The Chinese economic miracle has been one of the most publicized phenomena on the international stage. But what is often neglected in the news and in scholarship are China’s domestic and social changes that are inseparable from the country’s exponential economic growth. In particular, the Chinese women’s rights movement, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, has played a crucial role in China’s rapid development. Unlike the Western feminism initiated by grassroots activists, modern Chinese feminism began as a state policy. Since the Communist Revolution of 1949, women’s rights have been driven by the party ideology that women’s equal participation in the economy and society was necessary to advance the nation. Despite numerous revolutions and China’s ensuing transition to a capitalist market economy, this ideology remained the underpinning of women’s rights in China. In the past two decades, however, contemporary Chinese feminists have begun vocally challenging Marxist state feminism. The 2015 detainment of five Chinese feminist protesters before International Women’s Day—and their subsequent release upon popular outcry—is emblematic of deeply seated public discontent toward state policy on women’s rights and the influence such discontent can have on the ever watchful Chinese regime. Given both the domestic and international pressure at stake, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cannot afford to silence the country’s feminist protest movement. It must treat women’s rights as a priority in itself and not simply a prerequisite for its own economic advancement. Indeed, Chinese feminism has its own historic context different from that of the West, but an outdated vision on the issue will not only harm the citizens—it may destabilize the very balance the CCP has tried so hard to maintain.

Feminism and the Communist Revolution

While the Chinese Communist Revolution is known for its overhaul of the country’s economic and political structures, it also initiated the modern Chinese women’s rights movement. In fact, the first official act passed by the new government after the CCP won the revolution was the Marriage Reform Law. The government of the new People’s Republic of China (PRC) believed family to be the key institution in society, and to strengthen the family meant emancipating women. Though the role of women evolved continuously with thousands of years of history and is a product of many traditions, women had generally been viewed as inferior to men in the traditional gender dichotomy. Women were socially and physically bounded by norms of femininity—they were restricted to a domestic role in the home and suffered from foot-binding, a mutilatory practice that made movement difficult.

The Marriage Reform Law was symbolic of the CCP’s prioritizing of women’s rights. Officially promulgated on May 1, 1950, the national law sought to address the most prominent issues faced by women in regard to marriage and family life. It abolished forced marriage, brideprice (money given by the groom’s family for a bride), concubinage, and child betrothal (in which a young girl is raised by another family to become a designated bride). Besides protecting women and girls from feudal practices, the law also extended the representation of women by guaranteeing women equal rights in the ownership and management of family property, as well as the equal right to petition for divorce. The law even went as far as guaranteeing women the right to keep their own family names—an act that would have been considered not only progressive, but radical by Western standards at the time.

However, it would be misleading to discuss progressive policies such as the Marriage Reform Law without taking into account the government’s economic agenda. For one, the Marriage Reform Law was designated to create a “new democratic marriage,” relieve patriarchal oppression, and construct a new image of women—so that women can more easily enter the workforce and that families would become more productive. Other reforms, including laws that guaranteed equal pay and equal education opportunities for women, also functioned to help women integrate into the labor economy. Mao Zedong, who had long envisioned the female liberation, believed that women had been a wasted reservoir of labor. Until China could obtain mechanical means of production, he believed that the shortage of labor in cooperatives and communes would be alleviated by women. In essence, the post-Revolution women’s rights movement was not rooted in idealist beliefs of human rights but the realist considerations of economic development.

Nevertheless, the new state policies elevated the economic and social status of womenin a scale previously unseen within and outside China. This translated into women having a greater voice in decision-making in both the private and the public spheres. Women exercised political authority in local governments and served in high-ranking offices. Many organizations championing women’s representation also formed, such as the National Women’s Federation. Most importantly, the women’s rights movement permanently altered the national psyche in regard to the role of women, and its legacy remains entrenched in society to this day. Women, Mao was famously quoted, began to hold up “half the sky.”

Conflicts with State-Sponsored Feminism

While emancipatory in many respects, state feminism functioned as a form of social control. Women’s organizations such as National Women’s Federation were dependent upon the government and exercised little actual authority. Additionally, any trend that in any way jeopardized the central government’s power was immediately quashed. For example, the women’s rights movement had led to increased sexual freedom, as “among the poor peasantry, triangular and multilateral relationships are almost universal.” The liberalization of female sexuality caused resentment among the more conservative peasants, mostly men. Concerned about backlash and about the image of the party, the government abandoned the Marriage Reform Law in 1953, three years after its introduction.

On a higher level, the party sought to override traditional patriarchal authority with its own authority. It sought to transform family life so that commitment to the party exceeded all other ties. Between the breakdown of the old commitments and the consolidation of new loyalty, however, there was an “intermediate stage of hedonism.” During this stage, the government made clear its intention was to solidify collective adherence to the party ideology rather than promote any individual thinking or decision. Women’s equality and full participation was promoted so long as it benefited the party and it strengthened its coercive apparatus.

The introduction of the market reforms by Deng Xiaoping, China’s de facto paramount leader from 1972 to 1992, complicated the role of women in Chinese society. Once guaranteed a job in the state-controlled economy, women now had to compete with their male counterparts and faced severe discrimination in the market. They were more likely to get laid off, be forced to retire at a younger age, or receive less social support after a lay-off, and were less likely to find re-employment. This regression in women’s economic position was accompanied by a worsening of social issues such as domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, and sex trafficking. More so than ever, this Marxist state feminism seemed obsolete and insufficient to Chinese feminists.

Culmination of the Contemporary Feminist Movement

The underlying feminist discontent that had simmered since the 1970s peaked at the 1995 Fourth United Nations Conference on Women, held in Beijing. The conference proved to be a crucial opportunity for feminist activists to access transnational networks as well as build “conceptual frameworks [...] to break away from or transform a Marxist theory of ‘equality between men and women.’” Chinese feminists had been in contact with feminist activists from other countries since the 1980s and had been working on developing independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for women’s rights. The UN Conference on Women came at an opportune time in which Chinese feminists were able to gather outside support for their causes as well as gain understanding of new concepts such as “women-centered sustainable development” and “mainstreaming gender.” These concepts helped explain the discontent that the Chinese feminists had lacked the language to describe and further encouraged them to imagine gender equality beyond the Marxist framework.

The post-1980ers are well-connected with the outside world, open to foreign ideas, and more willing than their predecessors to challenge the status quo.

Despite the agreements made during the UN Conference in Beijing, in which Hillary Clinton famously declared “women’s rights are human rights,” feminist activists in the country have continued to face police crackdowns and government threats. Yet the new Chinese feminist movement has not only remained alive, but has gained traction among much of the younger generation. The younger generation, born years after the Cultural Revolution, feels little allegiance to the Marxist state feminism that had dominated social discourse. The post-1980ers are well-connected with the outside world, open to foreign ideas, and more willing than their predecessors to challenge the status quo.

The most recent notable case of state suppression involved the detainment of five feminist activists who had planned a peaceful protest against domestic abuse on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2015. The police originally arrested nine activists who were involved in planning the protest in their respective cities—Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou—but later released four of them. The five women who remained in detention were Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Li Tingting, Wang Man, and Wei Tingting.

The activists are core members of China’s Women’s Rights Action Group—a symbol of new Chinese feminism. They are known for their creative stunts and eye-catching costumes during protests, earning them the title “guerrilla feminists.” Li Tingting, a better known as Li Maizi, has taken part in the protest campaign “Occupy the Men’s Toilets,” which sought to raise awareness about the inadequacy and indignities of public bathroom facilities for women. In one demonstration, Li Maizi and Wei Tingting donned bloody wedding gowns and fake bruises on their faces. They marched down one of the busiest streets in the nation’s capital holding signs with statements such as “Violence is next to you, yet you remain silent?!” and “Love, not an excuse for violence.”

Their activism has not gone unnoticed. According to the government, the five women activists were detained for “picking quarrels”—what has become a catch-all justification for the suppression of any dissident. The group was reportedly planning to distribute materials critical of the police on International Women’s Day, including stickers that state “Police: go arrest those who committed sexual harassment.” However, unlike most cases involving protesters, the activists were criminally detained rather than informally held by the police. This meant that they could be charged and convicted, without a trial.

However, in the process of their detention, something remarkable occurred. Immediately after the arrests, flyers featuring the faces of the five activists with an image of Rosie the Riveter—a popular symbol of female empowerment in the West—spread across Chinese social media. Though the state-controlled news media made no mention of the arrests and detention, informal news channels rapidly publicized the news to the international community.

The response from outside the country was incredible. One Billion Rising, an international movement against rape and sexual violence against women, demanded the release of “our activist feminist sisters," while its members in China provided on-the-ground updates of the conditions of the detainees. On Twitter, which is banned in China, “free the five” became a trending hashtag. Thousands of groups and individuals also spoke out against the government detention, including US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who declared, “We strongly support the efforts of these activists to make progress on these challenging issues, and we believe that Chinese authorities should also support them, not silence them.”

On April 13, 2015, the detainees were released—undoubtedly a result of intense international pressure. Yet such an immediate and widespread response would have been unimaginable a decade ago. The growth of informal media and the increasing interconnectedness of the world have made suppressing information difficult. Whereas in the past Chinese activist groups were mostly cut off from the outside world, now, the women’s rights activists in China have close ties with supporters and feminist groups from around the world. The Chinese feminist activists themselves may not be able to speak freely on the streets of Shanghai or Guiyang, but their voices can now be heard in the streets of São Paulo and Greenwich. For the first time in history, the term “global feminism” may be close to a reality.

What does this mean for the leadership of China? It means continuous suppression of feminist activists, including the raiding of women’s rights NGOs and monitoring of the five released detainees, will not gain the government any supporters on a domestic or international level. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the milestone UN Conference on Women in Beijing, the CCP had appeared to be making progress on women’s rights with the introduction of the long-awaited first anti-domestic violence law. Yet, given the arrest and detention of the peaceful feminist activists—and that being only one of the numerous cases of state suppression of women’s activism—any state reforms seem to be only words on paper. The anti-domestic violence law may be simply another Marriage Reform Law—convenient for the government, insufficient for the people.

The Future of Chinese Feminism

The Chinese government cannot afford to keep repeating incidents like the March 8 detentions. Not only will it lose ground with the international community, but it will also draw attention to already existing concerns domestically. The most rational and most forward-looking decision would be to cooperate with feminist groups instead of criminalizing them. Feminist organizations such as China’s Women’s Rights Action Group are not arising out of nowhere. Their causes reflect the commonplace concerns of the domestic population. While they share ideologies with feminist movements in other parts of the world, they function within their unique cultural context. Feminist activist groups are cautious about not appearing to be too “radical” and alienate the larger population. Though women’s rights have gained traction in the generation, the widespread stereotype of feminists as threatening extremists is ever present in China. As emphasized by Ye Jinghuan, a friend of the detainees and fellow activist, “Those five kids are so moderate ... They were never radical or violent.” Indeed, their proposals are “moderate” and practical. Building more public bathroom facilities for women, addressing domestic violence, and other related causes seem more like common sense than revolutionary sentiment. As stated by Feng Yuan, a women’s rights activist, “We cannot understand why the authorities are so tough this time. What the activists want is exactly what state policy on women says: that women should be equal.”

The activists themselves are aware that they cannot realize their goals without the support of the state and are open to such a partnership. The state should seize this opportunity rather than punish those who believe in it.

Yet moving toward true gender equality requires nothing short of a small revolution in the attitude of the CCP. It needs to end police suppression as its foremost policy and begin to prioritize local and national cooperation and communication with the feminist groups. The activists themselves are aware that they cannot realize their goals without the support of the state and are open to such a partnership. The state should seize this opportunity rather than punish those who believe in it.

Not too long ago, the women of China helped transform the country from an impoverished, rural society to a global economic powerhouse. But it has come time to realize that the rights of half of the population hold importance beyond the state development agenda. If women are half the sky, the Chinese government must start holding up its part.