China's state-owned news agency (read: government mouthpiece) Xinhua ran an article on Tuesday about proposed legislation to give women paid leave when on their periods. The agency gave prominence to a quote from Xuan Qingshan of the Guangzhou Women and Children's Medical Centre, trumpeting the news as "proof of social progress". Others weren't so sure. Debate sparked.
It's not the first time such a thing has been proposed — provinces including Hubei, Shanxi and Anhui have issued similar regulations in the past. But this time, the new regulation put forward by the government in the southern Guangdong province has added decibels to the increasingly loud conversation about women's rights, coming just weeks after China announced its one-child policy was changing to a two-child policy. Many think that rather than marking "social progress," such regulations create more discrimination against women in already male-dominated work environments.
The regulation would allow women a day of paid leave per month after getting a doctor's note confirming serious menstrual cramps, which could be used for half a year. It would also allow menopausal women to apply to have their workloads lightened. Expectant and new mothers would have more legal rights with regards to pregnancy and lactation periods.
It all seems right and fair on paper, but there is a danger that such regulations paint a picture to society of women as fragile workers who need mollycoddling. It creates potential for embarrassing scenarios, too. Will most working women in China feel comfortable asking male bosses for a day off because they're on their period? Is it not demeaning to announce that you're menopausal and want a lighter workload?
"This policy is good, but in the end it will just make employers not want to hire women," said a comment on the Chinese Sina news website which was liked more than 100 times. "Only civil servants and state-owned company workers will be able to enjoy [the new leave]," another said.
"This is ludicrous," commented a Japanese woman on news site China Daily, saying her country had used menstrual leave to exclude women from many careers. "All this does is give coworkers and employers another reason to under pay, under value, and ridicule women as not being able to "carry their weight".
There was a big gap between women's everyday reality and the government's policies on gender equality, Ding Yu, associate professor of sociology specializing in women and children's studies at Guangdong's Sun Yat-sen university, told VICE News. "This regulation would cause discrimination because employers will say they don't want women who will have maternity leave now they can have two children, then every month they might apply for period leave too,"she said. "[Our society and government] are thinking about women's needs, it's a kind of progress, but how to carry it out is another story."
Progress is very much needed. One glimpse of how endemic gender discrimination is in China was provided in January via a report issued by National Academy of Development and Strategy at China's Renmin University. Researchers found that the chances of college students getting job interviews were 42 percent greater for males than females when the only difference on the CVs they submitted online was their specified gender.
"Almost all Chinese companies use online employment systems on which applicants state their gender," Lu Xiaoquan, a lawyer with the non-profit Beijing Zhongze Women's Legal Aid Centre, told VICE News. "Due to this women get easily filtered out. Women are still expected to hunt for jobs as teachers, secretaries, nurses… they often don't have opportunities for better-paid jobs. Look at government or national defense departments: you rarely see women there."
In September this year President Xi Jinping made a big show about supposedly championing women's rights, hosting a United Nations meeting on gender equality and women's empowerment. Chinese secretary general Ban Ki-moon said, "As the Chinese people pursue a happy life, all Chinese women have the opportunity to excel in life and make their dreams come true."
Real-life events in China paint a very different picture, prompting Hilary Clinton to called Xi "shameless." In March, five feminist activists were detained and held for a month after reportedly to campaign against sexual harassment on International Women's Day. Laws on shared marital property have been repealed, in what has been called a "stunning reversal of women's property rights in China," and most surveys show that between 25 percent and 40 percent of Chinese women suffer domestic violence.
Changing the one-child policy did not "change the fact that China's family-planning policies remain coercive and abusive," Human Rights Watch said last month."The state continues to play a deeply intrusive role in women's reproductive choices and bodily autonomy."
The view that any seemingly progressive steps by the government with regards to gender equality are just a front is one shared by Leta Hong Fincher, Hong Kong-based author of the 2014 book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. She disagrees with Ding's view that the government is trying to make progress and they're just getting the methods wrong.
"The intentions are not good," she told VICE News. "I've argued that there are many ways in which the Chinese government is urging women to return to the home, to give up jobs. This [regulation proposal] sends the message that women need to be protected, that they're frail and weak so they need these benefits."
Fincher argues that with the menstrual holiday proposal coming so soon after the two-child policy announcement, the implications could be even more dire. "Employers will start asking: 'When are you going to have your second child?'" she said. "This period leave is just one manifestation of the issue of gender discrimination in employment. The government wants to appear progressive through policies that appear to protect women's rights. But in fact, they don't at all. It's the opposite."
Most lawyers and women's rights activists in China who have spoken on the subject agree that period leave is not the way to go about protecting women at work. "Companies should just treat menstrual cramps as normal sick leave," said Lu of the Beijing Zhongze Women's Legal Aid Centre. "They should be more tolerant to this kind of leave but making it into a specific law is too much."
He added: "The proposed regulation does show goodwill but it would generate more discrimination. China is a highly competitive society, if you don't do a job someone else will fit in faster than you can imagine. I think that many Chinese women would rather self-sacrifice and bear the cramps."
To be fair to Xinhua, in its Tuesday article the agency did give a decent amount of space to voices saying that the period leave regulation would be a bad thing — the agency itself saying that signs "do not bode well for this one." But the general mood of response was even better summed up, with admirable sarcasm, by one Chinese citizen who commented: "In the future companies should put this on their recruitment advertisement: 'Married with two children, post-menopausal women wanted'."
Follow Jamie Fullerton on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1