China's Glass Ceiling: Women Still Excluded from High-Level Politics

Despite ample progress, the country's feminist movement still has a long way to go.
liuyandong.jpgChina's Vice Premier Liu Yandong (Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr)

After her anti-child molestation campaign, feminist Ye Haiyan, also known as Liumang Yan, or "Hooligan Sparrow," has been detained by the Chinese police. Officials say the arrest and detainment was because Ye intentionally injured three women in a fight and insist the case has nothing to do with her protest, an explanation that Ye's supporters did not buy at all. While they argue that Ye's activism played a role in her detention, her gender may have also been a factor in her mistreatment.

Before her anti-child molestation campaign, Ye was already well-known for her radical activism on behalf of sex workers, spending a day as a prostitute in 2012 so as to better understand the issues faced by "ten-yuan" sex workers. She was also among four women who appeared nude in a photograph, entitled "One Tiger, Eight Breasts," with outspoken artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

In Ye's case, much as her campaign has succeeded in attracting followers, Ye herself has once again been drawn into controversy and even suffered verbal abuse. After her most recent campaign, Weibo user @不知道说什么好小姐 called her a "shameless hen," a play on the word for "prostitute" in Chinese, while user @雷母ABC123 remarked, "Ye Haiyan pretends to be innocent and that she has been persecuted. A bunch of shysters flock to embrace her like flies swarming to filth."

Leftist (i.e. conservative) opinion leader Sima Nan, male, escalated the incident to a fight between different ideologies, commenting on his verified Weibo account that during the incident, so-called public intellectuals "boldly took advantage of the woman who once was naked with Ai Weiwei to play dirty in the name of Children's Day and to propagate hatred of one's country." Ye's detractors have called her use of her body "dirty" and "shameless" rather than brave.

In contrast, Ye herself has called for focus on the issues. In one of her last tweets before her detention, she wrote: "Please, everyone, don't be misled by the shameless talk online. Putting an end to sexual abuse at schools is the main point; that's what the government, media, and society should care about, not whether or not Ye Haiyan is seeking attention."

"Women hold up half the sky"

It has become almost cliché to say that in China, there are parallel realities for citizens' political lives; there is a real story, and then an official version. Yet the issue is even more evident with regards to women's participation in politics at the grassroots level. While the pressures and obstacles for women come partly from authorities, they also have a deeper and more enduring cause: culture.

A woman who takes part in a political demonstration, plays a high-profile role in a civil movement, or participates in government in China is apt to face inconvenient truths. Within the political system, she must submit to one-party rule; on a cultural level, she must move within a long-standing patriarchal society.

There have been some improvements in women's political participation since the establishment of the People's Republic of China. In 1949, China implemented one of its most basic laws, which states that "women shall enjoy equal rights with men in political, economic, cultural, educational and social life."

Lotus Yuen is a Beijing-based writer and editorial intern at She has written for Southern Metropolis Daily, New Business Magazine, and Hong Kong Independent Media.

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