Written by Cara Wallis.

In late September of this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech at the Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment organized by UN Women as part of a number of activities worldwide commemorating Beijing +20, or the 20 years since the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in 1995 and the resulting Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action laid out an agenda for gender equality and the empowerment of women globally.

In his speech, Xi affirmed China’s commitment to women’s development and gender equality, and he reiterated the rallying cry of the Beijing conference: “Women’s rights are human rights.” He also pledged that China would contribute US$10 million to UN Women to help realize such goals globally. Just before Xi began his address, Hillary Clinton tweeted that for Xi to give such a speech was “shameless.” While her slam was easy (and strategic during a U.S. presidential election season), it encapsulated numerous critiques regarding the problematic selection of Xi to speak at such a conference.

Such criticism focused on China’s human rights record in general and in particular on the detention last March of several young women’s rights activists before an event, planned via social media and timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, aimed at raising awareness of sexual harassment on public transportation in China. Five of the women, later dubbed the Feminist Five, were jailed for over a month on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Although they were subsequently released, the detention of these young women before they had actually even done anything sent a chill across an increasingly beleaguered civil society in China.

When Xi gave his speech, I was in Beijing and much activity was swirling around Beijing +20 and assessing the state of gender affairs in China. Many people I know certainly wrote off his words as mere rhetoric. They also grumbled as to why he would be pledging so much money to foreign countries when China still has so many problems of its own, gender related and otherwise.

But others, including some key scholars and advocates of gender issues in China, were more cautiously optimistic regarding the strategic possibilities for accountability tied to such a speech. For example, Bu Wei, a prominent gender scholar and public intellectual at the Journalism and Communication Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, penned an online essay in which she highlighted key aspects of Xi’s speech and linked the development and progress of Chinese women to women around the world.

Others saw his words as symbolically important, although not because they were anything new – leaders in the PRC have been verbally affirming women’s rights since its founding (e.g., “Women hold up half the sky”), and China (unlike the US) has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In a conversation with Cai Yiping, a longtime women’s rights advocate in China, and an executive committee member of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), an international NGO focused on gender justice in the Global South, she said that on the ground Xi’s words don’t make a difference, but they do show a commitment at the highest level – a global forum – and can be used by women’s rights advocates – those connected to the All China Women’s Federation and those outside it – to provide legitimacy for their own work.

Such work is crucial given the significant problems facing women in China, including discrimination in higher education and employment, the leftover women discourse, the plight of young rural-to-urban migrant women, which I have written about in my own work, and China’s gender imbalance, a result of the One-Child Policy, which the Chinese government has just declared it will soon end, allowing all couples to have two children. This reversal comes as a response, which many say is too little too late, to the demographic realities that are hurting China economically (here is a graphic representation that has been trending on Sina Weibo).

Importantly, the change does not come as a concession to the damage the policy has done to Chinese women (through forced abortions, infanticide, abandonment of baby girls, trafficking in women, etc.), just as official government pronouncements on the gender imbalance downplay these issues and instead frame the problem as one of young men not being able to find a wife. Indeed, essentialized notions of gender are deeply embedded in China in official government discourse and education, and in popular media and everyday speech. A quick perusal of China’s mainstream popular culture reveals that it is saturated with sexualized images of women in advertisements and on reality television shows. As I have written, even those who are protesting Internet censorship in China deploy misogyny for ostensibly liberatory purposes.

But despite all of this, I also believe there is reason for some optimism, however small and measured. Over the last few years, as I have been conducting research on social media use among different groups in China I have noticed a growing awareness and interest in gender issues among university students, particularly young women. Some of these young women are at elite universities while others are at smaller institutions; some were raised in Beijing while others come from more remote provinces.

They might not share a commitment to activism like the Feminist Five, yet that doesn’t mean they are content to remain silent in the face of rampant sexism. Like the young women who were arrested, they are also extremely adept at using social media. In fact it is safe to say that social media permeate all aspects of their lives, from social networking, to entertainment, to news, to education. To be sure, several young women also use social media platforms like WeChat to present themselves in hyperfeminine and stereotypical displays of gender. At the same time, they are highly attuned to the struggles faced by young women of their generation, both through personal experience and through such high profile cases as that of Cao Ju, who sued over gender discrimination in employment and won.

In short, these young women are more confident, more connected, and more concerned about their individual rights. For these very reasons it is commonplace for China scholars to proclaim contemporary Chinese youth to be selfish and apolitical, and as long as the 1989 student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square are used as the measurement of student activism, these assumptions will prevail.

But today’s young people aren’t operating in the shadow of Tiananmen, and the circumstances in China today in many ways couldn’t be more different than in the late 80s, even if we only focus on China’s communication environment (China now has over 594 million mobile Internet users). Just as the way previous crackdowns on Internet freedom have led to greater knowledge of government censorship on the part of China’s netizens, the harsh treatment of those who were only trying to raise awareness about sexism brings greater awareness not only to their cause but also to government repression, as Wang Zheng, an expert on gender and feminism in China also noted in an interview.

To be sure, China in the Beijing +20 era offers much to be pessimistic about when it comes to women’s rights given the range of problems and the government’s real and very tangible repression (and censorship; China recently scored worst out of 65 countries on an index of Internet freedom). It is easy to point to the problems and see progress as one step forward, two steps back. The charges against the Feminist Five have still not been dropped, and they as individuals continue to face harassment.

But I am not alone in my cautious optimism regarding what Xiao Meili, who in 2014 walked long distance to raise awareness about child sexual abuse and in June of this year started an online “Armpit Hair Competition,” has called “China’s feminist awakening” (see also this article by Zeng Jinyan). As I write this piece, two young women are walking from Beijing to Guangzhou to bring attention to depression among female university students. They haven’t been deterred by the government’s repression, and I believe others will continue to follow, figuratively, if not literally, in their footsteps.

Cara Wallis is Associate Professor at Texas A&M University and the author of Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones (NYU Press, 2013). Image credit: CC by UN Women/Flickr.