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China’s Male Leaders Signal to Women That Their Place Is in the Home

Originally published by Alexandra Stevenson for the New York Times

At China’s top political gathering for women, it was mostly a man who was seen and heard.

Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, sat center stage at the opening of the National Women’s Congress. A close-up of him at the Congress was splashed on the front page of the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper the next day. From the head of a large round table, Mr. Xi lectured female delegates at the closing meeting on Monday.

“We should actively foster a new type of marriage and childbearing culture,” he said in a speech, adding that it was the role of party officials to influence young people’s views on “love and marriage, fertility and family.”

The Women’s Congress, held every five years, has long been a forum for the ruling Communist Party to demonstrate its commitment to women. The gesture, while mostly symbolic, has taken on more significance than ever this year, the first time in two decades that there are no women in the party’s executive policymaking body.

What was notable was how officials downplayed gender equality. They focused instead on using the gathering to press Mr. Xi’s goal for Chinese women: get married and have babies. In the past, officials had touched on the role women play at home as well as in the work force. But in this year’s address, Mr. Xi made no mention of women at work.

The party desperately needs women to have more babies. China has been thrust into a demographic crisis as its birthrate has plummeted, causing its population to shrink for the first time since the 1960s. The authorities are scrambling to undo what experts have said is an irreversible trend, trying one initiative after another, such as cash handouts and tax benefits to encourage more births.

Faced with a demographic crisis, a slowing economy and what it views as a stubborn rise of feminism, the party has chosen to push women back into the home, calling on them to rear the young and care for the old. The work, in the words of Mr. Xi, is essential for “China’s path to modernization.”

But to some, his vision sounds more like a worrying regression.

“Women in China have been alarmed by the trend and have been fighting back over the years,” said Yaqiu Wang, the research director for Hong Kong, China and Taiwan at Freedom House, a nonprofit based in Washington. “Many women in China are empowered and united in their fight against the twin repressions in China: the authoritarian government and the patriarchal society.”

The party has failed to address many concerns, viewing some issues raised by women as a direct challenge to its leadership. Bursts of discussion over sexual harassment, gender violence and discrimination are silenced on social media. Support for victims is often extinguished. Feminists and outspoken advocates have been jailed, and a #MeToo movement that briefly flourished in 2018 has been pushed underground.

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