China set to overhaul women’s rights protections, sort of

The announcement was presented – in official reports, on social media – as a major victory for Chinese women. The government was set to revise its law governing women’s rights for the first time in decades, refine the definition of sexual harassment, assert bans on discrimination in the workplace, and ban any forms of sexual harassment. psychological violence.

For many women in China, the answer was: Hm, really?

The proposed revisions are the latest in a series of conflicting messages from the Chinese government on the country’s growing feminist movement. On paper, the changes, which the Chinese legislature first considered last month, would appear to be a triumph for activists who have long worked to bring gender equality into the Chinese mainstream. The Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women has only been substantially revised once, in 2005, since its promulgation almost three decades ago.

The government has also recently underlined its commitment to women’s employment rights, especially as it urges women to have more children amid the looming demographic crisis. The official journal of the Supreme Court of China has explicitly linked the new three-child policy to the revision, which would codify bans on employers asking women for their marital status or their intention to have children.

At the same time, the authorities, still wary of the grassroots organization, arrested outspoken feminist activists and sought to control the country’s nascent #MeToo movement. The already rare sexual harassment lawsuits have been dismissed. Women have been fired or fined for laying charges. When tennis star Peng Shuai recently said on social media that a top Chinese leader had pressured her into having sex, she was censored within minutes and many feared she was under surveillance.

Women have also been increasingly pushed out of the workplace and into traditional gender roles since Chinese leader Xi Jinping took power. Some fear that the campaign to encourage childbirth will become coercive.

The contradictions were clear in a recent article in the Global Times, a tabloid owned by the Communist Party, on Chinese feminist advocacy. While the article hailed the proposed legal revisions as a “historic movement,” it also denounced “a frightening” feminism “” and derided the “MeToo movement” as another Western club against China.

Feminist activists have warned against giving too much weight to the revisions.

Feng Yuan, the founder of Equality, a Beijing-based rights group, welcomed the move because of its potential to impose “moral responsibility and pressure” on institutions. But she noted that the draft does not specify clear penalties for the violations it describes. Instead, he uses phrases such as “will be ordered to make corrections” or “may be criticized and educated”.

“This law, to be honest, is more of a gesture than a specific plan of operation,” Ms. Feng said.

The gesture, at least, is extensive. As revised, the law would offer the most comprehensive legal definition to date of sexual harassment, to include behaviors such as sending unwanted sexually explicit images or pressuring someone into a relationship in return for it. advantages. It also calls on schools and employers to introduce anti-harassment training and remedies.

The law would also codify a woman’s right to seek compensation for housework during divorce proceedings – following the first such ruling by a Chinese divorce court last year to grant a woman more than $ 7,700 for her work during her marriage.

Some provisions would go beyond those of other countries. In particular, the project prohibits the use of “superstition” or other “emotional controls” against women. While the draft does not offer more details, state media said the bans would cover the art of pickup. The art of pickup – a practice that came to China from the United States – typically refers to the use of manipulative techniques, including gas lighting, to demean women and entice them into having sex . It has become a booming industry in China, with thousands of businesses and websites promising to teach skills, and it has been widely condemned by government and social media users.

Elsewhere, prohibitions on emotional coercion are uneven. Britain banned it in 2015, while the United States has no federal laws against it.

However, the really new aspects of Chinese law are limited. Many provisions already exist in other laws or regulations but have been poorly applied. Chinese labor law prohibits discrimination based on sex. The compensation measure for housework was included in a new civil code that entered into force last year.

While the law affirms women’s right to sue, its focus is largely on empowering government officials to take top-down action against offenders, said Darius Longarino, a researcher at Yale Law School who studies China.

“The priority should be bottom-up enforcement, where you allow people who have been harassed to use the law to protect their rights,” he said.

It is rare for victims of harassment to go to court. Analysis by Mr Longarino and others found that 93% of sexual harassment cases decided in China between 2018 and 2020 were not brought by the alleged victim but by the alleged harasser, citing defamation or wrongful dismissal. . Women who filed public harassment complaints were forced to pay those they accused.

Non-legal complaints can also have serious consequences. In December, the e-commerce giant Alibaba fired a woman who accused a superior of raping her. The company said it had “spread lies” even though it had previously fired the man it accused.

Even when women pursue their stalkers, they face significant obstacles. Perhaps the most high-profile #MeToo case to go to court has been brought by Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former intern with the Chinese state television broadcaster, who claimed that Zhu Jun, a star presenter, had kissed and groped forcibly. But the case has been years behind schedule. In September, a court rejected the claim and said she had not provided enough evidence, although Ms. Zhou said judges rejected her efforts to introduce more.

In an interview, Ms. Zhou expressed her skepticism that the revised law would change a lot.

“The judicial environment will not be changed by one or two legal amendments,” she said. “Every court, every judge will have to truly understand the plight of those who suffer from sexual harassment. It is probably still a very long and difficult road. “

Emotional control might prove even more difficult to justify, especially in a country where open discussion about mental health can still be stigmatized. Guo Jing, a feminist activist from Wuhan, noted that psychologists are rarely admitted as expert witnesses in Chinese courts, and that judges may be skeptical of claims of depression or other mental health issues.

And patriarchal attitudes still remain deeply rooted. After the revision drafts were published, several well-followed male bloggers on the social media platform Weibo denounced the provisions against degrading or harassing women online, saying they would give ‘radical’ feminists too much power. to silence their critics.

Still, some women remain optimistic about the possible power of the proposed changes.

Woman in southern Guangdong province who asked to use only her last name, Han, out of fear for her safety, said she suffered years of physical and emotional abuse from her ex -husband. Even though she managed to get a divorce last year, he continues to stalk and threaten her, she said. She got a restraining order, viewed by The New York Times, which cited chat logs and tapes.

Yet even with the restraining order, when Ms. Han called the police, they often told her that threats alone were not enough for them to act, as he had not physically harmed her, a- she declared. If the law were revised, she said, police would be forced to recognize that they had the right to ask for their help.

“If the law changes, I will be even more convinced that everything I do right now is right,” she said.

Joy Dong contributed research.