Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2023 > How Women’s Federations balance feminism and Party discourse in China | (...)

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 34, August 19, 2023

How Women’s Federations balance feminism and Party discourse in China | Junyi Cai

Friday 18 August 2023


As a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organisation, the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) wields influence in shaping the discourse and progress of women’s rights in various aspects at the state level. But because the ACWF must walk a fine line between adhering to CCP discourse and advocating for women’s issues, the extent to which it functions as a feminist organisation is limited.

The ACWF holds the dual responsibility of representing the interests of women and assisting with the implementation of the party-state’s policies relating to women. It has played a significant role in initiating and implementing major legislation, including the Marriage Law, the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests and the Anti-Domestic Violence Law.

Women’s Federations (WF) in China should be understood as a nation-wide network ‘system’ (fulian), rather than a single organisation. Closely resembling the hierarchical distribution of state power in China, the ACWF has set up local organisations across the country, with different administrative levels corresponding to the levels of local government. The ACWF — sitting at the national level — presides over all federations.

The complexity of the WF’s structure is not only reflected in the enormous number of organisations associated with it but also in how its operations relate to the government’s administrative hierarchy. Normally, the ACWF only communicates with provincial-level federations in terms of issuing tasks and instructions. Provincial-level federations then transmit these instructions to lower-level federations.

The ACWF’s position is precarious, as issues such as lower-level federations holding a passive attitude to women’s issues or higher-level federations failing to represent issues reported by lower-level federations would undermine its effectiveness. Local federations are the ones to practically deliver services for women and implement specific local policies.

Though the WF does not possess formal policymaking and legislative power, its official status grants it political influence and the ability to provide advice on women’s issues during the legislative process. The organisational structure of the WF also makes it possible for policy initiatives to begin at the lower levels and move up the chain to become legislation.

A lower-level federation’s local policy proposal may inspire higher-level federations, leading to bottom-up legislative achievements. For example, the first anti-domestic violence regulation in China was issued in Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province, under the initiative of the Changsha WF in the 1990s. This municipal policy provided a reference for the Hunan WF when it advocated for provincial anti-domestic violence legislation.

Both the Changsha and Hunan Federations demonstrated effective agency in investigating and conducting surveys on domestic violence, working with grass-root organisations and pushing for legislation. The Hunan WF’s successful work on the resolution was praised by the ACWF, which soon started to publicise the Hunan WF’s work and to advocate for national legislation on anti-domestic violence. A bottom-up policy route was formed.

But imbalanced power relations [1] and conflicting priorities between the ACWF and decision-makers inevitably affects the WF’s advocacy for women’s rights. Lobbying from both local federations and the ACWF is essential to persuade policymakers to support their proposed policies. This power dynamic between the WF and the National People’s Congress highlights the WF’s importance in making feminist outcomes possible.

The WF has been constantly articulating women’s issues within the state’s political discourse. The WF emphasised the social problem of domestic violence when seeking to make the state take responsibility for the issue. Anti-domestic violence legislation appealed to decisionmakers because the WF represented it as necessary to build a harmonious socialist society.

Using gender neutral discourse seems to be an effective way to appeal to the state’s ambitions of family and social stability to achieve a feminist outcome, such as addressing domestic violence. But this discourse in the WF’s advocacy neglects the imbalanced power structure of gender, which is central to domestic violence issues. Positioning anti-domestic violence advocacy within family-centred discourse also produces a hybridised but ultimately incoherent discourse that attempts to uphold the prevailing social order instead of challenging the underlying power inequality in gender relations.

The current political landscape — characterised by Xi Jinping’s emphasis [2] on ‘jia guo tian xia’ (family, nation, world) — poses further challenges to achieving gender equality in China. The party-state’s increasing intervention in family and marital matters, combined with the reinforcement of traditional gender roles, further marginalises women in the public sphere. The CCP’s emphasis on family virtues and Confucian values risks perpetuating stereotypes and limiting women’s subject positions within the domestic sphere.

The ACWF’s recent initiatives, such as the 2021 Family Happiness and Well-being Project [3], heavily emphasise the domestic role of women in relation to building a civilised family and strong family virtues. This only serves to reinforce rigid gender roles within a patriarchal family structure.

The WF has been a contradictory agent. It attempts to carry out feminist practice within the state by pushing for women’s representation [4] in the policymaking process, while simultaneously representing the party-state’s discursive closure in defining matters relating to women. On the one hand, the WF strategically frames women’s issues to appeal to the support of the party-state. On the other hand, a feminist signification of women’s issues has not been achieved in the WF’s discursive construction. Such discursive failure reveals the limited capacity of the WF as a feminist force within the state.

(Author: Junyi Cai is Sessional Lecturer in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney)

[The above article from East Asia Forum is reproduced here under a Creative Commons License]

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.