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The Communist Party invented Women’s Day—so why is China so bad at it now?

Reuters/China Daily
Chinese premier Li Keqiang celebrating International Women’s Day in 2015.
By Zheping Huang, Heather Timmons
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

While International Women’s Day has been embraced by multinational companies and governments around the globe, the holiday’s roots lie in grassroots demonstrations for better pay and working conditions, and particularly a feminist-led protest started on March 8 in Russia in 1917.

After Russian Communist Party founder Vladimir Lenin declared March 8 “Woman’s Day” in 1922, the holiday was adopted by Communist China in 1949 and “celebrated primarily in socialist countries until the mid-1970s,” according to a University of Chicago history. This year’s global theme was a “pledge for parity,” which imagines that at some point in the foreseeable future, men and women will enjoy equal rights, and equal salaries.

The holiday falls just as China’s “Two Sessions” meetings in Beijing bring some 5,000 Chinese Communist Party members and advisers together to plan the political and economic year ahead. Chinese media coverage of the two often converges as well, but not in a good way.

Despite China’s long history with Women’s Day and the high-powered meetings underway, the focus again this year was on tight, traditional dresses, high heels, and good-looking journalists rather than any promise of parity. (Women in urban China, meanwhile, make 67% of what men do, a percentage that has fallen in recent decades.)

China’s southern Guangxi region celebrated International Women’s Day by holding a cheongsam fashion show, the state-backed People’s Daily reported. The tight-fitting one-piece dress for women is a traditional symbol of beauty, but mostly reserved for weddings and other special occasions now.

In the neighboring Guangdong province, a group of men put on dresses and high heels to climb a mountain:

The state-run China Daily featured a “women’s day special” slideshow headlined “Girl Power at Two Sessions” that was mostly photos of cute young journalists and translators.

Chinese retailers used the opportunity to lure customers. A shopping mall in the northern port city of Tianjin offered discounts, but only to good-looking women—after their facial appearances were scored by a face scanner (link in Chinese). Even more absurdly, a Guangxi shopping center held a contest in which customers attempted to undo female models’ bra straps (link in Chinese) with one hand.

The official Xinhua news agency created a Twitter vote for the day that assumed women will take care of any second child:

The nationalistic state tabloid Global Times profiled a women’s bookstore owner  who declared, “Feminism doesn’t fit China.” Xu Chunyu, who runs Lady Book Salon in Beijing, told the paper that “the patriarchal society cannot be toppled over in a short time. Women should not spend their golden years fighting against a thing that cannot be changed by a small group.”

Earlier Women’s Days in China seemed to be about heftier issues, whether health, or independence, or the limited but visible number of women advising government.

Chinese women celebrated past Women’s Days with free medial check-ups, for example, as here in 1997.

AP Photo/Greg Baker
A free health check from an army medic on a Beijing sidewalk on International Women’s Day 1997. Army and other groups offered free haircuts and medical check-ups across Beijing.

Or with bracing celebratory swims with other women, as in this 1996 photo:

Xiao Rung, 66, of Beijing rinses off with bottled tap water after celebrating International Women’s Day with a winter swim in a central Beijing lake on March 8. She joined several other women residents. The water temperature was 2 °C.

Or by marching arm-in-arm through Tiananmen Square on their way to party meetings, as shown here in 2003:

AP Photo/Greg Baker
Women delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference walk from Tiananmen Square to a plenary meeting.

Female deputies’ voice are being heard in the two sessions meetings, China’s state media insists. After all, a new anti-domestic violence law passed in 2015. But China’s government, and particularly the top levels of government, is still overwhelmingly dominated by men.

In fact, since Xi Jinping took power in late 2012, there’s some evidence that things are going backwards for women in China. Earlier this year, the government shut down a renowned women’s center in Beijing that has been providing legal advice on sexual harassment in the workplace, domestic violence, and divorce proceeding, among other issues, for 20 years. In November, a Beijing art exhibit about feminism and domestic violence was shut down before it opened.

Last year, five feminists were arrested on Women’s Day for planning a protest against sexual harassment. This year one of them, Li Tingting, spoke out in a YouTube video posted on March 6. Li, who was released on bail after being held for 37 days, thanked Beijing for “pushing the feminist movement to another peak” by detaining them.

“What happened to us had an enormous impact in China and overseas,” Li said. “It was actually the first time that the international community knew that there are real feminists in China.”

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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