By Hannah Wurf, a Research Associate in the G20 Studies Centre, and Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program.

Hillary Clinton sparked a debate about gender equality in China last week when she tweeted that Xi Jinping was 'shameless' for giving a speech about gender equality at the UN while imprisoning Chinese female activists. The Chinese media responded vigorously, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said 'only Chinese women have the right to comment on the situation and rights of Chinese women'.

To understand why China took such offence, it is worth looking at China's approach to gender equality. In China's eyes, Clinton has conflated gender equality with activism and law-breaking. China's actual record on gender equality is relatively good, while its human rights record remains problematic.

Female employment in China was 45% of the total population in 2013 and women contribute 41% to China's GDP. China also has the highest female labour participation in G20 countries. In China, it seems, women really do hold up half the sky.

But beyond economic measures, there is still a long way to go. China has released a white paper on gender equality and women's development, and is drafting legislation to address domestic violence. This is in addition to the international commitments Xi announced last week: US$10 million for UN Women (less than Italy and Switzerland, more than Spain) and a promise to build 100 schools for girls and 100 health clinics, and train 30,000 women from developing countries.

Clinton's tweet reflects a desire to be seen as tough on China, and the Chinese media quickly picked up on this subtext. Some likened her to Donald Trump, while users on Weibo hit back at Clinton:

@Joycewei19: So Hillary is saying that Chairman Xi is shameless! Chinese people would prefer to die than to lose face, Chairman Xi has pledged much money and has given money to those in Africa eliminating their debt and never received any respect and he is still called shameless!

@燕呢xlwb: Hillary is a fanatic for opposing China, regardless of what the matter is she can turn it against you.

One explanation for the ferocity of the backlash is the Chinese 'worldview' and the belief in Chinese uniqueness, which is used to explain away foreign criticism. The tweet by Clinton is interpreted as another misunderstanding of China's intentions and yet more foreign interference in China's domestic affairs.

In China, the imprisonment of female activists is viewed within the context of a bigger crackdown on the activities of NGOs and is completely separate from gender equality. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated this when it announced that the activists 'were not arrested for advancing women's rights but because their actions violated China's laws and regulations'.

Clinton's comment could have been better articulated. She could have congratulated Xi on China's commitments while highlighting the abuse of human rights. Clinton is free to criticise (as is not the case in China), but she should also support China when it is acting in ways she condones.

In the lead-up to the US presidential elections, anti-China rhetoric is likely to heat up. But gender equality should not be in the firing line. Instead, there is reason to support China's commitment to gender equality. Increased female labour participation and better social and legal protections for women will deliver some of the prosperity and stability China seeks.

Photo by Flickr user badbrother.