International Workshop on China and The Global South: The Central Role of Gender and Sexuality, May 10-14, 2016

Image of 17 workshop participants, facing the camera and smiling

Executive Summary:

Workshop on China and the Global South: The Central Role of Gender and Sexuality

May 11-13, 2016

Convened by Center for Emerging Worlds (Professor Lisa Rofel, Director)

University of California, Santa Cruz, USA

This workshop was remarkable for bringing together participants from very different regions of the world, including China, Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and USA, with very different fields of work, research and advocacy, but whose collective expertise enabled the workshop to begin to address major questions about the central role of gender and sexuality in China’s rising presence in the Global South.

Participants in the workshop examined various dimensions of China’s relations with the global South, including government international relations; China’s growing foreign aid; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the new BRICS development bank; Chinese overseas investment; Chinese NGOs; and migration of Chinese to other regions and foreigners to China. With each of these dimensions we began to map out either possible or already visible gender and sexuality aspects of those dimensions.  For example, with government international relations, the way in which China develops allies might include taking common positions on gender equality or sexual rights. These positions could be in support of greater gender equality and sexual rights, as a sign of being more advanced or, conversely, using opposition to these rights in order challenge “Western values.”  

Foreign aid, either directly from China or through the new banks, might well have a strong impact on women’s lives, even though their lives are not often put at the center of consideration about impacts.  China is now the largest south-south cooperation provider.  At the UN in New York in 2015, President Xi Jinping pledged to support women and girls in other developing countries by providing health care, vocational training, financing for education and other assistance.  Chinese overseas investment might have other gendered impacts, for example, environmental impacts on women or on which kinds of jobs get created for local communities.  It might also have unintended impacts, repeating historical mistakes of other countries.  Or it might make gender equality and sexual rights part of accepted international policy, sharing China’s past successes with women’s empowerment.   Could considerations of gender become a requirement for funding?  To the extent there is any public/community input or participation in these investment decisions, will there be advocacy around gender and sexual rights?

Chinese NGOs, and the work they might do to hold the Chinese government accountable for its foreign investments, might be able to have a strong focus on international commitments concerning gender and sexual rights.

We placed the mapping of these gender and sexuality dimensions into the context of the BRICS countries’ collaborations and differences.  These countries do not have a uniform policy approach to gender and sexuality, dividing along more or less support for gender equality and sexual rights. Among the BRICS countries, challenges to northern hegemony around the world can also be a challenge to normative gender politics. But they can also contain a “neo-conservative” approach that builds on anti-Western sentiments and various kinds of nationalism, along with religious conservatism.

Thus far, China has taken a neutral stance among these countries’ positions.  China’s policies have largely been based on flexibility. State Owned Enterprises are more likely to conform to host country regulatory standards than Chinese private enterprise, which may be developed more through individual contacts and informal channels.  Whether Chinese investment brings specific gender sexuality impacts different from US or other investment, is yet to be understood.

Discussion emphasized a recent shift in power and relations among these BRICS countries, with China and India faring better economically and the others having various crises.  It means paying attention to how “global South” is defined and also the various inequalities among BRICS nations. This situation will have strong implications for the politics of gender and sexuality in these countries and their interactions with each other and other regions of the global south The recent shifts in global economic positions of the BRICS countries, with India and China growing stronger while the others are facing various economic challenges, might change these countries’ approaches to gender equality and sexual rights.   Previously, Brazil and South Africa aligned in promoting rather progressive policies addressing gender and sexual rights, the other countries less so, with China remaining neutral.  With the recent economic shifts, will this mean that a more conservative agenda becomes stronger?

The workshop emphasized that, crucial to our growing understanding of China’s rising presence in the global South, we should focus not simply on “impacts” of various policies and advocacy agendas but also try to understand how gender and sexuality are central to the way that policies, alliances, investments and security concerns get developed in the first place. Gender and sexuality are at the center of how these relations and practices get established, accepted or challenged.  These discussions emphasized that the methodology for examining the relations among gender, sexuality, economic investments, security concerns and, more broadly, geopolitical shifts, should be placing gender and sexual practices and norms at the center rather than as incidental to these other activities.  For example, China’s concerns about security in a particular region might lead the Chinese government to develop policies in support of more governance of gender and sexual norms, such as how Chinese women and men interact with local populations.  Another example is how China imagines their transnational relations with other countries is often through imagining how sexuality is configured in those countries. 

While we could map out various possible gender and sexuality dimensions to China’s role in the global South, we have quite a lot of potential avenues to pursue in filling in the gaps in our knowledge in this regard.  For example, we need to learn more about the interactions of Chinese women and men with local communities and also how they possibly offer different models of gender relations and practices; the extent to which gender and sexuality are – or are not -- taken into consideration in government and bank investment decisions; and the importance of new knowledges about other cultures that influence domestic gender and sexual norms within China.

Other related issues that were emphasized as important for a methodology for this project: 1)linking the domestic situation with the international ties, within China and the other BRICS nations as well as within nations that are experiencing a strong Chinese presence. For example, China has internalized and capitalized on fear of colonial dismemberment and the oppression of minorities of various kinds in the name of security and preventing corruption. 2) who has agency, who speaks on behalf of whom? 3)Avoid reducing China to a singular, monolithic picture.  Pay attention to when these statements of “what China is all about” in the singular are made.  Various writings about China-Africa relations, for example, have a very top-down, unchallenged view of what China is; 4)cultural artifacts are important to look at because where you can see people changing normative assumptions about what people ought to be; 5)do not assume that gender and sexuality are stable identities or norms. This is part of destabilizing the rhetoric of the West vs. the Rest.

Discussion also focused on alternative economic development models that could be based on various transnational gender and sexual rights movements.  This would mean making links between various labor movements and these rights movements. Other questions to follow up on: Chinese women traders and entrepreneurs in South Africa: how are they viewed and what are their experiences?  And what about women in informal long-distance trading being replaced by men?  Examine cross-regional conversations instead of comparisons across countries, and relation of inequalities within China to China’s investments elsewhere.

How much can we draw on histories of colonialism to understand emergent practices of China in the global South? Gender and sexuality were a very important part of colonial policies. Policies were changed over different periods, women weren’t allowed to go to the colonies at first, but then they were encouraged as a way to try to prevent men from becoming intimately involved with natives. Instability between having close relations but trying to stave off intimacy is never resolved. This is something that is coming up again with China but was a concern in British colonialism.