Author: Chen Chen, US Council on Foreign Relations

In November 2022 a female undergraduate stood outside a cafeteria at Tsinghua University in Beijing with a blank sheet of paper — a symbol of protest against censorship and control. Tsinghua, which is renowned for churning out future Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders and even has an Institute for Xi Jinping Thought, is one of the last places where one would expect a zero-COVID protest.

People wearing face masks, following the COVID-19 outbreak, attend a flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square on National Day to mark the 71st anniversary of the founding of People's Republic of China, in Beijing, China, 1 October 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins).

People wearing face masks, following the COVID-19 outbreak, attend a flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square on National Day to mark the 71st anniversary of the founding of People's Republic of China, in Beijing, China, 1 October 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins).

As the student stood there, classmates began to join her. In the first half hour, all were girls. Interviewed following the protests, she recalled ‘I thought it would just be me, but then everyone else showed up’. The protest, which would grow into a crowd and make global headlines, was part of a pattern — many urban zero-COVID protests around China were led by and largely made up of women.

Studies on gender and social justice have found that ‘women students are far more likely to identify inequality and engage in actions to achieve social justice’. Male students at Tsinghua, who benefit from the patriarchal status quo, are less likely to voice discontent and risk jeopardising their privilege. The ratio of male to female students at Tsinghua is 2:1, making the absence of men in the first half hour of the zero-COVID protest at Tsinghua even starker.

Among the urban middle and upper class in Beijing and other cities around China, most women grow up with far greater access to education than their mothers and grandmothers. This is in part due to the one-child policy where a family’s resources have been funnelled into an only child and many urban families had only one girl. These women make up a class of people who are privileged enough to have access to uncensored information and who dare to protest government policies, but are also oppressed enough in their career and personal lives to empathise with those suffering from zero-COVID policies.

The highest levels of government are themselves backsliding on gender equity. In 2022 Chinese President Xi Jinping named a 25-person Politburo without a single female member, the first time that it has been all-male in 25 years. The message was clear: women hold up none of this elite, powerful sky. In 2012, the year Xi came into power, China ranked 69 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. In 2022 it was ranked 102 out of 146 countries.

COVID-19 lockdowns in China disproportionately burdened women, who are still expected to bear primary responsibility for caring for children and the elderly and who also faced the risk of being locked at home with abusive partners. For all of China’s economic leaps and geopolitical bounds, women continue to suffer from inequality and gender-based violence.

In September 2022 a young woman in Tangshan rejected a man’s advances. She and her three friends were then brutally beaten by the man and 27 others. In response to the surveillance footage of this incident going viral, Chinese social media giant Weibo released a zero-tolerance policy against comments that ‘incite gender conflict’ — a euphemism for ‘discussing women’s rights’ in Party-speak.

A hospital in Xi’an cited COVID-19 protocols in turning away a pregnant woman, who was left outside bleeding on a plastic stool until she lost her baby. In Hohhot, a woman died by suicide despite her daughter’s desperate pleas that zero-COVID personnel unlock her door and assist her. The Internet Culture Association stated that the suicide was a betrayal of ‘filial piety and motherly duties’.

The government, which seems intent on reviving the country’s fertility rate to forestall a demographic crisis compounded by zero-COVID, does little to address the patriarchal foundation of these issues. Its short-sighted legislation often makes matters worse. For example, when in 2021 lawmakers mandated a 30-day waiting period to decrease divorce rates, they made leaving abusive marriages harder as marriage rates continued to decline.

As China’s population shrinks for the first time in 60 years, women are expected to take on the bulk of care for an ageing society, putting greater strain on their participation in the workforce and further reducing birth rates. China’s birth rate dropped from 1.8 in 2012 to an estimated 1.2 in 2022. China has ended up with a lower birth rate than when the one-child policy was in place.

The real roots of plummeting birth rates are gender inequality, widening gender pay gaps and worsening gender bias and discrimination in the workforce. Addressing this issue will require China to recognise the benefits of women’s gaining economic freedom and educational opportunities rather than treating them as the problem.

The early days of the CCP were marked by great strides in women’s rights in China and zero-COVID policies have shown that the Chinese government can change course quite quickly when the commitment is there. The government needs to direct energy towards undoing institutional patriarchal foundations. This would lift women to realising their full potential — instead of pushing them out, devaluing them or restricting them. Bringing gender equality back to the forefront would pay homage to the Party’s roots — the remarkably feminist May Fourth Movement of 1919 which paved the way for the modern CCP.

Women at Tsinghua don’t always raise their voices about gender inequality, but they are not blind to national policies as they make personal reproductive decisions that will shape the future of the country. The young woman who took the first stand in front of the cafeteria — politely and quietly, between two entrances — is a reminder that when it comes to defending a free and just society, feminism and gender equality are now at the front lines. In her own words, ‘The more educated women in China become, the narrower the line that they must walk and the more confining their socioeconomic status.’

In a country where debate and actions that challenge the status quo are deemed too divisive, to do nothing and say nothing has begun to say everything. And from the beginning of zero-COVID to its abrupt end, women in China have spoken.

Chen Chen is Research Associate at Think Global Health at the US Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘China Now’, Vol 15, No 1.