Women Entrepreneurs Are Blossoming Amid China's E-Commerce Boom. But Can They Peg Back Patriarchy?

"If you win woman in business - you win consumers." Jack Ma said in his speech at the Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship. Screen capture from Youtube.

“If you win women in business – you win consumers.” Jack Ma said in his speech at the Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship. Screen capture from YouTube.

On May 20-21, Alibaba, the largest online and mobile e-commerce company in China, held its inaugural Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship in Hangzhou, drawing more than 500 attendees from various fields.

In Alibaba's own words:

Alibaba Group has enabled millions of women to become entrepreneurs in the fast-growing field of e-commerce, and today, more than 50% of all merchants on Taobao Marketplace are female.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma gave a keynote speech, emphasizing that the Internet age has provided women with unprecedented opportunities in business.

But Jack Ma also claimed he is against both feminism and patriarchalism:


I am against feminism, I am more against patriarchalism. Man and woman come from different planets. However we have to learn how to work with each other, appreciate and respect each other. One takes care of the inside / domestic and one take care of the outside / external. We can't say that external is important while domestic is less so. […] This morning a guest speaker said many women become pathetic as they turned into nu-han-zi [male looking women]. Acting like a man is really pathetic. Women are women and their charisma is no less than men. We need to strike a balance in this world. In Chinese medicine, if yin and yang are not in balance, the person will be sick.

Chinese feminist circles, for whom the arrest of five young feminists planning a campaign ahead of International Women's Day remains a very fresh memory, said Ma's speech failed to address the fundamental problem of gender equity in China.

Ye Haiyin (@公民叶海燕), a well-known feminist and activist in China, commented on China's Twitter-like-Weibo:


In Jack Ma's speech, I see some vision behind Alibaba: encourage women to be independent, abandon the blind worship of patriarchal power structures, recognize the value and contribution of women and support their entrepreneurship and growth. He is totally in line with feminists in these regards. But he also claims that he is anti-feminist. When I read that part, I laughed out loud: Oh dear, do you understand feminism or not?

Huang tongtong, a famous media critic echoed Ye's view and criticised the “unspoken patriarchal values” in Ma's speech:


What's the meaning of “feminism”? It calls for equality between man and woman, which is our country's state policy. I wonder why Jack Ma is against feminism? What I see is Ma’s fear as a male leader of increasing female power, having already made so much money from women

The famous feminist network, “Women and New Media” (@新媒体女性) even produced a blow-by-blow contextual analysis of the speech, explaining how Ma stereotyped women.

Despite skepticism among a number of Chinese feminists, however, Ma’s speech was generally well received and has been quoted around social media platforms.

Weibo user, “Not so greenish grasses” (@千草未萌_TxxZ) commented:


I read a few articles and wanted to write on the topic. But I give up, so I will just talk about my stand here: 1. Upon reading the whole text, I could feel that Ma’s compliments for women come from the bottom of his heart. 2. But his thought is deeply rooted in patriarchy. 3. Yet the problem stems from social environment and should be understood in that context. 4. People like Ma we are able to at least communicate with. To label [him as patriarch] and criticize him is too extreme.

Whose boom is this?

With the boom of e-commerce, women are set free from habitual gender discrimination at Chinese workplaces and can start their own small online shops from home and be their own bosses.

Ma Jiajia, a post-millenial entrepreneur famous for her boldness and feminism, is a spearhead for these women. For many, she is associated with the name of her first sex shop — Powerful – which she opened right after her graduation in 2012. Compared with other small sex shops, which tend to be located in dimly-lit offbeat areas, her shop is located in one of Beijing’s up-market districts, featuring large, bright rooms with a variety of diverse sex toys on offer.

“For 5,000 years of Chinese history woman has been the object of consumption, of commerce. Today, women should be the consumers, able to consume others too,” she told the New York Times last year.

Early this year, Ma Jiajia held a big launch party for her new business, High – a mobile app that claims to be “the most popular community for women in the 22nd century”.

Ma regards High as a safe online space through which feminism in society can be bolstered:


Independent, avant-garde and young girls are the target audience of High. They can feel free to chat about relationships and individual growth there. They may also be offline friends. But they are more than friends – they share common enemies, dreams and visions, and support each other. They form a community and a gang under a manifesto.


The mission of High is to break down the traditional relationship based on the “fixation with reproduction” in Chinese society, to advocate for real individual independence, and to shift from the bad relationship that either leaves no room for your partner or asks too much from your partner, to a good model that advocates for company and growth together.

Ma’s feminism, which is less politically oriented and delivered through the medium of online business, is more compatible with Chinese society than the feminist messages delivered by other women's right groups. With her sharp mind and soft manner, she has acquired a captive young audience. Ma has been invited to numerous public events and business forums to talk about changing mindsets in the Internet era, and sometimes, sex and desire.

Li Yinhe, a famous feminist scholar addressed the general challenges faced by Chinese feminists more than a decade ago in 2001:


The conflict between feminism and traditional Chinese society is two-fold – one part is imaginary and one is real. On the imaginary level, people imagine that feminists are resentful towards men and hence men's enemy; that they look ugly and hence become old ladies because they fail to marry; that they are psychologically sick because of their lonely lives. In a country that is entrenched in thousands of years of patriarchy, the value of feminism is in conflict with traditional Chinese values. Some say the dual criteria for male and female still exists today, and many people still accept and admire successful men having extra marital affairs.

In the past decade, a new generation of feminists has made great efforts to advocate for gender equity, yet the future seems gloomy as mainstream society continues to push back against their values.

Following the release of the five Chinese feminists that were arrested ahead of March 8, a commentary on Foreign Policy highlighted the fact that “[a] significant minority of commenters mocked the women’s campaign, blasted the entire gender for being demanding, or denied the need for feminism in China altogether.”

With the increasing number of women entrepreneurs in China's surging e-commerce sector, the question of whether the online economy can fundamentally change power relations in patriarchal China or merely re-enforce the status quo is more relevant than ever.

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