International Women’s Day in China can be a bit of a surprise the first time you experience it. This global campaign, which has a history of over a century, has been for the longest time a rather low key affair in many of our home countries. I certainly hadn’t seen it “celebrated” on a big scale during my time living in Germany, Austria or England. But in China this day is a big deal. And not in the way you might think.
While the IWD website has created the hashtag #beboldforchange and is trying to inspire people to tackle such issues as the gender pay gap, in China Women’s Day is seen by many as another opportunity for men to express their love for the women in their lives by – old China hands might know where this is going – buying them presents. Employed women get half a day off work, which many decide spend shopping. For businesses this means, rather than discussing how to increase female leadership, is another opportunity to crank up the sales and ride the waves of consumerism. In this way, International Women’s Day in China is much like Single’s Day or Valentine’s Day, a day to treat yourself of your loved one by acquiring discounted earthly possessions.
Granted, the original aim of the day isn’t entirely lost here in China. In fact, there is an indication of a rediscovery of sorts of the true meaning of IWD with increasingly interesting talks found particularly in Beijing by successful women and addressing important questions such as how to help women advance in life.
There are, however, also quite a few events that leave one scratching one’s head. Probably the most confusing Women’s Day events out there include women wearing wedding dresses and high heels in a run to welcome the day that is meant to celebrate “the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women” (IWD website). Previous years have seen similarly baffling meetups. In 2015 “Hot moms present flash mob in downtown Nanjing” was the headline of an article that went on to describe how the “beauties” belly-danced to mark IWD. Safe to say, this was probably not what the initiators of the campaign had in mind.
Yet, International Women’s Day in China has also increasingly become a time for gender activism and the suppression of such. Who can forget the “Feminist Five”, who were detained in 2015 for handing out flyers in the Beijing underground on sexual harassment. While their story made waves internationally, and they were released in the end, they have spoken of continuing surveillance by police – particularly during subsequent Women’s Days. This year, the latest uproar has come as the most influential feminist Weibo account, 女权之声 “Feminist Voice”, was frozen for 30 days, allegedly for forwarding an article translated into Chinese calling for women to stand up to Trump and go on strike on 8 March, Women’s Day. Coincidentally or not – depending on your interpretation – the duration of the shutdown spans International Women’s Day and the annual parliamentary meetings currently taking place. Attempts by the owners to get the account unblocked in time by starting an international campaign have fallen on deaf ears.
Weibo’s actions are at odds with the official stance of the government. Xi Jinping stated to the UN the government’s commitment to advancing women’s rights in response to the detention of the Feminist Five and the resulting international outrage. Numerous leading Chinese politicians are eager to affirm that ending discrimination is a priority in today’s China. Sure, there are signs of the tide changing, such as the Inspiring Women project of the British Council in China. Still, all efforts are tainted by the fact that on International Women’s Day 2017, it’s the voice of China’s women that has once again been silenced.