By Vivian Wang
- Sept. 20, 2020
- Rhetorically, the government encourages gender equity and even sponsors its own agency dedicated to women’s issues. But the party is wary of any organization it does not control and has cracked down harshly on activists who have mobilized independently.
Women are still almost nonexistent in the highest echelons of the party apparatus. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has emphasized women’s roles as homemakers and mothers. Employment discrimination, curbs on property rights and weak protections against domestic violence are common.
- A TV Drama on China’s Fight With Covid-19 Draws Ire Over Its Depiction of Women
The scene came seven minutes into a new Chinese-government-sponsored television drama, so short that it would have been easy to miss: The head of a bus company in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus outbreak began, asks his drivers if they are willing to make emergency runs during the city’s lockdown. A line of volunteers forms. None are women.
That roughly minute-long clip has set off a furor on Chinese social media. Users have called the scene — in which the official then asks why no women have stepped up — a flagrant example of sexism in Chinese society and an attempt to erase women’s contributions to the fight against the virus. In reality, women made up the majority of front-line workers during the crisis, according to the official news media.
By Sunday, a hashtag about that segment, which aired on Thursday, had been viewed more than 140 million times. Tens of thousands of people had called for the show to be taken off the air.
The uproar reflects lingering tensions even as China emerges from an outbreak that sickened many, cratered its economy and upended the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people. Still-simmering tensions include cynicism about the Chinese government’s efforts to rewrite the narrative of the outbreak, disillusionment about the silencing of dissenting accounts and anger toward persistent discrimination against women, both during the crisis and more broadly.
This is not the first time that women’s treatment while fighting the virus has set off public anger. In February, an official newspaper shared a video of female medics having their heads shaved before heading to Wuhan, ostensibly for a better fit for protective gear. The newspaper called the women “the most beautiful warriors.” Many people who saw the video said the women were crying, and viewers accused the government of using women’s bodies as propaganda. The video was ultimately deleted.
Other female medical workers said their supervisors rebuked them when they asked for help obtaining tampons or pads when goods in Wuhan became increasingly hard to obtain.
In response to the show, social media users quickly began sharing screenshots of the state media reports of female participation in the epidemic response. Many also began using the hashtag “Request that ‘Heroes in Harm’s Way’ Stop Airing.” A poll that asked whether the show should be canceled received more than 91,000 “yes” votes, with about 6,800 votes for “no.”
The initial outrage provoked by the bus driver scene also set off other condemnations of the show. Du Keye, a doctor in Wuhan, wrote on Weibo that the show was medically inaccurate, often depicting nurses without proper medical gear or performing chest compressions incorrectly. The show is fictional, he wrote, but accuracy is important because the show was intended to commemorate a momentous event in the country’s history.