Your womb, my history

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Like a vehicle losing control, a recent debate about legalizing surrogacy suddenly swerved and crashed into the carefully guarded space of post-1949 Chinese history, creating an opening that competing camps of online commentary vied to control. 

Amid the festive atmosphere of the Chinese New Year in early Feb, People’s Daily carried a largely bland piece in one of its less important sections. As the third installment in a series reviewing the implementation of the two-children policy (China eased its decades old one-child policy in a historic move to address the pressing demographic challenge in 2016), the piece discussed the difficulties facing many aging Chinese couples seeking to have a second child. At the end of the article, the author entertained the possibility of legalizing surrogacy in China, which so far has been strictly banned.

Acknowledging the controversial nature of such a proposal, the author advocated caution in the hypothetical easing. Only non-commercial, voluntary surrogacy should be allowed to avoid  spawning a for-profit industry. 

But the mere fact that People’s Daily mused about such a possibility struck a nerve with many who feared the ethical and legal mess that such a move would cause. Global Times, the market-oriented offspring publication of People’s Daily Group, in a curious case of rebellion, openly objected to the idea by citing situations in India and the US, where surrogacy, legalized or not, led to consequences that harmed the surrogate mothers, who were often in a disadvantage in such deals, and the children they bore.

The feminist argument was prominent in this debate from the very beginning. In an impromptu poll on Weibo initiated by a feminist outlet, a majority of participants expressed concern about the violation of women’s rights if surrogacy were green-lighted in China. People feared that women would be forced into the business against their will. An apocalyptic picture emerged in the discussion of poor girls kidnapped and kept in captivity to serve as surrogacy machines in  a “reproduction sweatshop”, even though doing so would clearly violate China’s criminal code with or without legalized surrogacy.

China’s population policies have been dogged by increasingly strident criticism from feminists these days. Major policy moves such as the abandoning of the one-child policy, hailed elsewhere as an enlightened development, met with cynical response domestically as the state’s  attempt to manipulate women’s wombs to correct its own demographic blunders. The bizarre scenes on the local level, where certain local governments pressured employees to have a second child in order to fulfill policy goals, further embittered advocates who resented the perceived “instrumentalization” of women by the state to achieve social objectives.

This line of thinking apparently colored the online response to the People’s Daily article. What’s unexpected was how far it went to threaten the very legitimacy of the Party. When Weibo user Huangqingjiao, a playwright, posted her comment about legalizing surrogacy, she reached back all the way to the early history of the People’s Republic, trying to make the case that the regime had a history of treating women as reproductive machines. “Whether it’s forcing people to have a second child, or legalizing surrogacy, what’s more horrible than these decisions is the icy logic behind them, the logic that treats women as mere items.”  She brought up the campaign to recruit tens of thousands of young women to go to Xinjiang, in the far west of China, in the years immediately following the establishment of Communist China in 1949. The invincible People’s Liberation Army, directed by the Party’s top leadership to settle down permanently to consolidate control of this frontier region, had to confront an insurmountable problem: the daunting male-to-female ratio. Not surprisingly, most of the troops were men. Many of them had endured years of brutal battles, first with the Japanese and then with the Kuomintang in a devastating civil war. Having passed their prime time for forming families, those officers and soldiers were put off by the prospect of an extended single life in a barren land. Some of them formally applied to be dismissed, so that they could return home and get married. “The issue of wives”, as General Wang Zhen put in in his letter to a colleague, “has reached to a point that it affects morale of the troops and the stability of Xinjiang.”

A massive campaign rolled out across the country to recruit women to Xinjiang. Responding to the call to build New China and the opportunity to contribute as independent, empowered individuals, tens of thousands of female students, housewives and peasants flocked to recruitment stations, committing themselves to a noble cause.

Very few of them were aware that their roles as girlfriends, wives and mothers were probably more valued by the state at that time. Some of them started to feel the “heat” after settling down in work units freshly set up in the western province. “Match-makers” were dispatched to “work on their minds”, trying to convince the girls that marriage was for the greater good of a prosperous Xinjiang. In certain cases, attempts of persuasion bordered on coercion, causing a fair amount of stress among those women (some of them became mentally unstable). The situation alarmed the leadership, which in the end directed those “mind workers” to soften their approach and honor the freedom of marriage, a concept that had just been enshrined in the People’s Republic’s new marital law.

The history of this campaign is well-documented. Government files, news reports and academic papers exist to preserve an important part of the Party’s early efforts to govern a newly seized region. Huangqingjiao got a glimpse of the history in a TV documentary called “Eight thousand Hunan girls go to Tianshan”, zooming in on one leg of that campaign in Hunan province. Her interpretation of their fate as sheer tragedy shaped how many netizens viewed this history in particular and the Party’s treatment of women in general.

The more reserved version of such a view lamented the powerlessness of individuals before the iron wheel of state-building. The extreme version went as far as equating the females with “comfort women”, sexual slaves kept by the Japanese military during World War II.

Ironically, what was presented as being sympathetic was taken as an insult by the descendants of the very women to whom the sympathy was directed. “My grandparents dedicated their youth to the frontier. They fell in love and got married of their own free will. Those ignorant of the Xinjiang construction corps should quit denigrating our predecessors! ” snapped one Weibo user. The local police of Altay, a place in the north tip of Xinjiang, sent out an angry Weibo post accusing Huangqingjiao of spreading lies. “The first generation of Xinjiang’s constructors do not deserve such assault… Without their sacrifice, how could someone like Huangqingjiao enjoy her leisure and peace?”

If the anger was directed at the lack of appreciation for those women’s agency, they might have a point. The “comfort women” comment was particularly insensitive in this regard. Studies looking closely at that period depicted a nuanced picture of those females “negotiating” their existence in an environment at once liberating and suppressing. Many of them came from abject backgrounds that were even harsher to women of their generation. They escaped extreme poverty and the shackles of traditional Chinese society to seek education and work in a new environment. Most of them fulfilled such dreams by becoming nurses, teachers and office workers in the PLA-turned Xinjiang Construction Corps. And they used this newfound independence to push back at the “matchmaking” attempts that were seen as inconsistent with New China’s vision of women’s liberation. Some of them in the end accepted “Party arranged marriages” not because they passively bowed to fate, but rather reconciled their devotion to the country with personal life choices. 

Yet the indignation could also have  originated from a misplaced stigma about women with “impure” sexual experiences, even if coerced. Therefore, a woman’s misery of forced marriage could be taken as disgraceful on the side of the female. And people chose to defend her by insisting that they were “clean”(qingbai).

More is at stake than the women’s reputation. Modern Chinese history, particularly the part after 1949, has become a minefield. Barbed wires are being erected around the orthodox stories of liberation and progress. And trespassers will be punished. The Party’s online propaganda guards were quickly deployed to contain the rising tide of questioning. The Global Times editorial put this episode in the context of “rising historical nihilism” in recent years. Trying to be seen as fair, it declared Huangqingjiao’s Weibo post as an “inadvertent” offense, while warning that more sinister attacks of the sacred narrative are being propounded all over the Internet by those with ulterior “political motives”. “The history of New China is a history with capital H. The grandiose heroism of those involved cannot be judged by the petty bourgeois of today. However, even a great history will unavoidably involve personal misfortunes and miseries. Nevertheless, the mainstream sentiment among those females was one of pride and dignity, not of frustration and regret.”

But who represents “mainstream” and who are those individuals to be brushed aside as outliers? Anticipating questions like this, defenders of that history felt urged to protect “collectivism” against the assault of “individualism”, which they regarded as a luxury for those struggling in Xinjiang at that time. Their words can be vituperative at times, claiming that the “sacrifice of first generation Xinjiang constructors do not need the disgusting ‘sympathy’ from modern whores who only ask what the country can do for them.”

Those who defended the collectivist era maintained that personal sacrifices and devotion of that generation laid the foundation for the economic boom that followed the end of Mao’s reign over China. The buildup of basic industries and the accumulation of “demographic dividends”, the abundance of low cost labor, helped launch the Chinese economy into a sustained three-decade growth trajectory that became the envy of many other countries. And younger generations who enjoy the fruits of development should at least be grateful to their predecessors.

If gratitude is too much to ask for, an empathetic understanding is what many in the middle were suggesting. The ethics of a society, particularly those concerning personal rights, evolve over time, and it is probably unfair for today’s feminists to judge the 1950s using their value systems. The necessity of resettling hundreds of thousands of troops in the far west had the leaders’ hands tied at that time, who were more than aware of communist China’s promise of equality for women. Some argued that women going to Xinjiang in those years might have seen a “net improvement” of their situation by escaping their backward, poverty-stricken rural homes, and that the campaign should be more properly seen as a massive “blind dating event“, where the suppressed women of “old China” met a relatively well-regarded and well-paid group of young males, PLA officers.

More experienced observers noted the fact that this was not the first time that the history of “eight thousand Hunanese women” caused a stir in Chinese society. In the 1980s and 1990s, when materials about the buried memory resurfaced, there was a healthy discussion about the human dimension of the “grand history”. The experience was demystifying and even liberating for some: the “minority” who did feel hurt by that campaign were finally able to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, the “honest and pragmatic” approach to that history has been replaced by a much more ideologically rigid one of today, remarked commentator Song Zhibiao. The now familiar frame of “anti-historical nihilism” immediately trumped any attempt to reopen the history for critical review, and the otherwise debate-savvy feminists quickly retreated from their confrontational stance. “A debate about history has itself become part of Chinese history,” observed Song.

RELATED READING ON THIS BLOG: Down with the Nihilists!

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