Women’s Rights and Empowerment in China with Liu Meng
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Waves of women’s movements have spread across the world, and China is no exception. The country is home to more than 687 million women and girls.
And yet, China passed its first law specifically targeting domestic violence in 2015. The U.S.-China Nexus spoke with Liu Meng about how she came to research and study issues related to family violence and women’s rights, and how bolstering cross-cultural competency and increased access to translated materials can help support a shared, global goal of empowering women.
Eleanor Albert: Today our guest is Liu Meng. Liu Meng is the dean of the School of Law and Politics at Zhejiang Normal University. You are also vice president of the China Association of Social Work Education, a national representative for China and board member of the International Association of School of Social Work, as well as Executive President of Zhejiang Association of Social Workers.
Your research interests include family violence, women’s welfare policy, the indigenization of social work in China, trafficking of women and children, and interventions for vulnerable women, including migrants and ethnic minorities and divorced, or unemployed women. Additionally, your work helped in drafting China’s first domestic violence law. You also previously served as the vice president of China Women’s University (CWU). Liu Meng. Welcome to the show.
Liu Meng: Thank you.
Eleanor Albert: I was wondering if you could start off by telling us a little bit about your background, how you became aware of feminist movements and how you came to study this intersection of women in society, and also how you became an advocate for the rights of women and children. Did the United States and any other global movements factor into where you are now and the work that you do?
Liu Meng: Well, I think my personal background is a little bit unique. When I say unique, it means that in China, I was brought up in a one child family because it's rare for my age. I am the only child in the family, and my father is civil servant and my mother is a doctor. So I don't think it's a well off family, but I think it is economically good family. So I was brought up in a family with resources, for access to education. And I'm very gratitude to my mother because she is the first person that constantly told me that women should be independent economically.
And so I think that was the earliest idea for women, I got from my mother. And when I went to the university, I took English major. And I think the language capacity provided me a wonderful tool at that time to have access to the international, the foreign countries, and different kinds of information. And then I did my first master degree in French history. So, I learned French for three years and I think French opened another window for me, it’s something like liberty, the democratic stuff. And then after that, I got a job in China Women’s University, and I taught the history of international women’s movements. So from that time, I started to get information about the feminism and also the early feminist activists in France, in the United States and even in the UK. So I think that’s the knowledge preparation for me. And I think China Women’s University also provided a very big platform for me to expose to international exchange. From there I started to pay attention to women’s issues because as a women’s university, gender studies is the major or core discipline in the university.
And also I think the biggest impact is from the 1995 World Conference in Beijing. I think the conference encouraged me to be actively involved in women's rights protection because during the preparation for the conference, the Chinese government and all China Women's Federation, they send out small groups to the regional preparative forum, to the America, to Europe, to Africa, to other Asian countries. And I was very lucky. I went to Finland for Nordic forum. And from there, I come across with some sessions on family violence. And before that, family violence, the term started to appear in China in 1987.
And then in 1991, there is a Sino-U.S. Women's Conference held in Beijing. And at that conference, personally, I first heard the term of domestic violence. And I went to some of the sessions, which discussed in details about the family violence, the theoretically, intervention, advocacy. And I was very, very curious about it because at that time, even in my mind, I believe that it is a marital act because during my childhood, I think my neighbors fought every day, but fortunately I never saw my parents fight. And my family, it's a happy one, but neighbors, friends, colleagues, we thought it was a marital act.
So I was very, very curious. What's the implications for that? Why do people conduct the research on these kind of things? I think it's common. It's part of daily life. And when I went to some of the sessions, I suddenly realized that it is something serious, because at that time I didn't have any knowledge background for that. But when I went to Finland for the Nordic forum, I went to different sessions and certainly realized that it is something very, very serious. And I went to the sessions for the counseling for the victims and also the treatment program for the perpetrators. And also the policy advocacy, I suddenly realized that it is a very important new area that should catch attention from the academia.
And at the same time, I got a chance to apply for a PhD scholarship in Hong Kong University. And I selected the topic of domestic violence as my research topic. I spent four years in Hong Kong University and in 1999, I got my PhD and I came back to China and still teach in China Women's University. And then I joined a big research team. This team was funded by UNDP, Ford Foundation, Canadian CEDAW, Swedish CEDAW, and some other international organizations.
It is a really a big research team. I think the team consisted of more than like 80 to 90 scholars. And we worked on the survey on the prevalence of domestic violence in China. And we conducted community intervention programs with domestic violence in rural and urban community in Beijing. And also we compiled the training manuals. And also we have a special group that worked on the oral history of the victims of domestic violence, because at that time, a lot of victims were reluctant to stand out, to speak, but the team successfully found some of the victims who were willing to speak out. They published a whole book on oral history of the victims.
And also we have another team worked on the media watch. I think that was fantastic because they trained that the journalists, especially when they reported the case of domestic violence to avoid victim blaming, revictimization. And also we have a team working on the legislative research because at that time, we do have the law of safeguarding women's rights and the interests. It was there, but there is no punishment, there is no definition. It's not actually anti-family violence law. So we have a group working on the legislative research. And I think this project is the beginning of promoting and advocating for protecting survivors of domestic violence in China. And at last China enacted the anti-family violence law in 2015.
Eleanor Albert: It's really important work, because these are such individualized experiences, but that end up having really profound effects on society at large. I'm curious from your standpoint, if you've seen a big shift in China, in regards to opinions towards domestic violence and women's rights over time, obviously, you've been researching this for a while now. What are some of the things that have created change from the Chinese perspective?
Liu Meng: From my own observation, I think great changes have taken place in China, especially in the public attitudes to domestic violence and also public cognition of domestic violence in China. And I think I can see the differences before and after 2010. I can tell you some stories. In 1995, I went to do my PhD in Hong Kong University, and I need to collect data, coming back to the mainland China. And I went to Beijing. I tried to find some of the survivors of domestic violence because at that time we did have some hotlines. And my colleagues in China Women's University, they provide some counseling to the survivors.
And when I told them that I was doing research on domestic violence and they just responded very quickly that “I didn't have any violence.” And they denied that they suffered from violence and they say, "I'm not going to tell you my story. I want to stay in marriage." Because it was a shame to tell other people that my family issues, it’s bad.
Later, I changed my strategy. I just tell my interview, I want to study the marital conflict and they accepted that term instead of domestic violence. So I think at that time people's attitude or cognition of domestic violence was just like that.
And also I can tell you another story. I have a friend who worked together with us in the research team and she had a close friend suffered from her husband's abuse. And my friend encouraged her to report it to the police. And the police came and the police told the husband that "I'm not coming to mediate your couple's issues. You can't make so much noise to bother your neighbors." So the police is coming to protect the rights of the neighbors, not the victim. At that time, because they believe it has nothing to do with law and it is not their duty to protect the couple because they are couple. Couples fighting are very common, nothing strange.
And nowadays, especially from the mass media, because we do have some scholars did the case news report analysis to see the changes of the people's attitude or the cognition of domestic violence. And I read one of the reports a couple of days ago, and I think more and more women would step out for calling the police, seeking help from the Women's Federation or even some of the hotlines. And nowadays in China, we have a lot of social service agencies providing professional service to women and the children, and some even bring their cases to court. They will sue for divorce once there is a family violence happen in the family.
We do have a program on the training for the policemen, for the judges, for the lawyers, to be sensitive to how to respond to domestic violence cases. So I feel now this, that the whole society is more and the more sensitive to the issue. I think there are a couple factors that attributed to this tremendous change.
I think the most important impact is from the World Conference on Women in China. I think the conference not only brought in a lot of new concepts, like violation of women's rights, empowerment, the power and the control. So I think this is the most important part of consciousness raising, first for the scholars and activists, and then the professionals and then the public.And also another factor, there are many women's organizations funded by international organizations. They implemented a lot of projects on community education to raise the public consciousness.
And also we do have some wonderful court practices, some of the lawyers will do some cases for the public interests. Some serious cases of domestic violence were brought to court and the perpetrators were sentenced to prison. So I think these kind of cases demonstrated that domestic violence is a violation of law.
And the last but not least, All China Women's Federation is a national women's organization. They have a national network all over the country. I just finished the research project on the Chinese practice of intervention with domestic violence in the past 25 years. And from the research, I found that in different areas, Women's Federation provided services to women that promoted a multi-agency collaboration in responding to domestic violence, and also they made great contribution to the service model development. And also they promoted the legislative process of the anti-family violence law. They played a very important role because they organized the expert group to draft the law. And also they lobbied the national consultation representative. And also it was finally accepted by the People's National Consultation.
And this is a top-down approach, which I think proves to be very effective in China because legislation serves a huge platform for relevant changes in different areas. I think it's the Chinese way. We have the legislation and then the implementation will be legally because previously one of the biggest challenges for the service provision in China is that they didn't have a law or legislation to follow. So the anti-family violence law serves as a huge platform for many, many relevant changes in the prevention, in the intervention, and even in the treatment for the perpetrators.
Eleanor Albert: I think that's such an interesting perspective to bring into this from the Chinese perspective and to know how that has evolved. You touched upon a bit of the history of U.S.-China, and also China's engagement with other countries when it came to these issues. But I wonder if you had to characterize the state of current Sino-American exchanges, as it relates to consultations on women's issues, where do we stand?
Liu Meng: Well, I must admit that I'm not an expert on U.S.-China relations because my major just is on social work. So it's really hard for me to judge, but I believe that no matter how tough or how many barriers for the high level dialogue between China and the U.S., I think it is still the same for the academia to make great efforts, both in research and in advocacy and on women's issues. Because as women, especially during the pandemic time, we are facing similar challenges and difficulties, for instance, the economic challenges, the burden of housework and the childcare, and also the under-representation in decision making, so on and so forth. So I think sharing with, and the learning from each other will stay the same.
If you ask me to use two or three words that I should say about the collaboration between scholars on women's issues, I should say, “move forward toughly.” I think we may encounter different barriers, but women scholars in both countries are very clear about our common goal, that is we are working hard to strive for a better, more equal and nicer world.
Eleanor Albert: You talked about some of your previous work and your research groups receiving external funding from organizations like the Ford Foundation and from Canadian and Swedish organizations, are these sources of support still available? Have they been politicized at all? I know there have been issues in various other fields with civil society groups, as it relates to foreign NGOs, is there any contraction in the openness to engage on these issues?
Liu Meng: The international organization's funding is still there because, well, I think because I personally, I didn't have a lot of chance to apply for those international organizations, because previously when I worked in China Women's University, I had a lot of administrative duties. But still, I believe we still have the international organizations funding, for instance, the UNDP, I do think Ford Foundation is still there, and also the World Bank and some other organizations.
Eleanor Albert: Are there also Chinese sources of funding? Is there an appetite domestically to invest in this type of research?
Liu Meng: Yeah, we do have that because we have the National Fund for Social Sciences. And also we do have some foundations, Chinese local foundations to provide fund to do research. Because in China, the system works like this, the central government will enact the anti-family violence law, and for every province, they will enact their own procedures for how to implement the law. So for many provinces, they provide funding for scholars to do the research. The research findings will be the policy suggestions or the implications for how to implement the law. So I think nowadays the research funding is very diverse in China.
Eleanor Albert: I wanted to talk about the anti-domestic violence or anti-family violence law, the passage of that must have been such a tremendous milestone in your career. A few years on, what impact do you think the legislation is having on Chinese society? How do you see the societal standing of women relating to China's greater national development goals?
Liu Meng: Well, in China, we have the development program, the government would develop the program for 10 years. I think for the previous 10 years passing the law or improving the wellbeing of women is one of the goals for that program. So passing the law is part of the implementation or the outcome of the program. I should frame the anti-family violence practice or movement is part of the international women's movement. We can see that all the countries, including China, is making slow progress towards the goals of the Beijing Declaration and action plan. So I think it's part of the international women's movement, or it's part of the empowerment of women.
Eleanor Albert: On this international dimension, there's of course been the Me Too Movement that has spread from the U.S. and beyond, including to China. There have been a lot of really politicized cases, some of which have gone through a legal process, some of which are ongoing. And I was just kind of curious what the appetite was for having cross border conversations and consultations about how to push forward additional requests for protecting women's rights and their standing in society?
Liu Meng: Well, I think the climate in China it's very open because I think we pay attention to promoting women's rights based on the law. So I think if it is legally, I don't think it's an issue or it's a debate. Of course, in China, we have the problem of that something which is beyond the law. So that might need some advocacy work. But if the cases have some legal basis, or it is within the national legal framework, I don't think it's a problem.
Eleanor Albert: Would you say that the protections around the legal framework for sexual harassment issues are still in the process of working themselves out? This is not something unique to any place, but it seems like perhaps there's more work to be done in terms of sexual harassment and perhaps the process might still be ongoing. It seemed that the domestic violence or anti-family violence law took a long time to finally have the boundaries of the both top down from the party, but then as well, the provincial systems also have to build up their way to implement some of these things.
Liu Meng: I think so. Because for the sexual harassment, I don't think it's in the legislation. I think that we have an act for anti-sexual harassment. And of course, I think in practice, we do have some barriers like how to provide the proof, the evidence, I think it's a global challenge. And I think the revision or improvement of implementation is a long way. Just like when we advocate for the anti-family violence law, I think it's more than 20 years.
Eleanor Albert: Do you see any obstacles or stumbling blocks to having more exchange and cooperation or consultation between U.S. and Chinese communities on implementation of some of these issues, what are some challenges? And on the other side what kind of steps would you recommend to remedy some of these obstacles?
Liu Meng: Before and after world conference, I think one of the blocks is the language barrier, because at that time we did have a lot of translated materials. Language barrier, especially for the older generation is a big challenge. I think on both party, because fluency in English or in Chinese is a little bit difficult. At that time, it was more accessible to the foreign language information. But nowadays I don't think we have similar convenience as that time. So I think this is the biggest challenge.
Because when I invite some of the scholars to join us, U.S.-China dialogue research group, the first question they ask is that, do you have any translation? So I think that will be big technical block.
Another significant block might be the different academic discourse systems in both countries. In social work term, we just call it cultural competency. I think that's very important because lack of cultural competency makes it hard to understand what happens in other country. So it's hard to have dialogue because we don't know what you are, where you are standing. So it's not easy for us to communicate.
I think the cultural competence is a significant block. So I think we need to be familiar with both systems and also to be sensitive to the differences, as well as the similarities between China and the U.S. so that we can communicate more fluently and effectively. Sometimes when I talk to my colleagues, I found they would like to use one side system or our own cultural practice to understand the other side. I think this probably will result in misunderstanding. So I think cultural competency is essential to effective communication and collaboration. Because if the Chinese scholar have more access to the information, to the new ideas, it's easier for them to be part of it.
Eleanor Albert: So prioritizing translation of materials and increasing cultural competency. I was wondering if you had any mechanisms that you thought are from your own experiences are particularly powerful in enhancing cultural competency and what they would be if we could recommend how we can implement more of that?
Liu Meng: Well, I think running small seminars is a wonderful way or symposium. Maybe symposium is more powerful because sitting together, sharing each other's experiences. And of course, reading is also a wonderful way because the more you read, the better knowledgeable you will be and sitting together for reflection, review and discussion, I think will be a wonderful way. And also, I think maybe we have regular meeting or regular brainstorming will be, all those kind of things will be effective I think, because I'm a professor of social work and I run some groups for women. So I think this kind of things, it's mutual learning, mutual support and a mutual understanding.