Agenda 2030: China, SDGs, and Goal Number 5 – Gender Equality

Visual Summary of the 17 SDGs © Nayan hello world /CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

In today’s world there is a consistent number of challenges affecting all countries and, as a consequence, requiring shared action to be faced. Since 2000, the United Nations launched two 15-year Global Agendas, setting different goals to cope with global threats: the “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) between 2000 and 2015, and the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), established in 2015. One of the major global threats is certainly gender inequality, addressed by SDG number 5. As stressed in the United Nations Academic Impact’s website “gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world.” China still has a long way to go to reach gender equality, but in recent years it showed great commitment to the fulfilment of this goal. The COVID-19 outbreak, which contributed to highlighting critical issues, appears to have slowed down the process that brings to the achievement of this and other goals, and makes it difficult to define future predictions. However, we can try to outline the progress made so far. In this article, after giving a brief overview of the MDGs and the SDGs, a description of China’s effort to pursue the SDGs will be provided. Then, the last part of the paper will focus on China and goal number 5. This analysis will also help outline a broader image of the role of women and girls in China and of what the PRC is doing to reach gender equality.

The MDGs and the SDGs: UN Agendas for Global Governance

The MDGs, jointly approved by the then 189 UN member states, were established in 2000 and consisted in eight goals to be attained before 2015. In 2015, not all the goals were achieved, with some new and more complex challenges rising. Therefore, the same year a new agenda was launched, setting 17 new goals – the SDGs – to be attained before 2030, and jointly approved by the now 193 UN member states. The so-called Agenda 2030 addresses every country without distinction, regardless of their industrialization and developmental level: it represents a variation when compared to the MDGs, which were addressed only to developing countries. Moreover, the SDGs, unlike the MDGs, were not imposed top-down by the United Nations but shaped by a joint involvement of all members, and this resulted in all countries’ greater commitment in pursuing them. As stressed by Biermann (2017), the SDGs represent “a novel approach to global governance where goals-setting features as a key-strategy.”

China and the SDGs

China, especially in the past few years, committed greatly to the achievement of the SDGs. According to the figures in the Sustainable Development Report 2020 , the PRC ranks 48 out of the 193 UN members in the SDGs index with a score of 73.89, with this score interpreted as “the percentage of SDG achievement”. The Government works on sustainable development “through capital investment, cooperation and exchange, and supervision and control” (Xie, Wen, Choi, 2021). Moreover, it is putting forward national strategies in parallel with international ones, in order to accelerate the process bringing to the fulfillment of some goals. For instance, the PRC Government included the Sustainable Goals in the 2016-2020 Five Year Plan. Furthermore, the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi Jinping mandate’s signature, became an instrument to promote the Agenda 2030, to such an extent that the United Nations’ Economic Analysis and Policy Division launched a project aimed at building the Belt and Road as a supporting element to the SDGs. At the same time, “the 2030 Agenda complements the BRI by highlighting sustainability—a critical aspect for BRI’s credibility” (Horvath, 2016).

However, we should keep in mind that China is covering an immense territory, with very different realities and existing gaps and disparities between East and West, North and South, rural and urban areas. Wang, Lu, He, Wang, Yuan and Cao (2020) made a very accurate sub-national analysis. The results “showed that the state of sustainable development in China is characterized by its pronounced geographic zones.” Simply put, the eastern provinces seem to have the highest values of the China SDGs Index, while the Western ones have the worst scores. Because of these local varieties, many goals are pursued differently and with varying degrees of commitment: the same goes for SDG 5, gender equality, and this is a necessary premise before narrowing the view on this goal.

China and Goal Number 5: Gender Equality

The discourse about gender equality is connected to several issues: from sexual harassment to gender-biased sex selection; from education accessibility to employment, and much more.

In the PRC there is no clear definition of discrimination in national regulations: to date “there exists no comprehensive non-discrimination law in China” (ISDP, 2020) but each issue “has been addressed by specific laws”. For instance, in 2010, a Law on Social Insurance on maternity insurance was enacted, along with a Labour Contract Law (2007), prohibiting “the termination of employment of a female employee on the grounds of pregnancy”, as stated in the official paper issued during the 2014 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.. Besides this, as stressed in a report published in the National Bureau of Statistics, the legal system “based on the Constitution, with the Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests as its core” is constantly enforced (Statistical Monitoring Report on the Implementation of China National Program for Women’s Development, 2020).

Like everywhere else, gender inequality has cultural and social roots. Data published in the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics (China Statistical Yearbook, 2016) show that in the PRC, in 2015, 113 boys were born for every 100 girls. Gender-biased sex selection is still a common practice in China, especially in rural areas. Different projects have been launched to address this problem. The United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA), along with China Population and Development Research Center, implemented different plans to tackle the issue and, in some local realities, things are changing. For instance, in Huangmei County, Hubei, after some local women’s mobilization, “gender-discriminatory language from local regulations” was removed and in general “sex ratios are becoming more balanced”, as stressed in an article published in the official website of the UNFPA (2019).

Turning to the job market, according to the World Bank’s data (WB Database, 2021), Chinese women in 2019 represented more than 43% of the national labour force. However, while it is true that female employment is rather high in the manufacturing area, the percentage drops consistently when it comes to leadership positions, with women occupying a small percentage of such roles. In the political context, only one out of every four of the National People’s Congress members are women (Di, 2019). However, when compared to figures from previous years, these percentages are now changing, with more and more women being present in decision-making and managerial sectors.

The educational sector underwent a huge change in the past decade, and now education is practically balanced for boys and girls living in urban areas, with both genders receiving complete alphabetization. As would be expected, the situation changes drastically in rural zones, where girls are less likely to pursue studies. In an article published in the South China Morning Post, it is stressed that “The average period of education received in rural areas is 7.3 years for girls, compared to 8.1 years for boys” (Zuo, 2020). A plan worth mentioning in this matter is the Spring Bud Project, launched in 1989 by the China Children and Teenagers' Fund (CCTF) to support girls’ education all over China. According to Xinhua (Li, 2019), it helped over 3.69 million girls in need between its launch and 2019, and it is still running and making further steps forward.

According to an article published by The Asia Foundation, reporting data from the Third Wave Survey on the Social Status of Women in China in 2011 “24.7 percent of married Chinese women had suffered some form of domestic violence from their husbands” (Hao, 2020). In 2015, in order to address the issue, China enacted the Anti-Domestic Violence Law. Along with legal tools, periodical campaigns are put forward to raise awareness among the population and make the violence rate decrease. Besides this, in China, also in the wake of the worldwide known #metoo movement, women started to protest and speak up against sexual harassment. The Chinese law on Protection of Rights and Interests of Women was enacted in 1992 but the definition of “harassment” has always been vague in all Chinese regulations. For this reason, a part of 2020 China’s first-ever civil code was also dedicated to a clarification of this definition and represents a big step forward to strengthen protection for Chinese women.

Precisely, thanks to this civil code, in mid-February 2021 a man was giving his ex-wife 50.000 Yuan (around 6300 EUR) to compensate for the housework done by the woman during their marriage. In an article published in The Guardian, reporting the words said by the litigation’s presiding judge, it is stressed that housework “can improve the ability of the other spouse to achieve personal, individual and academic growth, and this is not reflected in the tangible property.” (Davidson, 2021). Even though the compensation is rather symbolic, this court surely represents an interesting turning point in protecting women’s rights.


The path to the achievement of the gender equality goal, along with the other SDGs, is still long. However, China is making great progress in this respect. The main difficulty remains making change homogeneous all over China. In fact, the situation is very different in urban and rural areas, with gender inequalities being more troublesome in the latter. For the future, a bigger effort to promote sustainable development also in rural areas is required, with the wish that China will fulfil gender equality and the other goals before 2030.

Maria Elena Sassaroli is a 24-year-old Italian student. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Double Degree in International Science and China Studies at University of Turin and Beijing Foreign Studies University. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Chinese language and culture at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. She spent some time in China, as an exchange student at Suzhou University and Chengdu’s Sichuan University. She is passionate about China-India relations, China-EU relations, and China’s domestic policy. You can find her on Instagram as @mariaelenastone or on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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