The Democratic Project: 20 Chinese Women’s Attitudes towards Suffrage and Referendum


By Huai Bao, Ph.D.

There is insufficient credible scholarship on women and politics in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chinese scholarship suffers from unsympathetic scrutiny and editing by state authorities, while language, cultural, and institutional barriers limit access by most Western scholars of women’s politics to Chinese first-person accounts.

As a side-product of my current postdoctoral research and thanks to social networking applications, I have recently interviewed 20 urban Chinese women regarding their political experiences and observations. Their observations offer a revealing introduction to women’s politics.

The women who share their experiences are college educated, with a Bachelor’s or Associate College degree or above. All reside and work in metropolitan cities—Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and cities in Eastern Chinese provinces with standards of living and economic development higher than other parts of the PRC.

They answered ten questions:

1. In which city are you currently residing?
2. What’s your occupation?
3. What’s your highest academic degree?
4. What’s your age?
5. During the past two years, have you participated in any level of elections, national or local?
6. During the past two years, have you been asked by your community and/or sub-district office to participate in any form of voting to approve or disapprove of a city planning project?
7. Do you feel that there is a fair
system in your workplace regarding recruitment, reassignment, promotion, and layoff? Please explain why.
8. Are you for the Brexit referendum held in UK? Explain why.
9. Do you think that China should also hold referendum on a proposal of national significance (e.g. two-child policy)? Explain why.
10. Would you let residents in Hong Kong or Tibet hold their referendum to decide if they should leave or remain in the PRC? Explain why.

The questions were designed to reveal participation in and perception of democratic politics, attitudes towards the use of referendums—a form of direct and sometimes controversial democracy. Women’s answers proved suggestive.

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“Voting for Show” and “Never Seen a Ballot”

What conclusions can be drawn from these results? First, only four women claim to have participated in voting for public office; the others have “never seen a ballot” in their life. Of the former, one is a retired nurse who had served at a military hospital. Born into a high-ranking military officer’s family, the 60-year old says, “Yes, we do have suffrage. I was asked to vote to elect a member of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the hospital where I retired during the past two or three years. We were asked to elect two or one out of three candidates provided. If you don’t want to elect anyone of the three candidates, you can put someone else’s name in the election form, or you can leave it blank and decline the right to vote.”

Another 35-year old kindergarten teacher remembers, “I was asked to vote to elect an NPC member, but I had no idea of the candidates. I didn’t know who chose those candidates, nor did I know who they were. So, I elected one that one of my colleagues selected.”

Like the first two women, the third and the fourth worked at a state-owned company before retirement. One says, “Suffrage in China is basically for show. The authorities give you the names of five people that they like, and ask you to elect four. You don’t know how these people got the candidacy. They have to be Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members, and have to be really good at pleasing the authorities.” The other says, “We may be asked to elect NPC members, but mayors, district chiefs, county magistrates, ministers, and even the head of our company are all appointed by the authorities above them.”

The remaining 16 women claim never to have participated in any form of suffrage. Many tell me that they have never seen a ballot in their life. Others express disinterest in any voting whatsoever, as they doubt that it is “real enough” to be worth participating in.

Vote on City Planning

Regarding city planning, only one woman answers “yes,” but by this she does not mean voting on government proposals. She says, “There was a slum area in my neighborhood that was demolished. I received a questionnaire afterwards to collect my feedback on it.” Another woman concluded, “Basically [Chinese] civilians have no rights to decide how the city should be built. I have seen on the Internet a new proposal for city planning, but it’s for the government authorities to approve. If the government wants to erect a high-rise building in front of my balcony blocking our sights, then they will without having to ask for my approval or the approval of any residents in my condominium.”

One native of Beijing puts her dissatisfaction in a comparative framework, “I have been to Paris several times. They protect their historical architecture very well. Beijing has a longer history, but now looks like another Los Angeles.”

Small Group Democracy

All interviewees were particularly interested in the seventh question, because they feel that they relate more to “small group democracy” in their workplace. Two women claim some democracy in that space. One works at a foreign company in Beijing. The other owns a Beijing-based public relations consulting service of over ten employees. Perhaps self-servingly, she describes her company’s brainstorming meetings as highly “democratic.”

Fifteen interviewees fail to identify any democracy or fair play in their workplace. One, who worked at a prestigious Beijing university before retirement, complains, “Everything is up to the leader.” Another says, “Chinese people are used to having decisions made by others for them. Whoever pays you is your master. Whoever gives you a job will make decisions for you. You work for them, so you have no right to speak up; you just listen and obey.”

A woman who now teaches at a prestigious university as an assistant professor says, “There is no fair play in the Department where I work. There certainly are specific rules for hiring or promoting professors, but solid connections or money can always get over the rules. And it doesn’t mean that if you have a lot of money to bribe, you can get hired without required qualifications. It’s just because you have the required qualifications that they will give you the opportunity to bribe them!” She also emphasizes that although gender equality is promised, the university leadership is dominated by men, and to be a female professor sometimes means you have to use “woman’s stuff” to secure your position. By “woman’s stuff,” she means flirtation or catering to sexual advances.

Another woman employed as an editor with a senior university journal before retirement informs me that although the process requires blind peer-review, there are many unwritten rules that do not address the quality of the paper. In particular, the managing editor has the right to interpret and modify the rules. “This is a one-party ruled nation. No one is watching you,” she observes, “The one that is watching you is your supervisor, and to protect you is to protect himself.”

Doubt About Referendums

When asked to comment on the recent Brexit referendum in UK, interviewees express mixed views. While about half are theoretically supportive of such initiatives since they may reflect civilians’ opinion rather than those of interest groups’ and political elites’, others are indifferent, or express uncertainty. One successful businesswoman explains, “These days everyone around me in Beijing is talking about the referendum in UK to decide if UK should leave or remain in the EU. I’m also watching the TV news. I think that we keep an eye on the results of the referendum because we care about how their decision will affect economy in China and the stock market. I have some investment [in the stock market] that will be affected by UK’s withdrawal from EU. Although referendums sound like a perfect form of direct democracy where every voting-age citizen can voice their concern and make a decision, I have to reserve my opinion [on referendums] because I doubt that all voters in UK truly understand the pros and cons of UK’s withdrawal from the EU. You know, not everyone has the depth of knowledge and the complete knowledge structure to fully understand what they are voting for and to foresee the outcome of their decision in the long run. I think that they should hold referendums selectively and leave such major decisions to elites, to those who have the knowledge, to elected legislature.”

When asked if China should use referendums to help the government make major decisions, most women answer, “impossible,” “not suitable for China,” or “not doable in China.” One responds that China “should” hold referendums, but the results will be distorted by the government. Another believes that China “should” use referendums, but the government “dares not.”

When asked why they think referendums are not “suitable” for China, their common response is that average Chinese civilians do not have the right “qualities.” In other words, citizens are “insufficiently educated,” by top PRC politicians, to adopt Western style democracy. One interviewee answers that, given the long history of feudal dictatorship, the Chinese need a powerful dictator to control them. One interviewee suggests that this viewpoint is pervasive.


Much contemporary scholarship on Chinese women and democratic politics is preoccupied with Mao’s feminist policy to “liberate” women and to enforce gender equality, or it criticizes the “continuing victimization” of women under Confucian hierarchy. Too often it largely ignores the institutional sexism that contributes to the social reality where the majority of women remain divorced from ideas and activities of democracy. The results of my interviews suggest that even highly educated women have limited consciousness of and participation in democratic politics. Most express pessimism about fairness in everyday life and opportunities to vote, and fail to identify democracy as a universal value, at least not to the PRC. The prospect of referendums seems to have limited appeal. This portrait suggests that democracy remains a far-from-finished project for women in the PRC.




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Women Immigrants and Social Justice: the Perspective of Lily in the Snow by Yan Li

1331088319646_ORIGINALBy Huai Bao

In her novel, Lily in the Snow, Chinese Canadian author Madame Yan Li portrays a mélange of women immigrants from ethnic minorities in Canada, observed by the narrator of the story, Lily. While these immigrant and visible minority women, who struggle near the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy, voice concerns about the hardship in the new land and express depression about exclusion from mainstream society, none is depicted as politically engaged. Such lack of engagement seems to coincide with the concerns of political scientists that such newcomers have neglected “an important element in their overall integration into society” (O’Neill, Gidengil and Young, 2012, 185). Through describing the choices of her female immigrant characters, Li offers one possible explanation for the democratic gap that has been affirmed by Statistics Canada, which reported in 2004 that visible minorities comprised only 7.1% of all MPs but an estimated 14.9% of all Canadians. Notably, however, Li devotes little or no attention to the economic and social restraints on such newcomers. Immigrant women in particular are likely to face additional challenges (more overt racism, lower wages, more family responsibilities, greater vulnerability to violence, etc.) making their integration all the more difficult.

Characters in Lily in the Snow complain about disadvantage but are not depicted as turning to mainstream politics. In the novel, Lily works as a porter at a Canadian warehouse where the employees’ human rights are constantly violated. They are not only working under multiple surveillance cameras, but have to wait in line to have all their bags inspected after work. When Lily questions the security guards about employees’ dignity, an East Indian co-worker warns her about the camera above her. Lily refuses to have her bag checked and chooses to quit the job. Yan Li depicts that decision as unique and as a demonstration of her protagonist’s courage. Other characters in contrast lack Lily’s own history of resistance to authority (in China) and may not have her other resources (of education, lack of children to support, etc) but such reality goes unmentioned.

The failure of Lily and other characters in the novel to organize politically is not directly discussed in the text and indeed political remedies are nowhere suggested as a possible option. Li’s characters all came to Canada in part at least for greater human rights, and yet, when theirs are violated, they ignore the political system. This is understandable. The pursuit of a human rights case easily exhausts complainants. For many of them, the need to survive far exceeds the need to fight for human rights. In marked contrast and in a marked reproof to the PRC’s determined official atheism, some of Li’s women turn to religion for redemption. Among them is Camellia, a former Chinese hedonist, who seeks solace in Protestant evangelicalism to cope with the loss of past privileges. Lily, however, chooses to stave off loneliness and homelessness through writing (Luo, 2013).

At present, Canada offers limited protection to vulnerable newcomers. Indeed, recent policies have undermined health and legal protections (Miedema; Kuile; Wayland). In addition, federal multi-cultural policies have had limited immediate effect in integrating non-mainstream immigrants. More critical social scientists have suggested that integration on the basis of equality is in fact not the purpose of official multiculturalism, which is often more about promise than reality, more about discipline than opportunity (Bannerji). If Li’s characters are any indication, inclusion is some way off.

Lily is a survivor. So are Li’s other women. But their survival is frequently built on frustration, humiliation, and abuse of their human rights and it offers no substantive, constructive guidance to their successors. The continuing underrepresentation of women, especially immigrant and visible minority women (Wayland, 2006), in Canadian politics, as in China , makes immediate prospects all the dimmer.






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The Daughter of the Red Land—Yan Li

yanliBy Huai Bao

A veteran of twenty-five years in Canada, a professor, novelist, literary prize winner, recipient of many awards and grants, and a finalist for Books in Canada’s First Novel Award, Yan Li (1955-) is certainly not an ordinary woman. She has been called the “Jane Eyre of China” by readers and fans due to her inspirational life experiences—a “dreams-come-true” process of struggling for self-actualization (Zhao, 2012). Her novels also offer points of entry for understanding the relationship between female immigrants and Canadian feminism and between immigrants and the promise of Canadian democracy.

The author of Lily in the Snow (2010), Married to the West Wind (1998; 2000), and Daughters of the Red Land (1995), Li, born in Beijing, China in 1955, is one of the few female diasporic Chinese writers in North America who have published award-winning novels in the English language. Aside from writing, she is Associate Professor and the coordinator of the Chinese language and culture program at Renison University College, and the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo.

In Writing Chinese Diaspora, Shao-Pin Luo suggests that Chinese-Canadian literature is divided into two categories: works by the children of earlier immigrants and those by newcomers from China and elsewhere (2012).  The first group largely narrates lives of Chinese railroad workers and historical Chinatowns in a collective repudiation of institutional racism and construction of a new identity. The second reflects the concerns of arrivals from the Sinophone world such as Lien Chao (born 1950 and arrived 1984), who published a bilingual narrative long poem, Maples and the Stream (1999); Ting-Xing Ye (born 1952 and moved to Toronto 1987), the author of the memoir, Leaf in a Bitter Wind (1998) and young adult fiction; and Ying Chen (born 1961 and emigrated to Montreal 1989), who writes in French (2012). These latter writers are studied more as diasporas than racial minorities: contemporary scholarly interest focuses largely on their “ancestral, cultural, and economic ties” with their country of origin that “cross national boundaries” (Yu, 621-622, 2007). The prejudices of Canada connected with historic Chinatowns and discrimination are of less interest, although systemic racism along with racial stereotypes are often the target of the writers’ satire.

With strong ancestral and cultural ties to her birth country and newer emotional ties to her adoptive land, Li falls firmly into the second category of Chinese-Canadian writers. She spent her girlhood during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when all the institutions of higher learning in China, in response to the call of the Communist Party to “transform all universities with Mao’s thought” (Zhang, 2010), suspended the national college entrance examination and were open only for “re-educational” purposes. After she finished high school, Li became an industrial worker, a peasant, and a soldier in Shangxi and Beijing until the resumption of the national college entrance examination system in December 1977, when she was 22 years old. She was accepted to Shanxi Teachers’ College, where she was assigned a major, English, of which she had no prior knowledge.

Born to parents who were both academics—her father a physicist and mother a research fellow in adult education and editor-in-chief of an educational journal, Li had always aspired to an academic career. After she earned her BA, she attended the China Academy of Social Sciences to pursue a MA in English journalism. After working for six months as a news editor and reporter with Xinhua News Agency, the largest such body in China, she was accepted in 1987 by the University of Windsor to study North American history, an academic discipline about which she had always been interested.

Even before graduation from Windsor, Li had decided to write the novel, which became Daughters of the Red Land, for English-speaking audiences. Applying for permanent resident status during her first year in Canada, she, like many others, struggled to support her ambitions. Li answered the advertisement of a rich elderly Canadian widow in need of a housekeeper. In return for cooking, dog-walking and cleaning, she made enough to survive and, very importantly, had access to a private library of thousands of volumes for two years (CCTV-10, 2012). Her life with the Canadian widow is vividly documented in Daughters of the Red Land. Li herself narrates the story in which her employer becomes the “Mrs. Thompson.”

Li mailed the manuscript to several publishers. After it was turned down five times, she received an offer from Sister Vision Press, a feminist Toronto-based publishing company. Founded in 1984, it specializes in serving Black women, “Native Sisters,” “Asian Sisters” and others who define themselves as women of colour who challenge and enrich Canadian feminist theory and research (2012). It proved a congenial home for Li’s approach to her subject matter.

In 1995, Daughters of the Red Land was published. It is a compelling semi-autobiographical story about three women of different generations surviving 20th century China’s social upheaval:  the foot-binding Laolao[1], her Communist-emancipated daughter Qin, and Qin’s daughter Peace—effectively Li herself, who has moved to Canada and narrates the story. Laolao is the victim of the feudal patriarchal society, who lives as men’s subordinate and serves as their instrument for reproduction. Qin, while embracing Communist emancipation of women wholeheartedly, also struggles against male dominance in a traditional relationship as well as political persecution and resulting family trauma. In contrast, Peace, Li’s presumed embodiment, positively experiences the potential openness and pluralism of Canadian feminism. With more freedom than her female kin, she is allowed to choose her values and shape her own identity.

Prior to coming to Canada, all Li knew about feminism was Mao’s slogan, “Women hold up half the sky” (2013). Daughters of the Red Land employs the story of the three generations to “metaphorically” represent “the historical advancement of the female subjective consciousness from its absence, to enlightenment and finally to elevation” (2012). The result is “a political novel in the deepest, most admirable sense: it exposes and condemns violence and hypocrisy by allowing us into the lives of those affected” (Tihanyi). Although to a lesser degree than the other group of Chinese-Canadian writers, Li also uses the novel to acknowledge racism: for example, the drunken Mrs. Thompson is clearly understood as ignorant and prejudiced when she claims that Chinese “all eat rats and grassroots” (1996, 2012).  [2]

In 1996, the novel received Books in Canada’s First Novel Award and Li was selected by the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest, Ontario to be ‘Woman of the Year’ in Art/History/Literature. Li has expressed pleasure at readers’ reports of the impact of her writing. She has also sometimes been astonished by ignorance as when one naive White reader from Vancouver confessed that Daughters of the Red Land gave her new appreciation for the Chinese in her community as something more than  “simple-minded” and “expressionless.” (2012).

Perhaps in response to such reception, Li’s second novel in English, Lily in the Snow (2009) seems more preoccupied with immigration, displacement, cultural clashes and prejudice. It takes up the story of the transformation of Lily, who leaves Red China and moves to Canada, inspired by the “Norman Bethune spirit,” a reference to the Canadian doctor whose assistance to Mao’s army in battling the Japanese in the 1930s made him a national icon (Shao, 2012). She starts a new life in the fictitious “Mapleton,” constructed by Li out of a mélange of her own experiences in Windsor, Kitchener, and Waterloo. Lily’s mother, Grace, arrives to join her daughter to “find out what’s good about Canada,” a question that unsettles the entire novel. Subsequent intergenerational conflict is treated with humor and sensitivity.

If the special value of diasporic literature lies generally in writers’ ability to translate their personal experiences “into two (or more) systems” and enrich “both cultures” (Maver, unpaginated), Li distinguishes herself by her sharp observation and judgment of characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Along with its cast of Chinese characters, Lily in the Snow offers a kaleidoscope of individual diversity, including “an Indian woman who works at a clothing factory; a Jamaican lady who works with Lily as cleaning women in a hotel, who studied child psychology ‘back home,’ and wanted to be a teacher; and a Vietnamese grandma who lives in Lily’s building nicknamed the ‘refugee camp,’ as it is full of recent immigrants” (2012). Li both conveys  “trenchant humour” about “the characters’ reactions” (Tisseyre, 2010) and satirizes the “promised land” as experienced and viewed by the recent immigrants—especially women of colour—who struggle near the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy. Also new in Li’s work here is her treatment of the relations between feminism and women of different racial groups. The Jamaican woman in her story, for example, equates gender equality and the emancipation of women with her freedom to go to a male strip club and hire a male escort. A White Canadian woman is astonished upon hearing from Lily that women in China do not have to take their husbands’ surnames after marriage. A prostitute at the hotel where Lily works as a cleaner flaunts her income, leaving the former to reconsider the meaning of “emancipation” of women.

As the author of seven books, Li is internationally recognized as a bilingual Chinese-Canadian writer. Canadian literary critic Michelle Tisseyre concludes that, “Her style is unique, its images and cadences enriched by the mysterious fusion-like process of writing in two languages simultaneously, but her voice is unmistakably Chinese, resonant, even in English, with the boldness, power and elegance of that ancient language” (2010). In navigating the waters of her birthplace and her new home, Li travels a route not always chosen by Canada’s many diasporic writers. Her character Lily ultimately finds beauty in the cold northern dominion: She found “The snowstorm was over and the whole world was tranquil…”  That tranquility and acceptance ultimately suggest a more positive response to Canada that that of Chinese-Canadian writers such as Sky Lee, Larissa Lai, and Fred Wah, who are far more preoccupied with the shortcomings of their Canadian birthplace. Sharing concerns with other new Chinese immigrants about the gap between the ideal and reality of immigration, lost privilege and new hardship, and the construction of a hybrid identity, Li’s texts struggle for realism and optimism.  Her response presents the possibility that modern transnational subjects can become empowered residents of new lands.  Such diasporaic writers nevertheless confront the continuing gap between immigration’s promise and the reality of economic and cultural exclusion from mainstream society. In 2004, for example, Statistics Canada’s 2004 reported that visible minorities comprised only 7.1% of all MPs but an estimated 14.9% of all Canadians. Li’s novels help depict part of the explanation of that  “democratic gap.”





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[1] “Laolao” is a Northern Chinese colloquial term for “grandmother.” Her personal name is never mentioned, an omission that suggests distance, perhaps emotional as well as temporal, from the modern-minded narrator, though the author answers in her email that she uses “Laolao” for the mere convenience of English speaking readers to remember since the pronunciation is simple.

[2] In a CCTV-10 interview, Li claims that Mrs Thompson was “basically” kind, which is suggestive of the unpleasant memory of the latter’s racist remark.