In March this year, on the eve of International Women’s Day, five Chinese feminist-activists were detained on suspicion of ‘picking quarrels and creating a disturbance’ after it was discovered that they were planning to distribute stickers and slogans highlighting sexual violence. Their plight caused outrage around the world and they were released from detention after thirty-seven days, but remain under investigation and may still faces charges.

Some of the group’s previous activism has been widely shared on Chinese social media and they’ve subsequently become quite well-known. In 2012, three of the women marched through the streets of Beijing wearing wedding gowns splattered with fake blood, holding placards and chanting, ‘Love is not an excuse for violence.’

The unofficial leader of the group, twenty-five year old Li Tingting, also organised the Occupy Men’s Room campaign, which sought to highlight the lack of adequate public facilities for women. In Beijing and Guangzhou around twenty women politely asked men to wait outside while they occupied public bathrooms for a few minutes. They chanted slogans and carried signs that read: ‘love women, starting with convenience’ and ‘the more convenience, the more sexual equality.’ (In Chinese, ‘convenience’ also means ‘to use a toilet.’)

Their recent imprisonment on trumped-up charges is a reminder that China, despite modernising and playing an increasingly significant role in international affairs, still regards the rule of law as a reform too far – a Western construct that (at the moment, at least) would simply hamper growth and development.

However, there are signs that things are changing. The American historian, Howard Zinn, said that the great moments that enter the historical record are only brought about by ‘the countless small actions of unknown people.’ No where is this more true than in China, and one can’t help but be encouraged by the brave activism of Li Tingting and her fellow feminists.

In an interview with the Washington Post after her release, Li said that she wants to be the country’s first openly lesbian lawyer. This seems an odd career path for someone who’s been so monumentally let down by the justice system.

However, two recent high-profile domestic violence cases have brought the issue to the fore of public debate and led the Communist Party to announce that they will pass the country’s first domestic violence laws.

The first case involved an American woman, Kim Lee, who won a legal battle to obtain a divorce from her celebrity husband, the founder of the Crazy English learning programme, Li Yang. After a particularly brutal assault in August 2011, Lee went to the police still bloodied and bruised to report her husband’s crimes. The police tried to turn here away, saying that it was a personal matter, not a criminal one. They eventually took a report from Lee, only for it to ‘go missing.’

With nowhere else to turn, she posted photos of her injuries of Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. The images went viral and forced the hand of authorities. Eighteen months later she had been granted a divorce and the court ordered Li to pay $1.9 million in alimony and compensation. The case was well-pubicised and the landmark victory forced the public to confront an issue that’s rarely spoken about.

The other case had a far more tragic outcome. In Sichuan province, for years Li Yan’s husbanded subjected her to extreme violence that often bordered on torture. On top of the regular assaults, he burnt her face with cigarettes and chopped off part of one her fingers. In November 2010, after being attacked by her husband again, Li fought back, using a nearby air rifle that he’d threatened to use to kill her to beat him to death. She was originally sentenced to death, but in a rare reversal the Supreme Court commuted her sentence to life in prison. It is, perhaps, a reflection of how patently unjust the legal system is that Amnesty International considered this a victory of sorts.

These two cases have forced the Communist Party to act and be seen to be making an effort to tackle a problem that many believe is endemic, especially in rural areas (reliable statistics remain elusive, however). The focus of the new legislation is to give victims of violence redress and protection: restraining orders will be introduced and local governments will establish shelters, which are currently almost non-existent throughout China.

Some legal experts have criticised the legislation for not going far enough. They have suggested that there should be more emphasis on health and social services and point out that there’s no law against marital rape.

The more significant challenge facing China though, is changing entrenched cultural and social attitudes, which, until now, President Xi Jinping has shown little interest in.

*

The arbitrary detention of Li Tingtying and her fellow activists is another example of Xi’s continued crackdown on civil society: since coming to power in March 2013 he has repressed dissent and opposition more aggressively than any of his recent predecessors. This has led many commentators to label him Maoist, which is somewhat misleading. He does sometimes draw on Mao-style nationalism to unite the country, even quoting him directly, but there are some significant difference between the revolutionary leader and Xi.

On the issue of women’s rights, for example, the current situation is worse than during Mao’s rule. That’s a sobering thought: for all the talk of ‘China’s economic miracle’, women were less oppressed sixty years ago than they are today.

In some respects this is not surprising. Mao Zedong, for all his flaws, was essentially a utopian who believed unequivocally that socialism offered the Chinese people great hope and promise. He studied the foundational texts and adapted Marxist-Leninism to a form that he thought best-suited his country’s unique society – Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

An important tenet of this was equality between the sexes, which was, at the time, a revolutionary concept in a country whose population was made up of mostly peasants. Nevertheless, men held all the senior positions within the Communist Party and, when women did find themselves in leadership positions, they were often marginalised because of their gender. (Following the death of Mao in 1976 the Gang of Four, led by his last wife Jiang Qing, were made the scapegoats for the Cultural Revolution. She became a lightning rod for a lot of the country’s anger following the upheaval of that period, almost all of which was demanded and directed by Mao himself.)

Although Mao’s socialist ideology played a role in liberating women, it had more to do with the economic imperatives of the time. China found itself increasingly isolated in the world: the West, embroiled in the Cold War, saw China’s embrace of communism as a threat to the international order. And there was also tension between Mao and Stalin, who were never on particularly friendly terms and had sharp disagreements about the direction the international communist movement (the Comitern) should take and their respective roles. This political and economic isolation meant that China needed to be self-sufficient.

Mao’s most significant reinterpretation of Marxism was that ‘the workers’ needed to be substituted for ‘the peasantry.’ Thus, in his mass popular movement the class that had always been subjugated by feudal lords became, nominally at least, the most important class in Chinese society. Women worked alongside men in the fields, the division of labour was not worked out on gender lines and the peasantry – men and women alike – were held up as examples for others in society to model themselves upon. (During the Cultural Revolution, Mao sent the urban youth to rural villages with the instruction to learn from those who plow the fields; needless to say, this proved disastrous for the nation’s development because it meant millions of young people were deprived their most formative years of education.)

With the economic reforms first implemented under Deng Xiaoping, China moved towards a market-based economy. With this came enormous growth – unprecedented in world history – and a move away from the agrarian economy which the country had as its bedrock for so many years under Mao.

As China embraced the free market the ever-increasing roles within the expanding state-owned (or partly owned) business empire went to men. There’s a case to be made that this demonstrates that gender equality during the Mao period was superficial and, in that sense, didn’t represent progress at all. However, I think this would be reductionist: one should be wary of losing sight of just how radically different Maoism was from anything China had previously seen or experienced.

Regardless, what is undeniable is that the world of Chinese business and politics is a man’s game. Business meetings are often preceded by hyper-masculine dinners, in which men spur each other on to drink copious amounts of bijou (translated literally as white wine, it’s a Chinese spirit), pass around endless cigarettes and eat like emperors while their wives, presumably, stay at home and look after the children.

In the National People’s Congress (the closest thing China has resembling a parliament) women only make up 23.4 percent of representatives.

If one accepts that China is a patriarchal society – and I would claim that I unquestionably is – then one only has to look back in time and trace this historical development to better understand how it manifests itself today.

China is a Confucian society and his teachings have been hugely influentially in shaping Chinese (as well as Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese) culture. Even today, young and old people alike regularly invoke his pithy sayings. In The Analects, Confucius makes it clear that a woman’s place is at the bottom of the social hierarchy – women are expected to be subservient to men.

There is an important continuity between the ancient Chinese empires and the modern nation state of the twenty-first century. It is a civilisation that dates back over 6,000 years and China is unique in that its current borders still roughly represent the areas that those people once inhabited. Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, has argued that it is, therefore, more accurate to think of China as a civilisation-state. An important element of this is that its ancient history, more than anywhere else in the world, is very much a part of the fabric of its present-day culture. Confucianism is, in other words, engrained in Chinese society.

Mao understood this and detested it. His saw it as backward and, in the socialist utopia he was trying to build, there was no room for competing ideologies. During the Cultural Revolution he launched the Anti-Confucius Campaign, which was essentially an attempt to reinterpret history using Mao’s theories. After much denunciation of Confucianism by senior Communist Party officials, the Red Guard – a mass paramilitary social movement of youths mobilised by Mao – laid siege to the Temple of Confucius in Shandong province and ruined several other historical significant sites, including Confucius’s burial place.

This period – and the Cultural Revolution more generally – illustrates one of the most significant challenges faced by the post-Mao leaders: How to reform the party and the state, explain all the death and destruction of that period, but still maintain Mao’s personality cult?

The economic reforms of the post-Mao era would have been much easier to implement if the spectre of Mao Zedong wasn’t hanging over China, so why did (and still do) the Communist Party leaders continue to venerate his personality cult? Simply, Mao, as the party’s revolutionary founder and the one who expelled the Japanese during the Second World War, is what gives the Communist Party its legitimacy. Without preserving the personality cult many officials believed the party would collapse in much the same way the Soviet Union did in 1989.

So the Gang of Four, with Jiang Qing as the leader, were blamed for the worst of the atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution. And Confucianism, which was so entrenched in the Chinese psyche that it would have been almost impossible to kill off completely, crept back into the culture, albeit more benignly in the beginning.

Since coming to power, President Xi has invoked Confucius more often and more readily than any other leader in the post-Mao era. Speaking at the All-China Women’s Federation in February, he outlined the role of women in Chinese society. He talked about them shaping ‘family values’, ‘taking care of elders’ and ‘educating children.’ In other words, women – in the eyes of President Xi – should stick to traditional gender roles as laid out by the first century BC teachings of Confucius.

This is, unfortunately, the kind of high-level ignorance feminists in China have to overcome. The sentiments expressed by Xi are, in a way, Chinese values that have been refined over millennia and, thus, are not easily overcome.

Nevertheless, the situation is not entirely hopeless. Modern China has shown a remarkable ability to reform, change and adapt at an almost unprecedented speed and scale. Activists like those arrested on the eve of International Women’s Day are ensuring issues of gender equality and sexual violence are brought to the fore of public debate. Any significant shift in social attitudes has to be driven from below and there are an increasing number of people standing up and saying the status quo is not fair, that things have to change.

(This was originally published in Portia 2015, the annual journal and report on Victorian Women Lawyers.)