Many westerners have considered the introduction of women into the public sphere to represent the dawn of female liberation. The “public” arena has been thought to be where citizens, and more specifically, women, enjoy their individual rights. It has been accepted as the sphere in which women found their freedom—contesting and combating privatization and the patriarchal household, finding inclusion and official recognition by the state. However, the supposition that to combat privatization is to strive for women’s space in the public sphere has been inadequately tested and inappropriately applied universally. The “public” sphere in the Chinese socialist context is a sphere of contradiction; it is a domain in which this supposition finds opposition in the realization that it is within the public sphere where Chinese women’s liberation and oppression both begin.
In the 1970s China established their birth planning policy (One Child Policy), making the argument that production and reproduction are dialectically interdependent and mutually constraining. Ma Yinchu, known as the “Father of population control in China,” stated in 1957: “Our economy is a planned economy, and reproduction must also be planned.” This belief system regarding the interdependence of reproduction and production was of course complimented by the need for an enforcement mechanism to better maintain a healthy population growth rate. The private practice of reproduction was henceforth integrated into the public project of socialist development and, furthermore, a collective activity. One can argue that this policy was beneficial for women because it made the job of Mothering easier—decreasing the number of children lightened the burden of child rearing and placed less stress on women. I find this argument entirely insufficient.
What we really see as a result of China’s birth planning system is not greater recognition of women by the state for the liberation and greater good of all women, but rather the emergency of state patriarchy. The state birthing program and the enforcement of China’s One Child Policy has enabled the state to effectively plan the birth(s) of every single couple in the nation. The introduction of China’s One Child policy marked the point at which China overcame its historical filial piety to parents. Reproduction was no longer an individual, private matter, but a collective duty and responsibility to bring about the well being of all people and, above all, future generations. Additionally, effectively practicing this policy became a point to promotion by the state as an act that expresses one’s love of country. This is liberating for women how? The notion here of state patriarchy blurs the boundaries between public and private in China through the implementation of the One Child Policy. This blur is often misinterpreted and misunderstood by western feminists who believe that is within the public sphere that women find their liberation.
As westerners, we must reconstruct how we understand the issue women face in China and how these women find liberation from privatization and patriarchy. While immersion into the public sphere is liberating for women in a number of ways, it is important to recognize for the Chinese, it is in the public arena where women face some of the most difficult battles with the patriarchal system. The notions of public and even further, state level patriarchy, where state control and collectivization of reproductive practices has occurred, are of critical importance in China’s case.
The public sphere has become a space for Chinese women’s resistance, and therefore, also served as the path for female liberation. The effects of China’s One Child Policy have been detrimental on many aspects of female life, including: the physical, emotional, and social. Women who do not bear sons are more likely to be the recipient of spousal abuse. Women who undergo forced abortions face the risks of long term mental and physical health problems. Women face greater pressure to bear sons and many suffer depression after the consequences of failing to produce sons. China faces disproportional sex ratios and increasing problems with human trafficking. The adverse effects of the One Child Policy are numerous and this suffering of women has led to increasing female resistance to the policy.
Today, Chinese women continue to fight the battle of oppression in the public sphere. But Chinese women have also found the gateway to liberation here in the public arena, as many continue to seek to bring awareness to the consequences of state birth planning in an effort to induce political change. Negotiating a space between their gender and national identities, Chinese women are attempting to steer a path in which the collective goal of population control can be achieved through the recognition of women’s rights and the improvement of their status. Furthermore, it is the improvement of female status in China that is the key to the success of birth planning and, in turn, the longevity of the Chinese state.