October 1 was the sixty year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This event made me think about how women’s lives have changed in China since then. The misogynistic practices of traditional China are well known: foot binding, concubines, female infanticide, patrilocality, arranged marriages, and more. When the Communists took charge they had to fight many of these traditional practices that literally and figuratively bound the women of China, especially in the rural areas. Pro-women rhetoric was strong because women were seen as an important revolutionary force. Once the Communists took charge, laws were passed that illegalized the traditional means of female subjugation listed above. Women were also given the right to vote and run for office. However, Chinese Communism was based on Marxism, which did not advocate a women’s movement separate from the proletariat workers’ movement because it would divide attention from the most important goals. This made it easy to hinder real progress in women’s rights.
The economic reforms that Deng Xiaoping initiated in the late 1970s had great repercussions for the situation of women. Under Mao everyone was supposed to suffer equally; under Deng, however, everyone had to look out for themselves as the economy opened up, making women more vulnerable. It was also at this time that the differences between urban and rural women began to be much more divisive because the class gap began to get much wider.
The opening up of China has brought technology and wealth, which means that female infanticide has mostly turned into sex-selective abortion. Laws have sought to prohibit screening but enforcement of this law has been weak and the practice continues to be widespread, especially in rural provinces where the one child policy has exaggerated the value of boys. This has caused a severe imbalance in the ratio of men to women (100 girls to 116.9 boys in 2000), which becomes a huge societal problem when they are old enough to marry.
Because of this, and because many girls leave to find jobs in the city, a trade has grown in trafficked brides, including children, since the 1980s. Foreign women from surrounding countries are even being trafficked in as brides; they are particularly vulnerable as they may not speak the language or understand the customs. Many of these brides are sent to remote villages where it is difficult to escape. In 1993 the government admitted that 40,000 trafficked brides had been rescued—now add that to the number not found, and fast-forward two decades during which the problem has grown even greater.
We are living in a large city and I have not seen any overt discrimination again women, although it is really hard to see the “real” China as a foreigner with poor Chinese skills. However, I have noticed the economic freedom of China being manifested in lots of colorful billboards filled with gorgeous, thin, pale-skinned female celebrities advertising a certain plastic surgery hospital. The TVs in the metro play commercials for skin whitening creams made by familiar Western companies marketed exclusively towards women (In the US we want to be as tan as possible but here they want to be as white—when we took pictures for school they Photoshopped us to look sickly pale). A friend also commented that although Chinese women do not bind their feet anymore, the fashion is to wear ridiculously high heels on the uneven, cracked sidewalks instead.
However, there is no doubt that China has also made progress. For an uplifting read, look at this article about the Care for Girls program that started in 2000 in order to combat gender discrimination and the harmful son preference. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-07/08/content_346700.htm