Implementing Change to Improve Women’s Status in China 

Full Disclosure: This was an essay I wrote, verbatim, while on study abroad in China. My views may or may not have changed since. I think it’s a fascinating time piece. Everything is left as is, including any grammar or spelling mistakes, with the sole exception of added hyperlinks for ease of the reader.

Michael Choquette
May 21, 2014

Implementing Change to Improve Women’s Status in China 

Since the inception of the PRC, to the Mao era, to contemporary times, women’s rights have changed swiftly in China. Although there has been great improvement in social standing, there szis still plenty of room for the growth of women’s equality and position in Chinese society. There are a number of problems the government needs to address to improve the situation, including but not limited to prostitution, body image, hukou reform, and marriage. Several policy initiatives could be instated that would address these problems that would both fix the root problem and would work with the current policy of the CCP. Finally, within these areas, there are some fixes that may appear obvious, and yet would actually run counter to effective policy.

Prostitution exists in many different societies, and while some accept it as legal behavior others do not. A controversial, yet important reform in Chinese society to improve the standing of women is to legalize prostitution. While some may claim that this policy could lead to other social problems, it would actually have the opposite effect if handled in smaller localities, such as within city limits. As has been shown in places like Amsterdam, legalizing prostitution can actually lead to greater protection of the women, better regulation, and better control over corruption. This policy would both beneficial as it empowers both the central government and the women themselves.

In Tiantian Zheng’s Red Lights the author remains undercover as a prostitute in KTV venues in China to view the lives of sex workers. By getting this first hand perspective on the industry, Zheng reveals the complicated nature of the sex workers in China, whereby they face many challenges: the shame of the profession, the pay, and the conditions. Regulating the industry would help mitigate the tensions that arise. Zheng describes that as the Bureau of Culture began to regulate the industry, they required that KTV bars conform to certain standards, such as not having private rooms, creating rooms of certain size, and having rooms with certain window specifications (Zheng, 68). While still illegal, the government clearly placed a priority on cleaning up the fronts for the industry. Taking a step further, they could legitimize its status, and improve conditions for all.

In addition, there is great corruption at stake in maintaining the status quo with prostitution in China. In order to maintain a proper brothel at a KTV, one must pay off the chengguan, the police, and the government. This kind of corruption does not prioritize the interests of the women, resulting in risking the safety of the women, especially during sting operations. Finally, the standing of women would improve if it were to be legalized. Because it is illegal, the women are completely at the mercy of the owners of the KTV bars. Legalization puts the control back in their hands. As Zheng describes, during a sting, the owner lambasted the women, “if you are not working here, what else can you do? Go back home and farm in the fields like peasants?” (Zheng, 73). This shows that the power is completely out of the women’s hands. By legalizing it, the government empowers women with the ability to refuse to work. Thus, legalizing prostitution would improve the standing of women in society.

Extramarital affairs and impending divorce are rapidly becoming problems in China (Farrar & Sun). The government could began a top-down approach to marriage counseling by either establishing state-run counseling facilities (which would warrant skepticism) or subsidies for private companies to offer the services (which would be expensive). A combination of these two would be a viable option for the state, as one would grant the party the ability to control family units, and the other would serve a more open-market agenda. One of the problems with the family unit and extramarital affairs is the seeming lack of morality in the discussion. As one man notes, “No one thinks there is anything immoral about [extramarital affairs]. When my wife [had an affair] back then, I yelled at her fiercely. I yelled at her for not having any sense of responsibility or any sense of the family. But I didn’t say anything about morality” (Farrer & Sun, 6). There is a huge disconnect between the immorality and infidelity in the marriage and maintaining the institution. There is also a huge rise in divorce in China, which has a similar set of issues that can be tackled with the same policy initiative (Eimer). Recently, in an attempt to make divorce less appealing, China’s Supreme People’s Court ruled that property is not jointly owned, but owned solely by the purchaser. While on the surface it stamps out women entering marriage with intent to extract monetary gains from the man, it seems to swing to the entire other extreme. Women provide for the family in non-monetary ways. As one woman claims, “Everyone in the family has benefited from that: my son, my husband, my parents-in-law. But I don’t see any recognition of that in the new law” (Eimer). To get at the heart of the issue, there needs to be better marriage counseling to promote familial stability in the case of extramarital affairs and divorce. Providing these outlets for women allows for the development of communication, a key ingredient lacking in relationships (Farrer & Sun, 29). Furthermore, in counseling women, ideas about prenuptial agreements can negate the harmful effects of the newly instated law, bringing about equality. In short, creating an outlet for women to develop communication and marriage counseling will improve the position of Chinese women.

The hukou system largely keeps Chinese from moving freely about the country, and thus seriously limits job mobility and opportunity. Furthermore, the migrant workers (urban workers with a rural hukou) receive a “bare minimum standard of living,” temporary status in the city, and minimal protection from the state. As many of these migrant workers are women in places such as restaurants and salons, hukou reform greatly concerns the status of women (Chan, 359). Beyond this, there are 13 million Chinese who are collectively known as heihu, literally “black hukou.” This group of people born illegally in the One-Child Policy and unable to pay the fine lack any legal identity or rights. Between migrant workers and heihu there needs to be reform to grant women a higher position in the workplace.

A policy initiative to remedy the inequality, would be to allow certain second-tier cities to relax the hukou system in order to grant the flow of rural workers to the cities, while simultaneously maintaining urban stability in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. [While not a policy change in legislation, many cities have already started to do this in some ways by the time of publishing this, 2018.] This would grant opportunity to swaths of rural women to move to the cities and allow equal opportunity to the different populations. A sound economic argument for reform is summarized thusly, “It is widely agreed by both academics and policymakers in China that the economy’s heavy dependence on exports over the last 20 years or so is a reflection of a major structural problem of insufficient domestic consumption demand. The root cause of this sluggish demand, clearly linked to the hukou system, is the meager income of the rural population and migrant workers” (Chan, 361). Thus, it is not only to the benefit of the women to reform the system, it is to the benefit of the economy as a whole, justifying this policy.

Though a seemingly obvious initiative would be to simply abolish the hukou system altogether, this too is a much, much worse scenario. This would allow legions of rural residents to flock to the city, and for good reason. However, this would inundate the infrastructure and the cities likely would struggle to handle the influx of residents. This would result as well in a shortage of jobs, but to what extent is unclear. Thus it does not seem sensible to enact this initiative.

While not a problem solely endemic to China, there are certainly concerns about women’s body image in the country. The issue centers on what is considered beautiful to the people and its effects range from changing the body through cosmetics to physically altering the body through surgical means. In light of Marxist thought, Xu and Feiner argue that the commodification of women leads to a lower social standing as they become viewed simply as tradable goods. This needs to be addressed at its core, and a pertinent policy would be to create a top-down governmental initiative in schools to address hyper-sensitivity to beauty, as well as disincentives against beauty propaganda, such as taxing beauty product ads. Because of the money being injected in the fashion industry, it incentivizes women to go great lengths to adjust their bodies to the industry norms. The awful consequences can be summed up with anecdotally, “the press is full of painful stories of Chinese women going through excruciating leg surgeries – literarily having their legs broken – for which they pay US$6,000, to increase their height 3 inches or more” (Xu & Feiner, 316). These are clearly extreme measures that the money in the industry encourages.

Body image concerns are most deeply rooted in the well-educated youth, particularly in single, coastal woman with poor relationships with a man (Luo et al, 1). By this point, image concerns have been established. It takes a policy aimed at affecting the children at a young age about the dangers of conformity to fashion industry standards. Furthermore, the industry has sparked an identity crisis regarding what beauty really is in Chinese culture. Western standards of beauty and Chinese standards are quite different, and in fact, “In what seems like a paradox, the Western fantasy of Chinese beauty is very much at odds with the norms of Anglo-European beauty (Xu & Feiner, 317). For example, Lu Yan, considered quite ugly at a young age, and grew to be a phenomenal model in Western eyes. Figures like Mulan, Lucy Liu, and Zhang Ziyi all are considered paradigmatic of Chinese beauty and as a result there is great conflict in identity. Because of the authoritarian command of the PRC, it may seem tempting to outright ban these products outright. However, this would probably seem too strong a display of power by controlling the image of the population.

These four policy initiatives can really improve the standing of women in Chinese society. At the heart of many of these are deeply rooted social issues concerning identity issues, Confucian ideals, and marital norms. Only by addressing these at the core can women’s status improve. China has improved leaps and bounds in many facets in the last few decades: infrastructure, economy, social mobility. And yet, as is the concern in many parts of the world, until women’s standing improves there will not truly be equality in China.

Let me know what you think the comments below! Have you experienced strong or weak women’s rights in the Middle Kingdom?

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!

Works Cited

Chan, Kam Wing. “The Household Registration System and Migrant Labor in China: Notes on a Debate.” Population and Development Review 36.2 (2010): 357-64. Web.

Eimer, David. “China’s Divorce Rule Dubbed ‘Law That Makes Men Laugh and Women Cry'” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 28 June 0030. Web. 22 May 2014.

Farrer, James, and Zhongxin Sun. “Extramarital Love in Shanghai.” The China Journal No. 50 (2003): 1-36. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2014. <>.

“Fighting for Identity.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 17 May 2014. Web. 22 May 2014.

Luo, Ye, William L. Parish, and Edward O. Laumann. “A Population-based Study of Body Image Concerns among Urban Chinese Adults.” Body Image 2.4 (2005): 333-45. Web.

Xu, Gary, and Susan Feiner. “/China’s Beauty Economy: Buying Looks, Shifting Value, and Changing Place.” Feminist Economics 13.3-4 (2007): 307-23. Web.

Zheng, Tiantian. Red Lights. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2009. Print.

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