CEDAW and Women Organising

(Originally published in CLB issue#49, Jul-Aug 1999)

Holding Up Half the Sky For Far Less Than Half the Sunshine

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was the first UN human rights treaty applying to domestic policy to be ratified by the People's Republic of China. Following an initial report, countries that sign the treaty (known as States Parties) are supposed to submit reports to the UN Committee that monitors the Convention every four years. China has submitted three reports, the most recent of which was examined by the Committee in February 1999 in New York.

According to the Convention, government reports are supposed to give information on "legislative, judicial, administrative or other measures which they have adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention and on the progress made in this respect " as well as on "factors and difficulties affecting the degree of fulfillment of obligations" under the Convention.

The UN Committee monitoring CEDAW also accepts reports from non-governmental organisations. During the latter half of 1998, CLB cooperated with the two other Hong Kong labour groups, Asia Monitor Resource Centre and the Christian Industrial Committee as well as the Hong Kong office of Human Rights in China (HRIC), in writing sections of an entire shadow report produced by HRIC. These jointly produced sections concentrated on Articles 7 and 11 of CEDAW, addressing the areas of political representation and employment respectively.

Considering the serious problems of discrimination faced by many Chinese women across the country today, and the fact that women and girls have suffered disproportionately from the negative effects of government policies on the economy, health and population, the Chinese government's current report to the UN Committee is severely inadequate.

Dreams and Reality

The report is primarily a description of what the situation should be according to law, not of the reality of women's lives. In most cases, this is not due to a shortage of such information. This shadow report has been prepared by NGOs outside the mainland, but much of the information it contains comes from research and reporting by activists, journalists, academics and scholars published on the mainland, mostly openly in the Chinese media, books, journals or the All-China Women's Federation's (ACWF) own daily newspaper, China Women's News.

The disjuncture between the government's report and the degree of discussion within the country highlights the regrettable fact that many organisations and individuals from within China have not been permitted to participate in the review of the government's report. The government's report has not been circulated or even publicly acknowledged in the media in mainland China. Thus the occasion of the Chinese government's reporting to CEDAW has not been used, as it should be, as an opportunity to focus on the degree of implementation of the treaty in the PRC and publicly highlight the very real discriminatory problems faced by Chinese women.

"[T]he official release of partial data..... tends to highlight the positive aspects of women's political participation, while avoiding more uncomfortable data or interpretations."(1)

Political Participation Has Not Significantly Increased

While there are no legislative or constitutional barriers to women's participation in political and public life, a combination of a lack of representation of women in the highest organs of power in the state, political controls over association and the low priority given to women's needs and concerns means that in reality women's representation does not comply with the standards set out in the Convention (see box below).

Article Seven: Political and Public Life

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country, and in particular, shall ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right:

  • To vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies;

  • To participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government;

  • To participate in non-governmental organisations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country.

One Low, Three Small

Although the government report indicates that 33% of cadres are female, a survey by the official China Daily found that very few hold high-level posts, with the vast majority being local level officials. At county level and above, only 14% of officials are women and just three members of the 39-member State Council are women.(2) As an ACWF study put it, the situation of women in politics is "one low, three small," meaning that the overall number is low, while women at higher levels in top positions and key sectors is small. Furthermore, women cadres usually hold deputy positions (deputy major, deputy governor etc.), and the vast majority are in charge of aspects of work traditionally seen as in the women's sphere.(3)

Representation is even lower in the top levels of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which leads the Chinese state in all its endeavors and is effectively the supreme decision-making institution.(4) In the 1992 CCP Central Committee, women made up only 6.35% of full members, and 9.3% of alternate members. In the Central Committee elected by the 1997 CCP Congress, the proportion of female full members actually declined, making up 4.14% of the total, while female alternates rose slightly at 11.25%.

The 24-member 1997 CCP Politburo, the most important decision-making body in the PRC, contains only one woman, Wu Yi, who is one of two alternates, while its seven-member Standing Committee has no women at all, and never has done since the founding of the PRC.

Official studies have shown that most women cadres in leadership positions are involved with "women's work" through the All-China Women's Federation and its local branches. For example, more than 80% of women delegates to township-level people's congresses are directors or committee members of village women's congresses. This means that women are essentially confined to a particular sphere of work, and have few opportunities to gain experience in broader political issues, and thus to get promoted into higher-level posts.(5)

Women's Federation Bows to CCP Priorities

The ACWF is one of China's eight "mass organisations" set up soon after the CCP came to power in 1949. According to the government's report, the ACWF is

"widely regarded by the government and the people as the bridge bringing China's women population together."

If this somewhat ambiguous statement increasingly serves to confuse the formal role of the ACWF, other official definitions of the organisation's role serve to clarify. As with the ACFTU

"[the ACWF's] guiding policy is to unite and educate the broad mass of women and implement the basic line of the Party…"

Official documents state that the primary task of the organisation is "to implement government policies at all levels of society, from working women upwards."(7) With the leadership role of the Chinese Communist Party enshrined in China's 1982 Constitution, government policy is always an expression of the "basic Party line."

The report states that the ACWF is "China's largest NGO" which can "articulate in a timely fashion the views and aspirations of women." Yet both official and scholarly publications repeatedly stress that China's social organisations are not pressure groups, as their interests are "identical" to those of the authorities. A prime example of this is the fact that the ACWF was responsible for drafting the government's report to CEDAW currently under review.(8)

Theory aside, the problems arising from the dual and contradictory roles of representation and implementation of state policy are manifested in the ACWF's actual work. For example there is no doubt that the organisation has

"many dedicated local women's cadres [who] have worked hard to investigate and redress complaints of sex discrimination and abuse in the workplace, as well as reports of women being forced into prostitution."(9)

But at the same time

"the arbitrary power that these local ACWF cadres hold can lead to abuse. Incidents of forced sterilization have often been attributed to overzealous local ACWF cadres…"(10)

Their primary role in enforcing the state's population policy means that ACWF cadres are often unpopular figures in their communities.(11)

Structure of the ACWF

Since the Fourth ACWF Congress,(12) the organisation has held such meetings every five years and in the intervening years all decisions are taken by an executive committee. The ACWF has branches in all of China's 30 provinces as well as in 376 prefectures, 2,825 counties, 47,635 townships and 6,012 neighbourhoods. The ACWF's 80,000-90,000 cadres work mostly work as full-time staff paid by the state. However, in federations or committees below city-level, there are few full-time staff.

Below city level, if no local federation or committee exists, the ACWF is represented through Women's Congresses (funu daibiaohui) in rural areas and Women's Working Committees (fulianyuan hui) in the towns. Most of these committees and congresses are manned by poorly paid staff and volunteers.

In 1993, there were 835,904 Women's Congresses at village and neighbourhood level and 71,602 Women's Working Committees at the township level.(13) There are also women's committees in branches of the ACFTU where an enterprise or company has 50 or more women workers. These committees are also group members of the ACWF.

The majority of ACWF officials are Party members. For example a survey found that 78 % of 196 leading women's federation officials at county level in Suzhou were party members.(14) As one moves up the hierarchy of the ACWF this percentage increases.

Sisters Unite - and Improve Yourselves!

The last 20 years of economic reform have clarified the often-conflicting interests of women from different classes and sectors in Chinese society. However, the ACWF still tends to ignore these divisions and regards all women as having basically the same interests. All women are automatically members of the organisation thus negating the need for it to recruit actively. A practical example of the confusion of interests is demonstrated by the case of Wu Ziying, praised as the first migrant worker to serve on the Xiamen Women's Federation Executive Committee. However, Wu actually worked as a manager at a local joint venture company.(15)

Furthermore, unfortunately the ACWF has not challenged the misconception that it is somehow the "quality" of Chinese women that lies behind continuing discrimination and low levels of participation. In a recent speech, President Jiang urged women

"to study hard to improve their capabilities and skills. They must master Deng Xiaoping theory and the Party's policies in addition to general knowledge."(16)

The government report appears to go along with this stereotype stating that

Belittlement of and discrimination against women, even violation of their rights and interests, are not uncommon, and their quality as a whole needs further improvement."(17)

Straitjacket Laws on NGOs

The strength of the CCP's hold over women's representation has been further enhanced and formalised by laws and regulations passed since the brief flowering of autonomous organisations during the 1989 Democracy Movement.

There are no rules or laws that specifically outlaw the establishment of organisations, indeed China's 1982 Constitution states that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of association. However, by requiring all groups to register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs prior to operation, the Regulations on the Management and Registration of Social Groups (1998) aim to incorporate and therefore control all social groups wishing to organise.(18) Failure to register renders the organisation illegal and its initiators subject to prosecution. Before an application can even be filed, the group has to find a sponsor, which is a government body, and obtain approval from the relevant "professional leading organs." The presumption of these regulations is, in fact, against freedom of association, since there may be no activities of a group without registration.

The ACWF's monopoly is rounded off by a further provision of the 1998 Regulations, also contained in the 1989 version, which states "identical or similar social groups cannot be set up within the same administrative area" (Article 16) which effectively gives the department in charge of a particular issue -- the ACWF for example -- a monopoly over any activities in its field carried out by social groups, even those connected to other mass organisations or government departments.

Detailed regulations from the Ministry of Civil Affairs also strictly forbid all new organisations -- referred to as "social organisations" -- from being organised around gender.(19) Although women's organisations already in existence before 1989 have been allowed to continue to operate, new women's groups must be registered as "second-level" organisations within larger associations as well as being group members of the ACWF.(20)

Independent Women's Groups

Following the suppression of the 1989 Democracy Movement and ensuing 1989 Regulations there was considerable confusion regarding the process of registration with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Local implementation regulations have, if anything, further tightened the knot restricting the operation of independent groups. For example, the Shanghai authorities passed regulations in 1994, which required that even groups that had successfully found a sponsor had to notify their sponsors and the civil affairs department at least 15 days in advance of any major meeting.(21)

Although there has undoubtedly been an increase in the number of women's groups legally registered as "secondary organisations" this has only served to further reduce the space for women's groups who have not been able to register or who would rather operate outside these parameters.

It is also important to recognise the apprehension with which the government views "social groups" when it suspects them of refusing to accept the leadership of the Party and the consequent repression which it employs to deal with them. The official view is that freedom of association must operate within strict regulatory limits as only in this manner can the "minority of lawless illegal elements be prevented from using 'political pluralism' and the 'freedom of association' from plotting to oppose the socialist system."(22)

Yet there have been numerous examples of women's organisations trying to operate in a non-registered or partially registered limbo, many of which have ended up being closed down (see list below).

Independent Women Orgainisations Crushed

  1. In the early 1990s an informal women's salon of 20 people met regularly at the Beijing Institute of Geology until the police closed it down. A similar women's salon at the Beijing Languages Institute had to stop inviting outside guests after warnings from the police.

  2. In 1996 a privately financed shelter for battered women in Shanghai was closed down soon after it opened. An investigation team which included ACWF representatives justified the shutdown on account of unspecified "financial irregularities," the international media attention the shelter had attracted, and that it was "inappropriate" for such a center to be run by private individuals.

  3. In 1993 an application from a social group seeking to lobby the Japanese government for compensation for Chinese "comfort women" in World War II was rejected with no reason given.

  4. In 1995 the Zhengzhou International Women's College-the first women's studies centre in China-was shut down for undisclosed reasons. The Chinese Women's Museum associated with the college had been closed the previous year on the grounds that the museum's presentation of women's history was not in keeping with the CCP interpretation of women's history.

The continuing efforts of women to organise independently and escape the control of official organisations such as the ACWF indicate that there is significant dissatisfaction with the work and policies of the ACWF. Where there have been independent surveys on this question the results back up such a conclusion. For example, a survey carried out in 1992 in the cities of Shenyang and Nantong found that 46% of interviewees expressed the need for a new women's organisation and 56.4% said they would join such an organisation if one was established. Although they have been subject to constant propaganda on how the ACWF works for women, only 54% of the interviewees felt that the ACWF played a very important role in representing women's interests.(23)

ACFTU: As Above

Although the ACFTU is not directly mentioned in the government's report, it is considered by the Chinese government as a major organisation for representing the interests of women in the work place.(24)

The ACFTU is a profoundly hierarchical and undemocratic organisation, which operates under the direct leadership of the CCP. Key officials, especially at the provincial and national levels, are appointed by the Party and their work must always: "resolutely uphold the unitary leadership of the CCP".(25)

The Trade Union Law (1992) ensures that the ACFTU enjoys a strict legal monopoly on organising in the workplace. Articles 12 and 13 stipulate that the formation of any new union branch or organisation requires the prior approval of the higher-level trade union organisation. This, as the imprisonment of many who have tried, effectively rules out any union organisation -- representing female or male workers -- that attempts to operate outside the parameters of the ACFTU and independent of the CCP leadership.

In 1994 the chair of the ACFTU's Women Workers' Committee Xue Zhaojun pointed out

"The specific needs of trade union work concerning women workers should be carried out in the context of the overall need of the party and the state."(26)

Where there are more than 50 female union members in an enterprise or work unit, the ACFTU is obliged to set up a Women Workers' Committee (WWC). The work of the committee is to ensure that the "special characteristics" of women workers are taken into account. The union claims that through these committees the organisation and representation of women workers is "relatively independent" and,

"Because there are a number of specific biological and psychological problems facing women at work, a women's organisation is required which can independently find solutions to these problems."(27)

Each WWC is responsible to the leadership of the local trade union branch, which in turn is responsible to the next level up. All levels operate under the Party's leadership and when there is a conflict of interest, either specific or general, the interest of the Party comes first.

Weak and Ineffectual State Machinery

According to the government report, the main central government body responsible for policy on women is the Working Committee on Women and Children (WCWC) under the State Council, which plays a coordinating role between different departments. However, there is little evidence the institution has much impact on government policy. The WCWC is reportedly not considered very important in the hierarchy of departments, and its regular meetings are rarely attended by any official above vice-ministerial rank.

The involvement of the ACWF in the WCWC does provide some limited channels for input into government decision-making, but the WCWC has not been entrusted with tasks such as law drafting, and its (and the ACWF's, by extension) influence on such processes has thus only been indirect.

Furthermore, the scope of the "undertakings" and "services" the government's report claims this body provides is doubtful considering its annual budget of Rmb 4 million (US$500,000)(28)
and the number of women and children in China. Most of this budget is reportedly spent on maintaining the WCWC office.

Counterparts of the WCWC, variously named Commission for the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women and Women and Children Work Commission, have been set up in all province-level government departments.(29) Most such departments are located in the provincial women's federation, although in a few cases, they are situated in the main office of the local government. Only three such provincial commissions have any full-time government staff,(30) while the rest have to rely on staff seconded from the women's federation or other departments.

As well as personnel, these mechanisms are generally short of funds, with some receiving no government allocation at all. In 1996, seven province-level administrations --Hebei, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Henan, Anhui, Hunan and Sichuan --reportedly did not allocate any government funds for the operation of such commissions. In the latter four, most of the expenses for the commissions' offices were covered by provincial women's federations. For those areas where governments did provide finances, the level of funding varied enormously. At the lower end of the scale, Tianjin allocated Rmb 30,000, while on the higher end, Tibet apportioned Rmb 500,000, and Shanghai Rmb 1.2 million. Most province-level administrations contributed between Rmb 100,000 and 200,000.(31)


Although the Chinese government has made repeated commitments to equality for women and has enacted laws and formulated policies aimed at implementing those commitments, all too often in practice women's rights are quietly sacrificed in favor of other goals: "efficiency", attracting foreign investment, restructuring, social harmony and so on.

In effect the government has blamed women for their own predicament. They are repeatedly exhorted to "improve their quality." Article 6 of the Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests (LPWRI) is a prime example. It provides that

"the state shall encourage women to cultivate a sense of self-respect, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-strengthening"

and that

"women shall abide by the laws of the state, respect social morality and perform their obligations prescribed by law."

This implies that discrimination against women is caused by their lack of self- respect, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-strengthening. Received wisdom about women employees being less capable than men, costing employers more and having less education is repeated again and again by government officials.

(The following are questions and recommendations directed to the Chinese government in our joint report)

Questions to ask the Chinese government representatives:

  • Please provide the most recent statistics on the number of women who hold posts in the government and the Chinese Communist Party, broken down into the following categories: in each province-level administration, by large city, city below 200,000 population and rural areas; which government departments they work for, including the Women's Federation; and how many women are in leadership positions, such as governors, vice-governors, mayors, vice-mayors, first Party secretaries, deputy Party secretaries, heads of village committees etc.

  • Can the government provide the Committee with the results of the survey of women cadres conducted by the ACWF in 1997 mentioned in the government's report?(32) What were the main findings? What action did the government take in response?

  • Please provide information about specific actions taken by the ACFTU to protect the rights of women workers, to redress discrimination against women and to prevent further discrimination.

  • Why has the Chinese government closed down women's organisations such as those mentioned above? Why does the government not permit women's organisations that are not sponsored by the ACWF to exist?


The Chinese government should:

  • Ratify ILO Conventions 87 and 98 and reintroduce the right to strike into the Chinese Constitution.

  • Ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as its two optional protocols, at the earliest possible date, without reservations, and proceed to implement the two treaties.

  • Repeal all sections of the Regulations on the Management and Registration of Social Groups (1998) which prevent women from organising independently, including articles requiring registration and government sponsorship of all associations; in particular, eliminate the monopoly rule which allows only one organisation in one area of work, and thus allows the ACWF to block the formation of new groups representing women.

  • Release all women held in custody for exercising their right to form associations, to free expression and to peaceful assembly, whether to represent the interests of women in society or for other objectives.

  • Repeal Articles 12 and 13 of the Trade Union Law.(33)

  • Repeal or amend all current laws that allow for abridgement of rights guaranteed in Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, namely the "freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration." Any relevant new laws should be drafted to embody full respect for these rights and freedoms.


(1) Stanley Rosen, "Women and political participation in China," Pacific Affairs, No. 68, Fall 1995.

(2) "Way to greater liberation for women 'through party'," South China Morning Post, September 12, 1998.

(3) Rosen, "Women and political participation in China," citing various studies by the ACWF and academics in China.

(4)The Preamble to China's 1982 Constitution enshrines four "basic principles" to which the people and the nation are to adhere: the leadership of the CCP, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, the people's democratic dictatorship and the socialist road.

(5) Rosen, "Women and political participation in China."

(6)Emphasis added. Wang Sibin et al, Social Welfare (China Books, 1998), p.136.

(7) Ibid, p.138.

(8) "Way to greater liberation for women 'through party'," South China Morning Post, September 12, 1998.

(9) Kris Torgeson, "Speaking for Chinese Women," China Rights Forum, Winter 1994.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Rosen, "Women and political participation in China."

(12) During the Cultural Revolution all the ACWF was judged a counter-revolutionary organisation and forced into non-activity. It was officially revived in September 1978 when it held its Fourth National Congress.

(13) Xu Weihua, "The Women's Federation and its Role in Protecting Women's Rights and Interests," in Human Rights, Chinese and Canadian Perspectives, edited by E.P. Mendes and A.M. Traeholt (Human Rights Resource and Education Centre, University of Ottawa 1997), p.476.

(14)"Reflections on the participation of basic-level women's federations in the political organs of Suzhou City," China Women's News, January 1991, p.20-21.

(15)"Female migrant worker elected to city women's federation committee," Special Economic Zone Workers Daily, January 22, 1995.

(16)"Way to greater liberation for women 'through party' ", South China Morning Post, September 12, 1998.

(17)CEDAW/C/CHN/3-4, p.3. Emphasis added.

(18)These regulations superceded ones of the same name enacted in October 1989. While both have similar registration procedures, the 1998 version is considerably more restrictive, since, for example, it bars individuals who have ever been "deprived of their political rights" as part of a criminal sentence from setting up or acting as officers of associations or non-profit entities; and it removes any right of appeal against decisions of the registration authorities. See Human Rights in China, "Bound and gagged: freedom of association in China further curtailed under new regulations," November 13, 1998.

(19)Gordon White, Jude Howell and Shang Xiaoyuan, In Search of Civil Society: Market Reform and Social Change in Contemporary China (Clarendon Press, 1996).

(20) For example, the Chinese Women and Technical Workers' Association is a group member of the ACWF as well as being a "linked unit" of the Science and Technology Association.

(21)Human Rights in China, China: Social Groups Seek Independence in Regulatory Cage, September 1997.

(22) Research on China's Social Groups (China Society Publishing House, 1992), p.128.

(23)White, In Search of Civil Society.

(24)However, like the ACWF this task is complicated by the fact that the Chinese government refuses to recognises the existence of class differences in China. According to the ACFTU, China has "no exploiting class" but "differences still exist among the working classes and peasant classes." See "Trade Union Theory and Practice," in An Encyclopedia of Trade Union Work (Haiyang Publishing House, 1992).

(25)ACFTU, Opinion on the ACFTU's Implementation of the Circular on the Strengthening and Improvement of the Leadership of the CCP in the Work of Trade Unions, the Communist Youth League and the ACWF, October 15, 1990, quoted in Workers Waiting for Work-And a Representative Union (China Labour Education and Information Centre, 1995), p.3.

(26) China Labour Education and Information Centre, Women Workers in China, 1995. p23

(27) Ibid.

(28) Figure provided by ACWF to Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) in 1997 for publication, Mapping Progress: Assessing Implementation of the Beijing Platform 1998 (WEDO, 1998).

(29) Four cities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing) are counted as province-level administrations, as well as the three autonomous regions of Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.

(30) According to a November 1996 report in China Women's News, there are 15 staff in Yunnan Province and four each in Guangxi and Heilongjiang.

(31) Ibid.

(32) CEDAW/C/CHN/3-4, Add.1, p.12.

(33) Articles that restrict the right to organise a trade union independently of the ACFTU


Online: 31-08-1999

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