including the Convention on Civilized Dog Raising in Yonghe Community and the Yonghe Community Passageway Convention, all pushing up the level of community governance.  All of these vividly illustrate how the women’s council participated in the building of a society under the rule of law.   
 
IV. Promotion of the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women and Children
 
The women’s council has made notable progress in solving practical problems and protecting the legitimate rights and interests of women and children. In many rural areas, women hold a relatively low number of seats in the assembly of villagers’ representatives, financial management group, the “two committees” in villages, village supervision committee and other village-level decision-making and supervision bodies, leading to the underrepresentation of women in rural governance and frequent violations of their rights. The women’s councils, however, can directly reflect women’s real situation and wishes and engage them in the grassroots management of social affairs. The women’s councils also explore the root and crux of the existing problems through analysis and study from the perspective of those directly affected, and figures out solutions through multilateral consultation and pooling the knowledge and effort of all. Besides, a women’s council will submit suggestions to the Party committee, the government, the people’s congress, the political consultative conference and other relevant authorities, and follow up to ensure a response. The work of a women’s council not only helps relevant authorities to lift from the source the barriers to the protection of legitimate rights and interests of women and children, but also supports the protection in individual cases.  
 
Most practical problems concerned with the legitimate rights and interests of women and children are universal. For example, common issues about women’s rights and interests include the infringement on land property rights and interests of women in rural areas, the non-fulfillment of women’s legitimate rights and interests in the confirmation of rural land rights, the implementation problem of the Anti-domestic Violence Law, the expression of women’s rights and interests in the Village Rules and Regulations, etc. In rural areas, women’s rights to the contracted management of land is often violated because of marriage. As the violation happens within their own family, most rural women are faced with a thorny dilemma. Taking these issues as a priority in its work, the women’s council of Neijiang City, Sichuan Province, has made great efforts to establish a service platform for women to “share their worries and concerns and seek solutions to their problems.”  The Women’s Council of Shunjiang Village, Fuxi Town, Dongxing District, Neijiang City, Sichuan Province, proposed through deliberation that the villagers’ committee launch research into the state of the protection of women’s rights and interests in the confirmation of land rights. After starting the research, the committee also organized members of the women’s council to conduct field interviews, search and collect information and distribute questionnaires. While doing the research, they educated people about the significance of registering and confirming land rights, the concept of co-ownership in the registration of land rights and the laws, regulations and policies about protecting women’s land property rights and interests, so as to deepen their understanding that women, as a family member, enjoy equal land rights with the head of household. In addition, the women’s council of Shunjiang Village offered the villagers’ committee suggestions that, when villagers apply for moving-out registration, the officials should submit the applications to the Women’s Council for its deliberation and stop the procedures if any infringement on women’s rights and interests exists. It also cooperated with the women’s council of Fuxi Town and together they requested that the departments of land and agriculture of the town should review if the applications for moving-out registration fulfill the legal requirements of protecting women’s rights and interests.. In doing so, a long-term mechanism for protecting women’s land property rights and interests was established.  The women’s council of Shiban Village, Yong’an Town, Shizhong District, Neijiang City, Sichuan Province, has actively helped write equality between men and women into the village rules and regulations and deleted all content involving gender discrimination, and clarified women’s rights and interests relating to marriage, moving-in registration, contracted management of land and allocation of house sites, thus safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of married, divorced, widowed and remarried women. 
 
Focusing on women with disabilities and difficulties in family and life, the women’s council of Honglin Village, Louzhuang Town, Jiangyan District, Taizhou City, Jiangsu Province, through research and deliberation, has worked out solutions and sent a research report to the Party committee of Louzhuang Town for its discussion and study, thus helping resolve the difficulties of women with disabilities in the whole town and also enabling 138 of them to obtain minimum living allowances.  The “Shuixiang Mama” women’s council of Xingtai Town has paid attention to family problems such as domestic violence, divorce disputes, conflicts between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, gambling and extramarital affairs. For women confronted with those problems, the women’s council adopted many measures to help them to find a way out, maintain a normal life and keep physically and mentally healthy. The “Old Sisters” Women’s Council of Gugao Town assisted the villagers’ committee in coping with issues such as house site border disputes with neighbors and the land rights of women marrying out. The women’s council of a village in Louzhaung Town actively protected a divorced woman’s land rights and interests by negotiating with her ex-husband and inviting professionals for deliberations. 
 
The women’s council has played a positive role in addressing problems of immediate interest to women, including complaints and requests, family conflicts, neighbor disputes, disputes over contracted fields, family poverty, education for minors, medical insurance, care for the elderly, environmental governance, skills training for women and labor export. As the channel for conveying demands is readily available to women, many conflicts and disputes have been nipped in the bud. For example, the women’s council of Jiahe Town, Panjin District, Huainan City, Anhui Province, helped a minor to apply to the court for a change of child custody because his step-mother forbade him from enrolling at a school. The minor finally returned to his biological mother and continued to accept education.  In order to relieve some of the burden on poor families because of expenditure on children’s education, the “Nonglian Woman Helper” women’s council of Nonglian Village, Donglai Sub-district, Zhangjiagang City, has held a special meeting to discuss the tuition subsidy policy for kids in kindergarten and senior high students. A resolution stating the subsidy’s target groups, amount and grant method was drawn up and submitted to the Party committee of the village. This promoted the full implementation of the “Tuition Subsidy System for Kindergarten and Senior High Students in Nonglian Village” in the village, providing poor families in the village with a fundamental cure for their problems of getting their children enrolled in kindergartens and senior high schools. 
 
V. Promotion of Women’s Personal Development
 
The women’s council effectively promotes the personal development of grassroots women. 
 
A. Promotion of women’s economic empowerment
 
The women’s council also has a positive role in increasing women’s economic empowerment. For instance, in 2017, the women’s council of Wuyi Village, Xiaotao Town, Yong’an City (county level), Sanming City, Fujian Province, led over 180 rural women to raise more than 700,000 RMB to build the Jinguo Base for Business Startups. A bambooware processing factory was founded and offered jobs to 70 women, who helped the factory to achieve an annual output value of over one million RMB, with each of them also attaining an increase of over 10,000 RMB in income. A vegetable cooperative was also established, which providing women with integrated services for production, supply, sales and technical guidance. 
 
By organizing mothers who live in bought or rented houses near the schools where their children are studying, the Women’s Federationof Jiangyan District, Taizhou City, Jiangsu Province, established the “Yueye Association” which regularly holds deliberation activities and issues employment announcements.With the help of the women’s council, a large number of these mothers in Luotang Street are engaged in hand-made beading, sweater knitting, clothing packaging and the processing of other supplied materials, which not only increases their incomes but also enriches their lives and provides stability for their families.The Women’s Federation there also discovered some skillful women through innovation and entrepreneurship competitions for women, gathered them to participate in deliberation activities, and established a craft workshop for them in the Qin Lake National Wetland Park, a scenic spot in Jiangyan District, leading them to embark on the way of joint entrepreneurship and employment.  Helped by the Women’s Federations at the district and town level, Taizhou Qiaoyicu Textile Co., Ltd. established a deliberation platform for female employees, through  which they can express their ideas, enhance their sense of ownership, and safeguard their rights and interests.. Furthermore, the female workers also improved the company’s production process.Through the women’s council, Xinyuan Garment Co., Ltd. learned about some unemployed women in Louzhuang Town of Jiangyan District, including those with disabilities and in needy households. To cope with this problem, the company adjusted its production process, created more jobs and successively employed 118 new workers.  The women’s council of Gengma Autonomous County, Yunnan Province, promoted and recommended women to start businesses by “providing loans, reducing and exempting tax and offering entrepreneurial services and subsidies” and by supplying guaranteed small-sum loans, effectively solving the turnover problem of entrepreneurial funds. As a major grain-producing county-level city in Changchun City, Jilin Province, Yushu City boasts abundant corn leaf, with which women proposed to develop handicrafts, such as weaving and knitting during a deliberation.The Women’s Federation of Yushu City helped them introduce related projects and popularized the technology of weaving with corn leaf in 10 townships. After several years of development, the hand-weaving of corn leaf has taken shape in Yushu City, and the industrialization of straw weaving is on the way. As the technology can both increase farmers’ income and reduce straw burning to protect the environment, it is supported by the government and embraced by rural women. 
 
B. Promotion of women’s participation in the administration and discussion of state affairs
 
Improvement in political ability and spirit is another important self-development of women by participating in deliberation activities. Serving as one of the significant ways for women to participate in government and political affairs and to exercise their democratic rights, the women’s council, by concentrating on issues concerning the rights and interests of women and children, has aroused the interests of women to participate in social affairs, developed their awareness of democratic participation, and improved their ability to solve problems, make decisions and take actions through deliberation during their participation in public affairs. Through their deliberations, women have transformed their roles from observers to participants and from passive subjects in the social and public sphere to active ones, with their sense of self and belonging being markedly enhanced.  Though there were villagers’ committees, villagers’ representatives assemblies and other democratic platforms for deliberation at the grassroots level, particularly in rural areas,the deliberation and decision-making of various public affairs, including voting and the revision of village rules and regulations, were often with male participants in the majority, or even dominated by men. In contrast, women rarely participated in the process, and as a result, they were seriously under-represented, their voices seldom heard and their interests often ignored and violated.The women’s councils work as aplatform and organization for women to express themselves independently, by which they “have an opportunity to speak, have something to say and have their voice heard.”  It also inspires women’s enthusiasm to participate in public deliberations and decision-making, strengthens their awareness of independence, allows them to understand the root causes, problems and opportunities behind social hot issues, enhances their analytical and practical capabilities in dealing with social problems,  pools their power and improves their social status.It is through the women’s councils that women’s voices have been taken into account, their suggestions considered and their resolutions respected. While developing consultative democracy at the grassroots level and playing a role in managing and constructing villages and communities, the women’s councils have also promoted women’s awareness of their rights, boosted their interest and confidence in participating in decision-making and strengthened their ability to participate in public affairs and protect their legitimate rights and interests according to the law, enabling them to become important forces in grassroots social management and democratic autonomy.
 
Ⅵ. Conclusion — Affirmation, Support and Improvement of the Women’s Councils
 
For a long time, the majority of women have been in a subordinate position in public life. In subjective terms, the stereotypes about women have frustrated their enthusiasm for participating in the deliberation of political affairs, and in objective terms, the encouragement, support and respect for their participation are insufficient and they are often excluded from decision-making procedures.This has largely led to three results. First, many women at the grassroots level lack experience in analyzing and solving problems, and making decisions by deliberation, and even fall short of the necessary knowledge for participating in public life and democratic decision-making. Second, women are under-represented in the democratic decision-making on social affairs, with their rights and interests not fully and correctly valued and protected. Third, they do not have opportunities to contribute wisdom and strength to society in terms of democratic decision-making, which is a loss to the country and society.
 
Women not only account for half of China’s population, but occupy an important position in the permanent population at the grassroots level. China’s democracy cannot be devoid of the extensive participation of women, and the rule of law in China cannot be without their positive and constructive roles. Besides, the level of women’s participation in politics also represents one of the core indicators to measure a country’s gender equality status. The United Nations Decade for Women (1976-1985) made a worldwide effort to study the status and rights of women and to involve women in decision-making at all levels.The Beijing Declaration adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 pointed out that “to empower women and give them opportunities to fully participate in all areas of society on an equal basis, including engaging them in decision-making and allowing them to gain power are fundamental to achieving equality, development and peace.” The Platform for Action adopted at the conference calls on governments, the international community and civil society to take action to solve the “inequality between men and women in power and decision-making” and to “ensure women’s equal access to and full participation in the structure of power and decision-making.”
 
The women’s councils are an innovative exploration in the implementation of Article 2 of the Constitution, a basic practice for women to participate in managing state affairs and social affairs. They are essential for developing democratic autonomy at the grassroots level, promoting the building of a society ruled by law, ensuring the rights and interests of women and children and advancing women’s own development. With all the above functions, the women’s councils are a model of “the combination of autonomy, rule of law, and rule of virtue.” A society ruled by law is independent, autonomous and organized, in which social subjects can pursue their own interests, transcend personal limitations by banding together to gather and express social will and public interests, conduct social management, launch social campaigns, participate in public affairs, influence national policies, restrict national power, and promote social progress.The first step for constructing a society under the ruled of law is to cultivate and train social subjects, and the women’s councils provide a good opportunity and platform for this purpose. With women as its main members, the participants in the women’s councils deliberate on topics in fields that women are familiar with, which enables them to get more and better experience and is exceedingly conducive to boosting their participation in the deliberation of political affairs. Though the current development of women’s councils has encountered some problems, including the relatively low participation rate of women, quality of deliberation and rate of reaching consensus, inadequate implementation of decisions and incomplete deliberation system,  the women’s councils as platforms are of great importance to women and society and should be fully affirmed and supported.
 
Women are the main force at the grassroots level in urban and rural areas, especially in constructing villages and communities. The women’s councils organize and mobilize women’s wisdom and strength, promote grassroots consultative democracy and social construction, improve the effectiveness of women’s work and expand the influence of the Women’s Federation. “By solving issues through deliberation and coordination, the Women’s Federation has strengthened its effective interaction and resource integration with various social organizations and functional government departments at different levels.”  By incorporating matters involving women’s vital interests and public interests into the scope of their deliberations, the women’s councils help increase women’s right to speak in their community (village) work and their recognition for the work of the “two committees” in communities (villages), inspire more women to pay attention to, understand and support decision-making issues in their communities (villages), effectively reducing misunderstandings and promoting community harmony. 
 
For the long-term, standardized, institutionalized and healthy development of women’s councils, it is necessary to further sum up the experience and lessons, and continue to encourage and guide women to intensify learning, raise their awareness, enhance their ability and experience, and explore innovations based on local conditions and in an eclectic manner. The government and all sectors of society should make continuous efforts to include the awareness of gender equality into various systems and policies of the country, improve the awareness and ability of women’s democratic participation, stimulate their enthusiasm to participate in democratic politics, social management and decision-making activities in accordance with the law, and create a favorable atmosphere that supports and encourages women to participate in the administration and discussion of state affairs. They also need to organize various forms of learning and training activities on a regular basis to enhance women’s awareness of the rule of law and their ability to solve practical problems by coordination, increase the proportion of female representatives, improve the number of women in the “two committees” in communities (villages), guarantee women’s right to speak in the deliberation of political affairs, improve women’s status in China’s political life, and enable them to actively participate in social governance and assume public responsibilities.
 
(Translated by TONG Xiaomei)


* QU Xiangfei ( 曲相霏 ), Researcher at the Institute of International Law, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Professor at the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Doctor of Law.
 
1. “Questions and Answers on the Work of Women’s Council,” published by the Department for Women’s Rights and Interests of the All-China Women’s Federation, October 2019.
 
2. “The Research Report on the Work of Establishing Women’s Council,” published by the Department for Women’s Rights and Interests of the All-China Women’s Federation, December 2017.
 
3. Regulations on Women’s Rights and Interests of Jiangsu Province.
 
4. “The Research Report on the Work of Establishing Women’s Council,” published by the Department for Women’s Rights and Interests of the All-China Women’s Federation, December 2017.
 
5. “Data Express on the Work of the All-China Women’s Federation,” published by the All-China Women’s Federation.
 
6. “Questions and Answers on the Work of Women’s Council,” published by the Department for Women’s Rights and Interests of the All-China Women’s Federation, October 2019.
 
7. “The Research Report on the Work of Establishing Women’s Council,” published by the Department for Women’s Rights and Interests of the All-China Women’s Federation, December 2017.
 
8. “Questions and Answers on the Work of Women’s Council,” published by the Department for Women’s Rights and Interests of the All-China Women’s Federation, October 2019.
 
9. Ibid.
 
10. Xiong Jie, “Consultative Democracy as a National Strategy”, Study Times, June 30, 2016.
 
11. “Questions and Answers on the Work of Women’s Council,” published by the Department for Women’s Rights and Interests of the All-China Women’s Federation, October 2019.
 
12. Development Department of Jiangsu Women’s Federation, “Honglin Village, Jiangyan District, Taizhou City: The Women’s Council Got the ‘Main Backbone’ of Rural Governance”, accessed July 4, 2020. https://www.sohu.com/a/402327025_120207615,
 
13. Jiangsu Women’s Federation, “Survey on the Development of Grassroots Women’s Deliberative Work by the Women’s Federation of Jiangyan District”, accessed July 4, 2020. https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1668560216909895759&wfr=spider&for=pc.
 
14. Zhangqin, “Practice and Thought on the Grassroots Women’s Deliberation in Jiangsu Province”, The Masses 17 (2017).
 
15. Wang Xiaoman, “Research on Improving the Operating Mechanism of Jiangsu Grassroots Women’s Council”, (MPA thesis, Nanjing Normal University, 2019), 21-24.
 
16. “The Practice and Exploration of Fujian Women’s Federation to Comprehensively Promote the Women’s Deliberation System”, September 2017.
 
17. Ibid.
 
18. Ibid.
 
19. Women’s Federation of Zhangjiagang City, Jiangsu Province: “The Road in Zhangjiagang to Explore Women’s Deliberation”, Chinese women’s Movement 11 (2019).
 
20. “‘Council’ Gives Women More Voice”, liaoning Daily, September 11, 2019.
 
21. “Documents of the Women’s Council of Guangyuan City, Sichuan Province”, October 2019.
 
22. Yang Baoqiang and Zhong manli, “Women’s Participation, Discourse and Power in Rural Public Spaces —Based on a follow-up survey of Qiaocun Village, in northern Hubei Province”, Northwest Population Journal 1 (2020).
 
23. “Questions and Answers on the Work of Women’s Council,” published by the Department for Women’s Rights and Interests of the All-China Women’s Federation, October 2019.
 
24. Zhangqin, “Practice and Thought on the Grassroots Women’s Deliberation in Jiangsu Province”, The Masses 17 (2017).
 
25. “Three Deliberations and Three Promotions to Assist Rights Protection Work of the Women’s Council of Wenmiao Community, Zizhong County, Sichuan Province”, October 2019.
 
26. Women’s Federation of Zhangjiagang City, Jiangsu Province: “The Road in Zhangjiagang to Explore Women’s Deliberation”, Chinese women’s Movement 11 (2019).
 
27. “Pilot Construction of Grassroots Women’s Council of Neijiang City in 2018”, October 2019.
 
28. “Research on the Work of Protecting Women’s Land Rights and Interests In the Confirmation of Land Rights in Shunjiang Village by the Women’s Council of Shunjiang Village, Fuxi Town, Dongxing District, Neijiang City, Sichuan Province”, October 2019.
 
29. “Pilot Construction of Grassroots Women’s Council of Neijiang City in 2018”, October 2019.
 
30. “Honglin Village, Jiangyan District, Taizhou City: The Women’s Council Got the ‘Main Backbone’ of Rural Governance”, Development Department of Jiangsu Women’s Federation, accessed July 4, 2020. https://www.sohu.com/a/402327025_120207615,
 
31. “Survey on the Development of Grassroots Women’s Deliberative Work by the Women’s Federation of Jiangyan District”, Jiangsu Women’s Federation, accessed July 4, 2020.
 
32. “Women’s Council Holds up Half the Sky of Harmony”, accessed July 5, 2020. http://ah.anhuinews.com/qmt/system/2018/05/30/007882664.shtml.
 
33. Women’s Federation of Zhangjiagang City, Jiangsu Province: “The Road in Zhangjiagang to Explore Women’s Deliberation”, Chinese women’s Movement 11 (2019).
 
34. Development Department of Jiangsu Women’s Federation, “Honglin Village, Jiangyan District, Taizhou City: The Women’s Council Got the ‘Main Backbone’ of Rural Governance”, accessed July 4, 2020. https://www.sohu.com/a/402327025_120207615,
 
35. Jiangsu Women’s Federation, “Survey on the Development of Grassroots Women’s Deliberative Work by the Women’s Federation of Jiangyan District”, accessed July 4, 2020. https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1668560216909895759&wfr=spider&for=pc.
 
36. Development Department of Jiangsu Women’s Federation, “Honglin Village, Jiangyan District, Taizhou City: The Women’s Council Got the ‘Main Backbone’ of Rural Governance”, accessed July 4, 2020. https://www.sohu.com/a/402327025_120207615,
 
37. “Excellent Experience and Practice of the Women’s Federation of Gengma autonomous county, Yunnan Province in Developing Women’s Deliberation Work,” October 2019.
 
38. “Work Experience of the Women’s Council in Changchun City,” October 2019.
 
39. “Women’s Council Holds up Half the Sky of Harmony”, accessed July 5, 2020. http://ah.anhuinews.com/qmt/system/2018/05/30/007882664.shtml.
 
40. “The Practice and Exploration of Fujian Women’s Federation to Comprehensively Promote the Women’s Deliberation System”, September 2017.
 
41. Lu Haina and Hao Wanyuan, “The Practice and Analysis of the Women’s Deliberation Mechanism in Jiangsu Province”, in blue book of China’s human Right: Annual Report on China’s human Rights, ed. Li Junru (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2019), 385.
 
42. Wang Xiaoman, “Research on Improving the Operating Mechanism of Jiangsu Grassroots Women’s Council”, (MPA thesis of Nanjing Normal University, 2019), 31-40.
 
43. Shanghai Women’s Federation, “Deliberation Center at the Women’s Home, a Platform for Women to Express Themselves,” Chinese women’s Movement 1 (2014).
 
44. Liaoning Women’s Federation, “Comprehensively Deepening the Construction of Women’s Councils”, Chinese women’s Movement 12 (2019).

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