It is slightly difficult to find detailed, accurate information about transgender issues in China. This is due to both the language barrier and the general lack of reporting on international trans issues in the West. However, I’ve managed to find some information on the current state of transgender individuals in China.
I was mildly surprised by the state of transgender rights in China. Transgender individuals can change their government identification cards, can legally receive sex-change operations (though only an estimated 1000 people have done so, according to one source), and the government recognizes the marriages of post-operative transpeople. This last right is especially interesting, given the fact that in the United States there are ongoing legislative and judicial disputes about the validity of marriages between transpeople both before and after surgery.
The state of transgender rights in China has been influenced, at least in part, by the examples of famous transgender individuals in modern China. Jin Xing is a world-famous ballerina and choreographer who was born as a male in China. She rose to the rank of colonel in the Chinese army and in the 1990s successfully lobbied the Chinese government to allow her to receive sex reassignment surgery. She couched her petition in the language of nationalism in order to influence her government, stating, “My rebirth cannot take place anywhere in the world but China.” Jin Xing believes that the Chinese government allowed her surgery as part of an effort to seem more liberal and progressive on the world stage. Despite this effort, some in the Chinese media still labeled her a “sick transsexual.” Jin Xing’s public struggle to obtain recognition as a woman and permission to receive SRS made her a role-model for other transgender individuals living in China. It is worth noting that Jin Xing lived in both America and Europe for several years before returning to China and seeking reassignment surgery; it is possible that Western ideas of trans identity influenced her and thus it is not safe to assume that all Chinese trans individuals desire reassignment surgery, despite the emphasis placed on the surgery by Western reporters investigating trans rights in China.
More recently, a Chinese transwoman, Chen Lili, won the Miss China Universe Pageant in 2004. She would have been the first transwoman to attend the international Miss Universe contest. However, the international organization changed its rules to only allow female-bodied, gender normative contestants. Despite this unfair ruling, it is telling that it was the international community that forbid Chen Lili’s participation in the pageant, not the Chinese community.
I think the most important fact to take away from the vague information available about trans rights in China is the similarities to trans rights in the United States. It is popular in the US media to demonize other countries in comparison to the US, especially economic and military competitors such as China and Iran. However, a closer look at trans rights in China (and in Iran, as we learned in class) reveals that the situation is not black and white and that countries viewed as regressive on human rights can be as “progressive” on trans rights as the United States; of course, I think this is more a condemnation of the United States and other countries for so severely restricting trans rights than a commendation of China for allowing trans citizens a few basic rights.