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.
“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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