Human Rights Briefs: Women in China



Since the revolution of 1949 in China, the communist regime has outlawed the most extreme forms of female subordination, including the sale of women and the practice of arranging marriages. The government has also attempted to raise the status of Chinese women through various means: it has made it possible for women to enter the work force as well as the political arena, and has also made education more accessible to them. Official statistics show that, since 1949, the status of women has improved significantly. The official Chinese press agency reports that in 1990, for example, 690,000 young women were studying in China's colleges and universities, representing 33.7 per cent of the total enrolment (Xinhua 3 Oct. 1992). In 1992, more than eight million of China's scientists and technicians were women (Ibid.). Such official figures present a view that women's liberation in China has been successfully carried out and that women indeed "hold up half the sky," as Chairman Mao promised they would.

The status of women in China today is, however, much more questionable than the official emphasis on gender equality suggests. In 1991, women were still underrepresented in parliament, holding only 21 per cent of the seats (UNDP 1993, 150). Although the regime has consistently articulated the ideal of gender equality and has enacted a series of laws to protect women's rights, the lack of an independent judiciary, the persistence of traditional views on the position of women, the government's family planning policies and the economic reform programme are obstacles to the effective application of these laws. As well, violence against women is still a widespread problem in China (Potter 11 May 1993). It should, however, be noted that the status of women does differ profoundly between the urban and rural areas. The government's one-child policy, female infanticide, the abduction and sale of women, and the practise of arranging marriages are all major areas of concern, especially in rural areas.

Information on violence against women in China is difficult to obtain because the government does not publish statistics. Independent organizations are not permitted to monitor the human rights situation in China. Hence, most of the information is to be found in Chinese and foreign press reports, as well as academic research. Government control over internal media, although changing somewhat as a result of the new economic climate, is still tight enough for observers to assume that on sensitive social and political matters, especially, Chinese press organs will only publish material that meets the approval of the government (Jernow Jan. 1993, 84-93).

2.             THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK

2.1         The Constitution

The 1982 Constitution of the People's Republic of China states, in Article 33, that "all citizens of the People's Republic of China are equal before the law" (Tao-Tai Hsia et al. 1992, 43). Specific reference to the status of women is made in Article 48:

 Women in the People's Republic of China enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life, political, economic, cultural and social, including family life. The state protects the rights and interests of women, applies the principle of equal pay for equal work for men and women alike and trains and selects cadres from among women (Ibid., 45).

The issues of marriage and family are dealt with in Article 49:

Marriage, the family and mother and child are protected by the state.

Both husband and wife have the duty to practise family planning.

Parents have the duty to rear and educate their minor children, and children who have come of age have the duty to support and assist their parents.

Violation of the freedom of marriage is prohibited. Maltreatment of old people, women and children is prohibited (Ibid., 46).

Family planning is explicitly treated in Article 25: "The state promotes family planning so that population growth may fit the plans for economic and social development" (Ibid., 42).

The constitutional protection of women's rights, however, should be viewed in light of the important restrictions on the individual rights and freedoms of all Chinese citizens. These are articulated in Article 51:

The exercise by citizens of the People's Republic of China of their freedoms and rights may not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society and of the collective, or upon the lawful freedoms and rights of other citizens (Ibid., 46).

Thus, the rights provided for in the Constitution are relative. According to a lawyer and legal scholar, "the extent to which individual rights may be enjoyed rests on the perceived social utility of civil and political rights" (Stetson 19 Jan. 1991, 15). The reference to the so-called four cardinal principles in the preamble of the Constitution restricts the rights in the 1982 Constitution even further (Ibid., 11; Human Rights Quarterly 1991, 188). The preamble of the Constitution states that every citizen is obliged to follow the leadership of the Communist Party; to follow the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought; to adhere to the people's democratic dictatorship; and to follow the socialist road (Tao-Tai Hsia et al. 1992, 36).

2.2     Legislation

In addition to the protection promised to women under the Constitution, the following laws are fundamental to the assessment of the legal status of women in China: the Marriage Law (1980), the Law of Succession (1985) and the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women (1992). (Section 2.3 below deals with this last law.) Additional support for strengthening the position of women came from the 1986 General Principles of Civil Law which confirm "greater economic latitude for individuals, especially women" (Ocko 1991, 338).

As early as 1950, the communist government of China introduced a marriage law which outlawed such traditional practises as marriage by purchase. When the Marriage Law was revised in 1980, it also strengthened women's rights by restructuring the marital property regime. Specifically, the law gave special consideration to the rights and interests of the wife in cases of disputed divorce settlements (Ocko 1991, 324). As a result of higher incomes produced by the successful economic reform programme, the government of China had to deal with an increase in the number of property-related divorce disputes (Ibid., 325). The Law of Succession of 1985 guarantees the inheritance rights of daughters and widows and, in particular, "confirm[s] the widow's right to take property away with her into a new marriage" (Ibid., 338).

2.3              Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women

With the enactment of the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women, the so-called Women's Law, China has made a contribution towards the elimination of discrimination based on gender. This law was adopted on 3 April 1992 and entered into force on 1 October 1992. It includes chapters on political rights; rights related to culture and education, work, property, the person, marriage and family; and legal protection. The law also repeats and underscores the existing rights of women in Chinese law, such as the aforementioned Marriage Law and Law of Succession.

Article 1 sets out the limits within which this law will operate:

In accordance with the Constitution and the actual conditions of the country, this Law is formulated to protect women's lawful rights and interests, promote the equality between men and women and allow full play to women's role in socialist modernization (China, Law on Protection of Rights and Interests of Women 3 Apr. 1992).

Article 4 assigns responsibility for enforcement of the law to the State Council and all other levels of government:

The State Council and the people's governments of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government shall, by taking organizational measures, coordinate with relevant departments in ensuring the protection of women's rights and interests. The specific organs shall be designated by the State Council and the people's governments of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government (Ibid.).

Chapter 6 specifically addresses violence against women and deals with such issues as female infanticide, prostitution, and the abduction and sale of women. The main articles are the following:

Article 35. Women's right of life and health shall be inviolable. Drowning, abandoning or cruel infanticide in any manner of female babies shall be prohibited; discrimination against or maltreatment of women who give birth to female babies or women who are sterile shall be prohibited; cruel treatment causing injury even death of women by superstition or violence shall be prohibited; maltreatment or abandonment of aged women shall be prohibited (Ibid.).

Article 36. Abduction of and trafficking in, or kidnapping of women shall be prohibited; buying of women who are abducted and trafficked in, or kidnapped shall be prohibited. People's governments and relevant departments must take timely measures to rescue women who are abducted and trafficked in, or kidnapped. If such women have returned to their former places of residence, nobody may discriminate against them, and the local people's governments and relevant departments shall well settle the problems arising thereafter (Ibid.).

Article 37. Prostitution or whoring shall be prohibited. It is prohibited for anyone to organize, force, seduce, shelter or introduce a woman to engage in prostitution or employ or shelter a woman to engage in obscene activities with others (Ibid.).

Articles 48, 49 and 50 lay out the legal responsibilities, the enforcement provisions and the administrative and judicial remedies. Article 49 refers to the punishments provided for in the existing laws and regulations. Articles 139, 140 and 141 of the Criminal Code, for example, list specific penalties for persons who are convicted of rape, abduction and sale of people (China, The Criminal Law 1984, 49). Article 50 of the Women's Law lists the infringements which are sanctioned by administrative penalties, "in light of the specific circumstances" (China, Law on Protection of Rights and Interests of Women 3 Apr. 1992, Art. 50). Despite this apparent legal protection, a Western expert argues that the biggest disappointment of this law rests in the weakness of its enforcement provisions, because

individuals bear the burden of complaining to women's organisations.... And, any suit in court for civil or criminal penalties or damages must be based on violation of some other law that does give the courts jurisdiction (WIN News Winter 1993, 54).

It is still too early to examine the impact of this law on the situation of women in China. One expert on China's legal system views the law primarily as "a statement of an ideal which does not even come close to approximating reality" (Potter 11 May 1993). He emphasizes that the Chinese authorities tend to be very formalistic and states that "they often treat the enactment of the regulations as tantamount to changing the situation" (Ibid.). However, another researcher, while acknowledging that the effect of the law will depend upon how institutions enforce it, nonetheless sees the law as a significant development: it provides additional measures to protect women and will, at the very least, function as a consciousness-raising tool (Li 11 May 1993). A Beijing publication entitled Women of China bolsters the latter argument by noting that "trade unions at various levels in all parts of [the] country have organized 11,439 training classes and published a book explaining the law, which has been distributed in factories, mines, and other grassroots units" (Mar. 1993, 15). In June 1992, the All China Women's Federation (ACWF) announced a nationwide campaign to promote the new law (China Daily 10 June 1992). China Daily quotes the ACWF's Fang Yuzhu who reports that, because of the campaign, "more women have learned to resort to legal means instead of swallowing unfair treatment" (WIN News Spring 1993, 65).

2.4               Implementation of the Law

The Chinese legal system has been described as a tool of the state which, to date, has been synonymous with the Communist Party (Australian Human Rights Delegation Sept. 1991, 41). Although, in theory, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as an institution is not permitted to interfere in the judicial process, a specialist on China points out that the CCP still retains the right to determine whether actions by the courts and procuracies have conformed to its policy; and the CCP itself still trains all judges and most judicial personnel. It is, in short, built into the judicial system (Ogden 1992, 185).

In the same vein, an Australian human rights delegation to China notes in its report that, while the Chinese authorities made an attempt to create a credible rule of law, which included efforts to train the judiciary, the lack of an independent judiciary must be kept in mind when examining the legal status of women and the implementation of laws and policies affecting women. Although the judiciary is nominally independent, as with virtually all organizations in China, "it is shadowed by the Party organisation" (Australian Human Rights Delegation Sept. 1991, 29), that is, the judicial committees (Ibid., 34). A Canadian expert on China's legal system emphasizes the problematic situation which exists in the rural areas, where the establishment of courts has not yet fully been achieved (Potter 11 May 1993). Finally, Vivienne Shue, an academic at Stanford University, suggests that it is difficult to assess the influence of the laws implemented by the central and provincial authorities because of the limited "reach of the state" (qtd. in Ocko 1991, 338). She argues that the central authorities do not have the means and the will to implement the law throughout the country (Ibid.).

The implementation of the Compulsory Education Law illustrates the discrepancy between articulated ideals and the practical situation in China. The law states that all children, regardless of sex, nationality or race, must enter school at the age of six (United Nations 13 July 1989, CEDAW/C/13/Add. 26, 3). Yet many girls, especially from China's ethnic minorities, do not enjoy the benefits of this law. A study published in 1991 found that in Gansu Province over 80 per cent of those who do not start primary school at age six are girls; in absolute figures, in the period 1986-1989, 4.35 million Gansu girls did not enter school (China News Analysis 1 Oct. 1991, 7). In this province, poverty reinforces the traditional view that "it is a waste of money to send to school a girl who, in any case, will sooner or later marry into another family" (Ibid., 7). This situation is characteristic not only of Gansu Province but of most of rural China and may partially explain why 70 per cent of China's 180 million illiterates are women (Qiushi 1 May 1992).

2.5           Conformity with International Human Rights Law

China is party to 8 of the 24 international human rights instruments and has also recognized several International Labour Organization Conventions (Human Rights Law Journal 1 Jan. 1993, 71). Conventions which specifically relate to women include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which entered into force in 1981 (Chiu 1989, 19); the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which entered into force in 1987 (Ibid., 19); and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which entered into force in April 1992 (Bill of Rights Bulletin Mar.-Apr. 1993, 5). The country has not yet signed (or acceded to) the two major human rights covenants: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Human Rights Law Journal 1 Jan. 1993, 71).

China has submitted two country reports under CEDAW, one in 1983 (United Nations 25 May 1983 , CEDAW/C/5/Add. 14) and one in 1989 (United Nations 13 July 1989, CEDAW/C/13/Add. 26). In the reports, the government points to the body of domestic law which has been promulgated to address and protect the status of women.


Traditional biases against women are still evident in Chinese society today. Deeply entrenched social habits and customs that mitigate against gender equality are the major cause of the continuing violence against women in China, especially in the rural areas (Potter 11 May 1993). The roots of this discrimination against women lie in Chinese philosophy, religion and popular culture. In Confucianism, for example, a woman is judged by her performance as daughter, wife and mother. A Chinese scholar, who argues that the traditional view of the family and society has not significantly changed over the past 2,500 years, notes that [t]hese roles carry very specific moral prescriptions: the virtue of the wife is "obedience" to her husband, who in return is to provide for her and protect her. When different roles are properly performed, society as a whole will be harmonious, with each assuming his/her role and all carrying out the mandate of heaven (Human Rights Tribune Sept. 1991a, 5).

In the past, the organization of the society along Confucian principles also meant that women were barred from the civil service and the artistic and mercantile professions. Important values, such as honour and status, could only be achieved by men.

Other specialists on China argue that ideology and philosophy do not by themselves provide satisfactory answers to the question of continued discrimination against women in China. One suggests that the social organization of rural society, which views women as temporary residents in their natal families until they move to their husband's residence, is equally important (Human Rights Tribune Sept. 1991b, 10). Another notes that, in traditional rural society, daughters were viewed as liabilities because, in economic terms, they required a far greater investment of scarce resources than they would return to their parents (UCLA Pacific Basin Law Journal Spring 1990, 54). Sons, on the other hand, could be expected to contribute to the family economy throughout their lives and eventually support parents in their old age.

Still others suggest that the economic reform policies under Deng Xiaoping had a major impact on gender inequalities, particularly in the countryside (Human Rights Tribune Winter 1992b, 11; The China Quarterly June 1992, 318). The Household Responsibility System, which is a fundamental aspect of the agrarian reform policies, calls for individual farmers or groups of households to turn over a fixed quota of their production to the state. Any surplus, however, belongs to the peasants who are free to sell it on the markets. This system had an effect on "the demand for children, especially sons, as valuable labour power and as providers of old age social security" (Columbia Human Rights Law Review Summer 1992, 270).


While there are no reliable statistics on the extent of violence against women in China, both Chinese and foreign press reports leave the impression that violence is increasing as a result of economic and social policies which have opened up space for the re-emergence of traditional values and practises, particularly in the rural areas, where 70 per cent of China's population lives (The Ottawa Citizen 5 Oct. 1992; Reuters 11 July 1991; BBC Summary 29 Sept. 1992). On the other hand, a report of the China-UNICEF Programme of Cooperation states that, while instances of female infanticide and the abduction of women do occasionally occur in some rural areas, they are dealt with swiftly through education and special legislation (Aug. 1992, 34).

Women in urban areas are usually more educated and tend to have a better understanding of their rights. The lack of statistics, however, makes it difficult to comment on the difference between the situation in the rural areas and the urban areas (Woodman 26 May 1993). Therefore, with the exception of subsection 4.1 on the family planning policy, which impacts on both urban and rural women, the areas of concern female infanticide, abduction and sale of women, forced marriages and domestic violence largely focus on rural women.

4.1           Family Planning and the One-Child Policy

The population of China, according to the 1990 census, is 1.13 billion. Controlling the size of the population has been a major priority of the government of China for over two decades. In 1991, the Information Office of the State Council released the publication Human Rights in China, the so-called "White paper." It states that [t]he rapid swelling of the population has brought about many pressures on the country's employment, education, housing, medical care, and communications and transportation. Faced with the gravity of this situation ... the government cannot do as some people imagine wait for a high level of economic development to initiate a natural decline in birthrate (Nov. 1991, 66).

As early as 1971, Chinese authorities initiated and implemented family planning policies. The one-child policy was introduced nationwide in 1979 (Aird 1990, 29). The policy consists of four basic demands: few births, late marriage, late childbearing and eugenic births (The China Quarterly June 1990, 209; China Facts & Figures 1992, 15). Over the years, there have been shifts in terms of the number of children couples were allowed to have. The regional and urban/rural implementation of the policy has been inconsistent. The policy has also been met with strong peasant resistance (Columbia Human Rights Law Review Summer 1992, 265). The Chinese regime responded through the Central Party in 1984 when it issued Document No. 7 (Aird 1990, 35) advising local cadres to take a more flexible approach and make exceptions where the parent or the first child was handicapped, for overseas Chinese, national minorities, those in hazardous occupations, for couples who both were only children and for men whose brothers were all infertile (qtd. in Columbia Human Rights Law Review Summer 1992, 265).

The one-child policy is implemented through education, propaganda, and a combination of incentives such as health subsidies, and disincentives, such as additional taxes and legal discrimination (Country Reports 1992 1993, 544). Women who violate the established family planning policies are excluded from labour protective regulations (Columbia Human Rights Law Review Summer 1992, 302; Country Reports 1992 1993, 544). Despite economic sanctions, people have been willing and increasingly able to forfeit significant sums to have more children (Aird 1990, 18; The Globe and Mail 28 Nov. 1990). However, punitive sanctions have been applied not only to women but to men and the extended family as well (The Human Rights Tribune Nov. 1991, 10; The New York Times 25 Apr. 1993, 12). In one case, in 1983, a grade-school teacher had about 80 per cent of his salary deducted after his wife had a second child and he could not pay the fine. These deductions were stopped a decade later, when he finally got a vasectomy (The New York Times 25 Apr. 1993, 12). In a case from 1990 in Changping County, outside of Beijing, a couple determined to have a second child agreed to pay a fine of 1,000 yuan only to find that the fine was then raised to 10,000 yuan, which the couple also accepted. Then officials threatened to take away the licence of the husband, who drove a truck for a living. The Globe and Mail reports, "When the couple did not budge, the officials said they would also cancel the licences of her brother and brother-in-law, who also drove for a living. The couple caved in" (28 Nov. 1990).

Although the government of China officially opposes all forms of forced abortion and female infanticide (China, Information Office of the State Council 1992, 68), Western scholars claim that mandatory IUD insertions, sterilizations and abortions continue (Aird 1990, 16,17; UCLA Pacific Basin Law Journal Spring 1990, 75). When asked about such coercive measures, Chinese officials assured an Australian human rights delegation which visited China in 1991 that these practises were strictly prohibited (Australian Human Rights Delegation Sept. 1991, 47). Chinese officials admitted that, in the early days of the family planning programme, abuses did occur but were due to "the over-enthusiasm of Party cadres and those administering the policy" (Ibid.).

Criticism of China's one-child policy focuses largely on forced abortions and compulsory sterilizations, the implantation of IUDs after abortions, and "coercive community pressures to persuade pregnant women to abort pregnancies" (Columbia Human Rights Law Review Summer 1992, 267). Actual implementation practices have varied considerably from region to region and year to year. According to John S. Aird, 1983 marked "the peak of coercion," when 20.8 million sterilizations were performed, almost 80 per cent of them on women (1990, 32-33). In the mid-1980s, there was a relatively relaxed attitude towards enforcement (Columbia Human Rights Law Review Summer 1992, 266). In 1986, the central authorities began voicing concerns and called for a rigorous enforcement of the policy (Ibid.). In 1991, similar concerns were voiced when Premier Li Peng announced the introduction of a responsibility system for family planning work, whereby party and governmental organizations at the provincial and municipal level would become fully accountable for the implementation of the policy (Human Rights Tribune Nov. 1991, 11). A comparable toughness was stressed by the governor of Guangdong province in Southern China during a family planning conference in May 1993 (United States. Immigration and Naturalization Service Resource Information Center 11 May 1993). Authorities point to the dramatic drop in China's 1992 birth and fertility rates as proof of the success of the policy change (Xinhua 11 Mar. 1993), but because of China's large population base it was felt, "[t]here should not be the slightest relaxation of family planning work" (Guangming Ribao 23 Mar. 1993).

The government has stated that the one-child policy will continue and that China should even strengthen family planning in 1993, especially in the rural areas (Xinhua 21 Apr. 1993). In a press conference, Family Planning Minister Peng Peiyun attributed the success of the family planning policy to "greater vigilance by the ruling Communist Party, improved birth-control measures to implement the country's one-couple, one-child family planning policy, and rising living standards...." (The Washington Post 22 Apr. 1993; Renmin Ribao 25 Mar. 1993). The Washington Post quotes several Western experts who believe that such a dramatic result may have been achieved through coercive measures such as forced abortions and sterilizations (22 Apr. 1993, 1). The New York Times reports a shift away from the physical force used in the 1980s to "the more efficient method of compulsory, organized sterilization," described by the author as follows:

Typically, local cadres swoop down on each village once or twice a year, taking all the women who have already had children to a nearby clinic. There they are fitted with IUDs or else undergo sterilization (25 Apr. 1993, 12).

However, Tiananmen Square dissident Zhang Boli, on the run from authorities in a remote part of northeastern China, witnessed considerable use of force by officials who arrived in a mobile medical clinic in the village where he was staying, and who physically forced the women they could catch into undergoing IUD insertion (Human Rights Tribune Nov. 1991, 11).

Other sources report an increased focus on the planning of births. Thus, even if a woman conceives what is to be her first child, the projected birth must fit the quota set by the danwei (work unit). The danwei is the basic unit of social control and security found in every school, factory and place of work. In the past it controlled an individual's life to such an extent that one needed the danwei's permission to get married or get divorced, and to have access to housing and medical services (Far Eastern Economic Review 8 Apr. 1993, 15; Béja 1991, 138). The influence of the danwei is, however, decreasing due to the economic reform policies (Far Eastern Economic Review 8 Apr. 1993, 15). A Chinese journalist nonetheless recently reported that one of her friends had to abort her first pregnancy since the quota for her unit had already been filled (Liu 13 May 1993).

Because the local governments are responsible for the implementation of the family-planning policy, there are substantive differences in implementation across the country. According to one newspaper account, such provinces as Hebei, Hunan and Henan are regarded as having very strict policies, while Guangdong and Yunnan are "shaping their own birth-control policies" (The Christian Science Monitor 11 Jan. 1993, 2). This account is contradicted by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, which reports a stricter enforcement of the one-child policy in Guangdong province. Zhu Senlin, the province's governor, reportedly stated at a family planning conference in early May that "cadres must adopt resolute measures to implementing the one-child policy" and must try all possible means to prWoodman 26 May 1993 event parents of families with more than one girl from having more children (United States. Immigration and Naturalization Service Resource Information Center 11 May 1993). An expert on China, nonetheless, states that in those areas where the population is less rigidly controlled and this includes Guangdong there are more opportunities to evade the policy (Woodman 26 May 1993)

There are also differences between the urban areas and the countryside. The one-child policy is highly effective in the urban areas where, in many cases, both husband and wife maintain full-time jobs and can therefore not afford to take the time to have many children (Liu 13 May 1993). Furthermore,

... persuasion, propaganda and social pressure exert a much higher degree of leverage over urban residents than over China's peasants, since the great majority of city-dwellers are dependent on, and attached to, the networks of work unit and neighbourhood committee (Human Rights Tribune Nov. 1991, 10).

Neighbourhood or street committees are charged with inspecting public hygiene, watching out for lawbreakers and enforcing family planning. They are also responsible for mediating between parties that are involved in feuds, including those involving domestic violence. Regarding the one-child policy, charts on the walls of street committee offices describe the childbearing profile of the neighbourhood. Committee members also keep track of individual women and will notify a woman's work unit when she becomes pregnant for a second time (The New York Times 13 Mar. 1991, 4). The effectiveness of the neighbourhood committees may, however, be waning. According to a Chinese journalist, the replacement of the hutongs, the traditional Chinese courtyards, with high-rise apartment buildings, reduces the control of neighbourhood committees (Liu 13 May 1993).

Chinese sources claim that minority nationalities are not subject to the same restrictive population control policies applied in Han (ethnic Chinese) provinces (Asian Survey Mar. 1991, 287). The position of the government on Tibet is expressed in a report published by the Information Office of the State Council. It states that in Tibet

[f]amily planning is not practised for the farmers and herds people who constitute 88 per cent of the region's entire population. The government only conducts publicity campaigns to inform them about rational births and ways to have healthy babies.... Since 1984, the regional government has advocated and carried out the policy of two children per couple among Tibetan cadres, workers and the staff of enterprises and residents in cities and towns. However, among the Han cadres, workers and staff members in Tibet, the policy of one child per couple has been advocated and enforced (Sept. 1992, 71).

According to The Tibet Daily, however, family planning has been gradually introduced in Tibet since the beginning of 1992 (qtd. in Tibet Press Watch Apr. 1992, 8). In testimony presented to the US Subcommittee on Foreign Operations in April 1989, an American physician refers to interviews with several Tibetan women, both inside and outside Tibet. They reported that, in Tibet, women who do not comply with the family planning policy are taken to the hospital and forced to have an abortion. Sometimes, women are sterilized after the abortion (Kerr 1991, 107; International League for Human Rights Jan. 1992, 9). In several cases, mobile birth control teams have reportedly engaged in campaigns of mass sterilization (Kerr 1991, 107). According to an extensive report on the subject by Campaign Free Tibet, "[t]he existence of birth control policy in Tibet is no longer a matter for dispute" (Aug. 1992, 27-28). While the Chinese government has claimed that Tibetans are only "encouraged" to voluntarily follow the birth control policy, this is reportedly disputed by many sources, including numerous eyewitnesses (Ibid.). On the other hand, Goldstein and Beall, authors of "China's Birth Control Policy in the Tibet Autonomous Region," conclude that, based on their own field research, there is no evidence available to support these allegations (Asian Survey Mar. 1991, 303).

4.2 Female Infanticide

Female infanticide was common in traditional China where natural hardships such as famines reinforced cultural norms favouring sons and encouraged hard-pressed families to abandon or kill their infant daughters (UCLA Pacific Basin Law Journal Spring 1990, 47, 48). Furthermore, daughters became liabilities because gender was also crucial to the system of ancestor worship in which only sons were allowed to carry out ritual sacrifices. Thus, "if a couple failed to produce a son, its crucial links to the past and future were broken" (Ibid., 53).

In present-day China, despite official condemnation and outrage, female infanticide continues. In late 1982, the Chinese press was the first to indicate that female infanticide was being practised as the final option to circumvent the one-child policy (Ibid., 65). An expert from the City University of New York, however, does not agree with the tendency to characterize female infanticide as "the unfortunate consequence of Chinese population control and modernization policies" (Columbia Human Rights Law Review Summer 1992, 257). She defines female infanticide as "part of a crime of gender" which she refers to as "social femicide" (Ibid., 253) and relates it to the broader problem of gender inequality in Chinese society.

While China has reported a drop in its birth and fertility rates, the number of male babies is growing, illustrating the preference for boys. In China's 1990 census, for every 100 girls under the age of one, there were 113.8 boys (The Washington Post 22 Apr. 1993, 1; Xinhua 21 Apr. 1993). The natural world average is considered to be about 106 boys born for every 100 girls (The New York Times 17 June 1991), and Chinese figures for first-born infants are fairly normal. The imbalance appears to occur in later births. Presumably this is because "couples will accept a daughter if it is their first child, because they expect that they can find a way legally or illegally to have another child" (Ibid.). On the whole, males account for 51.7 per cent of the population in China (The Globe and Mail 28 Nov. 1990, A12).

Possibly, the early imbalance in the sex-ratio is not only caused by female infanticide in poor and backward regions, and abortions of unwanted girls, but also by unreported births of baby girls (The Washington Post 22 Apr. 1993, 1; The New York Times 17 June 1991). The China News Analysis reports that the number of unregistered or so-called "black children" has taken on disturbing proportions. The practise is sometimes carried out with the help of local cadres who want to cover up the "real situation" (15 Apr. 1991, 1). Zeng Yi, a leading Chinese demographer, also makes note of the availability of ultrasound equipment in Chinese hospitals which makes it easier to determine whether a fetus is male or female. "If it is a female, they get an abortion and start all over" (The New York Times 25 Apr. 1993, 12).

4.3          Abduction and Sale of Women

The abduction and the sale of women is on the rise in China. These practises, which occurred in traditional Chinese society, have seen a resurgence in part as a result of the economic reform programme which has loosened strict communist moral controls at the same time that it has unleashed a long-repressed profit motive (Reuters 11 July 1991). Many of the abducted women are mentally retarded or young girls and are mainly taken from poor, remote mountainous villages in such provinces as Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou. However, the China Youth Daily has reported that "slave trading was found in every province" (qtd. in Reuters 11 July 1991). Women are kidnapped and then sold to richer farmers as wives or concubines; they are also beaten and raped, or gang raped, while in the hands of slave traders (UPI 8 Mar. 1993; China News Analysis 1 May 1991, 4). The practise has become so widespread that abducted women can now be found in rural areas near Beijing and in the capital itself (The Washington Post 21 June 1992a, 1).

Other factors cited in the increase in abductions and sales of females are the growing shortage of women (The Ottawa Citizen 5 Oct. 1992) and the increase in the cost of betrothal gifts, which are still a part of marriage customs in modern rural China (The China Quarterly June 1992, 325). The Christian Science Monitor reports that in rural China the exorbitant cost of a formal wedding has made it cheaper to buy a woman than to marry one (5 Aug. 1992). One man who could not spend the US$2,000 required for a respectable marriage in Xiaodian reportedly paid US$200 to a matchmaker instead for a young bride from Sichuan Province (Ibid.).

Current official statistics on the abduction and sale of women are difficult to obtain. China reports at least 10,000 cases of rural women being abducted and sold each year (Ibid.). A census in rural China uncovered hundreds of abducted women who had been sold to men in Pingshan County, Hebei Province, in 1992 (Reuters 15 Mar. 1993). Another source reports that between 1982 and 1987, 5,700 women were sold to local men in what in the article is described as S. County (in the central plains of China) (Human Rights Tribune July 1990, 11). The report details the futility of attempted escapes by the victims:

One woman who ran away after being repeatedly raped by her "buyer," was beaten to death upon her recapture, and then buried in the latrine. There was another woman ... who suffered cruel punishment for her attempted escape. When her "husband" caught her running away, he tied up her hands and feet, and gagged her. In front of his whole family, he ripped open her blouse, and using a needle, carved his surname on her right breast. This same 16 year-old woman also suffered from a severely deformed shoulder an injury from the repeated rapes and beatings ... by the four men who had "swindled" her (Ibid., 11). The Dallas Morning News reports the story of several young Chinese women who left Anhui Province to live in Shanghai. Kidnappers abducted 13 of them. "They were bound and gagged, gang raped by their captors, shipped along an illicit trade route and paraded in a flatbed truck before eager buyers in rural villages" (19 Apr. 1993). The Christian Science Monitor writes that villagers in many areas view the abducted women as legitimate purchases and cooperate to prevent escapes (5 Aug. 1992).

The severity of the problem of abduction and the sale of women was illustrated in the fall of 1991 when the National People's Congress enacted tougher penalties, imposing sentences of between 10 years in prison and death for gang leaders, up to three years in prison for those who buy women and children, and two to seven years in jail for government cadres who are supposed to help women but actually obstruct rescue attempts (The Washington Post 21 June 1992a, 28).

Chinese authorities have consistently condemned the practise of the abduction and sale of women (BBC Summary 29 Sept. 1992). Relatively large-scale campaigns to catch and convict those involved in the abduction of women are regularly being organized. At the local level, governments have set up offices to deal with these issues. Reuters reports that China has arrested more than 75,000 people for slave trading since 1991. It also reports that approximately 40,000 women and children were freed (15 Feb. 1993). Referring to Chinese press reports, the China News Analysis writes that, throughout the country, 10,000 kidnapped young women were rescued by the police between November 1989 and October 1990 (1 May 1991, 4). The Chinese press regularly reports on the sentencing of people involved with these types of crimes (Reuters 11 July 1991). In March 1993, the China News Service reported on Guangxi Province where Supreme Court officials handed down death sentences to 18 men accused of crimes ranging from rape to kidnapping, smuggling and selling of women (qtd. in UPI 8 Mar. 1993). The Sichuan Daily reported on the public sentencing of 21 "rapist, murderers and other violent criminals" in the Chongqing municipal sports stadium. The article stated that "the police dragged these most heinous criminals off with their heads bowed to the execution ground, executing them with a bullet" (qtd. in UPI 28 Feb. 1993). In Shanghai, seven men accused of murder, rape and armed robbery were executed in April 1993 (AFP 27 Apr. 1993). A similar press report mentions the public execution of six men in Beijing who were convicted for "injuring or raping women" (AFP 10 July 1992).

Despite these harsh penalties, fierce resistance from local villagers sometimes complicates the efforts of the authorities. According to a report in the China Women's Journal, two police officers were held hostage by an angry mob when they attempted to rescue an abducted woman in a village in Hebei Province in 1989 (qtd. in The Washington Post 21 June 1992b). Sometimes Communist Party officials have also been known to "look the other way" in these cases, especially in a time when corruption is generally seen to be on the rise (Reuters 11 July 1991; Cheng Ming 1 Apr. 1993). An expert on China also refers to the ambivalent position taken by some All China Women's Federation (ACWF) officials who have in some cases refused to intervene because the marriage between the man who bought the woman and the victim had already been formalized (Woodman 26 May 1993; Reuters 11 July 1991).

4.4          Forced Marriages

Although the communist regime has consistently opposed arranged marriages, the practise continues to exist, especially in the rural areas. A researcher with the North Carolina State University notes that, in economically backward areas, "exchange of relatives" has developed as an alternative to betrothal gifts. It consists of the exchange of daughters between two or more families, each with an unmarried son. He argues that, like other forms of arranged marriages, this form victimizes women and that

the intimidating beatings and threats that seem to be part of huan-ch'in arrangements would appear to produce more suicides and multiple family breakups than happy marriages (Ocko 1991, 322).

According to Li Xiaorong, formerly a researcher with the New York group Human Rights in China, a woman in a forced marriage becomes more or less a hostage of this multi-family agreement because the woman's personal situation affects the whole group. Therefore, families are even less likely to allow women to run away or file for divorce (11 May 1993).

4.5  Domestic Violence

Information on domestic violence is difficult to find. The issue has not been given the same public attention as in North America (Woodman 26 May 1993). An expert on China notes that it is common to hear stories from rural women who have been abused by their husbands or their husbands' families (Ibid.). One case reported concerns the father of two daughters who sealed his wife into a small cell behind a wall for eight years until she finally gave birth to a son (Reuters 28 Apr. 1992).

Divorce may be a way for women to escape domestic violence. It is relatively easy for a woman to get a divorce under China's Marriage Law. The law also puts restrictions on when a man can apply for a divorce (United Nations 25 May 1983, CEDAW/C/5/Add. 14, 14). Women, however, might be discouraged from applying for a divorce because of the housing shortage in China. Although the Women's Law gives women an equal right to housing assignments, allotments of farmland and rural housing site approvals (China, Law on Protection of Rights and Interests of Women, Art. 30) a Western legal expert argues that the law needs a more workable solution for urban women.

During marriage women usually live in a house belonging to their husband's work unit. After divorce, if a woman's own unit does not assign her a house, she is forced to seek housing with family or friends. The new law requires the husband to help a woman in this situation "when he can afford it" (Art. 44). Private housing is rare and very expensive, however, so an ex-husband will usually be excused this responsibility (Women's News Digest Sept. 1992, 5).

The All China Women's Federation (ACWF) sees housing allocation as one of the areas where the rights of Chinese women are most likely to be infringed upon. The Federation's Fang Yuzhu is quoted in The China Daily as stating that "some work institutions allot residential apartments only to male employees. Or they slap extra conditions on female applicants" (WIN News Spring 1993, 65). An expert on China notes, on the other hand, that in the south, where there are more employment opportunities for younger women, factories often provide some kind of housing (Woodman 26 May 1993).


The government-sponsored All China Women's Federation (ACWF), established in 1949, plays a key role in promoting and safe-guarding women's rights and interests. The ACWF is a mass organization with branches at each government level, including the counties, and numbers 89,000 professionals specialized in working with women (China-UNICEF Aug. 1992, 34). Since 1980, the ACWF has sponsored a nationwide effort to develop family planning education, including counselling services (United Nations 13 July 1989, CEDAW/C/13/Add. 26). The organization actively protests cases in which women are discriminated against by the hiring practices of companies and factories (Li 11 May 1993).

A specialist on Chinese legal studies views the ACWF primarily as a conduit for expressing the official ideals on gender equality. He argues that the difficulty with such mass organizations as the ACWF or the All China Federation of Trade Unions lies in their lack of power or will to influence the policy-makers to make politically difficult choices that will benefit women (Potter 11 May 1993). Others view the ACWF as a quite powerful organization which has encouraged women to be vocal (Liu 13 May 1993) and which provides a certain degree of help to women through mediation and legal advice services (Woodman 26 May 1993). The ACWF has also provided an indirect channel to discuss human rights in China, as long as the discussions are phrased in terms of women's rights (Li 11 May 1993). Just as with all the so-called mass organizations, however, the ACWF's principal responsibility is towards the CCP, not towards its constituency. So, although there are many women within the ACWF who are attempting to promote and protect women's rights, "they have not been able to do as much as they perhaps could have done" (Woodman 26 May 1993).

No independent organizations within China publicly monitor or comment on human rights conditions (Country Reports 1992 1993, 549). One small, private initiative to offer counselling services to women, however, has been reported in the Western press. In September 1992, a privately funded hot-line for women was set up in Beijing by the Women's Research Centre of the China Managerial Science Academy. Operated by volunteers, the hot-line counsels women on everything from make-up to child care and abortion (Far Eastern Economic Review 10 Dec. 1992, 32).


Women who are victims of violence may want to flee to a relative's village or to another part of the country. Although mobility has increased, there are still restrictions. These are related to the continuing existence of the hukou or household registration system which operates as follows:

Every person in China has a hukou, an official place of residence registered with the local police station, or in rural areas with the county or township government office. Each household is issued a booklet, listing household members by their sex, age, marital status, work unit and class background.... The hukou booklet is necessary to secure access to food rations, housing, schooling, employment and medical services, and is used in the allocation of birth control and social welfare (Human Rights Tribune Winter 1992a, 4).

Because of the economic reform policies, the separation of people from their hukou has become more common. However, the fact that the system remains in force indicates that this mobility is far from being legalized (Ibid., 8). While the system's effectiveness has eroded during the economic reform of the last decade (Country Reports 1992 1993, 547), women, as well as men, who move may only be able to find underpaid jobs without social benefits (Li 11 May 1993; Time 10 May 1993a, 41). The Human Rights Tribune, in a report on the plight of the millions of rural migrants, notes that many of them usually take jobs as construction workers, sanitation workers, restaurant workers and housemaids (Winter 1992b, 12). The article quotes the Beijing Evening News which reported that young rural women are frequently subjected to sexual assault (Ibid., 12).

Pregnant women who secretly move to give birth in another county or province to take advantage of varying regional differences in the enforcement of family planning policies are reportedly common enough to have earned the nickname "guerrilla moms" (The Globe and Mail 28 Nov. 1990; China News Analysis 15 Apr. 1991, 2). Reportedly, China's sharply increasing "floating population" is making it increasingly difficult for authorities to keep track of individuals who may be registered in one city but actually live and work in another and who could go to still another location to secretly give birth (The Globe and Mail 28 Nov. 1990; China News Analysis 15 Apr. 1991, 2). The current and future legal realities for these unregistered children, however, remain unclear.


China is experiencing significant economic growth that is changing social realities in many parts of the country (The Economist 28 Nov. 1992, 1-5; Time 10 May 1993b). Not all of these changes appear to have been beneficial for women. The apparent rise in the incidence of the abduction and sale of women, for instance, has been blamed on the loosening of the communist social controls brought about by freer economic policies (The New York Times 4 Aug. 1991, 11). As well, reports have indicated that reform policies have forced employers to cut back on their work staff, a move which has had a disproportionate effect on women (Potter 11 May 1993). According to The Economist (13 Mar. 1993, 41), 60 to 70 per cent of those losing their jobs in the reorganization are women, and it is now much more difficult than before for women over 40, and for pregnant women or mothers of children under seven years old, to get or keep their jobs. At the same time, in the countryside, boys remain more valuable than girls for their labour and because generally they do not leaving the family household upon marriage, as a woman is expected to do (Li 11 May 1993).

The freer economy also means greater freedom for men and women to find jobs other than those assigned by the state, or to open their own businesses (Time 10 May 1993c; UPI 5 Apr. 1993). Yet in the new, largely unregulated economic atmosphere, working conditions are often poor and workers unprotected (South China Morning Post Weekly 21-22 Nov. 1992). As well, many of the new opportunities afforded by economic prosperity have not reached the countryside, where the majority of the population still lives, and where traditional inequalities have been strongest (Potter 11 May 1993; Woodman 26 May 1993; Time 10 May 1993a, 40).

The People's Republic of China does not lack legal documents and official pronouncements providing for the theoretical equality of men and women, and the punishment of those who abduct, sell, rape or abuse women, commit female infanticide, use force in pursuing the one-child policy, or discriminate against women in employment practices (Columbia Human Rights Law Review Summher 1992, 298-299). However, questions remain regarding the implementation of official policies, policies which have been characterized by one source as ideals rather than realities (11 May 1993). Even if the official will is there on the part of the state which some analysts doubt (Columbia Human Rights Law Review Summer 1992, 299-300; Potter 11 May 1992) social attitudes and practices can be very slow to change, especially in rural China. As the country continues to change economically and socially, the social realities for women will likely change although it may be too early to determine whether change will equate with improvement in the overall situation of women.


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