Month: July 2016


Britain has a new female prime minister, Theresa May. She is the second woman to hold that post, after Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990. But there is a difference. Under Margaret Thatcher, there were hardly any female government ministers. Now, there are many women in other top government posts. It was remarkable when Margaret Thatcher was the boss. Now women bosses are becoming the norm.

And not only in Britain. One of the presidential candidates in the US will be a woman. Throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, we see many women in many top jobs in many countries.

And not only in politics. There are movements in many countries to get more women into top posts and boards in business organisations.

Underlying these advances for women is a new culture of equality. It is becoming accepted that women have an equal stake in society to that of men and that they should be equal in position, privilege and responsibility. There is still a long way to go, many women will insist, but there has nevertheless been a massive shift in attitudes. It is still being remarked upon that Theresa May is a women in the top job, but it is not remarkable in the way it was in Margaret Thatcher’s time. The new culture of equality is central to our understanding of modernity.

This shift in attitudes and practices is visible on China’s borders. In both South Korea and Taiwan, the presidents are now women. Although that has been remarked upon, it has generally been accepted as relatively obvious and normal.

What then in China itself? Here, this understanding of modernity is conspicuously absent. China has in this respect not entered the modern world. Not only are there no women in the political leadership, it is wholly exceptional to find women in leading posts anywhere else, be it in public administration or in business (except for the All China Women’s Federation). There is no new culture of equality. Where it is trying to get a foothold, it is seen as dangerous and repressed. When young women about a year ago organised manifestations to draw awareness to sexual harassment on public transport, they were rounded up and detained. By all accounts, the elementary matter of gender equity in family and household responsibilities, elsewhere a battlefield of modernity, is a non-issue. China is a rigidly gendered society that is holding on to an elsewhere outdated culture of gender inequality. It is a matter the national leadership takes no interest in.

The rest of the world is in movement on women and equality. In China, the wall of dictatorship is shutting the modern world out.



Many of us who have been able to visit China, for example (as in my case) to lecture at Chinese universities, have been struck by the openness of debate. It seems that almost anything can be discussed. From this it might seem that the repression of opinions is mild or near to non-existent.

It also seems that Chinese people are often pretty free to express almost any opinions they wish, including critical ones of the government and regime. Some are able to write against the Communist Party in the international press.

However, at the same time there are cases of harsh repression of even activity that is in no way seriously subversive. For example, in early 2015 there was a burst of clamp-down on feminist activists in Beijing and other cities. Many were arrested in different parts of the country while planning awareness campaigns about sexual harassment in public transport. That is not an anti-regime issue. The official All-China Women’s Federation is campaigning on the same matter. In another case, In the early morning of the 29th of April 2015, in the eastern city of Suzhou, ahead of a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the execution of Lin Zhao, a young Christian woman and critic of Maoism who was executed in prison in 1968 and who rests in a cemetery in the city, a huge police force busted homes and guesthouses and detained dozens of people who had gathered in the city for a mourning at her graveside.

So what’s going on. Why are seriously subversive opinions (sometimes) tolerated and non-subversive actions (sometimes) clamped down upon?

There are two answers:

  1. As in all dictatorships, there is much arbitrariness. What “should be” stopped is sometimes left alone. Of course, it is in the nature of arbitrariness that those who are left alone today may be crushed tomorrow.
  2. But there is also a logic. The regime has little to fear from isolated expressions of opinion and actions. There are about 500 “mass incidents” a day throughout the territory – protests, strikes etc. – which are no more than easily manageable annoyances. However, what the regime does fear is anything that takes the form of organised action, even of loose networks. The reason the feminists and the mourners were detained and stopped was not that their causes were dangerous but that they were forming networks of co-ordinated action.

From the outlook of the Chinese regime, opinions are less dangerous that action, and collective action always dangerous, even for non-dangerous causes.