After her anti-child abuse campaign, feminist Ye Haiyan, also known as Liumang Yan (流氓燕, “Hooligan Sparrow”), has been detained by Chinese police. Officials say the arrest and detainment was because Ye intentionally injured three women in a fight and insist the case is nothing to do with her demonstration, an explanation that Ye’s supporters did not buy at all.

Truth is, it becomes almost a cliché that when it comes to citizen’s political participation, China is like a world of parallel realities. One story goes public, and one is real. Yet, the issue gets even more evident with regards to women’s participation in politics at the grass–root level. While the pressure and blockage for women partly come from the authority, they have a deeper and more enduring cause: the culture.

For a woman to take part in a political demonstration, to be high-profile in civil movements or to enter the government in China, she is apt to fact at least inconvenient truths: on the political system level, she would be submitted to the authoritative one-party rule; on the cultural level, she would be living in a long-standing patriarchal society.  

In Ye’s case, much as her campaign has succeeded in attracted followers, Ye herself is drawn into controversy and even verbal abuses—again. Before the anti-child sex campaign, Ye was already well-known for her radical approach to rights work, spending a day as a prostitute in 2012 so as to better understand the issues faced by “ten-yuan a time” sex workers. She was also among four women who appeared nude in a photograph by outspoken artist and activist Ai Weiwei, titled “One Tiger, Eight Breasts.”

Weibo user @不知道说什么好小姐 called her “shameless hen”; in Chinese, “hen” (ji) is a derogatory signifier for prostitute. User @雷母ABC123 remarked that “Ye Haiyan pretended to be innocent and that she was persecuted. A bunch of shysters flocked to embrace her like flies swarmed to embrace dirt.” Leftist opinion leader Si Manan, male, escalated the incident to a fight between different ideologies, commenting on his verified Weibo @司马南 that 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.”

It is not that improvements in women’s political participation have never occurred since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Starting from 1949, China implemented its basic law, which states that “women shall enjoy equal rights with men in political, economic, cultural, educational and social life”.

Around 1950s, Chairman Mao’s famous quote–“woman can hold up half the sky”—further promoted women’s social status. A few years after Mao’s words, China has its first female vice-Premier Wu Guixian, who held the position only for a year during the Cultural Revolution. Nowadays, one can see pretty faces on television, in governmental bodies and among the leadership level of the Chinese Communist Party. By now, China has had six female the Party’s Central Committee members, two four female chief clerks of provincial levels, four provincial governors and four female vice-Premiers—the latest being Liu Yandong, 67, responsible for science, education culture and sports sectors. As for a more grass-root level, Chinese women now account for almost half of the members in urban neighborhood committees (a unique form of self-governance of urban dwellers in China).

The campaign of equalizing the rights of China’s men and women is no doubt a historical movement and perhaps, the word HIStorical speaks it all.  

What does not go public about the parallel story of Chinese women’s rising status is that, traditional patriarchal stereotyping of women, gendered division of labor and responsibilities, economic structures, institutional norms and procedures and inadequate state intervention, lower average educational levels of females, political culture and male-centered social practices have altogether created a blockage for women to break the gender-ceiling.

The fact is, much as Chinese women are gradually gaining their rights to politics, they are playing only with the peripheral power whereas men have been dominating the top leadership of Chinese government. The Standing Politburo Committee, the highest body of the Party, has excluded females ever since its establishment.

Despite Liu Yandong’s success, she and her colleague Sun Chunlan are the only two females out of twenty-five members of the 18th Politburo of the Party. Coincidentally, the proportion of women in the Party’s Central Committee has fallen over the years—down to just 4.9 percent at the most recent Party Congress.

Not only is gender inequality still a severe problem in China, but women in rural areas are worse off compared with women in urban areas. Scholars reviewed that women’s participation in rural governance remains seriously limited. For one thing, sexist attitudes that “women are of low quality (di su zhi)” were still prevalent at least in the Chinese countryside. For another thing, representation of women in local governance bodies remains low, and women villagers’ political aspiration and sense of empowerment remain primitive; for those who make their way to the government bodies or villager’s committees, they are often assigned marginal portfolios.

So half a century was gone since Chairman Mao’s remark and the half-sky has not been entirely brightened for women. If history is any guide, Chinese women should realize that the patriarchal culture they are born with would never fade away by itself and that political empowerment would not come fast if they do not strike for it by themselves. Perhaps that is why quite a number of Chinese feminists and women’s rights organizations now extend their fight to the cyber community just as Ye Haiyan did. There, though verbal abuses and sexist attitudes still exist, their voices would be heard by millions of people in an instant and men are at least able to sit down and listen to their thoughts willingly or unwillingly.

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