Dong Xiaoying (董晓莹) is a lawyer based in Guangzhou, China. Her proficiency lies in family law, victim representation and administrative litigation, with a specific emphasis on women’s rights protection. As a founder of the Advocates for a Diverse Family Network, Dong has been working to challenge China’s prohibition on single women receiving reproductive assistance since 2012. US-China Today sat down with Dong to speak about her recent lawsuit: Xu Zaozao’s egg-freezing case. In 2018, Xu Zaozao (徐枣枣), the pseudonym for an unmarried 35-year-old woman, filed a lawsuit against Beijing Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital of Capital Medical University(首都医科大学附属北京妇产医院)after being denied to freeze her eggs due to China’s restrictions on reproductive technology for single women. Despite facing setbacks, including a loss in the first trial in July 2022, Xu has appealed the decision and is currently awaiting the verdict for the second and final trial. 

What factors influenced your decision to pursue a career in law and represent Xuzaozao in the egg-freezing case? As a female lawyer in China, can you share insights into any specific challenges you’ve encountered in the legal field? 

I majored in medicine in college and for my postgraduate degree at Beijing Forestry University, I pursued psychology under the guidance of my mentor, Fang Gang, a prominent gender equality advocate. Initially, my interest lay in counseling psychology, but upon moving to Beijing, I decided to shift my career path toward legal advocacy due to my growing concern for women’s rights in China. During that time, I envisioned becoming a lawyer as it would enable me to better champion legal issues. I successfully passed the bar exam on my first attempt in 2017 and subsequently embarked on my legal career, beginning with an internship at a small law firm in Guangzhou in 2019.

When it comes to the challenges of being a female lawyer in China’s legal field, one case I vividly remember was a work gathering I attended, along with some professors from the event. At the dinner table, some inappropriate jokes were made, and I felt like I wasn’t treated as an adult. After we finished drinking, a senior colleague in the field patted my shoulder and said, “Can you make it home?” As a woman in my thirties, this experience was uncomfortable.

Despite these circumstances, I was driven by a strong will for change, and that’s how I decided to represent Xu Zaozao in the egg-freezing case. When we deliberated on the grounds for the case, we faced a choice between the general right to personality(一般人格权) and a contractual dispute. Given the prevalence of employment discrimination and gender equality cases at the time, we opted for the general right to personality, as it provided a more suitable avenue to address gender discrimination. Fortunately, we successfully filed the case under the violation of Xu Zaozao’s general right to personality.

Has there been any development in this case since May? Were there any updates received after the second trial concluded without an immediate verdict?

There hasn’t been a recent development. However, a prominent bioethicist Qiu Renzong (邱仁宗) from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has been very supportive of our cause. Just a few days ago, one of his students reached out to us, requesting the contact information of the judge, as Professor Qiu intends to send his opinion to the judge. In fact, during the first trial, the judge sought his opinion but did not adopt it. 

In light of the substantial growth in awareness and activism for women’s rights in China in recent years, do you have any predictions or expectations regarding how this case may evolve?

We still maintain a viable chance of winning. The upcoming new provisions from the National Health Commission (potentially easing restrictions on reproductive assistance for unmarried women) will include a public consultation process, which we view as an added opportunity. We are also in ongoing dialogue with the judge, and a change in policy could prompt a reevaluation of the case in the future.

Do you consider pursuing litigation a reliable avenue, especially in China’s current legal context, for advancing objectives, particularly in the realm of women’s rights advocacy? 

Reliability is not the issue here. When it comes to societal advocacy and discussions of social significance, this approach is highly effective. However, for enacting concrete policy changes or directly assisting individuals within a community, its effectiveness may vary depending on what perspective you adopt.

While women’s rights issues have not been entirely excluded from the legal landscape despite challenges faced by the feminist movement, do you anticipate a more positive trend for addressing gender-related matters in the future, or do you foresee a further constriction of the space for such discussions?

It’s not a blanket statement. While feminism has faced challenges, women’s issues have not disappeared from the advocacy framework. Our case has progressed relatively well due to several factors, including alignment with China’s reproductive policy and a discreet strategy. There is still space for legal cases on gender discrimination and domestic violence; it doesn’t mean such cases are off-limits. We also avoid explicitly associating our case with feminism to minimize potential sensitivity. 

China is grappling with declining birth rates, and government restrictions on single women freezing their eggs are tied to concerns about their impact on further delaying women’s childbearing plans. As a legal professional, do you foresee potential revisions in laws protecting reproductive rights in response to the situation?

Issues regarding childbirth by single women, including access to maternity insurance, have made some breakthroughs. This development is closely tied to the lifting restrictions of childbirth policies, although the specific term “single-parent childbirth” is not explicitly mentioned in these policies. In the past, single women who gave birth without a birth permit would face fines and potential obstacles in household registration. Now, household registration issues have been resolved due to changes in China’s population policy, and the birth permit has been replaced by a simple registration in the registry book. 

Initially, single women inadvertently benefited from policy changes that weren’t specifically for them. However, the situation has evolved. For instance, in August 2022, the Deputy Director of the National Healthcare Security Administration made a public statement in response to a media inquiry, affirming that single women who give birth can access maternity insurance without a birth permit. The statement marked the first instance of such at the national level. Furthermore, in September 2022, the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issued a directive to local congresses, urging the rectification of discriminatory policies related to maternity insurance, childbirth policies, school enrollment, and household registration. This signifies a shift in the political climate, given that legislative bodies typically refrain from policies that run counter to the party’s directives. Nonetheless, there is still a long road ahead for local implementation, paralleling the path of the domestic violence law.

This interview with Dong Xiaoying sheds light on a less-explored dimension of legal cases and social policies related to women’s rights, particularly in the context of reproductive health in China. Contrary to the prevailing belief that legal avenues for such cases are non-existent in China, it is evident that there is considerable support for reproductive rights even within the country and the Communist Party’s administrative system. While facing an initial setback with a loss in the first trial, Dong Xiaoying maintains a cautious yet optimistic outlook for the forthcoming second trial. Therefore, it’s important for us to also approach similar situations with cautioned optimism.