Interview. The #MeToo didn't become a real movement in China, mainly because of censorship, but it was important that women talked about the abuses they have suffered. ‘The fact that there is a hostile environment toward working mothers in many workplaces has deterred many women from motherhood.’

Author Zhang Lijia on motherhood, feminism and work in post-MeToo China

On May 31, China announced that it will allow couples to have up to three children. The news came just weeks after the release of the latest census data, which showed that even though the one-child policy had been abolished in 2016 and replaced with a guideline of two children per couple, 2020 saw the lowest number of births since the 1960s.

However, the Chinese don’t seem to have reacted with the enthusiasm the rulers had hoped for. What is keeping young couples away from the idea of a large family is, above all, the cost of living in the big cities, but also—in the case of women—the lack of protective measures in the working environment. It is mainly young professionals who are critical of the new birth planning policy. This reaction is also due to the perception that, in the name of the nation’s development, the authorities are constraining the independence and decision-making autonomy of women with respect to whether they want to become mothers.

All this comes together with the new demands of Chinese feminism, which, after it was brought to international prominence by the #MeToo phenomenon, represents an expression, in some of its currents, of a criticism of the ideals of femininity and family imposed on women by society and the Beijing government.

To delve into these issues, we interviewed Lijia Zhang. A former worker in a missile factory in Nanjing, then a journalist and author of Socialism is Great!: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China (2009) and Lotus (2017), Lijia Zhang is a major voice in Chinese feminism, credited with bringing the gender perspective back to the center of the debate on political and socio-economic changes in her country.

Let’s start with the news: what has been the reaction of Chinese civil society to the third-child policy?

Overall, the reaction has been less than enthusiastic. The news has been met with puzzlement, cynicism, derision and even anger.

After all, this new family planning guideline doesn’t require that couples have three children, it only allows them to. So how do you explain this level of discontent?

Yes, that’s true. Married couples can have three children, but they are not required to. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to understand the discontent: young Chinese couples are in such economic and material conditions that they simply cannot think of supporting three children. Many are already struggling with one child; or can’t even afford to have one at all. Only wealthy families can afford three children, and in this situation, many are feeling frustrated. Others are finding it hard to swallow that the government limited the number of births until a few years ago, and is now encouraging having more children without offering any practical support. The prevailing sentiment is that the authorities have bypassed the views of the citizens on this issue.

It seems that today, many young Chinese people, especially young women, are less and less enthusiastic about the idea of having children. Where does this reluctance come from? 

First of all, life in China today is expensive, and raising a child is expensive as well, especially when you consider the cost of education. Even though education is compulsory and free for nine years, parents, especially in large urban centers, are competing to enroll their children in additional classes and extracurricular activities, such as piano and English lessons.

Another problem is the limited availability of early childcare facilities. It is estimated that only 0.5 percent of children ages 0 to 3 are able to go to preschool. Young couples are forced to rely on their parents or hire babysitters, incurring extra costs. The trend of not having children is driven by women: mainly professionals, who live in cities and are highly educated, because they have more to lose and because they have become more assertive with the internet and contact with international developments.

Many are hesitant about having children because of sexism in the labor market. In fact, some Chinese companies are refusing to hire women of childbearing age, or firing them if they become pregnant. I’ve heard stories of women who had to pledge they won’t have children as a precondition for employment. To address this issue, in 2019 the government barred employers from asking women if they are married or have children during job interviews. Their intentions were good, but the concrete results have been insufficient, to say the least.

For women who have risen into managerial positions, there is also the concern that having children will jeopardize their careers. The fact that there is a hostile environment toward working mothers in many workplaces has deterred many women from motherhood. It should also be noted that people’s attitudes toward procreation have changed dramatically. It used to be considered part of filial duties. An ancient Chinese saying goes, “Of the three actions that betray filial piety, the worst is not having children.” Few of today’s young people, many of whom are only children focused on self-fulfillment, see having children as a duty.

There has also been a lot of talk lately about some women embracing the principles associated with “6B4T,” a movement that expresses a radical rejection of marriage and motherhood. What is it about and what needs does it express?

6B4T is a feminist movement that originated in South Korea in 2019 and which brings together women determined to exclude men from their lives, thus rejecting the roles of wives and mothers, which have their origin in patriarchy. The “6 Bs” and “4 Ts” consist of not having romantic or sexual relationships with men; not marrying or having children; not buying misogynistic products; rejecting beauty standards and the hyper-sexualization of women in the culture industry; and offering help to other single women.

Like their Korean sisters, some Chinese women have rejected marriage and motherhood. The reason is that because of their roles as wives and mothers, they are not being treated the same as men, but also that they no longer see marriage or motherhood as necessary conditions for happiness. From what I understand, some of the followers of 6B4T are LGBTQ+ persons, but not all. In some cases, I think they are just women who are disappointed or traumatized by their experiences with men. They are mostly young, urban, and educated.

I don’t find the 6B4T phenomenon surprising. Historically, women have treasured the support and solidarity that exists in exclusively female spaces. In ancient times, the poetess Sappho was believed to live in a women-only community. In the 1960s, American activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz founded “Cell 16,” an organization that called for celibacy, separation from men and self-defense training and led to the creation of separatist feminism. Likewise, in the 1990s, British activist and writer Finn Mackay lived in a women-only anti-nuclear peace camp in North Yorkshire.

Nonetheless, online forums associated with 6B4T have been censored because they were considered extremist and conveying radical political and ideological thoughts. Now, I can imagine that at a time when the birth rates in China are declining, the authorities are not happy to hear about some women’s determination not to marry or procreate. But at the end of the day, is it really such a radical position?

Chinese feminism has been brought to international attention by #MeToo. Do you think currents like 6B4T can be considered the new shape of feminism in China?

#MeToo didn’t become a real movement in China because of the control and censorship, but it was important that women spoke out about the abuse they suffered. I’m thinking for example of Zhou Xiaoxuan, aka Xianzi, who became the face of China’s #MeToo after she sued famous TV host Zhu Jun for sexual harassment. Not only that: #MeToo has also encouraged women to take action. Chinese women have found very creative ways to bring gender equality into the public debate. For instance, the singer Tai Weiwei has spoken out about domestic violence, and stand-up comedian Yang Li, known as the “punchline queen,” has become famous thanks to her brutal poking fun at male privilege. As for 6B4T, I think it’s a symptom that Chinese society is diversifying, and I hope it will become more inclusive as well. That said, adherents to 6B4T are a clear minority.

In an article in the South China Morning Post, you pointed out that the online censorship of 6B4T may have had the unintended effect of bringing the phenomenon to public attention. Again, as with the third-child policy, civil society did not react as Beijing had hoped. Do you think that control might be counterproductive? 

Actually, I think control is effective in some ways. For example, I think that without government censorship and control, the #MeToo movement in China would have grown far more than it did. On the other hand, I’m sure that young women will find newer and newer ways to continue their struggle.

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