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    The Woman Trying to Change Chinese Politics From the Inside

    Jiang Shengnan is a rare figure in Chinese politics: a vocal women’s rights advocate who is seeking to drive change from within the system.
    Apr 15, 2023#gender#policy

    Jiang Shengnan has taken on many challenging roles during her decadeslong campaign to promote women’s rights in China — from university researcher to bestselling novelist and TV screenwriter.

    But nothing compares to the pressure she has faced as a frontline politician.

    For the past few years, the 49-year-old has been walking a wafer-thin tightrope as she attempts to bridge a gaping divide: between the women’s rights movement and the world of Chinese national politics.

    In 2018, Jiang became a delegate to China’s highest legislative body, the National People’s Congress. During her five-year term, she emerged as a unique voice in the chamber, consistently using her platform to put gender equality on the political agenda.

    Inside the NPC, Jiang made headlines by putting forward popular proposals on issues ranging from human trafficking to parental leave. Outside it, she became a prominent figure in the Chinese media, and even turned to trendy new formats such as stand-up comedy to spread her message.

    After her term expired in 2023, Jiang moved across to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference — a sister chamber that serves as an advisory body to the NPC. There, she has continued her advocacy, leading a high-profile campaign to combat China’s rampant overtime culture.

    For Jiang, the decision to enter Chinese politics has been a calculated gamble. Though becoming a political insider involves difficult compromises, she believes it gives her a better chance of driving reforms that will improve women’s lives.

    She also hopes to blaze a trail that others will follow in the future — allowing women to gain a stronger voice in the halls of Chinese power. In the NPC, just over one-quarter of delegates are female, and only a handful consistently focus on gender issues.

    “Many people have been trapped without a voice for too long,” Jiang tells Sixth Tone. “Those of us who have the power must change that.”

    But to succeed, she will have to navigate some perilous political terrain. This is a tense moment for gender politics in China. The government is facing growing calls to take stronger action on a series of women’s rights issues, including domestic violence, sexual harassment, and workplace discrimination, among many others.

    On Chinese social media, debates between feminist and anti-feminist groups have become increasingly heated. Social platforms have increased restrictions on posts deemed to incite “gender opposition.” Feminist groups on some platforms have been shut down. Activists say it is getting more complex to operate in the gender space.

    In this climate, being both a women’s rights advocate and a politician is far from easy. Jiang often finds herself stuck in the middle between the conservative forces inside the system and feminist groups outside it — and taking heat from both sides.

    To survive, she has had to stay disciplined. Jiang tells Sixth Tone that she is cautious when speaking publicly or posting online. Her focus is not only on proposing policies to solve issues facing Chinese women, but on presenting them in a way that will appeal to the government.

    Some Chinese feminists consider such compromises unacceptable. But Jiang insists the trade-off will be worth it in the long run.

    “I’m not in a simple position,” she says. “If I criticize something online after an incident happens, my voice is weak and invalid. I am striving to use my voice effectively.”

    Born in 1973 in the eastern city of Wenzhou, Jiang’s political outlook was shaped by her childhood. Her mother worked as a teacher throughout her childhood — a rare move in her neighborhood, where most women became housewives after giving birth. Her father, an industrial worker, did a lot of the housework to lighten his wife’s burden.

    Jiang was the couple’s third daughter. After she was born, friends and relatives urged Jiang’s mother to have another child, so she could finally give birth to a boy. Her mother refused, and instead decided to name the baby Shengnan — a Chinese term meaning “better than men.”

    As a child, Jiang says her parents gave her more freedom than most girls her age. Rather than studying all hours, she often spent her days in the library reading martial arts novels.

    In college, where she quickly became bored with her accounting degree, she began to write her own martials arts sagas. But she decided to put a feminist twist on the genre.

    The martial arts novels Jiang grew up reading tended to follow the same formula: a warrior is thrown from a cliff by a devil, and is rescued by the devil’s daughter. After the warrior recovers, he resumes his quest, and later ends up with another woman.

    The devil’s daughter, Jiang noticed, seemed to be overlooked by everyone. She wanted to write a story that put this female character in the center of the action. In 1999, she began serializing her first web novel — a story about a devil’s daughter on a mission to avenge her father.

    Massive success followed. In 2015, Jiang released her biggest hit yet: “The Legend of Mi Yue,” a tale of a female leader during China’s Warring States Period that combines politics, war, and romance. When the TV adaptation was released, it received a record 700 million views online in just 24 hours.

    Throughout her career, Jiang has consciously tried to provide her readers with better female role models. Her female characters, she says, tend to follow a similar arc: from “wanting protection and understanding” to “having independent personalities and embellishing their lives with love.”

    “Today’s women need better references to help them know what to do if they encounter failure in love, how to maintain their independence, and how to balance work and family well,” says Jiang.

    Moving into politics seemed a natural step. From 2001, Jiang was elected to leading roles in district, provincial, and national-level writers’ associations. Then, she won a position in her local branch of the All-China Youth Federation — a youth organization led by the Communist Party. Finally, in 2018, she was elected to the NPC as a delegate.

    At first, Jiang says she was nervous about her new role at the NPC. Her position as a delegate was confirmed less than two months before the annual meeting of the NPC and CPPCC, known as the “two sessions.” That year, she played it safe, and only submitted proposals related to the publishing industry.

    But from her second year, Jiang increasingly used her platform to highlight gender issues. In 2022, her proposals included measures to combat China’s human trafficking trade, extend paternity leave, and remove a newly introduced “cooling-off” period for divorces.

    Though a few other NPC delegates are also known for submitting proposals on women’s rights issues, Jiang was unique in her commitment to pushing for reforms. She felt a special responsibility to speak up for women in the chamber, she says.

    “There are currently not enough female delegates, so we have to speak out on behalf of this group,” says Jiang. “As society advances, we also have a strong desire to stop unfairness.”

    On the microblogging platform Weibo, where she has over 1 million followers, users hailed Jiang as a “good people’s representative.” She even tried to promote her reforms by trying stand-up comedy — an art form that has rapidly gained popularity in China, as it offers a rare forum for discussing gender issues openly.

    In her debut stand-up appearance, Jiang joked about her proposal to extend paid paternity leave, saying that men probably saw it mainly as a way to get more time off. But she finished with a heartfelt plea for more female representation in politics.

    “Many people support me, saying that I’m a precious female voice,” she said. “But in fact, I’m just an ordinary female voice. Everyone knows that things are precious because they are scarce. My greatest hope is that I will become less precious as soon as possible.”

    On the policy front, Jiang’s efforts have produced some notable successes. In 2020, the NPC passed a revised Law on the Protection of Minors that explicitly banned parents from trying to gain an advantage in divorce proceedings by seizing custody of their children — a change that Jiang had lobbied for. Her suggested measures to strengthen legal punishments for human traffickers have also been listed as a priority proposal by the NPC.

    Yet the political atmosphere around gender remains heated. This year, there have been signs that Jiang has taken a slight step back. In March, she finished her term in the NPC and was not re-elected.

    When asked why she had left the NPC, Jiang insisted that it was normal for delegates to only serve for five years. Currently, around three-quarters of NPC members are in their first term. She added that she had been appointed to the CPPCC due to her “outstanding performance.”

    Since her move to the CPPCC, Jiang has maintained a high public profile. She once again made headlines in March by pushing for stronger action to curb China’s rampant overtime culture, arguing it is making life impossible for young families.

    But Jiang’s contributions this year have appeared less overtly focused on gender than previously. She has made a point of framing her latest proposals in the context of China’s plunging birth rate: Progressive social reforms are needed, she says, to make it easier for couples to have children.

    This, however, is likely to be just another tactical maneuver. In Jiang’s mind, the fight for equality has always been a multigenerational struggle. Though there have been many setbacks, ultimately things have gradually moved forward.

    In her youth, she recalls that Chinese families often forced young women to give up their education early unless they earned stellar grades. Now, millions of women graduate from college each year, and the fight for equality has moved on to employment issues.

    “The way we are treated now is a result of what each generation of women did before us,” she says. “We benefit from the strides made by our predecessors, so we should think about what we can do for women in the future.”

    Speaking with Sixth Tone by phone, Jiang Shengnan discusses her career as a women’s rights advocate and how she deals with the constraints that come with her role as a politician. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Sixth Tone: During the “two sessions” in March, you made several proposals, but you appeared to focus less on gender issues than in the past. Why is that?

    Jiang Shengnan: Over the years, I have raised a lot of gender issues, but what I really focus on are the everyday issues that affect all of us. This year, I proposed strengthening the eight-hour workday, because when “996” culture lengthens our working hours, we face a number of social issues.

    As an example, if a couple works eight hours a day, they can share the household chores, raise their children together, and spend the weekends with them. But when they’re forced to work overtime constantly, women in particular often have to make a decision over whether they should quit their jobs.

    So, the eight-hour workday can keep more women in the workforce and give them more choices. It’s also an important gender issue.

    At the same time, I don’t view women’s rights and interests as separate from the rest of society; they’re closely related to social progress. The series of gender-related proposals I have put forward are all about the same thing: ensuring women’s safety, security, and reducing their fear.

    Why are divorce rates so high and fertility rates falling? Having children and getting married aren’t seen as good things for many women. It is vital to improving their security and welfare, but that is not a simple problem that you can solve by giving away money. 

    In fact, women are forced to choose between career and family because of the “involution” of the workplace, and we ought to address these issues as soon as possible to promote fertility and marriage.

    Sixth Tone: There are times when the proposals you submit are not taken up immediately. How do you deal with the frustration?

    Jiang: My proposals are not always adopted or implemented straightaway, but they are often discussed online, which is the beginning of the promotion process. It doesn’t excite me if something receives feedback right away, or frustrate me if it’s held up for a long time. I firmly believe that my hard work has an effect.

    Sixth Tone: You have said that you hope to act as a bridge between women and the rest of society. When a major social incident happens, there is often a gap between the eager demands of netizens on one side and the relatively conservative forces in the system on the other. How can the two sides communicate effectively?

    Jiang Shengnan: We must admit that China’s development is uneven, and that it is backward in some places. But sometimes, it is useless to criticize, because it’s difficult to change the way people think overnight. It’s not my intention to push the two sides into conflict. It’s better to pull them together, and solve this problem collectively.

    As a representative of the people, I see the needs of the people and speak up for them, but I’m not in a simple position. If I criticize something online after an incident happens, my voice is weak and invalid. I am striving to use my voice effectively. 

    I have to think about how I can craft a proposal that the authorities can implement right away, rather than mentioning something that they can’t do anything about right now. 

    Sixth Tone: In China, feminist issues are often considered sensitive, and those who raise them can be accused of “inciting gender opposition.” How do you deal with these voices?

    Jiang: It is a fact that there is inequality between men and women, so this needs to be discussed. Online, you’ll always find content about an issue you care about. This can lead some to develop a narrow view of the world, which can result in radicalization.

    However, I don’t necessarily think that radicalization is a bad thing. It can help bring an issue to mainstream attention. At the very least, it allows voices to be seen and heard, and to be heeded.

    I try my best to look at problems from multiple perspectives, and I’m cautious and vigilant. I pay special attention to different voices and ideas, and try to understand why people think the way they do.

    Sixth Tone: What effect do you think your literary works have on your readers?

    Jiang: I believe that my readers can feel empowered from my portrayal of female characters in my martial arts novels. When today’s women encounter issues in their lives — whether that’s to do with love, childbirth, or work — the older people around them often fail to offer good advice. They grew up in another era, they’re unfamiliar with the digital world, and some of them have never set foot in a workplace. 

    When women are surrounded by this reality, they may not make good decisions in crucial moments. I hope that my literature can inspire them, and offer them a guiding light in the fog.

    Editor: Dominic Morgan.

    (Header image: Jiang Shengnan in Beijing, 2018. Xue Jun/Beijing News/IC)