Your womb, my history


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!


The Atheist Manifesto


“Religion is the opium of the people.” — Karl Marx

Almost every Chinese who goes through some middle school education must, at some point, run into the famous statement about religion by Karl Marx. It is enshrined in text books that introduce students to the philosopher’s materialistic interpretation of the world, which considers religion as a “fantasy” used by reactionary forces to disarm the revolutionary proletariats by promising salvation in the afterlife while preaching endurance in the current one.

Some will argue that there is a Leninist spin in such a presentation of Marx’s view and that his is a more nuanced one that recognizes, albeit grudgingly, the historically progressive role of religion. Still, Marx’s view has become probably the only modern critique of religion that many ordinary Chinese are familiar with, besides Confucius’s largely agnostic approach to spirituality. It also forms the basis of the Communist Party’s self-branding of a fundamentally atheist party.

That being said, textbook does not dictate how millions of Chinese actually approaches faith, nor does Marxist dogma completely defines how the CCP handles religion in the People’s Republic. The harsh criticism of religion by Marx does not stop a large number of Chinese from embracing the teaching of Buddha, the message of Jesus Christ or the words of Mohammed. If anything, the “value vacuum” left by the retreat of a fanatic Maoist ideology since the death of the Chairman has increasingly been filled by religion, demonstrated by skyrocketing numbers of new converts.

At same time, however, the officially “atheist party” has seen its position shift dramatically on this thorny issue over the decades. From courtship in the early years for the sake of building political alliance, to open hostility in the radically leftist years as a result of internal political struggles, to reconciliation in the early days of the Reform and Opening period, and finally to cautious ambiguity that defines its approach today.

It is in this ambiguity that a recent revision of a low-level administrative regulation aiming at maintaining social order stirred up a great controversy online. In the draft change, authorities added a clause that, by the Chinese standard of social control, may seem innocuous: “Anyone who produces contents in publications or online platforms that contain insults or prejudice against a religion or ethnicity may be subject to administrative detainment from 10 to 15 days.” As a society dominated by a largely secular majority of Han Chinese, setting up certain mechanisms to prevent the abuse of minority ethnic groups does not appear controversial. Measures designed to prevent hate-speech are also not unprecedented. The 2009 Measures for Ethnic Unity Education enacted in Xinjiang, where a great number of ethnic minorities, particularly the Uighurs, live, also contain a clause that forbid hate-inciting speeches.

However, this time the outcry was loud and clear, with one Weibo post asking people to oppose the measure collecting 60,000+ forwards within a short period of time.

There are a few notable things about this wave of pushback against the regulation. First, it primarily targets Islam and Muslims even if the proposed clause does not specify any religion or ethnicity for which it is designed. Second, online mobilization for the cause concentrates in “pockets” of the cyberspace that have a track record of anti-Islam activism; and rather than a concern with freedom of expression in general, it appears to be sparked by a very specific grievance that has been gradually festering on the Chinese Internet: a discontent with the perceived (unprincipled) accommodation of the spread of Islam by the Chinese state.

Like many online sentiments that accumulate over time, it is likely shaped by the recurrence of events that are perceived (and interpreted) as having a repeating theme. Researchers may point to the violent riots in Xinjiang in 2009 as the starting point of the narrative of the Chinese state being “too accommodating” to ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs. And as this recent online mobilization will show, the narrative has evolved and gained momentum from a host of new sources.

Many events that are reinforcing that narrative today may seem trivial: airlines carry only halal-certified foods aboard domestic flights; police in Shanghai hesitant to intervene in a bully case where supposedly Muslim beef noodle shop owners tried to stop others from opening competing shops; CCTV’s annual spring festival gala accused of distorting a Chinese New Year tradition to avoid mentioning pork. Compared to violent ethnic conflicts, these are stories of minor frictions that often flow beneath the surface of sensational news headlines.

Popular Weibo posts opposing the proposed measure cite the “secular joys” of the Han Chinese life as worthy of protection, going all the way back to the times of the Monkey King when such classic literary works as the Journey to the West could make fun of the ridiculous aspects of religion. “The proposed rule will destroy a core part of Chinese culture”, asserts one post. Some of the commentators see a slippery slope in front of them: “First you can’t eat pork, then girls can’t don short skirts…, then your kid can’t go to school because enrollment favors kids from certain religions. It’s about our very dear interests!”

This highlights the intrinsic contradictions in the Chinese experience with Islam, and, by extension, issues of ethnicity. On the one hand, the impression outside China has been influenced by its heavy-handed social control in regions such as Xinjiang, especially after the riots in the late 2000s. On the other, domestic experience, particularly in Han-dominated central and coastal areas, often contains an element of hurt and frustration. This may seem ironic given the overall economic and cultural advantage that the majority group enjoys, many of which related to its access to opportunities and public resources that tend to concentrate in the developed eastern provinces.

But on a micro, personal level, the experience is also very likely to be real. China’s ethnic policy of today, wherein religion constitutes an organic part, features a series of preferential treatment of minorities, ranging from affirmative action in higher education to leniency in the criminal justice system, some more controversial than others. The so-called “two restraint one leniency” policy, issued by the Party’s Central Committee in 1984, instructs law enforcement across the nation to practice restraint in arrest and execution and leniency in treatment when dealing with minority criminals. Even though the supposed intention of the original policy was to accommodate traditional customs in minority areas that could be criminalized under the sweeping campaign to crackdown on crimes in the early 1980s, it nevertheless led to a lingering situation where “in legal and civil disputes, authorities throughout the nation tend to side with ethnic minorities for the sake of preserving ethnic unity, even to the dissatisfaction of the Han Chinese.” Reports of police officers turning their eyes away from crimes involving ethnic minorities abound on the Chinese Internet.

China’s different approaches to religion in and outside the Xinjiang (and Tibet) Autonomous Regions, where “leniency” is probably the last word used to describe ethnic/religious policy there, is something worth keeping in mind when examining online sentiments on this issue. For instance, in this recent controversy, many who oppose the draft cited situations in places like Ningxia or Qinghai where the issue of Islamic expansion seems particularly salient. People share pictures of grand, luxury Mosques being built in those remote, poverty stricken areas in Western China with the blessing of local governments, and accounts of local children being organized to attend religious schools.

Many netizens online feel uneasy of such developments. And this is where Marx clashes with Islam. One of the major concerns that emerges from this wave of criticism is the worry that the Chinese society’s unique equipment to keep religion at bay, its atheist socialist ideology, can be severely constrained with the introduction of the proposed measure.

Xi Wuyi, a scholar of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a leading voice denouncing the amendment, embodies this unique Chinese response to Islam. In her strongly worded commentary that was posted online, she asserts that “to research religion and to critique theology is the classic academic paradigm of contemporary Chinese Marxist religion studies” and questions if the clause will undermine the “scientific atheists’ efforts to curb the negative impacts of religion”, a stated aim of the National Conference on Religion-related Work held by the Party in 2016. Her arguments were echoed by other influential personalities on Weibo, who are more colorful when expressing their disapproval: “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which topples biblical creationism, and The Internationale, which refutes the existence of gods, can all be taken as offensive to a certain religion. Should they be banned under the new rule?”

An atheist conviction is not their only weapon, especially when it comes to Islam. Broader concerns with women’s rights and the religion’s perceived aggressive hostility toward non-believers are also major factors contributing to online acrimony. Again, they are reflected in the online activism of an opinion leader like Xi Wuyi, who constantly intervene in cases of Islamic “intrusion” into secular freedoms. Just as the petition to scrap the amendment was ongoing, she mobilized public support for an ethnic Hui girl whose father threatened to kill her for her dating a Han boyfriend. A large portion of the Hui ethnicity are Muslims. The father allegedly told the girl that “killing you would violate Han Chinese laws but I would be celebrated as a hero by my Muslim brothers.” The mobilization to support the girl reinforced the sense of urgency felt by those dreading an Islamic encroachment into Chinese social values, further energizing the opposition to the proposed regulation.

For many commentators who piled on the topic, the invocation of Marx can be purely a strategic choice: citing the Party’s ideological idol in opposition to a governmental initiative seems politically acceptable as a “kind reminder” of its communist roots. It also speaks to an important aspect of this online revolt: the grievance is directed as much towards Islam the religion as it is to state favoritism and incompetence, hence the almost “scolding” element in the online criticism that’s designed to “alert” the Party of deviating from its “true color”.

Such “alerts” can be at times very specific, tracing the proposal to powerful religious figures that are able to influence Party policy. The message is that those figures, mullahs who wear governmental hats, have swayed a Party which so far have resisted religious interference into its rule of the country. The curious Taoist support of the campaign, which won applause online, only adds to the perception that the clause was created solely to block criticism of Islam.

A few commentators are careful in making a distinction between religion and ethnicity, separating what they consider religious prejudice, which for them is a false concept, and ethnic prejudice, which is much less defensible. They maintain that every person, no matter of what ethnic lineage, has the freedom to believe or not believe in a religion. It is also in line with the kind of thinking long advanced by prominent scholars such as Ma Rong, who advocates the “depoliticizing” of ethnic “group” identities and the uphold of “individual” identities. He believes that group-based preferential policies are making ethnic identities more acutely felt, and should be replaced by individual-based welfare policies blind to a person’s ethnicity.

Not everybody has patience for nuanced distinctions. This wave of opposition to the regulation also brings to the foreground some of the more disturbing elements in Chinese online discussions about the Muslim community. Blanket derogatory terms such as “cult” and “green cancer,” a term that derives from the religion’s symbolic color, are tossed around casually in conversations, which triggers the exact kind of worry that is probably behind the draft measure. “Demonizing Muslims will undermine ethnic unity in our country,” Prof. Ding Long declares in his article, accusing people like Xi Wuyi of “exaggerating the threat of Islam.”

Yet online sentiments cannot be easily tuned down by voices calling for more open dialogues, as developments overseas continue to feed into that narrative, with even the President of the United States signing off a Muslim travel ban. Violent events in countries like Sweden and France, which further fuels anti-Muslim rhetoric globally, were quick to find their way into Chinese cyberspace. The memory of the bloody event that occurred to Charlie Hebdo editors, also an aggression against expressions, only intensifies that sense of threat. In this regard, Marx’s other important teaching, the camaraderie among fellow proletariat brothers and sisters that transcends ethnicity and national borders, is less important to Chinese netizens eager to contain Islamic influence in the country. Their intense insecurity with Islam, energized by both a love for secular freedom and a frustration with unfair state policy, will likely shape religious and ethnic relationships in China for years to come.