The article discusses the political and intellectual legacies of the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, including the deepened understanding of feminist theory, the growth of grassroots organizing, and the increase in international collaboration among NGOs.
Beijing’s World Conference on Women remains one of the most successful and most memorable World Conferences on Women. It is during that event that U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton famously declared, “Women’s rights are human rights.” The Conference resolution, “Beijing Platform for Action” 《北京行动纲领》, affirmed this statement, calling upon every country in the world to uphold and defend these rights. The United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women noted that the most important contribution of the Beijing Conference to the feminist movement was that it replaced the word “women” by the word “gender,” underscoring the necessity of examining our society’s entire social structure and imbalance of power within gender relations. To change, women must be allowed opportunities to empower themselves and become equal partners with men in our society.
In 1991, after the Chinese government decided to accept hosting the fourth World Conference on Women, the All-China Women’s Federation submitted a report stating that there needed to be Chinese NGOs in attendance to speak and represent Chinese women. Although it attracted a significant amount of debate and controversy, this action did, to a certain degree, politically desensitize NGOs in China, and many types of women’s organisations were created thanks to the Conference. In 1995, not only was the All-China Women’s Federation in attendance, but 15 other NGOs were also represented.
“Integration” was an important concept during that time. There was a strong sense of urgency to seek a new theory to resolve the problems faced by Chinese women and many sought to integrate China’s thinking more closely with international theory. At the time, a high-level member of the All-China Women’s Federation very frankly stated, “Marxism is not enough for understanding women’s issues today. We need a new theory. We should study any theory that can help us understand the problems of Chinese women.”
This conference had a profound impact on the emerging feminists of the reform and opening up era, and the leaders who grew and emerged from this represent China’s first generation of feminists. Its legacy has provided the foundation for further growth and development of female rights advocates in China today.