Taiwan’s female president faces criticism for being single. Is Asia backsliding on gender equality?

The official's remarks that Taiwan's president is unfit because she is single highlights a challenge that many women still face in China and other parts of Asia. 

Chiang Ying-ying/AP
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen waves as she delivers an acceptance speech during her inauguration ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan. A newspaper published by China's official news agency says the new president of rival Taiwan is more 'extreme' in her politics because she's an unmarried woman lacking the emotional balance provided by romantic and family life.

A Chinese military official has come under fire for saying that Taiwan's newly inaugurated president, Tsai Ing-wen, is unfit to be a leader because she is single.

"As a single female politician, she has no emotional encumbrances of love, no family restraint, no children to worry about. Her political style and tactics are often emotional, personalized, and extreme," wrote Wang Weixing, a member of China's Association for Relations across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), an organization that handles ties with Taiwan, in an oped published in the International Herald Leader, a newspaper owned by Beijing's state newswire Xinhua.

He continued, "she doesn't care so much about the direction of political strategies, being more concerned with details. She proposes extreme short-term goals, and does not consider long-term goals."

The official's remarks coincided with President Obama's visit to Vietnam, where the US president championed women's rights there, encouraging Vietnamese to promote gender equality.

"We think gender equality is an important principle," Mr. Obama said during a speech to 2,300 at the Hanoi Convention Center, The Washington Post reported. "Strong, confident women have always moved Vietnam forward. The evidence is clear – I say this wherever I go around the world – families, communities, and countries are more prosperous when girls and women have an equal opportunity to succeed."

The oped on Taiwan's president, which has since been deleted, released an avalanche of responses on Chinese social media sites including Weibo, China's version of Twitter, defending Ms. Tsai's social status and her ability to govern.

"If the tables were turned and Ms Tsai was a man, she would be celebrated for being single," one user wrote on Weibo, according to the BBC. "This is typical discriminatory behavior but it still disgusts me."

"This is how North Korea attacks Park Geun-hye," the South Korean president who's also unmarried, a Weibo user wrote. “If single women can't become president, can remarried old men become chairmen?” asked another user, alluding to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was divorced, but later re-married, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The remarks appear to be a response to Tsai's recent inauguration speech in which she omitted any acknowledgement of the "One China." Since her election to the office Tsai has faced a lot of backlash from Chinese officials for her pro-independence stance. Beijing still considers Taiwan as an autonomous region that is part of China, and Tsai's failure to mention that hasn't gone unnoticed.

Still, the denigration of women isn't uncommon in China, despite the the progress that it has made in advancing women's rights. China has often been held up as a good model by other Asian countries for the progress it has made concerning women's issues, according to The New York Times. Over the decades and particularly during the Mao Zedong era, women's rights were championed by the Communist Party. In one incident, Mr. Zedong made a famous declaration stating that women "hold up half the sky."

Such advocacy coupled with China's economic boom have propelled the place of women in the Chinese community. The percentage of women in the work force has increased over the years, with women accounting for 42.6 percent of the work force. In comparison, in 1949, women accounted for only 7.5 percent of the country's workforce. And a study by Grant Thornton, an organization that advises companies, found that the proportion of women in senior management in China was at 51 percent outpacing the global average of 21 percent, the Asia Times reported.

Yet there is a sense that women are still lagging behind in China. But more concerning, many observers note, is that China appears to be regressing when it comes to how women are perceived and treated in Chinese society. In 2015, the Chinese New Year Gala event, which attracted some 690 million viewers, sparked a widespread outrage following the airing of various skits on television that were deemed misogynistic. One skit made fun of unmarried women, a common practice in the country in which single women above 27 are depicted as unwanted, and face constant pressure to get married.

"The media has been publicizing individual cases of successful women, but over all there isn't space for women to develop in the economic realm," Feng Yuan, a prominent Chinese feminist, told The New York Times. "Women's status has not improved, and in some areas has regressed."

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