On China: This week, a new generation of educated women took a leading role in talks between Hong Kong leaders and pro-democracy protestors. But, in mainland China, the situation couldn’t be more different – with women retreating into traditional roles, says Yuan Ren
Hong Kong, formally part of China, has long enjoyed a global status comparable to London and New York. It’s home to some of the most accomplished women in the world, many of who work in its prosperous financial sector. Yet despite this, the citizens of Hong Kong’s have never had a full democracy – not even under British rule, which ended in 1997.
For the young women occupying Central (the region’s business district), what is within their reach has changed.
According to Professor Angela Wong of The Gender Research Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, this “new generation” of women have benefitted from an education that gives them the same confidence as their male counterparts.
That was never clearer than this week, when tens of thousands of protesters watched the first talk between student representatives and the Hong Kong Government. Women played a key part in the discussion across the meeting table, in the fight for greater political freedom.
Ms Lo Hoi Yan, a 30-year-old teacher and Hong Kong resident who took part in the demonstrations, says that gender is irrelevant in this fight for democracy: “For me, it’s my right as a person, not as a sex, to express myself in this way.”
So, it seems extraordinary that the situation in mainland China could not be more different.
As women in Hong Kong take the region’s fate into their own hands and stand should-to-shoulder with men, many of their counterparts in China aren’t even aware that it’s happening.
In recent weeks, I’ve asked many female friends for their thoughts on the Hong Kong protests.
More than half replied perplexed – what on earth was I talking about?
‘Women can be easily swayed’
Ms Li, a 29-years-old student at a top-ranking Beijing university thinks this a conversation that ‘mainland women’ have been excluded from. “You’d be lucky to find two out of ten who know about it,” she says. “Men talk about topics like this among themselves, but not with women.”
Of course, censorship (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all blocked) and the lack of free political expression no doubt stifle open debate in mainland China. Yet, there’s a definite knowledge gap when it comes to women in particular.
And – among those who are aware of the situation – there’s suspicion, too.
Li, who is married to a European, questions whether the women in Hong Kong have fully grasped what they are fighting for: “Young women can be easily swayed by collectivism – I’d be surprised if it’s pure politics that brought them onto the streets,” she says.
Voices such as that of demonstrator Yan have fallen largely to unsympathetic ears. One Chinese friend from university, a woman who works in Hong Kong’s financial district, called the protesters “a bunch of stirred-up students with over-idealised minds”.
“I’d say most Chinese women don’t get into this kind of discussion about politics”, explains Xia, a 28-year-old graduate from a London university and an investment banker in Beijing. “I didn’t know and I don’t care except to say Hong Kong is a very good choice for shopping.”
For others, the blocking of Instagram triggered a burst of interest. “That was the only reason Hong Kong came up in my conversations with other women”, says Ms Wu, a 29-year-old media professional, who studied in the US. “And only in passing – otherwise they really wouldn’t care.”
‘It’s more useful to care about a rich man than politics’
According to a publication in the Journal of International Women’s Studies earlier this year, Chinese women’s participation in political affairs – including involvement in mass organisations, as well as a general interest in media affairs and political knowledge at all levels of society – has seen little growth for the past few decades. Women scored significantly below men on all counts. While the percentage of women in high political office has remained at 21.3 per cent since 1959.
Dr Liu, Deputy Director at the SOAS China Institute in London, thinks that as China gets richer, it may be leavings its women behind: “Economic development has been the sole driver of reform in the last 30-years and women’s status did not feature at all in those objectives.”
The one-child-policy encouraged greater investment in girls – but Dr. Liu thinks that while such reforms created greater employment opportunities for women, they failed to change their overall prominence in China.
Rapid growth and an increasingly materialistic culture have also created new pressures for women. Pointing to sky-rocketing house prices, and the cost of giving birth, Ms Li says that for young women today, “it’s all about ‘self-preservation’ rather than ‘social preservation’”.
China’s income inequality gap now exceeds that of the USA. Men’s salaries have risen high above those of women. In such an environment – where influence and connections dictate social standing – marriage is still seen as the easist route for women to secure financial stability.
“It’s more practical to care about finding a rich man with a car and house, than about world affairs,” says Ms Wu.
A huge obstacle to engaging women in political affairs is gender discrimination. Heavily bound by traditional notions about femininity, participation in public or political activities is often discouraged. The common view remains that a women’s priority is foremost her family. The public space still belongs to the men.
“If you are even slightly aggressive about arguing a political point, people will think there’s something wrong with you. You’ll be laughed at for never finding a husband,” says Wu.
“The rigidity of these ideas can be so overpowering it’s hard for young women to see alternatives for themselves,” adds Dr Liu.
Women have few alternatives
It wasn’t so long ago that women in the mainland were pivotal to demanding political change: in the anti-imperialist revolutions of 1919, women were leading figures in the fight against the feudalism, and again during the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square.
Rapid growth in personal wealth and the pursuit of materialism over the past 30 years of economic prosperity have gone a long way to to silence outward demonstrations of public discontent.
But Professor Wong thinks that women in Hong Kong also have a long way to go in terms of gender equality – despite how things look to the watching world. She says that the success of women in its prosperous financial sector is an illusion and “hides the fact that strong traditional notions exist about women’s role within the family.”
She adds that “there’s been little attempt at translating women’s rights into political or legal terms”.
And while it is true that men made up the majority of representatives around the discussion table on Monday evening, women did make an impact.
Demonstrator Yan, impressed by student representative Yvonne Leung’s performance, viewed her role as being “absolutely critical” to the movement.
Even though such sentiments might fail to resonate with those on the mainland, many here can still appreciate the value of being given a voice.
For 36-year-old Ms Zhao and her peers, ignorance of what’s happening in Hong Kong may hinge on a simple point: “Perhaps if change could come from talking about it here, I too would be interested in the discussion.”
Yuan Ren is a freelance journalist who grew up in both London and Beijing. She can be found tweeting @girlinbeijing