Interview: For Wu Qing, Pushing for Change is 'Citizen's Responsibility'

Wu Qing. (Jonah Kessel)

Chinese advocate for women's rights and rule of law Wu Qing was a local Beijing People's Congress legislator from 1984-2011, but she's not your typical bureaucratic official. An award-winning professor of English, Wu Qing has also built a reputation as a fearless advocate for women's rights, human rights, and rule of law, playing a pioneering role building Chinese women's entrepreneurship and political participation at the grassroots level. Wu Qing has received numerous awards in recognition of her career in public service, including most notably the 2001 Ramon Magsaysay Award.

In the following email interview with Asia Blog, Wu Qing discussed her experiences advocating for human rights and her wishes for China's future. People in China "have to be empowered and engendered with freedom, democracy and rule of law," she told us. "That is what I have been trying to do since the early 1980s. Education is a process, learning is a process and change is a process." The full interview is featured below.

Wu Qing joins Asia Society in New York this Wednesday, December 12 as part of the Creative Women in Contemporary China series, in conversation with Jan Berris, Vice-President, National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. For those who can't attend the program in person, a live webcast will be available on at 6:30 pm ET.

You are an advocate for many issues, such as rural women's education, women's rights, and rule of law. What would you say is your primary goal in your efforts?

My primary goal is to educate and make sure that every single girl and woman know that they are human beings first, a girl and a woman second. On that basis, all girls and boys, women and men are equal. Every single one of them is a gold mine with great potential, wisdom and energy. I set this as the primary goal because it is women who have given lives to this world, they have nurtured their children and they want to make sure that their children are brought up in a safe, peaceful and healthy environment. They are all citizens. They all have their rights as well as their social responsibilities.

Yet the primary goal cannot be separated from the ultimate goal, which is every single Chinese will enjoy human rights, regardless of their sex, ethnicity, education, social-economic status, age, etc. Without freedom, democracy and rule of law and by law in China, there are no human rights to speak of. Since 2004 the term "human rights" has been added to Article 33 in the Chinese Constitution, which says: "The state respects and guarantees human rights." That is progress! With it, citizens can hold the accountability of the government and the Communist Party at all levels.

Here I would like to share with you my personal experience. I was invited by NGOs in Sweden, Norway and Denmark to talk about human rights in China in 1997. I accepted the invitation, as I thought I had been to many poverty-stricken areas in rural China and some medium-sized cities as well, and I know about some the situations of the people, especially women, the elderly and children there. I could share my stories with them. There has been progress since 1949, but there are also issues [that] remained unsolved.

But on the day I was leaving, the Dean of the English Department got a phone call from the Foreign Ministry, saying: "Wu Qing should not leave the country." I left. Why? I was first going to San Francisco to participate in the Board meeting of Global Fund for Women, an international NGO that serves women at grassroots throughout the world. My view on China is balanced. Besides, I had already paid close to US$3300 for my airfare. The Foreign Ministry would definitely not reimburse me. My talks were well-received, even by the Chinese reporters stationed in those countries. Some said my talk was better than some of the diplomats'.

But when I was coming through the customs in Beijing, the officers saw my name in the passport, they asked me to stand aside and wait. They made several phone calls and I had to wait for about half an hour to get through. Then for three years I was not allowed to get out of the country. During that period, whenever I got an invitation to go abroad, I would write an application to the Ministry of Education to see how long they would "punish" me without any proper reason. I think it is against the Constitution of China.

This story shows that China has made some progress in terms of its constitution. I don't want drastic change. It is often dangerous and unhealthy. I often use this analogy. If it should rain dogs and cats, rain water washes away the top soil, which is fertile. But it drizzles, rain water sinks. It waters the soil. Seeds take roots. They grow, blossom and bear fruits.

My goal will take centuries to be realized. That is the reason why China needs a period of enlightenment. People have to be empowered and engendered with freedom, democracy and rule of law. That is what I have been trying to do since the early 1980s. Education is a process, learning is a process and change is a process.

You have been called an "activist" by the American media, a title also given to figures such as lawyer Chen Guangcheng and artist Ai Weiwei. Would you say that this label is accurate?

"Activist" is a label. It is given to you by others. I have been given many labels, positive and negative ones, at different times and by different people. But I have a label for myself. That is the word "VERB." I want to be a verb, an active verb. I want to change China from a country ruled of man and by man to a country ruled of law and by law. To do so, we have to change the system itself. Being a legislator to the Haidian District People's Congress from 1984-2011 and to the Beijing Municipal People's Congress from 1988 to 2007, I set aside every Tuesday afternoon from 1984 to 2011 to meet with my constituents to listen and hear their demands, needs and complaints. From those people I know they demand social justice, democratic governance, the implementation of the constitution and rule of law and freedom of speech. They all want changes in the system itself. There should be a constitutional court so that all the laws, policies and by-laws will be reviewed and be in full agreement with the Constitution. Judiciary should be independent and the media should play the role of a watchdog.

To help make change is a citizen's responsibility. I want to do my bit, to fulfill my responsibility as a citizen, especially as a global citizen. The Chinese people, especially girls and women, want change. They want peace, development, social justice, democratic governance. If I want to change China and others, I have to first change myself. Change is a process. It can only take place a step at a time. Therefore, reflection, improvement and change are slow. Patience and perseverance are vital.

The number of women appointed to the 204-member Central Committee at the 18th Party Congress this year was cut from 13 to 10. Do you think this is a reflection of any broader trends of women's position in society, and do you think that women will have made more progress the next time around?

The percentage of women in politics is only one of the six indicators to show women’s status in a country, though I think that it is vital. The reason is simple. If there are 50% of women in the decision-making process with gender and legal awareness, this will be gender balanced. The majority of the people in that country, especially women and girls will benefit. It is women who give lives to this world. They are the first teachers to their children. Once girls and boys are brought up by parents, who are well-educated with gender and legal awareness, the country is definitely well-developed with peace and harmony. The implementation of human rights, the rights of every single person, regardless of sex, race, class, age, education, social-economic status, etc. will be respected and taken care of. Then, all six indicators will point to an upsurge and healthy direction.

But the term "rights," especially "individual rights," is a totally new concept to the Chinese. Most people believe that they have no control over their destinies. It is decided by fate. If they are lucky enough to have rich parents, they then will have everything. When it come to a nation, people are educated and socialized to believe that the lives of the powerful and the rich are valuable and noble, yet theirs are low and humble. They belong to two different categories. People wish they had a kind and benevolent official so that he would take good care of them, like a father.

Those in power think they are destined to rule as their forefathers had died for the country. They can do whatever they want. There should be no oversight. Anyone who says anything different or speaks up is considered to be challenging the authorities and their ruling, which is unthinkable. It is a crime! That is the reason why from 1949 to especially 1978 there had been countless political movements against anyone who thought different from the party, especially university professors and intellectuals. The party had made an example of them so as to make the rest silent. Those who criticized the party were labeled as reactionaries. They were removed from their posts, demoted, and salaries were decreased. Many were sent to labor camps and many died. People learned from those negative examples. The best thing to do is to shut up as they are scared.

Even now, those who dare to speak up, demand their rights as citizens, are thought by the authorities as challenging them or not giving them face! Therefore, everything is decided by the few in the party. Democracy and freedom are very limited in China. China is still ruled of man and by man. It takes time for people to change to become citizens to demand their rights, claim their rights and exercise their rights. Many people do not know that no rights are given or granted. You have to stand up for it and sometimes you have to fight for it.

The other five indicators are:

The second indicator is the ratio between girl and boy babies. The percentage of the female population to a nation should be 51% of the total, yet in China women only make up 48.8%. There are many explanations. One is that China is still a third world country. In some rural areas, the natural conditions are harsh, especially in the western part of China, along the border and in the minority areas. Farming is still done in a very primitive way. Hard manual labor is necessary, pulling the plough and walking a long distance to fetch water. Therefore, boy babies are favored.

Second is that there is a discriminatory law in terms of family-planning. If the first child is a girl, after 5 years the parents can have a second child, hopefully it would be a boy. This policy is to “encourage” parents not to register when their second child is another girl. They will try again, taking advantage of the loophole in the law. If the second try is another girl, they will try again and just register the second girl and the third child, a boy. Then, this girl is not a citizen with an identity. She can’t enjoy any rights stated in the Constitution. Without a permanent residence permit, she cannot go to school, enjoying compulsory education, can’t find a job, and not even a husband when she grows up. That is the reason for the low percentage of women.  Some girls or women are not registered.

Third, many parents still prefer boy babies to carry on the family line, especially in the rural areas, as some of them are bullied or cursed if they have no sons to protect them.

The third indicator is education for boys and girls. There is the 9-Year Compulsory Education Law in China approved since 1986. Parents should send their child or children to school regardless of sex. Yet with China’s reform and opening up, many peasants have left home to earn cash in the cities. Their children are taken care by their parents or in-laws. Many of them are illiterates. Some of them do not see the importance of education. Their main task is to feed them and care for them. If the local officials in charge of education are not responsible or embezzle the money for education, many children will just stay at home. Besides, it is too difficult or almost impossible for the parents to come home just for the education of their children. It is too costly and taking up too much time.

It is even worse that in the past few years, over 10,000 townships have been merged, which means over 10,000 village center schools are closed down. Children have to walk a long way to the school. For example in Luodian, Guizhou province, a boy had to walk over seven hours back and forth a day without water and food at lunchtime. It is impossible for a girl to do it. She might be raped on the way if she should go alone. Some would have to go to a boarding school. To the poor, that means adding more load to the already burdened family. Parents and grandparents do not want to take the trouble of sending their kids to school. Some think education is not that important. That is why when we do literacy projects for rural women in some rural areas, we have girls of 8, 11 or 14 years old. It means some local governments have not done their work properly. Parents still have to pay some money for the education of their children. If there is money to send one child to school, the money goes to the boy because they are breadwinners. There are 130 to 160 million illiterates in China (World Bank figure). Among them, over 70 to 75% are women.

The fourth indicator is the percentage of women and men in the labor market. China has quite high percentage of women working because it takes two paychecks to keep a family of three going. But most of them are in dead-end jobs with bad working conditions, long hours, manual work, and very few opportunities to get promoted. Those women who have migrated into the cities usually work as domestic helpers, cleaners, and waitresses or help sell daily necessities, shoes, clothing, and vegetables along the streets. Most of the women are not well educated and they lack the necessary skills.

Even university female graduates with MA and PhD degrees have difficulties in finding jobs. Many recruiters, including women, from institutions, universities, or government sectors openly say they want only men. They say women’s interest and attention are diverted once they get married, get pregnant and have a child. Besides, it is impossible to persuade a woman with a child and family to go on a business trip. Quite a few women come across this issue, but few would take their case to court. It takes too much time and energy. What Mao said, ”Women hold up half of the sky,” it was only a slogan. Women are still been discriminated against, though more discreetly when women’s gender awareness is rising.

The fifth indicator is women making decisions at home. Men are still the ones making major decisions at home, decisions like where and when to buy big items like housing, cars; wives' work, children’s education, etc. But there are more and more couple making decisions together.

The last one is women’s private property against a nation’s GDP. There are more and more female entrepreneurs, but comparing with the men, they are fewer. They are not at the top.

So from the six indicators, China is still lagging behind from many other countries. China ranked 132 in 1987. We still have a long way to go.

Wu Qing's December 12 talk is part of Asia Society's yearlong China Close Up series and is co-sponsored by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

About the Author

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Liz Flora is a contributor to Asia Blog. She has a master's degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University.