Women in China: still seeking liberation

Wednesday, September 13, 1995

By Eva Cheng

In a country where a large number of women are kidnapped for sale; female infanticide is common; illiteracy, unemployment and school dropout rates among women are persistently much higher than for men; the number of women in higher education, professional jobs and positions of power is only a fraction that of men; women's unpaid labour is glorified and women's rights to control their bodies are brutally denied — women's emancipation certainly has a long way to go. This is China, 46 years after women are supposed to have made a giant step in liberation.

Women's position in China is being made worse by the ongoing pro-capitalist economic reform under which profits — in increasing cases those of private capital owners — are placed more and more before social needs.

Unemployment, for example, which rapidly escalated under the reform, has hit women hard. They are the first fired and last hired under enterprises' drive to "optimise" the labour structure, to get rid of the most "uneconomic" labour. Women are entitled to benefits such as maternity leave and child-care, which some enterprises want to abolish.

Women are also the first to be squeezed out of the work force as jobs become scarce in rural China.

A national survey by the All China Federation of Trade Unions in 1989 revealed that women constituted 62.5% of redundant workers in the 660 firms examined. Only 5.3% of them said they would recruit women even for jobs that women are believed to be equally as capable of doing as men.

The abduction of women and children, common before 1949, has become so widespread again in China that the National People's Congress — China's parliament — passed resolutions in 1992 trying to ban it. In 1991 and 1992 alone, 50,000 such cases have been reported.

Registered female births fell increasingly short of male births in recent years, by so much that the rural female population has dropped to 100 for every 110 to 120 male. This means that female infanticide is becoming widespread again.

Of the 180 million illiterate or semi-literate in China in 1990, 70% were women. Primary education is officially compulsory, but many rural parents would rather keep their children helping in the field than going to school since the economic reforms, under which they have a direct share of the output. Of the 2.7 million children between seven and 11 years old who missed school in 1987, 80% were girls.

Women accounted for only 33.7% of the enrolment of universities and colleges in 1992, and 24.8% of the graduates. In the same year, while women accounted for only 38.4% of the work force, they made up 70% of the unemployed youth. In 1990, women workers were paid only 77.4% as much as their male counterparts in the cities and 81.4% in the countryside.

In 1993, women accounted for only 32.5% of government employees, 21% of parliamentary deputies and 12% in its leading body.

Beijing attributed these appalling gaps to scarcity of resources, made worse by a huge population. But oppression of women — whatever its forms or expressions — does not originate from material scarcity itself. Nor does eradication of it depend on material wealth per se.

Despite far more severe scarcity in Russia, in the decade following the 1917 revolution the Bolshevik government revamped repressive marriage and divorce laws, made abortion freely available on demand, provided central laundries, nurseries and eating places. These measures gave Russian women for the first time some real power in determining their lives. The Chinese Communist Party helped bring about real gains for women too, such as the right to divorce in rural "red" areas in the early 1920s and the rights to uncoerced marriage, remarriage and divorce throughout the country months after it seized power.

But some of these gains were rolled back in both countries. In the Soviet Union the Stalinist bureaucracy seized power and seriously distorted the socialist project. The CCP trailed closely the Soviet backlash after the Stalinists in it dominated following 1927. It retreated increasingly from its earlier progressive program to please the utterly patriarchal Kuomintang (KMT) which the Stalin-controlled Comintern ordered it to forge an alliance with.

As well as massacring protesting workers in 1927, the KMT also crushed a vibrant women's movement. It killed several hundred women students in Guangzhou in December that year, allegedly because of their short hair, which was then a symbol of emancipation. The backlash stepped up during the long period of the alliance which ran till 1945 except for the break between 1934 and 1935. Meanwhile, women in the red zones were strait-jacketed by Mao Zedong exclusively into subordinate roles.

This period seemed to have seriously miseducated party cadres, so much so that they strongly resisted implementing the 1950 Marriage Law which aimed to shatter the patriarchal family order. Many women were reportedly murdered or driven to take their lives for supporting the change. Zhou Enlai, China's long serving prime minister, reported that the latter group alone amounted to 10,000 during the first half of 1951. An official report in 1953 revealed that the measures were successfully put through in only 15% of the country, while failing totally in 25%.

The sudden collectivisation in 1953 also marked a major backlash against women's rights. More attacks were to come to serve the needs of the increasingly autocratic regime. It was announced in 1953 that women's liberation had been completed, so there was no need for independent struggle. Women's political role was down-played, while duties in production and the family were emphasised.

This had a particularly damaging effect in the countryside, where patriarchal practices were quickly revived. Divorce became very difficult to obtain, with the party intervening heavily in people's personal lives, imposing mediation. The All China Democratic Federation 1957 congress told women that home managing was their duty, which was as important as nation building.

The collectivisation of kitchens, child-care and laundries after 1958 lasted only as long as the Big Leap Forward campaign was on, and was followed by another push to glorify women's "natural" duties at home, which included child-care and supporting their husbands. The unpaid labour extracted from women and the hurdles blocking their personal development were never recognised, let alone redressed.

The same adherence to crude biological determinism had resulted in women being given only supporting tasks in the liberated areas before 1949 and mainly assigned to stereotyped jobs.

The regime imposed a rigid puritanism in relation to sexual relations, reinforcing the Confucian values that for long had a strong hold on the population. But that is a moralism meant only for the people, not the top echelons of the party. The Chinese emperors were used to such hypocritical exceptions, a tradition that seems to be closely followed by Mao, whose long-time personal physician, Li Zhisui, revealed in his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao that the party had gone to great lengths to meet his strong sexual appetite for young women.

Women's reproductive rights have never quite existed in China despite abortion and sterilisation being easily available since the 1950s. They were often imposed on women, except for the few years before 1956 and during the Great Leap Forward from 1958-60. Under the one-child policy of the last 20 years, there are numerous reports of women forced physically into abortion even in advanced pregnancy. If they resisted they faced having their houses pulled down, and losing their jobs — as well as their husband's — and other crucial entitlements.

The big push for women into the work force since 1949 has been crucial in elevating women's independence in China. But according to the crude economic determinism propagated by the Communist Party, that in and of itself is a sufficient measure of women's liberation. The much heavier effect that unemployment has on women than men, and many women's forced retreat back to the home, has made a sad mockery of this simplistic view.

Along with a job, the institutionalised pressure on women to continue shouldering the bulk of home and child-care duties has brought an exceptional load. This has a direct bearing on women's continued subjugation in the workplace, reinforced by inferior educational opportunities.

The revival of the abduction and selling of women is a sad but telling measure of women's place in China. They are still treated as private property, owned and tradeable by patriarchal power. The unfulfilled emancipation of women in China is a powerful testimony to the severe distortions and hurdles that the autocratic ruling bureaucracy has placed on the building of socialism in China.