Collective Male Feminism, Feminism and Feminist Politics in Transitional China

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Collective Male Feminism, Feminism and Feminist Politics in Transitional China

Qi Wang


A widely acknowledged fact is that China’s market development over the last decades has been more detrimental to women than to men. Overt gender discriminative practices manifest in a wide societal and political spectrum, and the call for women’s rights and gender equality is often met with ignorance, counterattack and even scorning from both the political left and the political right. Historically, there has been a quite strong presence of ‘collective male feminism’ through modern China’s endeavor to modernization. The trace of this ‘collective male feminism’, however, has vanished from the current reform politics which is built upon a consensus that national modernization for this time no longer needs to center around women’s status and gender equality.

This paper examines why and how ‘collective male feminism’ evaporated in China. It will first compare China with the post-communist development in Eastern and Central Europe and hypothesize whether China, without encountering a ‘conservative revolution’ as the former Eastern European countries did, would be able to avoid a total rejection of the earlier socialist legacy of gender equality. The second section of paper survey the major schools of political thoughts that have emerged in post-Mao China and detect how these thinking trends, utterly influential in both policy making and public debates, treat the question of gender equality and the relationship between national modernization and the wellbeing of the female population. The third section of the paper analyzes the New Left thinking in specific, aiming to discern whether the New Left, by virtue of its anti-capitalist inclination, might be more sympathetic and supportive to women’s rights and gender equality than other schools of thoughts. Finally, the paper discusses the challenges facing Chinese feminisms today and how Chinese feminisms communicate strategically and politically, engaging in a critical dialogue with both the state and the mainstream male intellectual elites in order to utter a steadfast feminist counter outcry and to develop a forceful feminist gender politics.

Key words: collective male feminism, feminism, gender equality, China, political discourse, political communication

Historically speaking, concern over women’s condition and position in society has always figured quite centrally in China’s endeavor for national building and modernization since the dawn of modern age in mid-19 century. The great last Qing reformer Liang Qichao, for instance, “blamed China’s weakness, at least in part, on the fact that its footbound, enclosed women were ‘parasites’ rather than productive citizens” (Davin, 2008:451). “This analysis”, as Davin points out, “became significant because it linked the movement for women’s rights to the national struggle and thus put gender equality on the agenda of all revolutionary parties in the 20th century” (ibid., p. 452). And yes indeed, “20th-century Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries consistently took the status of women as a signifier of the strength of the state.” An exemplar of this is the May Fourth movement which “made the ‘Women’s Question’ central to its debates and demands” (ibid.). The Chinese Communist Party, conceived in the womb of the May Fourth movement, inherited this pro-women tradition and carried it through its’ far-reaching revolutionary business and socialist development. Whether it is in the CCP controlled base-areas in the 1920s, 30s and 40s or in the waves of socialist transformation after 1949, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, women’s liberation, in terms of marriage freedom, productive and political participation, has been advocated and promoted to such a degree that it became the hallmark of the Chinese revolution and socialist modernization.

The historical juncture between national struggle for modernization and women’s liberation, however, cracked since the late 1970s and early 1980s when China embarked on its’ ambitious journey towards “four modernizations”. In the immediate aftermath of Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping’s leadership announced the shift of focus in the party’s work and the commencement of the “Reform” period that will lead China to a complete different direction from what Mao had envisaged. Like many of the CCP political projects early on, this grand and breath-taking paradigm shift is also launched in the name of national prosperity and aimed to strengthen the nation and the nation’s welfare. The first stage of the new development, according to the reform leadership, would result in a 小康 well-off society where Chinese citizens enjoy a material life far better than Mao’s socialist period had delivered. Such a ‘four-modernization’ prospective with its’ profound, forecasted national-strengthening potential and effects must in logic be benefiting to the majority of Chinese citizens, old as well as young, men as well as women. Unfortunately, for the first time in the CCP history, gender equality and women’s liberation was not accorded with a prominent position in the national modernization project. On the contrary, the reform rhetoric, articulated by party leaders, government officials and leading pro-market intellectuals, echoes an explicit denial that the national development towards four modernizations should take everybody on board. What underlying this denial is an open consensus that China during the socialist period had achieved excessive gender equality and women’s liberation at the expenses of fair competition and economic efficiency. The departure point for the post-Mao economic reform is thus not to divide the ‘cake’ equally but rather to make the ‘cake’ bigger first. This premise constitutes theoretically a mighty challenge to feminism and women’s movement in China and has yielded some wide-ranged and deep-felt negative complications for women’s condition and position in Chinese society.
To the extent that the majority of leading Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries in the 20th century were male, their advocacy of women’s rights as an integral part of the overall revolutionary and socialist politics might be termed as ‘male feminism’. More accurate, it should be called ‘collective male feminism’, given the fact that these wise men’s political commitment to gender equality may not and was often not reflected in their personal life (Chang and & Halliday 2005). This paper deals with the evaporation of ‘collective male feminism’ in the post-Mao reform politics and discusses how and why the national modernization project this time no longer needs to center around women’s status and gender equality. To shed a meaningful light on this historical withdrawal of ‘collective male feminism’ in China, however, we need to look beyond the Chinese horizon and make reference to the experience of other post-communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe. A common feature that characterizes the development of China and Eastern European geopolitics is the rejection of the Communist regime and the subsequent reworking of gender orders and relations in the absence of communism. But is the disappearing of ‘collective male feminism” in China an exact equivalent of the ‘conservative revolution’ that has swept the Second World in the 1990s? The paper will then survey the major schools of thoughts that have emerged in post-Mao China and detect how these trends of political thoughts, utterly influential in both policy making and public debates, treat the question of gender equality and the relationship between national modernization and the wellbeing of the female population. These trends of thoughts include liberalism, Neo Confucianism and the New Left. The last part of the paper will scrutinize the so-called New Left thinking in specific and discern whether there is a theoretical or standpoint linkage between it and feminism at all. This concern derives from the assumption that the New Left by virtue of its anti-capitalist inclination might contain bigger theoretical potential for women’s rights and gender equality than other schools of thoughts. The paper will simply ask: is there “collective male feminism” within the New Left? Could the New Left be the potential political ally for feminism in 21st- century China?
The inquiry is not only theoretically interesting but also highly relevant for the advance of feminism and the revision of feminist politics in current China. There was once an upsurge of exhilaration over the waning of state feminism and state control in mid 1980s. Feminist intellectuals under the banner of Women’s Studies at that time welcomed the market-oriented reforms out of the belief that market development will free women from the suffocation of state control and bring about the long–awaited freedom and multi-opportunities for women. This optimism, however, was soon overwhelmed by the landslide backlash in women’s condition and gender equality. China’s capitalist development over the last decades has borne series detrimental consequences for the female population of the country. While overtly and covertly gender discriminative practices manifest in a wide societal and political spectrum, the call for women’s rights and gender equality has been met with ignorance, counterattack and scorning from Neo-liberalism and conservative forces both within and outside the officialdom. It seems that Chinese feminisms today are tracked in a theoretical and political aphasia, unable to utter and launch a forceful and steadfast feminist counter outcry. The time has thus arrived for Chinese feminism to carefully scrutinize the landscape of gender politics and the various rivalling schools of political thoughts beneath the landscape in order to identify the sources of ideological constrains and possible support for feminist politics. Moreover, the time is also ripen for Chinese feminism to reflect upon its’ own ideological and political standpoint; to readjust its’ relations to the state on one hand and the market on the other; to revitalize feminist strategy; and to institute a formidable counterattack on gender-based inequality and discriminations.

  1. Gender in China and the Eastern European countries: the post-communist context

As far as gender and gender relations are concerned, China shares a similar trajectory of development with the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. That is to say, “gender relations are intrinsically implicated in the process of change” to and from Communism and “gender, in fact, is present in the very tissue of this change” (Watson, 1993:471). According to Verdery, gender is a construct that “mediates the relation between bodies” and “a symbol system by which bodies enter into sociality” (Verdery, 1996:92). She then quotes the concept of “gender regimes” by R.W. Connell to capture the feature of this gender system. Gender regimes “consist of a gender division of labor, a gendered structure of power, and a structure of cathexis” (ibid.). To use this term as a central thread to sketch the historical changes having taken place in China and the Eastern Europe, then what appeared in both geopolitical location is actually a reconfiguration of gender relations and gender roles –the working and reworking of the gender regime. During the socialist period, both China and the Eastern European countries featured a strong socialist regime which was determined to transform society through attacking and altering traditional gender structure and roles. As the central locomotive for such radical socialist transformation, the socialist regime in China and the Eastern European countries appears to be ‘in favor of gender equality’ (ibid.) and they promotes policies ‘to increase women’s participation in the work force’ (ibid.) as well as in political decision making of various levels. The socialist gender regime, whether it is in China or other Eastern European countries, is thus characterized by the full-time participation of women in the labor force, certain degree of change in family structure and ‘male and female household roles’ (ibid.), and a significant degree of visibility of women in politics, both in terms of participation and leadership. Needless to say, the socialist gender regime carries with it some built-in flaws and limitations as manifested by the “attempt to erase gender difference (along with ethnic and class differences)’, the attempt to ‘create socially atomized persons directly dependent on a paternalist state” (Gal and Kilgman, 2000:5), the contradiction in goals and policies toward women, and the incompletion of the revolution, leaving both labor division in family and the structure of power in society continue to remain ‘decidedly gendered’ (Verdery, 1996:94).

In the post-socialist transformations in China and the Eastern Europe, gender occupies once again a pivotal position in the process of change. With the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the change of the Party’s fundamental policy in China, these earlier socialist societies have moved away from the once proclaimed gender equality and towards a turning back to the structure of gender order in their various pre-socialist epochs. However national circumstances may vary among these societies, there have been “consistent and quite clear empirical indications” of reversion in gender equality and gender relations (Watson, 1993:471). What has been evidently observed is the decline of women’s political representation, the rising unemployment rate among women, and what can be called ‘retraditionalization’ of women - a return to ‘traditional values” and traditional gender roles (Verdery, 1996:100). These negative consequences are both motivated and underpinned by the trends of:

  • De-communism politicking aimed at reversing what has been achieved or extolled under socialism. The ‘politics of this’, as Verdery points out, ‘involves ‘othering’ women as allies of the Communists” (ibid.). And because ‘everything the communist parties advocated is discredited…., women’s emancipation is just one of the casualties’ (Lippe and Fodor, 1998:132) and has to be reversed. In China, it was mainly the Cultural Revolution that has become the main target of the de-communist slaughter, since it was mostly during the Cultural Revolution that great progress in women’s liberation and gender equality was achieved.

  • ‘Reestablishment of the sharp distinction between public and private’ (Grabowska, 2012:389). This transformation ‘of the relationship between public and private spheres’, as Watson points out, ‘lies at the heart of the process of change in Eastern Europe’ (Watson, 1993:471). On the one hand, the rising civil society and democracy in Eastern Europe “fundamentally entails the construction of a ‘man’s world’ and the propagation of masculinism in the public sphere” (ibid., p.472). Women were excluded or ‘phrase out’ from party politics and parliaments ‘have become much more clearly the preserve of men’ (ibid., p. 473). On the other hand, the post-communist Eastern European development is marked by the “domestication and marketing of women, and the de-grading of feminine identity” (ibid., p.472). After the dissolving of state socialism, the family/household again ‘assume central importance’ (ibid., p. 481), and women are increasingly ‘become identified with the family’ (ibid., p.478). In this process, the Churches, for instance, the Catholic Church in Poland, have played a pervasive role in reinforcing “the message that women’s appropriate place is in the home, outside the labour force” through the “revocation of abortion rights, the reintroduction of nationalist symbols….. and the dissemination of constricting ideas about women’s proper sexual behavior and personal character” (Lippe and Fodor, 1998:132).

  • Pervading essentialism and gender polarity in post-communist Eastern Europe which emphasizes ‘natural difference’ between sexes and homemaking roles as the function suitable for women and women’s nature. Essentialist writings blame earlier state socialism for having encouraged women to be aggressive in society, hence losing their gender essence and the qualities of good women. The same discussion has been going on in China since the outset of the economic reform, lamenting the socialist period for have been ‘erased’ distinctive gender attributes and gender identity in people’s consciousness (Wang, 2013; Yang, 1999; Barlow, 2004; Li, 1988). In Hungary, numerous writings come to express the dismay of men over masculinized women and ‘matriarchy’ under socialism and the yearning for restoring the authority of the father and the dependence of women on their husbands (Verdery, 1996:100).

  • Surging nationalism and strong conservative ideology. As Verdery formulates, one evident unsettling commonality in post-socialist Eastern Europe is the ‘increasingly visible ethnonationlism, coupled with anti-feminist and pro-natalist politicking” (ibid.). According to her, the issue of abortion illustrates richly why the surging of nationalism in Eastern Europe sees feminism as anti-national and hence an enemy and why Eastern European nationalist regimes not only boost but also seek support from conservative ideologies. For abortion involves the idea of the nation’s rebirth. The ‘nation cannot be reborn if fetuses – and the nation with them- are condemned to death. The nation cannot return to health if its women refuse to bear and nurture its ‘fetal citizens.’ “The nation’s recovery from socialism”, according to Verdery, “requires, then, a new patriarchy, instituted through a new democratic politics that serves the national idea” (ibid., p.101).

To a certain degree, the ‘conservative revolution’ that has swept the Eastern Europe resonate the de-Mao and de-socialism politicking in China well. Indeed, China’s post-Mao transition to market economy also involves a ridicule of the previous socialist gender regime and the politics to reverse the socialist gender order and relations. Despite this seemingly alike post-communist context, however, China does look somehow different in the general landscape of the post-communist gender politics. One fundamental difference that distinguishes China from other post-communist geopolitical locations in the Eastern Europe is the still-in-power of the Chinese Communist party and hence the continuity of the communist regime. Rather than collapsing, the Chinese Communist party is still in command in China and the transitional process to a market economy is both initiated and directed by the party. This means that although many aspects of the earlier state-socialist social and economic policies have been discarded or remolded in order to pave the way for market development and market principles, after decades of GDP-centered economic growth, have inflicted much of the social fabric and human relations in Chinese society, a total rejection and reversion of what the Chinese Communist Party stands for is still beyond feasibility and will continue to be so for quite some time. Thus, what features the post-Mao gender politics in China are “various contradictions between official ideology and private ideology, between socialist and traditional orthodoxy, between gender equality and differentiation” (Zhang, 2003:222), rather than the one hundred and eighty degree turn witnessed in the post-socialist Eastern European countries. To a large extent, post-Mao China also echoes a concerted intellectual and official repudiation of various achievements in women’s liberation during the Cultural Revolution, a call for women to rediscover their naturalized differences from men and to fully imbue themselves in it, a plea for women to shrink from their public role in both production and politics, and a demand for women to return to family and become full-time housewives. Despite so, some state-socialism, or state-feminism, ingredients withstand in China. Gender equality as a clause in the Chinese Constitution remains one of the fundamental state policies; China joined the UN gender regime by rectifying a number of the important conventions such as CEDAW; China coined a special law to protect women’s rights and interests; and the state institution of women, The All-China Women’s Federation, continues to exist and play a prominent role in the formulation as well as implementation of key state policies concerning women.

What else that distinguishes China from other post-communist geopolitical locations in the Eastern Europe is the lack of Church and a strong religion-based counterweight to the CCP power. Religious beliefs and rituals have been an important aspect of Chinese life for centuries. Since the communist takeover in 1949, however, religions – religious organizations and activities- has been subjected to ‘decades of strict regulation and repression by the government’ due to the atheistic conviction that religion is the opium of the people and the CCP’s suspicion of ‘any significant social activity outside its control’ (Overmyer, 2003:307, 316). Following the economic reforms and growing openness in Chinese society, ‘religious traditions in many parts of China have revived their activities and organizations’, with many local religious culture and practices ‘come bubbling to the surface’ (ibid.). But the revival of religions in current China is still incomparable to the role of Church, especially the Catholic Church, in Eastern Europe. Firstly, the Chinese government still feels threatened by organized religious activities and is still policing a strict control on religious communities through, for instance, the officially approved religious associations. While a great deal of freedom to practice religion has indeed become a reality, there is a long way to go before religion can be established as an independent spiritual and organizational realm shielded against state intervention. Secondly, religious life in China is highly heterogeneous and diversified. Apart from the five majors –Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity- , there are numerous local religious sects and cultures, lacking a single, centralized religious authority strong enough to challenge the state. Thirdly, many of the flourished religious culture and traditions unfold in either local society or closed ‘underground’ communities, such as family church. Their social influence is hence localized and confined. Moreover, unlike the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe, religions in China have little to say about women’s reproductive rights. The control on women’s body and reproduction lies in the hand of the state, and abortion is not only allowed but also commonly practiced within the orbit of the official family planning policy known as the one-child policy. All in all, China has not undergone a full-fledged conservative revolution as in the Eastern Europe, and the shadow of state socialism is still lingering in the country’s social and political life. Does this mean that there will be still a room for some degree of collective male feminism in the mainstream political thinking in China? To answer this question it is a necessity to give a bird-eye review of the ideological landscape in current China.

  1. Socialism with Chinese Character – An Ideological concession?

We must ask and probe into two questions in order to determine whether there will still be a room for some degree of collective male feminism in the mainstream political thinking in China today. One is how the still-upheld official ideology –socialism itself – has undergone some fundamental mutation since the onset of the reform and how it has deviated from the Maoist blueprint. This mutation not only has gender as the pivot but also yields far-reaching ramifications for the fate of gender in China’s development strategies. The other question concerns the rise of other political ideologies, such as neoliberalism, neo Confucianism and conservatism, and how gender figures in the political version of these isms. To a certain extent, the ideological landscape in post-Mao China looks like a chorus, with the official state ideology setting the main tone and the other trends of influential political thinking singing along. Collective male feminism will show a sign of being alive only if the centrality of gender is recognized and the principle of gender equality is endorsed by the official ideology, or by other isms or, in the best scenario, by them all. This, however, is not the case. Let us first exam the mutation of the official ideology-socialism since the reform.

The post-Mao version of socialism has a little interesting appendix. As formulated by the then Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, it is socialism “with Chinese character”. And it is within the bracket of the so-called “Chinese character” that deviations from the early Maoist version of socialism both arrive and come to manifest. In retrospect, the Maoist vision of socialism features a strong and visible collective male feminism element and this strong collective male feminism is rested upon two central pillars: a class equity society and a state controlled economy with the least influence of the market as possible. Gender equality was accorded a quite central place on the overall political agenda of the state during Mao’s reign, not only because it is congruent with the Maoist political project of creating a class-less society but also because it is instrumental to the realization of such a society. This seamless “match” between gender equality and class equality in classic Chinese socialism, however, cracked with the shift to reform policy in end of the late 1970s which began to steer the Chinese society towards almost the opposite direction. The process of economic transition has, like a flood, swept away the two pillars that usually supported gender equality and invoked a volte-face change of values and mindset regarding society and social relations. “Socialism with Chinese character” has namely given up egalitarianism, no longer emphasizes on equal distribution of economic resources and has paved the way for a capitalist development which has, over the last more than thirty years, polarized the Chinese society to a degree that is unprecedented in history. In specific, “socialism with Chinese character” has peeled off the ethics of socioeconomic equity and replaced it with pragmatic mottos, such as “letting someone get rich first” and “Deng Xiaoping’s famous formula, ‘it’s right to be rich’” (Kelly, 2013:48). Moreover, “socialism with Chinese character” also places an overwhelming emphasis on productive efficiency which in principle is believed as the key to increase material welfare and common wealth but in reality entails a classification and reorganization of human manpower to allow a maximum utilization of the ‘able’ labor and a dumping of the less ‘able’ and/or unfitted.
“Socialism with Chinese character” is thus a mutated form of socialism without genuine socialist substance. Feminism, or the feminist course, was betrayed at this historical conjunction because the post-Mao economic transition which supposedly will boost the country’s economy and facilitate China’s “leap” into modernization is no longer aimed at benefiting everyone. “Getting rich” is a zero-sum game, and as such it will inevitably lead to the accumulation of wealth at someone’s hand and the loss of resources and opportunities from someone else’s hand. But why does gender have to suffer, or perhaps suffer most, in the post-Mao transition to a market economy? It is primarily because the pursuit of economic efficiency is premised on the separation of production from reproduction and hence on women’s free labor as care takers at private home. In her analysis of the four-round debates on ‘sending women home’, Song Shaopeng demonstrated clearly how female workers were the first ones to be ‘eliminated’ in the enterprise ‘optimization process’ because they bear the responsibility of human reproduction and were hence often deemed as lesser productive and efficient than male workers (Song, 2011).
Thus, although gender equality still remains one of the fundamental state policies in China, the thrust of collective male feminism in the official ideological mindset has gone with wind. Perhaps, a better way to portray the standpoint of the post-Mao leadership when it comes to term with gender is to look at the widely circulated concept of suzhi (quality) and the on–going discourse of population suzhi in post-Mao China. As generally recognized by the scholarship of China, “the concept of suzhi (human quality) has”, over the past decades, “become increasingly central to dynamics of culture and governance in the PRC” (Kipnis, 2007:388). Suzhi “articulates the boundaries of China’s newly differentiating social strata” (Anagnost, 2004:190), as it widely used to both measure and label the human capital of a body and to make the distinction between those of high quality and those of low quality. Though without using the word “class”, suzhi discourse actually “reifies…..forms of hierarchical difference” (Kipnis, 2007:390) to the extent that “some bodies are recognized as having more value than others and therefore more deserving of the rights of citizenship” (Anagnost, 2004:194). The suzhi discourse thus conceals the unfairness and injustice of the capitalist development by attributing one’s success or failure to his/her own quality and worth. A number of scholarly works (Judd, 2002; Jeffery, 2000) have shown how “the lack of success in China’s market economy is often explained in official discourse with reference to the low suzhi of the unsuccessful” (Kipnis, 2007:389). Within the suzhi framework, it becomes extremely difficult to problematize gender inequality, or any form of socioeconomic inequality, since “suzhi not only codes” the difference of human values “but channels it toward capital accumulation” (Anagnost, 2004:191). Inequality, seen with a suzhi lens, is only a materialization of different human qualities rather than a structural problem.
While the “Chinese character” version of socialism is chanting its suzhi mantra, the post-Mao development politics both invites and is influenced by other trends of political thoughts. Neoliberalism, for instance, is one of such trends that have left a deep figure print in the reform thinking and policies. Neoliberalism mounted to the Chinese political scene in the 1990s (Xu, 2003). Intellectuals under the neoliberal banner may disagree with each other on a number of issues, but they all believe in the magic of the market and see market development the only panacea to China’s problems. They advocate personal freedom, go for a free market and a minimum state. Another common stance featuring the liberal intellectuals is their ultimate disdain of equality as a societal value and their firmly conviction that equality contradicts individual freedom and hence has to be compromised in order for individual freedom to thrive (Li, 2013). In the public media space over the years, many high profiled liberal intellectuals have time after time aired their overt aversion of gender equality and shown a deep negativity towards any constructive discussion of socioeconomic policies from gender perspectives. As Li Sipan rightfully points out in her essay, mainland liberals solemnly believe that women’s rights can be fully subsumed in the liberals’ more general human rights abstraction and hence do not need to be given a special attention. Some of them even allege that China had gone too far in terms of gender equality and women’s rights so the question facing China now is how to retrench instead of going forward (ibi.d).

What makes Chinese neoliberals such steadfast anti-feminist? Why cannot they see that women’s rights are human rights and there will be no human rights without women’s rights? According to Li, the apparent anti-feminist stance of the Chinese neoliberals can be attributed to the following three factors: 1). The liberal intellectuals, in the process of ushering liberalism into China, have ‘inherited’ the tension between liberalism and feminism and totally ignored the potential of liberal thinking in defending women’s rights and feminist claims. In other words, Chinese neoliberals have filtered liberal political thinking and removed the possible link between liberalism and feminism (Li, 2013). 2). the liberal intellectuals, mostly men, have their own gender complex/interests at stake. Many of them suffered a serious political and career setback during the Cultural Revolution when women’s liberation reached zenith. The anxiety for their lost masculinity and male superiority made it hardly easy for them to truly appreciate what women have achieved at that time. Waking up from their trauma after the Cultural Revolution, they found themselves to be on the top echelon of the social ladder again and become a beneficiary of the economic reforms which ‘have produced new forms of socioeconomic inequality’ (Anagnost, 2004:192) and series negative consequences for women. To be anti-feminist is not only what they believe but also where their male interests are. 3).

Chinese neoliberals are characterized by a strong elitism. They believe in the political potential of the rising capitalist class and emphasize the alliance between the in-power elites, the CCP top, and the new rising economic elites. The most urgently important matter for them is political liberalization, and the one-sided focus on political liberalization has obscured both their sensitivity and their attention towards the dilemma and the myriad problems the social bottom has encountered (Li, 2013).
Then what about the ‘revival of the Confucian tradition in politics and everyday life’ (Bell, 2008:xiii)since the 2000s? While it is believed that ‘creative adaption’ of the Confucian legacy ‘can be helpful for dealing with the challenges of contemporary China” (ibid.), will there be any collective male feminism element to be spotted in neo-Confucianism? In other words, can neo-Confucianism be lesser anti-feminist and more friendly with gender equality? The answer is obviously a negative one. This is because Confucianism embodies traditional gender concepts, such ‘virtuous wife and good mother’ and ‘exalting males and demeaning females’, and these are the ‘fundamental tenets to assess a woman’s behaviour and aspirations, and her status relative to that of men’ (Leung, 2003:361). Although ‘the promotion of Confucian values’, from the government point of view, ‘has several advantages’ and ‘many intellectuals have turned to Confucianism’ ….to think of ways of dealing with China’s current social and political predicament’ (Bell, 2008:9,11), the historical come-back of Confucianism in the twenty-first century China can barely breed any benefits to gender equality and women’s rights (Song, 2008). ‘Cultural revivalism’, as McLaren termed (McLaren, 1988) ‘stresses an essential national character and the importance of traditional, cultural, family and ritual issues’ (Leung, 2003:368). As a manifestation of such ‘cultural revivalism’, the ‘re-invented Confucian ideology’ attempts to ‘revive selected aspects of the Chinese pre-revolutionary heritage’ (ibid.) and hence provides a justification for gender discrimination and gender injustice, for example the stressing of family responsibilities on women, ‘denying them access to certain jobs and hindering their career advancement’ (ibid.).
A survey of the ideological landscape in current China shows how collective male feminism has eroded away from the state ideology of ‘socialism with Chinese character’. And with the strong anti-feminist echoes emitted by the other contending political thinking such as neoliberalism and neo-Confucianism, the melody of the Chinese reform hymn has been set to a tone which is gender indifferent at least and women unfriendly for the worst. As Li Sipan points out, whether it is liberalism, cultural conservatism or even the New Left, a common trait of the current Chinese ideological trends is an apparent antagonism toward women’s rights, ignorance towards the historical trajectory of women’s liberation and the lack of willingness to know anything about it (Li, 2013:4). Male great thinkers and intellectual elites, no matter how enlightened they might be, appeared to be exceptionally intolerant and ignorant when it comes to gender issues. This, of course, should not rule out the possibility for a vibrant feminist politics, but it does remind us how hostile the overall ideological environs in China are for feminist politics.

  1. The Chinese New Left – How “left”?

This section discusses the New Left thinking alone in order to discern whether the Chinese political left is also left in gender related questions and whether the New Left can be a potential friend to feminism and feminist politics. The reason to treat the New Left separately from the other above-mentioned trends of thinking lies exactly in the New Left’s being left and their inclination to concern the less privileged or the underprivileged in society. The New Left emerged during Hu Jintao’s presidency ‘with a range of prescriptions for a troubled society’ (Hook, 2007:9). It ‘is a loose group of intellectuals’ (Li, 2010:4) ‘composed of scholars who have spent considerable time studying or working abroad at U.S. and European universities, and were heavily influenced by the idea of postmodernism before coming back to China’ (Freeman and Yuan, 2012:66-67). The New Leftists ‘oppose a neoliberal market economy, want increased social welfare, argue for greater democratic participation (but without formal elective democracy), and support more assertive foreign policies’ (Hook, 2007:9). They challenge ‘China’s current market reforms with a simple message: that China’s failed 20th-century experiment with communism cannot be undone in the 21st century by embracing 19th-century-style, laissez-faire capitalism’ (Pocha, Jehangir S., 2005:25).

The New Left debate was a purely academic one without much public influence when it first emerged. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, however, ‘as China’s economy boomed and society became more stratified’ (Hook, 2007:10), the ‘viewpoints from the New Left group have gradually gained popularity’ (Freeman and Yuan, 2012:67-68) and political weight as well. A quite number of studies have highlighted how, since the 1990s, the New Left and Liberals ‘constantly clashed over both the strategies and outcome of the reform’ and debated back and forth on ‘issues such as the state vs. market, economic nationalism vs. globalization, equity vs. growth, fairness vs. efficiency’ (Li, 2010:6; Freeman and Yuan, 2012; Xu, Youyu 2003; Narayanan, 2007; Mishira, 2006). To be brief, the New Leftists saw inequality in China as ‘too stark to be ignored’. They emphasize ‘economic justice, not just economic growth at any price’, and they view ‘the complete divorce from the redistributionist ideals of Marxist communism as callous and immoral’ (Li, 2010:12). They ‘favor a strong state…. arguing for a strong government to regulate the market’ and to ‘act vigorously to counter what they see as the unacceptable inequalities and injustices created by the past thirty years of market-oriented reform’ (Li, 2010:7). The core of the New Left’s concern and ‘policy recommendations is a focus on what they call the San Nong (or Three Nongs): issues concerning the plight of the nongmin (peasants), nongye (agriculture) and nongcun (rural communities)’ (Pocha, 2005:27).
What about gender inequality? As widely acknowledged, ‘a combination of factors’……in the reform process ‘has contributed to the fall in status and material well-being of Chinese women relative to men’, and ‘women’s historical gains of the past are now being eroded in China’s post-socialist reform era’ (Fincher, 2014:7). Does the Chinese New Leftists concern gender inequality in the same degree as they concern social inequality in general? Or can the New Leftists’ inclination to equality and justice be attended to gender issues? Has the New Leftist thinking the potential to take the gender aspect of inequality on board and are they willing to defend women’s rights and fight for the elimination of gender inequality as well? These questions are both relevant and important to ask, given the historical connection between the left and feminism. Back to the 1960s and 1970s, the second wave feminist movement in Europe and North America “emerged from earlier civil rights, student and anti-war movement”, the so-called leftist movement (Meyer, David S. and Whittier, Nancy, 1994:278). By questioning the ‘core features of capitalist modernity…., consumerism…..bureaucracy, corporate, culture….sexual repression, sexism, and heteronormativity’, the ‘new social actors formed new social movements, with second-wave feminism among the most visionary” (Fraser, 2012:5).
The incarnation of such historical alliance between leftist movement and feminist movement, however, can hardly be found among the Chinese New Leftists. When it comes to gender issues, the Chinese New Leftists are as ignorant and conservative as the liberals. Though preoccupied by inequality and social stratification, the New Left intellectuals seldom bother to care about inequality along the gender line. In examining one of the New Leftists’ key issues, i.e. the new rural construction discourse, Jacka casts a light on the gender ignorance of the New Leftists, stating that the ‘new rural construction discourse offers very little space for those concerned to overcome the injustices faced by rural women’ (Jacka, 2013:994). Scholars behind the new rural construction discourse, such as Wen Tiejun and He Xuefeng, ‘emphasize the distinctiveness of Chinese peasant economy and society, and simultaneously elide gender and other differences and inequalities within rural communities’ (ibid.). And, ‘there is no significant recognition of or concern about gender injustice’ (ibid., p. 993). Both scholars ‘mention women only rarely and, when they do it, it is usually to portray them as a problem, rather than as key agents and subjects of rural (re)construction’ (ibid., p.998). On the other hand, neither of them ‘recognizes the gender-specific injustices and difficulties faced by women’ (Ibid.).
At which crossroad has the New Left and feminism passed each other? How can an intellectual discourse that ‘was shocked by polarization, and decided to defend the interests of the poor’ (Li, 2009:5) like the New Left turn a blind eye to the soaring problem of gender inequality as if it is an non-existence? In other words, why would the New Left, both rooted in and inspired by China’s earlier socialist legacy, walk away from the commitment to gender equality which is actually a hallmark of that legacy? To untangle this puzzle, we must go back to the sources of China's New Leftist thinking so as to understand the New Left intelligence from within. According to writer Chen Guanzhong, the Chinese New Left has a deep root in the soil of post-modernism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism (Chen, 2013:4). These post-isms provide powerful ammunitions for the New Leftists to wage their criticism of Western-centrism and global capitalism. On the other hand, however, the anti-Western/anti-modern posture seems to have carried the New Leftists away and pushed them down the road of Chinese egocentrism. While rightfully questioning and opposing the universal value of the Enlightenment, Eurocentric sentimentality and orientalism, the New Leftists somehow moved closer to 国粹主义guocui zhuyi, i.e. cultural nationalism, and slipped into the trap of cultural arrogance and chauvinism when they emphasize the Chinese-ness and the Chinese path to modernization, champion Chinese cultural traditions and basically refute the value of anything that is, or associated with, Western (Chen, 2013). Gender equality, as an idea that is totally absent in the Confucian tradition and as a concept which is imported to China from the West rather recently, is a mismatch to the New Leftist philosophy and is therefore elided and discarded by the Chinese New Leftists.
On the other hand, the New Leftists aspire to disassociate themselves from the ‘”the old left” hardliners who genuinely wish for a return to Mao’s era’” (Hook, 2007:9). Their aversion of the ‘left’ label, in the beginning of their rise, is a testimony of this aspiration. Deeper down at a theoretical level, however, the New Leftists have to do more to show that there is a difference between them and hardliner Maoists. This means that while advocating for social equity and equality in their resistance to the capitalist market development, the New Leftists have to draw a line between their social vision and the old/obsolete Maoist version of socialism. This is done through a critical reflection upon the high tide of Mao’s socialism, the Cultural Revolution, and a critical reevaluation of Mao himself (Chen, 2013). And since it has become a consensus among male intellectual elites of all political convictions that the Cultural Revolution together with the historical achievements in women’s liberation during that time must go down history as a disaster or a period of abnormality, the New Leftists will fail to mark their distinction from the now much loathed Maoism unless they join the denigration of the Cultural Revolution and what the Cultural Revolution had done for women. At this point, the New Leftists are in no way better than the liberals or the Confucian conservatives. Their social thinking might be placed on the left end of the political spectrum, but their attitude toward gender and gender equality seems equally “right” as the political right.
The detachment of social inequality from gender inequality in the New Left discourse is, however, not an isolated Chinese phenomenon. Worldwide, the relationship between the New Left and feminism has always been an unstable and turbulent one (Jayawardena and Kelkar, 1989), varying across temporality, locality and historical conditions. In a general sense, as Chen elaborates, the New Left in the third world draws on the rich sources of a variety school of thoughts, such as post-structuralism, post-modernism, the Frankfurt school, cultural studies, ethnic studies, post-colonialism and feminism as well. And, it is primarily due to so that the New Left distinguishes itself from the old Left (Chen, 2013:7). In party/state politics, however, the New Left ‘does not have a brilliant record on women’s issues’ (Jayawardena and Kelkar, 1989:2123). In South Asia, for example, ‘there has been a resistance in the left to autonomous women’s organizations’….. and ‘many of the demands (of the women’s organizations, author adds) were thought of as extremist or subversive’ (ibid., pp. 2124). Jayawardena and Kelkar hence state that ‘a correct analysis of feminism cannot be provided by the left unless the left itself is transformed through an attempt to understand and come to terms with patriarchy in its historical setting and its complex and problematic relationship with dominant relations of production’ (ibid., pp. 2123). In Latin America, a ‘pink tide’ has swept the continent with the election of leftist presidents in the majority of Latin American countries (Kampwirth, 2011). There, the new left has actually made ‘significant efforts to improve the lot of women when those efforts coincide with the traditional leftist concerns for class equality’ (Kampwirth, 2011:3), but there is a tendency ‘to see feminist movements as a threat’ and an attempt to ‘constrain women’s rights activists whenever they slip out of the control of leftist parties and leaders (ibid.).

China does not undergo a conservative revolution as the Eastern European countries did. Socialism still goes on, and on the surface what has changed looks like a minor terminological one. Under the façade of ‘socialism with Chinese character’, however, various streams of conservative currents are surging and they converge into a gender-indifferent/anti-feminist wave, eroding the fundament of gender justice in Chinese society. The evaporation of collective male feminism in post-socialist China is unprecedented in the Chinese modernization history. It testifies the built-in tension between modernization and women’s rights, and reminds us the possibility that the pursuit of modernity which will allegedly benefit the generality, be it the mankind or a nation, may not fully incorporate women’s rights in the process, and in the worst case, may ignore or even exclude women’s rights. It also reminds us that those male intellectual elites, as the holder of knowledge and discursive power, may not always unconditionally support women’s rights no matter how enlightened and visionary they are. Collective male feminism is conditioned and therefore fragile. It can easily melt away when the condition is not there or not apparent anymore.

The twenty-first century Chinese feminism thus faces series of daunting challenges. On the one hand, Chinese feminism needs to communicate politically, engaging in a critical and in-depth dialogue with both the state version of socialism and the various influential trends of political thoughts. Such a triangle dialogue is strategically important, for only through such dialogue that Chinese feminism can mark its standpoint and become an equally formidable player in the political and intellectual debate about China’ future. Chinese feminism needs to carefully reflect upon the socialist legacy of women’s liberation and the 1980s celebration of the revival of women’s gender essence, for both the socialist class-based approach and the market gender-difference-based approach carries within itself constrains and limitations for gender inequality and women’s rights. When collective male feminism has vanished and anti-feminism has gained a strong foothold across the entire left-to-right politics spectrum, Chinese feminism must avoid leaning toward only one end and the danger of being trapped in an unfortunate theoretical and political aphasia which makes them unable to utter a steadfast feminist counter outcry and to develop a forceful feminist gender politics.

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Qi Wang

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