China's male chauvinist pigs are under attack - there's even a new phrase to describe them. Jemimah Steinfeld reports
By 8:00AM GMT 13 Mar 2015
A term trending in China at the moment has got feminists hopeful about the future of equality in the country. “Straight man cancer”, a Chinese take on “male chauvinist pig”, has been levelled at men who make disparaging remarks against women. The term, which started to circulate last year, recently moved into the mainstream when a famous Chinese scholar, Zhou Guoping, posted on microblogging platform Weibo that women are beautiful when they’re cleaning the house or feeding babies. An online storm ensued. Zhou was diagnosed with the so-called disease and quickly apologised. Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily even re-posted an editorial calling for the law and public opinion to curtail the spread of “straight man cancer”. One-nil to feminism versus chauvinism. Or was it?
Sadly for the Chinese feminist movement, Zhou’s comments are much more commonplace than the outcries against them. Immediately after he made the remarks, Chinese netizens searched for other examples of public figures infected by the “disease”. They didn’t have to look far. China’s most notorious blogger, Han Han, had gone on the record stating his girlfriend could not work outside the house. His form of “straight man cancer” was labelled “curable”. And let’s not forget about celebrity English teacher Li Yang, who famously admitted beating his American wife, Kim Lee.
You see gender discrimination is as much part of modern China as bad air is. But unlike the air, which degraded in recent decades and is theoretically reversible, gender inequality stretches back centuries and is deeply entrenched. Confucius, who continues to occupy a godlike position in China, said that men were at the top of the social hierarchy, while women were at the bottom. According to him, women’s only role was to get married and have children, ideally sons. Flash forward to today and as Zhou’s comments attest, the view of women hasn’t changed much.
Discrimination against girls starts young
So what are Chinese women up against? The list is as long as China’s illustrious history. Discrimination starts before women are even born. Within the context of the one-child policy, a toxic combination of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide has led to a ratio of 100 girls to every 118 boys. Said discrimination then continues throughout their lives. Widely circulated statistics paint a rosy picture of China, namely that more women go to university than men (49.6 per cent) and that a large amount of Chinese women in management positions are CEOs (19 per cent). “Women hold up half the sky” Mao famously declared!
But these statistics conceal bitter truths. Certain courses place high quotas on female admission – or bar women altogether. University policy translates later in life: data in the Third Chinese Women's Social Status Investigation revealed that over 72 per cent of women had a clear perception of "not being hired or promoted because of gender" discrimination. Of these, 75 per cent believed they were dismissed due to marriage and childbirth, with fears this could worsen due to the relaxation of the one-child policy.
If anything, China has seen a rollback of female rights, as Leta Hong Fincher vividly portrayed in her ground-breaking 2014 book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in Modern China. Hong Fincher starts off by illustrating the case of the ‘leftover woman’, a single 27-plus female who is unanimously mocked and scorned. She then shows how the figure of the leftover woman has paved the way for females to be locked out of social equality, property rights and protection against domestic abuse. Hong Fincher has a point. A shocking survey from 2013 revealed that 50 per cent of men had physically or sexually abused their wives. That same year the United Nations announced 22.2 per cent of 998 Chinese males surveyed had raped a woman. No wonder then that China only managed to reach position 91 out of the 187 countries listed in the 2013 UNDP Gender Inequality Index (Iran came ahead at 75). Women hold up half the sky eh?