Behind the Spectacle: Women’s Human Rights in China  

WRIC                     3-20-2012

During China’s bid for the Olympics in 2001, Beijing Olympic official Liu Jingmin stated that the 2008 Olympic games would be “an opportunity to foster democracy, improve human rights, and integrate China with the rest of the world.” China’s leaders want the world to see a city, a country, and a people that represent the nation of the future. Beijing has undergone breath-taking modernization in preparation for these 2008 Games and the entire country has put its best foot forward.

But behind the Olympic spectacle, what is the reality in China for women, their health, reproductive rights, and human rights?

Human rights activists warn that China is a totalitarian state that has used free markets to fuel economic growth, lift hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, and attempt to demonstrate that a strict one-party Communist system of rule can be as beneficial as a democratic system–all while using these mechanisms to control every aspect of the behavior of its huge population and to consolidate its power.

Even as China emerges from the socialist police state that was crafted under Chairman Mao’s oppressive Cultural Revolution, the country is still full of rampant government corruption, secret trials, inhumane detentions, abuses of power, injustices, and the denial of human rights.As I watch in awe at the powerful athleticism of the young Chinese women of the Olympics, I wonder about their human rights, reproductive health and rights, and their status in Chinese society.

In January 2007, respected Chinese journalist Li Xing wrote: “I have been trying hard to help my readers understand that fact that discrimination against women and attitudes of male chauvinism are…continuing to hurt Chinese women.” She further declared that the general media have not been much help in getting rid of traditional stereotypes against women. For example, the January 2007 media coverage of a report from the State Population and Family Planning Commission indicated that for every 100 baby girls born in 2005, there were 118.58 baby boys. In some provinces, the gap is even more severe–130 baby boys for every 100 girls. This startling disparity is expected to widen, with serious concerns for the survival of girls, as well as social stability. However, according to Li, most of the Chinese media reports were concerned solely with the impact on men, highlighting the fact that by 2020, 30 million Chinese men will find it impossible to find a wife. Li questioned where the focus was for women’s lives, health, rights, and well-being because of this polarizing gender imbalance. She emphasized: “As far as the root of the matter is concerned, news media just stop short of condemning the traditional male chauvinism [and women’s inequality] entrenched in Chinese culture, as if it is something we can do little about.”

Where does the male chauvinism of Chinese culture referred to by Li come from? Many believe that the heart of the problem lies in the Confucian tradition of man’s superiority over women, a belief that has survived decades of Communist rule. According to the Confucian structure of society, women at every level were to occupy a position lower than men. This “natural and proper” view of women has had an enormous influence on the attitudes towards girls and boys that have long been held in Chinese society. In a patriarchal society where boys carry on the family name, are considered better workers, and are seen as insurance against old age, parents–especially those in rural areas–prize boys and have a disincentive to bear and keep their female infants.

In 2004, the Chinese government stated that it recognized that the equality and advancement of women was closely tied to the entire society’s development and growth. This was part of its annual report on The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which the government had previously ratified. CEDAW makes it clear that coercion in family planning policies is prohibited: “Compulsory sterilization or [forced] abortion adversely affects women’s physical and mental health, and infringes on the right of women to decide on the number and spacing of children.”

However, China’s “one-child” policy, which sets birth quotas for most couples to one child, has caused the dramatic gender imbalance noted earlier. While the Law on Population and Family Planning states that one child is mostly merely “encouraged,” abusive or coercive enforcement measures, such as forced abortions, compulsory sterilizations, and the forced insertion of intra-uterine devices after abortions or births, have gone on for years and continue to be documented.

The one-child policy was devised in the 1970s to curb China’s burgeoning population, now at more than 1.3 billion, but the implementation has resulted in numerous human rights violations. Women who have refused to have abortions, sterilizations, and /or use contraception, as well as their family members, have been threatened, lost jobs and homes, and have been imprisoned. Local authorities who decide when and how to collect the so-called “social maintenance” penalties used to enforce the one-child policy, and these fines have often been abusive, arbitrary, and corrupt. Recently parts of the country have seen protests and riots over family planning rules; farmers have demanded refunds of fines levied against the families who had more than one child. These arbitrary enforcement measures, such as hefty fines, forced abortions, confiscation of homes and property, as well as illegal land grabs and the imprisonment of “law breakers and instigators,” have fueled deep tensions between Chinese citizens and Communist party officials, challenging the party’s efforts to maintain stability and keep its grip on power.

The cases of Mao Hengfeng and Chen Guangcheng are illustrative of the inhuman penalties handed out when family planning/one-child policies are challenged. Mao, a human rights activist, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison after she refused to have an abortion. Chen is a blind, self-taught lawyer and activist who is serving more than four years in prison after exposing abuses in the implementation of the one-child policy. Like Mao, he has been abused and isolated in prison and is in poor health.

China’s growing gender-ratio disparity is a result of the restrictive implementation of its family planning policies and the deep cultural prevalence for male children. Some officials have admitted that the one-child policy has “aggravated the imbalance,” as the restrictions have led to sex-selective abortions that have overwhelmingly caused the abortion of female fetuses.

According to a United Nations official: “The shortage of women will have enormous implications on China’s social, economic, and development future…The skewed ratio of men to women will have an impact on the sex industry and human trafficking,” as well as family, societal, and regional stability.

In 1994, the Mother and Child Health Act outlawed the practice of gender identification of the fetus and sex-selective abortions; this was reaffirmed in the 2002 Population and Family Planning Law. However, many consider this law unenforceable and yet another human rights violation against women and couples.

On the positive side, Chinese officials have begun the “Care for Girls” campaign in an effort to raise awareness and demonstrate the value of girls and women. This advocacy program is aimed at prospective parents in many underdeveloped areas to correct the severe gender disparity. This is key, as changing the cultural attitudes around women and girls, and educating the public on their equal value, as well as their human rights, is fundamental. Observers of Chinese society also encourage laws that grant girls and women equal rights, enhance the rights of daughters and their responsibilities toward their natal families, give land and inheritance rights for women, increase flexibility around the one-child policy, and implement and expand the social security system for the elderly so that parents do not have to become so dependent on sons for their care and survival.

In addition, economic support is now being offered to girl-only families in rural areas. A pilot program begun in 2004 in certain parts of the country will financially reward those farmers who have no children, have only one child, or have two female children. The Chinese government has finally realized that incentives for fewer children work better than punitive measures and is an important step toward helping farmers comply with the country’s family planning policy. According to population expert Liu Junzhe, this policy is placing more value on human rights. Liu also believes that the policy may contribute to the modification of traditional beliefs about male children and subsequently may aid in restoring a balance to the country’s distorted gender ratio.

What emerges, then, is that there are both regressive and progressive aspects to the laws and human realities of China’s family planning policies. Beijing was given the opportunity to host the Summer Olympics largely because the Chinese government promised to greatly improve its human rights record. In reality, Chinese authorities are reported to have greatly restricted the movements of numerous human rights defenders-both Chinese and foreign–and many have been detained or were denied visas so they would be unable to travel to Beijing during the Olympics.

As I marvel at the Chinese women athletes who demonstrate their impressive physical and mental prowess as they run, jump, spin, bicycle, swim, dive, tumble, wrestle, and somersault through the air, I wonder what the future of their lives, rights, and status in society will be. The 29th Olympiad will end, but the power, worth, contributions, and value of Chinese women and girls never will.