The Chinese Communist Party has a problem with women. They're getting a bit too modern in their attitudes.
Some have become politically active feminists - and the party wants nothing but itself to be politically active. Moreover, women generally are not producing enough babies.
According to its political theory, the party is committed to equality of the sexes. It has indeed done great things for Chinese women since taking power in 1949.
But it has hardly stamped out the worst elements of sexism. Also, it has found, as the rulers of other modernising societies have found, that female advancement and education leads women to have ambitions beyond being mothers.
That's a problem if your national power relies in part on a mighty population that has just begun to fall and looks like dropping massively in the decades ahead.
The average number of births per Chinese woman fell to an alarming 1.1 last year, compared with 1.5 in 2019. Births in 2022 were no doubt suppressed to some degree by fierce pandemic controls. But the rate is certainly trending downward and has been below the population-stability level of 2.1 for decades.
Mention of this always prompts talk of the now abandoned one-child policy, but that set of restrictions turns out to have been only one factor in the decisions of Chinese women to have fewer kids. As the policy has been progressively dismantled over the past decade, fertility has refused to trend upwards.
So President Xi Jinping sounded a lot like a male traditionalist a few weeks ago when he told the All-China Women's Federation: "It is necessary to actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing." He went on and on about traditional values, family values and family civilisation, whatever that is.
There was a lot of meaning in this line: "Doing a good job in women's work is not only related to the development of women themselves but also to family harmony, social harmony, development of the nation and progress of the [Chinese] ethnicity."
In other words, it's not just about what's good for women; they have to do their bit for the country, as productive mothers.
He also said it was essential for the broad masses of women to unswervingly listen to the party and follow it - but don't get too outraged about that. It's just standard Leninism.
If he'd been addressing the All-China Plumbing Association, he'd likely have demanded that plumbers obey the party.
We can expect a strengthening propaganda and policy effort to get Chinese women to have more babies. The party won't exactly want to see them barefoot and pregnant, but it will be putting fertility ahead of female careers.
Even now, those careers are hardly equal to men's. There's not just retardation of advancement when time is taken off for pregnancy and early child-rearing. A Chinese manager may well prefer a man over an equally qualified woman for a job, or a male worker might be given an important task instead of his female colleague.
Although the party worked strongly from 1949 onwards to convert a traditional society into one with modern, especially Communist, ideas, many older Chinese men are still backward in their attitudes.
A few years ago, a friend in Beijing, then 56, was told by her brothers that she, not they, had to look after their ailing father, because it was a daughter's duty. Since they refused to do it, she had to quit her work, which she much enjoyed. (The father died soon after.)
Then there's allegations of sexual harassment and the demanding of sexual favours in return for promotion. The latter, especially, is probably far more common in China than Australia. I've even heard stories of male buyers of expensive real estate allegedly asking for sex from pretty female agents to clinch the deal, though I have no idea how often that really happens.
Not surprisingly, the #MeToo movement took off in China soon after it exploded in Western countries in 2017. But that presented a problem: it was a form of politics without the party. So, not surprisingly, the party suppressed it.
On social media, women airing allegations of sexual wrongdoing tried to label posts as #MeToo by using the Chinese characters for "rice" and "rabbit", which are pronounced precisely the same: "mi tu." When the censors stopped that with their filters, the response was to use emojis of a bowl of rice and a rabbit, but that trick was also blocked soon enough.
Before and after #MeToo, Chinese women who agitated most publicly as feminists were jailed or driven abroad. They might be accused of subversion, for example. The most notable group, known as the Feminist Five, were detained in 2015 on suspicion of picking quarrels and provoking trouble, a curious Chinese crime.
Still, #MeToo and more recently the writings of a suddenly popular Japanese sociologist, Chizuko Ueno, have done at least something to raised feminist awareness in China.
Also, it must be said that Xi's decade-long anti-corruption crackdown has improved the position of Chinese women working in the vast state sector.
These days, a male state manager who tried using his power to get a female underling into bed would be brave or foolish, as well as roguish. If she denounced him and offered persuasive evidence, and if the party's fearsome anti-corruption agency took an interest, he could lose his career, at least.
So the condition of women in China will change mainly not because of their agitation from below but because of rules and policies imposed from above.
But of course. That's China.
- Bradley Perrett is a regular ACM columnist with a focus on Australia's relationship with China, covering defence, strategy, trade, economics and domestic policy. He was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.