Behind the Spectacle: Women’s Human Rights in China

Marcy Bloom

Behind the Olympic spectacle, what is the reality in China for women, their health, reproductive rights, and human rights?

During China’s
bid for the Olympics in 2001, Beijing Olympic official Liu Jingmin stated
that the 2008 Olympic games would be "an opportunity
to foster democracy, improve human rights, and integrate China with
the rest of the world."
China’s leaders want the world to see a city, a country, and a
people that represent the nation of the future. Beijing has undergone
breath-taking modernization in preparation for these 2008 Games and
the entire country has put its best foot forward.

But behind the Olympic spectacle, what is the reality in China for women, their health, reproductive rights,
and human rights?

Human rights activists warn that China is a totalitarian
state that has used free markets to fuel economic growth, lift hundreds
of millions of its people out of poverty, and attempt to demonstrate
that a strict one-party Communist system of rule can be as beneficial
as a democratic system–all while using these mechanisms to control every
aspect of the behavior of its huge population and
to consolidate its power

Even as China emerges from
the socialist police state that was crafted under Chairman Mao’s oppressive
Cultural Revolution, the country is still full of rampant government
corruption, secret trials, inhumane detentions, abuses of power, injustices,
and the denial of human rights.As I watch
in awe at the powerful athleticism of the young Chinese women of the
Olympics, I wonder about their human rights, reproductive health and rights,
and their status in Chinese society.

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In January
2007, respected Chinese journalist Li Xing wrote: "I have been trying
hard to help my readers understand that fact that discrimination against
women and attitudes of male chauvinism are…continuing to hurt Chinese
She further
declared that the general media have not been much help in getting rid
of traditional stereotypes against women. For example, the January 2007
media coverage of a report from the State Population and Family Planning
Commission indicated that for every 100 baby girls born in 2005, there
were 118.58 baby boys. In some provinces, the gap is even more severe–130
baby boys for every 100 girls. This startling disparity is expected
to widen, with serious concerns for the survival of girls, as well as
social stability. However, according to Li, most of the Chinese media
reports were concerned solely with the impact on men, highlighting the
fact that by 2020, 30 million Chinese men will find it impossible to
find a wife. Li questioned where the focus was for women’s lives,
health, rights, and well-being because of this polarizing gender imbalance.
She emphasized: "As far as the root of the matter is concerned, news
media just stop short of condemning the traditional male chauvinism
[and women’s inequality] entrenched in Chinese culture, as if it is
something we can do little about."

Where does
the male chauvinism of Chinese culture referred to by Li come from?
Many believe that the heart of the problem lies in the Confucian tradition
of man’s superiority over women, a belief that has survived decades
of Communist rule.
According to the
Confucian structure of society
women at every level were to occupy a position lower than men. This
"natural and proper" view of women has had an enormous influence
on the attitudes towards girls and boys that have long been held in
Chinese society. In a patriarchal society where boys carry on the family
name, are considered better workers, and are seen as insurance against
old age, parents–especially
those in rural areas–prize boys and
have a disincentive to bear and keep their female infants

In 2004,
the Chinese government stated that it recognized that the equality and
advancement of women was closely tied to the entire society’s development
and growth. This was part of its annual report on The Convention on
the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women (CEDAW),

which the government had previously ratified. CEDAW makes it clear
that coercion in family planning policies is
sterilization or [forced] abortion adversely affects women’s physical
and mental health, and infringes on the right of women to decide on
the number and spacing of children."

China’s "one-child" policy, which sets birth quotas for most couples to one child, has
caused the dramatic gender imbalance noted earlier. While the Law on
Population and Family Planning states that one child is mostly merely
"encouraged," abusive or coercive enforcement measures, such as forced abortions,
compulsory sterilizations, and the forced insertion of intra-uterine
devices after abortions or births, have gone on for years and continue
to be documented.

The one-child
policy was devised in the 1970s to curb China’s burgeoning population, now at more
than 1.3 billion, but the implementation has resulted in numerous human rights
violations. Women who have refused to have abortions, sterilizations,
and /or use contraception, as well as their family members, have been
threatened, lost jobs and homes, and have
been imprisoned. Local authorities who decide when and how to
collect the so-called "social maintenance" penalties used to enforce
the one-child policy, and these fines have often been abusive, arbitrary,
and corrupt. Recently parts of the country have seen protests and riots over family planning rules; farmers have demanded
refunds of fines levied against the families who had more than one child. These arbitrary
enforcement measures
such as hefty fines, forced abortions, confiscation of homes and property,
as well as illegal land grabs and the imprisonment of "law breakers
and instigators," have fueled deep tensions between Chinese citizens
and Communist party officials, challenging the party’s efforts to
maintain stability and keep its grip on power.

The cases
of Mao
and Chen Guangcheng are illustrative of the inhuman penalties
handed out when family planning/one-child policies are challenged. Mao, a human rights activist, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison after she refused to have an abortion.
Chen is a blind, self-taught lawyer and activist who is serving more
than four years in prison after exposing abuses in the implementation
of the one-child policy. Like Mao, he has been abused and isolated in
prison and is in poor health.

growing gender-ratio disparity is a result of the restrictive implementation
of its family planning policies and the deep cultural prevalence for
male children. Some officials have admitted
that the one-child policy has "aggravated the imbalance,"
as the restrictions have led to sex-selective
abortions that have overwhelmingly caused the abortion of female fetuses.

to a United Nations official: "The shortage of women will have enormous
implications on China’s social, economic, and development future…The
skewed ratio of men to women will have an impact on the sex industry
and human trafficking," as well as family, societal,
and regional stability

In 1994,
the Mother and Child Health Act outlawed the practice of gender identification
of the fetus and sex-selective abortions; this was reaffirmed in the
2002 Population and Family Planning Law. However, many consider this
law unenforceable and yet another human rights
violation against women and couples.

On the positive
side, Chinese officials have begun the "Care for Girls" campaign
in an effort to raise awareness and demonstrate the value of girls and
women. This advocacy program is
aimed at prospective parents in many underdeveloped areas to correct
the severe gender disparity. This is key, as changing the cultural attitudes
around women and girls, and educating the public on their equal value,
as well as their human rights, is fundamental. Observers of Chinese
also encourage
laws that grant girls and women equal rights, enhance the rights of
daughters and their responsibilities toward their natal families, give
land and inheritance rights for women, increase flexibility around the
one-child policy, and implement and expand the social security system
for the elderly so that parents do not have to become so dependent on
sons for their care and survival.

In addition,
economic support is now being offered to girl-only families in rural
areas. A pilot program begun in 2004 in certain parts of the country
will financially reward those farmers who have no children, have only
one child, or have two female children. The Chinese government
has finally realized that incentives for fewer children work better
than punitive measures and is an important step toward helping
farmers comply with the country’s family planning policy.
According to population expert Liu
Junzhe, this policy is placing more value on human rights. Liu also
believes that the policy may contribute to the modification of traditional
beliefs about male children and subsequently may aid in restoring a
balance to the country’s distorted gender ratio.

What emerges,
then, is that there are both regressive and progressive aspects to the
laws and human realities of China’s family planning policies. Beijing
was given the opportunity to host the Summer Olympics largely because
the Chinese government promised to greatly improve its human rights
record. In reality, Chinese authorities
are reported to have greatly restricted the movements of
numerous human rights defenders
Chinese and foreign–and many have been detained or were denied visas
so they would be unable to travel to Beijing during the Olympics.

As I marvel
at the Chinese women athletes who demonstrate their impressive physical
and mental prowess as they run, jump, spin, bicycle, swim, dive, tumble,
wrestle, and somersault through the air, I wonder what the future of
their lives, rights, and status in society will be. The 29th
Olympiad will end, but the power, worth, contributions, and value of
Chinese women and girls never will.

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