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CommentInsight & Opinion

Xi's 'southern tour' speech shows why women's rights must advance

Chang Ping says the reportedly leaked 'southern tour' speech by Xi Jinping not only dims hopes for reform but also underlines how the entrenched ideas of patriarchy have helped reinforce autocratic rule

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 February, 2013, 3:02am

A speech Xi Jinping made during his "southern tour" last month is being circulated within party ranks, veteran journalist Gao Yu said in an article published on the website of the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The full text of the speech has been posted online. If that is indeed the speech Xi made, then it is clear China has a new leader who is more conservative and more intractable than his predecessors.

Xi's words dashed hopes for change. While Deng Xiaoping's "southern tour speeches" 20 years ago famously called for bolder, faster reforms, Xi's version on his visit - which had aroused such great interest in its significance - amounted to a rejection of reform. He echoed Hu Jintao's shocking conclusion in his final work report at the 18th party congress that while China "will not continue on the old path that is closed and rigid, it also won't go the heretical way of changing our banner".

Xi rejected the warning by Deng and Wen Jiabao that political reform lagged behind economic reform, insisting that reforms have been "comprehensive", saying "I don't agree with the view that some aspects of our reform are lagging".

The most interesting was his regret and pain at the disintegration of the Soviet Union. "To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the party's organisations on all levels. Why must we stand firm on the party's leadership over the military? Because that's the lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union," Xi said. This would explain why the Chinese Communist Party has not removed the remnants of Maoist thought in its constitution, as people wish. It would also explain the party's continuing faith to "maintain stability" at all costs.

These views are also the substance of an article in the latest issue of the party's leading policy magazine, Qiushi Journal.

One other comment in Xi's speech deserves attention - "no one was man enough". Still on the Soviet Union, Xi said: "Finally, Gorbachev announced the disbandment of the Soviet Communist Party in a blithe statement. A big party was gone just like that. Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist."

This reminds one of what Hu said 10 years ago just after he came to power, when he shockingly branded Gorbachev the "culprit of the drastic change of the Eastern Bloc and a traitor to socialism".

"Not man enough" also says a lot about a seldom-discussed issue in Chinese politics - gender equality.

It is hard to imagine that the leader of any democratic country would lament the lack of talent by saying "no one was man enough". Xi's comment should not only be rejected by women's rights groups, but should also rightly embarrass his peers in politics who have some understanding of power relations. Patriarchy has made a comeback in Chinese society and is helping today to strengthen authoritarian rule.

The campaign for gender equality was an integral part of the anti-feudal movement at the beginning of the last century, an intellectual asset for the socialist revolutionaries and a slogan used to rally the people. After the Communist Party took power, though its rule was also authoritarian, gender equality remained an important part of the socialist ideology and was taken seriously. Feudal, patriarchal thinking was an object for criticism, and the communist government advocated freedom of marriage and other policies that treated men and women equally.

But Deng's economic reform, which ran ahead of social and other reforms, upset the tentative gender balance. So we've seen a resurgence of patriarchal ideas and the women's movement has been set back.

Even though China's women politicians are arguably all products of patriarchy, it is still quite the joke that the party's highest body of power, the Politburo Standing Committee, is comprised entirely of greying men. Among the current 25 members of the Politburo, only two are women (Liu Yandong and Sun Chunlan , with Sun, formerly the party secretary of Fujian , being only the second women in the party's history to become a provincial chief). The other women officials largely have no decision-making powers.

In the wider society, fewer choices are available to women. It's considered more important for a woman to marry a good man than to have a good career: since she faces the glass ceiling at work, marriage is the more reliable channel for a woman to gain social status, and those who do not marry are branded "leftover women".

Girls do so well in schools that, only last year, the education ministry allowed colleges to raise the admission standards for girls. Nevertheless, women teachers in kindergartens and primary schools are seen as less capable because femininity is equated with weakness.

The popularity of "boys' classes" and the movement to encourage fathers to be more involved in their children's kindergarten education all point to a belief that a "manly education" is the way to groom talent for the future.

The obvious explanation for men's dominance is that they command the lion's share of society's resources. But go deeper and you'll find that patriarchy is the outcome when political power colludes with capital. Patriarchy and political autocracy are two sides of the same coin; one reinforces the other.

Many opinion leaders view activists for gender equality with disdain. It narrows their minds and blinds them to the fact that they are opposing autocracy with autocratic thinking, and are in fact hoping to benefit from patriarchy.

Campaigners for women's rights have been working hard. They have been especially active in the past year, staging events to "occupy men's toilets", and protests against sexual harassment in the subway and sex discrimination in recruitment. They are also fighting for equal rights in colleges and protesting against domestic violence. These campaigns strengthen the civil rights movements. Sadly, they have yet to win popular support, and are often the targets of smear campaigns.

China needs more women's rights campaigns. This will not only bring women the respect and equality they deserve, but also directly attack the authoritarian system that is built on patriarchy.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from the Chinese

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