An interview with PhD student Pia Eskelinen on Chinese women’s rights and gender politics research

The Finnish China Law Center had the opportunity to interview Pia Eskelinen, a PhD student at the University of Turku. Her current PhD is titled “The legal status of women in China, especially in rural land rights”. Eskelinen has carried out extensive research and published numerous pieces on the Chinese hukou system, women’s land rights and gender politics in China.

Could you tell us about your background?

I was working as a managerial director at a golf course and decided to study business law at the open university to support my work. My initial fascination with China originated from my interest in Chinese food, architecture and calligraphy. In 2011 our family adopted a daughter from China and after eye-opening visits to the rural parts of China, my fascination only grew stronger. I was intrigued to learn more about what is behind the traditional Chinese culture and pictures of rice fields. Once I got accepted to the University of Eastern Finland for a master’s program, I started to research the Chinese hukou system. My master’s thesis on the Chinese hukou system was so interesting and I found the topic easy to write on, I then chose to conduct my doctoral research on the topic. Evidently, my studies to help with my managerial skills in the golf environment got out of hand so to say.

Could you share your motivation behind your doctoral research on Chinese women’s land rights and Chinese gender politics in general?

My interest in Chinese women’s rights and gender politics blossomed when I visited China and first-hand saw the hardship and reality of the lives of rural Chinese women. Adopting a girl from China was really the eye-opener to the difficulties that women and girls face. I wanted to clarify and make these difficulties visible. Regarding, women’s land rights, in my research for my master’s thesis on the hukou system, women’s land rights kept on popping up and I thought it was strange and different compared to Finland, naturally I wanted to learn more. Generally, there is research being done more broadly on employment and migration in China, research in women’s land rights especially those of rural women seems scarce.

Your master’s thesis examines the Chinese hukou system and rural women’s rights, could you tell us more about your findings?

The hukou system is divided into a rural and an urban one in, which a person’s location is registered to the correct system. The hukou system essentially dictates what benefits a person will receive from the state. These benefits include things such as pensions and housing benefits. Commonly a person in a rural area will belong to the rural hukou system. Similarly, a person located in an urban area will belong to the urban hukou system. There may be cases in which, however, a person holds a rural hukou in an urban area or an urban hukou in a rural area. In reality, the two systems are not equal as those of a rural status are not entitled to the same rights of social security and healthcare compared to those with an urban status. Those with a rural status are entitled to a piece of land, which essentially accounts for their income and social security. However, in cases of a bad year, i.e. a bad harvest, this income may be lost.

Even though the Chinese Government and local level councils have done improvements for the hukou, it remains a discriminatory system.

Especially for women in rural areas, the hukou system is particularly unfair. In many areas, contracts that entitle women for their piece of land are often under the name of their fathers or the sons, and not themselves. The hukou system is thus especially discriminatory against women with a rural status, since they are vulnerable due to being economically dependent on their families. There are certainly substantial differences in the rights that women possess in China depending on their hukou system.

In your article “Tackling intimate partner violence is not of interest of China” you discussed the state of women’s rights in China, where do you see women’s rights heading in China?

From a political standpoint, President Xi Jinping’s political discourse is not gender-neutral. The rhetoric, words and narrative are very old-fashioned, and it seems that the government believes that women should be housewives and their place is at home taking care after children. The political leadership as such is not hostile towards women, however, women are put in a box and their lives are getting narrower. Recently, the All-China Women’s Federation came out with the statement, that it is much better for women to marry someone rich than for them to get an education. Those women who educate themselves waste their years and after finishing their education they are as good as a “yellow pearl”. Discouraging women from educating themselves is a strong statement and a worrying one. Although within the communist party equality between men and women is approved, feminism beyond the communist party’s guidelines doesn’t seem to have a place in China. Unfortunately, the state of women’s rights and gender politics is not good and there is little evidence of it improving in the near future.

The interview and report were done by the Center’s intern, Annette Rapo.