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Does the Rule of Law Protect Women in China?

Ciara Morris | China Fellow

Image credit: Ravenpuff92 via Wikimedia Commons

On 30 October, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) revised the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women, after receiving over 700,000 comments during the open public opinion stage. The revision of the law is a direct response to recent women’s rights protests in China, but it is a weak response. The quantity of amendments outpaces the quality of the law.


In 2012, when Xi Jinping first came to power, experts eagerly watched the PRC enter a period of optimistic judicial reform characterised by soft-centralisation and efforts to increase judicial transparency and professionalism. This period has ended. Xi Jinping’s 2020 Socialist Rule of Law with Chinese Characteristics emphasises the courts’ loyalty to the Communist Party of China (CPC) - something mutually exclusive from a Western interpretation of the Rule of Law.


As Xi’s concern for the stability and legitimacy of the Party and his leadership has grown, so has his official embrace of populism in the legal system as a way to centralise power.


The last two decades have seen an upsurge of lawsuits and petitioning across China. The courts are one of a number of state-run institutions “serving as a safety valve for a widening range of popular complaints”. They aim to dissuade citizens from acts of social unrest.


Chinese law professor at the University of Hong Kong, He Xin, told the South China Morning Post this recent legislation on women’s rights is more likely to be “an apparatus response to President Xi Jinping’s frequent mention of gender equality” than anything substantive.

Actions speak louder than words, and with a total of zero women elected to the Politburo this year, Xi isn’t looking good on his promise.


According to the South China Morning Post, experts say the revised law “lacks the teeth it needs to be effective”. The law requires employers to have rules in place to address sexual harassment in the workplace, but stipulates zero enforcement mechanisms. Individuals do not even have rights to sue their employers for not having these rules in the first place.


Laws in the PRC are often written in a high level of abstraction. The country has followed an elusive path of judicial reform primarily because reforms have consistently been fraught with trial and error projects, fragmentation, and populism. The PRC is trying to create a legal system that acts fairly without challenging Party rule. It’s near impossible.


As bureaucrats - and often Party members themselves - judges are directly incentivised to take into account public opinion when making decisions, even when those views or directives contradict the law. The #MeToo movement in China has always been fraught with controversy, and now struggles in a shrinking digital space.


The revision of the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women may also have a hidden agenda by the Party. The law protects female employees’ jobs and salaries in the event they get married, pregnant or take maternity leave. All good steps. However, the motivation is likely tied to the PRC’s desperate attempt to engineer a baby boom, faced with an increasingly aging and unmarried population.


The law also states that media reporting on women should be “objective and appropriate” and must not include “exaggerating matters and excessive hype”. While arguably there to protect women’s personal privacy, the article in question can be interpreted as a way to silence journalists and dissuade women from coming forward with complaints of harassment. The law even went so far as to delete an article that allowed women’s groups to expose and criticise harassers through the media.


Mao Zedong, although far from a feminist idol, once famously proclaimed “women hold up half the sky”. The #MeToo movement in China is not dead. The Party cannot sweep it under the rug forever. Populism is an unstable beast. If the Socialist Rule of Law - initially built up to facilitate Party legitimacy - doesn’t protect women in China, it may soon no longer serve as a source of Party power, instead becoming what threatens to dismantle it.


Ciara Morris is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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