On June 24, as I sat in Texas and grieved the loss of my abortion rights, my friends in China were trying to find out if four women brutally assaulted by a group of men in Tangshan earlier this month were still alive or out of the hospital.
As I was looking for the closest abortion center left to me, my friends in China were discussing in WeChat groups the most effective way to defend yourself when attacked and how to purchase pepper spray, as this keyword can no longer be searched for on the shopping site Taobao.
When I marched from the federal courthouse square to the Texas state capitol with thousands of people chanting, “my body, my choice,” my friends in China were posting about the lack of transparency over the Tangshan incident, the chained women in China, and many other similar cases.
And as I was finally taking a moment to digest the impact of the news, I received a text message from my graduate school friend Zoe, another Chinese immigrant who currently lives in California: “When I was in elementary school, I wouldn’t believe that when I was in my 30s, the No. 1 country in the world would not allow abortion.”
On both sides of the Pacific, women’s bodies and rights are under assault—from the state and from men empowered by the misogyny of the state. I grew up in China when the one-child policy was mandatory. This policy was implemented in 1980, when the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party published a letter advocating for a couple to have only one child. On Oct. 29, 2015, the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee announced that a couple can have two children, officially ending this policy—for women in Han-majority areas, at least. Forced sterilizations and abortions continue in Xinjiang, targeting ethnic minorities who were previously given exemptions to the one-child policy.
When I was little, I remember seeing the red “one-child certificate” that had to be presented when my parents registered me for elementary school. The slogan “Match late, hatch late, fewer births, better births,” was printed on newspapers, billboards, and walls. (The phrase I’ve translated as “better births” is also the term for “eugenics” in Chinese.) Almost all my childhood friends were the only child of their families, except a boy, who had a younger brother, and his family paid penalties—under the name of a “social support fee”—for having more than one kid.
I never questioned the morals behind this policy, until one day I was sick in the hospital and overheard the doctor pulling my mother aside and telling her she might meet the requirements to have another child. According to the regulations, as part of “necessary eugenic guidance and services,” families whose first child had a physical disability could apply to have another child after medical examinations. I still grew into a healthy adult, and my mother never had a second child, but the doctor’s words stuck with me for years. It felt wrong that women couldn’t control their bodies and couldn’t decide how many children they wanted, having to rely on laws and regulations and doctors’ examinations and government approval.
The policy led to many forced abortions and forced sterilizations. Some Chinese families abandoned female babies in the hope that they could give birth to male babies in the future—such as a friend’s sister, who was adopted into an American family. Others intentionally aborted female babies—revealing the sex of a fetus was illegal under Chinese law, but it was easy to bribe a doctor to do so. As a result, in China today, there are 30 million more men than women.
While reproductive rights—save for those of Uyghurs and other targeted minorities—have improved under recent policy, the picture for women in China is bleak as a whole. I was lucky enough to born into in an era when Mao Zedong’s dictum that “women hold up half the sky” was frequently mentioned. My mother and both of my grandmothers had the chance to receive higher education, and they all worked until retirement. But patriarchy has come roaring back. In 1990, Chinese urban women’s wages were 78 percent of men’s. By 2010, this rate had dropped to 67 percent. By 2021, this rate had risen again to 77.1 percent, still short of where it stood three decades ago. But that recovery is coming partially because women are dropping out of the labor force: Their labor force participation rate dropped from more than 70 percent in the 1990s to 59.8 percent in 2020.
Hiring discrimination plays a big part of this, with job ads showing a clear preference for men. While this is nominally illegal, the law is not enforced—even for government jobs. In 2021’s civil service entrance examination, excluding jobs at the tax bureau, among the remaining 5,776 open positions, 35 percent of them stated a preference for men, while only 5 percent stated a preference for women. By the end of May this year, 22 percent of male graduates and only 10 percent of female graduates had signed an employment contract.
And while most women now have the right to choose how many children they wish to have, there’s no guarantee that will last. It’s a matter of temporary regulation, not rights—and demographic fears may well push the government to an openly natalist position. If that happens, there will be little ability for women to resist in any organized fashion: The government deeply fears feminism and regularly targets it in crackdowns. In 2015, five Chinese feminists were detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and creating a disturbance,” one day before International Women’s Day. Innumerable feminists’ accounts have been banned on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, and Douban.
Investigating individual abuses is equally dangerous. This January, a video showing a woman being chained to a wall by her neck went viral on China’s internet. After discovering that the woman is a mother of eight in a rural village in Jiangsu, netizens started to suspect she was a victim of human trafficking. Due to strict censorship, Chinese media were not able to provide any in-depth investigation into this incident, and Guo Min, a former reporter who independently investigated it, was summoned by the police and was ordered to not comment on this issue or receive any interviews. Another volunteer, who uses the online pseudonym Wuyi, attempted to help the woman and detained twice. Wuyi has still not been released, while people who spoke in support of her had their Weibo accounts banned.
After the assault in Tangshan, multiple reporters were stopped when trying to get into the city, and some of them were detained by police. Online, the government attempted to switch the conversation to a crackdown on crime, closing feminist accounts blamed for “inciting gender divisions.”
In 2019, when I received an offer from a start-up company in China and was debating whether to move back to my home country, the assault on gender equality in China was one of the biggest reasons that I stayed in the United States. During my interview process with the Chinese firm, human resources asked about my marital status and whether I planned to have children right after I joined the team—both normal practices in China.
I still don’t regret my decision. But the overturning of Roe v. Wade is definitely a wake-up call, reminding me that the United States, a county that I and many other Chinese thought of as “the lighthouse of democracy,” is not as perfect as I thought it was. I came to this country for its liberty and freedom, and I now feel sadness, disappointment, and despair.
When the attorney general of Texas tweeted that “abortion is now illegal in Texas,” the discomfort I felt when I overheard the doctor telling my mom she might qualify to have a second child, and the sense of invasion I felt when HR wanted me to promise that I wouldn’t be pregnant within the first three years of my employment, flooded back to me. It just felt wrong.
But unlike in China, where my friends are at best limited to posting angrily online, I at least had the chance to fight back. I went out onto the streets to protest, joining thousands of other women in 100-degree heat a few hours after the decision. We chanted, “My body, my choice” together, with men echoing, “Her body, her choice.” I saw old women reassuring young ones that they were still in the fight. I sunk into this moment of solidarity and realized that I had to keep fighting.
And I remembered the words of one of my friends, a Ph.D. student in China. She said that she, too, wanted to leave for the West one day—but that part of her felt if she left China, she was throwing away her chance to help make China a better place.