When it was first reported last month, a minor new statistic on parenting in China hardly raised a shrug. The China Welfare Institute of Development Research Center found that the number of fathers in Shanghai serving as primary nighttime caregivers for their children rose by 5% since 2018. That starts from a low base. Nationwide, the amount of childcare provided by fathers is negligible.
Yet that modest shift in Shanghai may reflect a wider and quieter trend. Contrary to China’s decline in global surveys on gender equality in recent years, a paper published Thursday by two Chinese academics found that, within Chinese households, the reverse is happening. That insight is likely not to go unnoticed by officials in Beijing because its key driver is the target of state control: the internet.
Women “tend to have relatively lower bargaining power within their households, reflecting the established societal structure in China” with respect to owning property, managing household chores, and caring for children, the authors noted. “The use of the Internet significantly shapes women’s perceptions of gender roles, fostering a transition from traditional to egalitarian perspectives.”
The paper, published in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, assessed the role of the internet in building household bargaining power for women. Perhaps surprisingly, it found that the most significant change is taking place in rural areas, where gender roles are more likely to be shaped by long-standing community expectations and access to the internet is more likely to be hampered by poor infrastructure.
Despite such factors, rural women are finding community, job opportunities, new avenues to education, and access to feminist ideas that the government of leader Xi Jinping has sought hard to silence. “This surge in exposure directly correlates with increased participation in family matters,” the authors wrote.
The paper notes a correlation confirmed by experience in other countries – that more blending of masculine and feminine qualities by couples results in a higher degree of happiness, family stability, and social prosperity.
The Chinese leader stresses the need for “cyber sovereignty” and for other countries to respect “each country’s way of internet governance.” Yet Beijing’s stiffening regulations on digital content have not been able to stall a deepening of individual sovereignty among Chinese people, driving equality between women and men.