Authors: Kailing Xie, University of Birmingham and Ying Huang, University of York
Between December 24, 2021 and January 22, 2022, China’s Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests was opened to the public to propose amendments. This is the third round of proposed amendments since the law was passed in 1992. During that time, the public has been able to propose changes to existing legislation on a government website.
Consultation on the law is in the spotlight, especially as ongoing debates about cultural and structural constraints to women’s empowerment have intensified after several recent cases of serious gender-based violence were widely publicized on digital platforms. In January 2022, a video went viral of a woman in chains who was believed to have been imprisoned by her husband in the village of Xuzhou for years. The revelation of her situation sparked widespread public debate about human trafficking and women’s rights, as well as the apparent weakness of the existing law in tackling such cases.
85,221 people took part in the first round of consultations in January 2022, with a total number of 423,719 proposed amendments – the highest number of proposals made during a consultation period. The high level of public engagement is noteworthy given the increased repression of Chinese civil society under the current regime.
Chinese citizens continue to influence public affairs, having developed distinct strategies compatible with the existing system of government in what University of Manitoba associate professor Lawrence Deane describes as a “uniquely Chinese form of civil society.” . Various advocates are increasingly using litigation to influence social outcomes. A particularly active voice is the Beijing QianQian law firm, whose proposed amendments to the Women’s Rights Protection Law have been widely publicized.
QianQian addresses the male-centered language embedded in Chinese law by offering gender-neutral terminology to emphasize women’s independent subjectivity and equal civil rights. For example, they recommended that clause 2 of the general provision – that “women shall enjoy the same rights as men in all aspects of political, economic, cultural, social and family life” – be changed to “men and women enjoy the same rights”. They proposed changing the wording of all clauses dealing with women’s specific rights on the grounds that the original wording of the law implies that men’s rights are the benchmark for women’s rights.
Yet, to the disappointment of many, the first officially amended draft presented by the Legislative Committee contained few of QianQian’s amendments.
An alarming change made to the amended draft was the deletion of the existing content of clause 45, which originally stated that “employers should not ask about fertility wishes when recruiting women”. Although illegal, this recruitment practice is widespread because women’s potential to become mothers has been widely seen as an additional cost to employers since China’s “reform and opening up” period. This partly explains the continued decline in female labor force participation, from 73% of the female population in 1990 to 62% in 2021.
Against the backdrop of China’s recently introduced three-child policy and an economy dragged down by the COVID-19 pandemic, the amendment to Term 45 will undoubtedly pose an additional challenge to women’s job prospects. The official draft also deleted a sentence from Clause 17 – that “relevant departments and units attach importance to the recommendations of all women’s federations and their members when appointing women officials”. This could worsen the already serious underrepresentation of women in leadership positions in China.
In his second proposed amendment, QianQian also pointed to inadequate service delivery and training of police forces as a major obstacle to law enforcement. Police officers receive little relevant training and few female officers are involved in domestic violence cases.
QianQian suggested that “names of personnel and offices be published as necessary” be added to Clause 88 – a section that originally stated that “sanctions apply to government personnel and their supervisors” in the cases of gender-based violence in which administrative justice fails. QianQian also proposed that “no gender disparity in university admission standards” be included in Term 22 – an important step towards the long-term elimination of male dominance in the police force. and the military through education.
To address the lack of action by local authorities – one of the longstanding obstacles to ending human trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence – QianQian recommended decentralizing litigation power. Only the prosecutor is allowed to litigate cases related to gender-based violence, therefore QianQian proposed that “all qualified social organizations be allowed to act as public litigators” in Term 78. This would strengthen civil society and would improve law enforcement.
The second amendment proposal deadline passed on May 19, 2022. With the outcome pending, efforts to challenge the increasingly centralized and gender-blind state apparatus require long-term perseverance from the part of the surviving actors of Chinese civil society who must keep faith in the Chinese proverb – the ‘drops of water can wear away stones’. QianQian’s actions represent the thriving and vibrant civil society under stronger state control, proving that the struggle for better protection of women’s rights is an ongoing struggle, made up of many important voices that are hard to silence. .
Kailing Xie is a lecturer in international development at the University of Birmingham.
Ying Huang is a graduate of the Center for Women’s Studies at York University.