With increased foreign investment, most notably through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has been exerting economic and political influence around the world, from Southeast Asia and Africa to Eastern Europe. While China’s desire to be a global player is demonstrated in its emphasis on transnational economic affairs, the country has great potential to be a leader in another policy domain: promoting gender equality in the global South.
Gender equality at all levels is a fundamental component to every nation’s sustainable development and to establishing a fairer world. Over the past five decades, China has steadily improved gender equality at home, adopting the issue as a basic state policy for promoting social progress. As it becomes a prominent economic and political power, China could use its own commitment to international women’s rights, female representation in government, female education, and female labor force rates as an example for other countries in the global South.
Gender Equality in China
The Chinese government’s commitment to international conventions on women’s rights and the rhetoric of its leaders reflect its endeavor to achieve gender equality. At the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the importance of equality between the sexes and of the protection of rights for girls and women was already being discussed. China implemented the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action after its adoption at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. It also supported the 2001 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), incorporating these agreements into its overall plans for economic and social development. At the Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment held at the UN headquarters in September 2015, President Xi Jinping declared that “a review of history shows that without women’s liberation and progress, the liberation and progress of mankind would not be attainable.” Then, in October 2017, the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China re-emphasized gender equality as a basic state policy.
The proportion of women in the National People's Congress (NPC) currently stands at 24.2 percent, slightly higher than the global average (23.5 percent) for women in parliaments. This is a substantial increase since 1954, when the first NPC was launched and the proportion of women stood at only 11 percent. As suggested by OECD Deputy Secretary-General Mari Kiviniemi, countries with a larger number of women in representative institutions tend to have lower levels of inequality, greater confidence in government, and higher spending on health. Increased female representation in key decision-making positions allows for a more balanced and inclusive perspective in policy making and service delivery.
China has also implemented laws and regulations to take practical measures to improve women's education. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, which started collecting education statistics disaggregated by sex in the mid-1970s, the percentage of female Chinese primary school students increased from 43.7 percent in 1975 to 46.3 percent in 2015, while the percentage of female Chinese secondary school students increased from 39.2 percent in 1976 to 47.3 percent in 2015. Female attendance in tertiary education has also risen sharply.
China also has one of the highest female labor force participation rates in the world, with a rate of 62 percent in 2016, higher than many developed countries, including Canada (60.8 percent), Sweden (60.7 percent), and the United States (56 percent). However, this rate of female labor force participation has dropped from 73 percent in 1990. Scholars attribute this decline to market transition starting from the early 1980s, the layoff policy of publicly-owned enterprises in the late 1990s, and the resurgence of traditional gender norms that place the burden of domestic work and childcare on women. If the downward trend in women’s labor force participation persists, it will be detrimental to China’s economy and global status.
Promoting Gender Equality through South-South Cooperation
Despite China’s positive experience with increasing female participation in government, school, and the labor force, China has not actively shared its own success in narrowing the gender gap when promoting its successful economic and social transformation to other developing countries. Evidence shows a positive correlation between gender parity and gross domestic product (GDP). Recent estimates suggest that achieving gender parity could lead to a $2.5 trillion GDP increase for China, and that the world could increase global GDP by $12 trillion by 2025 by closing the gender gap in economic participation by only 25 percent.
Aside from exporting goods and services to other countries, China should also export its valuable experience in achieving economic prosperity through women’s empowerment. Developing countries need to hear this message coming from a successful middle-income country like China. Female labor force participation rates in developing countries tend to be low. The lack of access to education for women and girls is still a prominent problem in many developing countries, while the proportion of women in parliament positions also remains low. China should ensure that Chinese state-owned enterprises and private-sector companies engaging in South-South cooperation adopt a “gender lens” when investing overseas and that men and women enjoy equal opportunities to develop their careers within the framework of South-South Cooperation.
While not yet actively promoting gender equality as instrumental to economic success, there are signs that China has begun addressing gender issues in its South-South endeavors. China provides technical training and material assistance to women in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to improve their working and living conditions. Nevertheless, Chinese experts are not yet analyzing gender as a factor in China’s economic success. For example, Chinese economists Justin Yifu Lin and Yuen Yuen Ang have written about the China’s economic success as a model for developing countries, but neither have examined the importance of women’s roles as key factors in this success. The implications of the Belt and Road Initiative could be much different if China publicized their gender equality efforts as a crucial foundation that should precede key market reforms.
In order for China to truly enhance its role on a regional and global level, it must recognize its own achievements in strengthening gender equality and promote this prerequisite for economic and social development to other countries. China could build its reputation not only as an economic leader, but a world leader that acts on a global duty to improve the lives of millions of women and girls within and beyond China.
“The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of UN Women or the United Nations”
 Justin Yifu Lin. Economic Development and Transition: Thought, Strategy, and Viability. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
 Yuen Yuen Ang. How China Escaped the Poverty Trap. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016.
Ms. Julia Broussard is the Deputy Country Representative of the UN Women Tanzania Country Office. She previously served as the Country Programme Manager for the UN Women office in China. Before coming to UN Women, she also worked for UNFPA and UNESCO, and served as an International UN Volunteer. Her professional experience also includes a short-term consultancy for the World Bank and serving as a project officer for an international NGO.
Ms. Broussard has a wide variety of development program experience, including programs addressing education, rural poverty alleviation, gender & corporate social responsibility, gender dimensions of climate change and natural disasters, eliminating gender-based violence, women’s economic empowerment, and women’s political participation and leadership. She also has extensive UN coordination experience.
Ms. Broussard received her MPA from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University and her EdD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She lives in Tanzania with her husband and two daughters.