On August 21, Chinese women’s rights activist Wu Rongrong went to a police station in Shanxi province to check on her application for a travel permit to Hong Kong, where she has been accepted to graduate school. Police denied her application because Wu—one of the “Feminist Five”—was detained in March 2015 for her role in a campaign against sexual harassment. Adding insult to injury, an officer told her, “Don’t continue to go to school. What’s the point? Go home and live well.”
Despite claims to gender equality, Chinese authorities are sending that same “go home” message to women across the country.
Facing an aging population, Beijing changed its rules in 2016 to allow all families to have two children. Since then, 30 of China’s 31 provincial-level administrative units have extended mandated maternity leave – but mandate little or no paternity leave. In provinces such as Hunan and Hainan, women are now entitled to 190 days of maternity leave with pay.
As a result, factoring in the cost incurred from women taking maternity leaves, 75 percent of companies surveyed reported they have become more reluctant to hire women. Thirty-three percent of Chinese women surveyed reported their pay being cut after giving birth; 36 percent were demoted. It is telling that despite fast economic growth in the past 10 years, women’s labor force participation rate has dropped three percentage points.
Recently, state media and some local governments have publicly campaigned about the virtue of “women returning home.” Quoting expert opinions, a February 2016 article by the state news agency Xinhua said women being at home was, “not only beneficial to the growth of children, the stability of the family,” but also had, “positive effect on the society.” A recent article by the government-controlled China Youth Daily said women were, “more suitable to stay at home and look after children.” In 2015, the Beijing government hung a poster in the marriage registration office: “Being a good housewife and good mother are women’s biggest achievements.”
Instead of telling women to “go home,” Chinese authorities should adopt laws and policies combating gender discrimination, and supporting working parents. They should be engaging women’s rights activists, not harassing and jailing them. That’s when gender equality might stand a chance.