The video shows students at a so-called “female morality school” in northeastern China getting up at 4.30am to scrub floors and being taught not to resist if their husbands beat them.
Shot with a hidden camera and posted on a popular Chinese video website, it sparked a storm of criticism of the school and highlighted complaints that the status of women is deteriorating under the rule of a Communist Party that promised them equality.
In the recording, students at the Fushun Traditional Culture School were shown being told to put aside career aspirations and, in one instructor’s words, “shut your mouths and do more housework”. One group of students was shown practicing bowing to apologise to their husbands.
Such schools appear to be growing in popularity, though it is unclear how many China has, according to researchers and women’s rights activists.
Their emergence reflects the erosion in the status of women since the launch of economic reforms in the 1980s that reduced the ruling party’s focus on social equality, said Feng Yuan, a prominent women’s rights activist.
“Archaic ideas about gender equality still have a market in today’s society,” she said.
Deng Xichan, a 21-year-old nurse, said she and her mother attended a female morality institute in the southern city of Changsha, enticed by its offer of free classes, lodging and vegetarian food.
Students were taught to obey men because it would bring their children good fortune and that sex before marriage would bring bad luck, Deng said.
Every evening, she was required to bow in front of a statue of Confucius and participate in group confessions, she said.
“Many of the students truly believed that their life was hard because they had premarital sex, or because they cheated on someone, so they would kowtow and confess,” Deng said.
At many of the programmes, students are closed off from the outside world, and from each other.
“The front door was locked and our phones and cash were taken away from us,” said a woman in her 20s who attended a seven-day course in the northwestern city of Yinchuan. “We were also not allowed to chat with each other, so all you can do is bear with it.
“I got scared because it was so isolated,” added the woman, who asked to be identified only by her surname, Chen, because she didn’t want her former employer, a real estate company that signed her up for the programme, to know she had spoken to the media about the experience.
The Fushun school was founded in 2011 by an ex-convict who had served time for murder and was approved by local authorities as a “public welfare organisation”, according to Chinese news reports.
It charged no tuition and was supported by students’ donations. The school had more than 200 volunteer workers and took in as many as 40 students for each 20-day “female virtue” course, according to an online report by the Yangcheng Evening News, a major local newspaper.
After the video came out in November, hundreds of people criticised the school on Internet message boards and blogs, prompting an investigation. The school was shut down in December, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The local education bureau concluded it violated “socialist core values” and called for similar programmes to be investigated.
The Fushun school and several others across China refused repeated requests for comment.
The Communist Party came to power in 1949 promising to improve the status of women, who then-leader, Mao Zedong, famously declared “hold up half the sky”.
By many measures, the status of women improved after the revolution. They gained access to jobs and education and, on paper at least, were legal equals in many ways.
Activists say the decline in women’s status that began with the economic reforms of the 1980s accelerated as the party set aside leftist politics as a unifying message for the country and instead promoted more traditional, male-dominated Confucian beliefs.
The gulf between the sexes is especially pronounced at the highest levels of politics: The ruling party’s Standing Committee, the inner circle of power, has never had a female member. In the next tier, a single woman sits in the larger 25-member Politburo.
The state-run All-China Women’s Federation rejected the activists’ assertions that the party has promoted male-dominated beliefs.
“We deplore and are dissatisfied by such a view that misrepresents reality,” the group said in a faxed response to questions.
It said 551 women delegates attended the party’s twice-a-decade national congress last year, an increase of 30 places, making up nearly a quarter of the total. The group noted that there are women among China’s government ministers, astronauts, scientists and entrepreneurs.
Still, in a 2011 survey the federation also found women’s wages were on average two-thirds lower than men’s. And the share of women in the labour force dropped to 61% last year from 72% 20 years ago, according to the World Bank.
Party leaders are worried China is producing too few children to support its ageing population, said Leta Hong-Fincher, a sociologist and author of Betraying Big Brother: The Rise of China’s Feminist Resistance, due out later this year.
“The government launched a propaganda campaign referring to single, over-educated women over 30 as ‘leftover’ to stigmatise women into returning home, getting married and having babies,” Hong-Fincher said.
The easing in 2016 of China’s “one-child” policy, which now allows couples to have two children, has only put more pressure on women to raise families instead of working, Hong-Fincher said.
In the more conservative countryside, women who suffer from domestic violence and sexual assault “tend to blame themselves rather than speak out publicly”, said Li Maizi, a women’s rights activist who was detained in 2015 for handing out stickers protesting sexual harassment.
The global spread of the #MeToo campaign against sexual misconduct also presents a potential challenge to Chinese authorities. Beihang University in Beijing fired a prestigious scholar in January following accusations of sexual misconduct by multiple women, seeming to signal the start of the movement in China.
Yet Chinese censors moved quickly to scrub from social media sites a petition by Gu Huaying, a former Peking University student, calling for anti-harassment policies.
Despite the heavy censorship and ever-present risk of retaliation for speaking out, petitions continue to surface online from university professors and students at campuses across China. In response, the Education Ministry has said it will establish a mechanism for addressing sexual harassment.
“I am very hopeful. The fact that so many students feel so strongly is an indication that China is undergoing a kind of feminist awakening,” Hong-Fincher said. “This is a pretty stunning example of that coming to life in a very political way and that this kind of collective action can actually produce results.” – AP