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Why gender and sexuality are central to China’s relationships with the Global South

China has become a major global player. Politically assertive, the country is challenging the previous Western-dominated world order and has developed close relationships with other countries in the Global South. Chinese investment abroad is being encouraged under the country’s national “going out” policy. The 2013 Belt and Road Initiative promotes connectivity, infrastructure development, cooperation, and trade with Asia, Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe. China has co-founded two multilateral development banks—the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, formerly known as the BRICS Bank—and is now the largest South-South cooperation provider. China’s population has also become more international, with increasing migration flows in and out of China. Guangzhou, for example, has emerged as a hub for Africans living in China.

China’s interactions with the Global South have been the subject of much attention and study from both inside and outside the country. Yet issues of gender and sexuality have been largely ignored. Earlier this year, the Ford Foundation supported a workshop with the Center for Emerging Worlds at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on the role of gender and sexuality in China’s relationships with the Global South. The workshop brought together experts from China, Africa, Latin America, and the US who work on gender and sexuality, as well as on security, migration, environmental, economic, and social issues. Participants reached across regions and disciplines to better understand the role of gender and sexuality in China’s relationships with the Global South.

Why gender and sexuality matter

A few years ago, an international development agency was supporting a road infrastructure project in China. In one of the villages where the project was taking place, local Chinese officials were asked if they supported the construction of a new road that would run through the village. All the officials were enthusiastic, but they were also all male and owned cars or motorbikes. The road was subsequently built. Only later was it discovered that the village women—many of whom lived on one side of the road and didn’t own cars or motorbikes—disapproved of the project because it would be an obstacle to their daily commutes. Indeed, with the road now built, they have to take a daily detour of several kilometers to get to the other side of the road to take their children to school or go to the market—tasks that are considered women’s work.

This is just one example of how failing to consider gender issues can cause some sectors of the population to lose out. And there may well be deeper impacts that have not yet been explored. For example, what are the environmental impacts of this road, and how might these affect men and women differently?

Understanding the social impact of China’s foreign aid and investment

In its development support to other Global South countries, will China repeat mistakes such as the one described above—with unintended but nonetheless negative gender impacts—or will the country learn from them? While the mining industry is one of the largest sectors of investment by Chinese industry in Africa, there have been no gender-based analyses of Chinese-owned mines. Analyses done in other parts of the mining industry show that women, men, and transgender people face different burdens in dealing with the impacts of mining. Mining typically creates gender-segregated jobs. Other livelihoods are displaced, and the livelihoods of people of different genders tend to be differently affected. Where migrant men can find jobs, but their partners cannot, men may migrate alone. This can end up deeply affecting the sexual and family relations of these men, as they sometimes develop new relationships with other men, with sex workers, or with locals in the mining region—with subsequent impacts on these men’s livelihoods, identities, and health.

There has been much debate about whether the social impact of China’s foreign investment strategy is significantly different from that of other countries. There is no easy answer, because, of course, Chinese investment is diverse. State-owned enterprises, for example, are more likely to conform to host country regulatory standards than are Chinese private enterprises, which may be developed more through individual contacts and informal channels. But given China’s new role as a major aid donor and foreign investor in developing countries, it is imperative to understand the holistic impact of China’s investments.

Gender and sexuality in China’s South-South cooperation

Despite continued challenges, women are beginning to gain explicit attention in China’s relations with other countries in the Global South. Last September at the United Nations General Assembly meeting, President Xi Jinping announced that China would contribute $10 million to the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a road map for achieving gender equality that came out of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women and Girls in 1995. China’s commitment will also go toward the realization of the UN Sustainable Development Goal that aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by providing health care, vocational training, financing for education, and other assistance. While the funding is modest in size, it is a significant entry point to addressing issues related to women in China’s relations with the Global South.

On some gender indicators, China is “ahead” of several other countries. Most data show that in China today, girls and boys now have equal access to education, and some recent surveys show that a majority of young people support LGBT equality. Some research shows that maternal mortality rates are lower in China than in the US. While China may have valuable insights to offer other countries and help drive progress on gender and sexuality issues, sharing lessons and expertise may also promote China’s soft power vis-à-vis other developing countries. Western gender and development aid has at times been charged with imagining itself to be “white women saving brown women from brown men.” Will Chinese development assistance function as a new colonial power, or will it do better?

We don’t know the answer yet, but one thing is clear: Understanding the gender and sexuality dimensions of China’s relations with the Global South is essential as the country begins to answer this and other questions.

This conversation will be continued by the Center for Emerging Worlds at the University of California in Santa Cruz and the Institute for Sexuality and Gender at Renmin University. To join the discussion and connect with the group, e-mail Professor Lisa Rofel at lrofel@ucsc.edu.

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