Capitalism Brings Freedom to Chinese Women

M. Junaid Alam junaidalam at
Wed Jul 23 22:31:47 MDT 2003

Before she was abducted, Hu Lixia had never been alone in a room with a
man who wasn't a relative. The plum-cheeked teenager had never had a
boyfriend or even a secret crush. Every day, after she finished work at
an ice-cream factory in central Hunan province, she would rush home to
help cook dinner. She was, as her mother puts it, "a good country girl."
But one evening in November 1998, Hu didn't return to her tiny village
in remote Xupu county. Her parents, sugarcane farmers with only four
years of schooling between them, were frantic. They contacted the local
police, but their pleas for help were ignored. A month later, a bribe to
the father of a local gangster with a suspiciously fancy house brought
them grim news: Hu had been kidnapped, raped and forced to work at a
brothel in Guigang city in nearby Guangxi province. Desperate to get his
daughter back, Hu's father, Hu Yangduan, together with the father of
another missing girl, paid the traffickers $180—about one year's
income—and both children were returned. "I was so angry at her for
letting someone deceive her that I wanted to beat her," recalls Hu's
father, clenching his weathered fists. "But when I saw her, all I could
do was cry." 

Hundreds of girls have been kidnapped from Xupu in the past few years,
including more than a dozen from Hu's village of barely 200. Some
girls—lured into cars by promises of candy or fancy clothes or merely a
joyride to the city—are never heard from again. Others, like Hu,
eventually find their way back home. But Hu was so traumatized by what
had happened that she refused to leave her house for more than a year
after her return, spending her days sequestered in a dark room filled
with piles of coal. Finally, she fled last year to the boomtown of
Shenzhen, where she now toils in an electronics sweatshop. Although the
16-hour shifts are exhausting, they're nothing like the conditions at
the brothel, where she was forced to service a stream of men for no pay.
"My elders used to sing a song comparing life to a dark well of
bitterness," recalls Hu of her months as a sex slave. "Women, who stand
at the lowest level, are never able to see the sun or sky." 

How times change. When Hu's mother was growing up, her hero was Xiang
Jingyu, a Xupu-born revolutionary who was one of China's first crusading
feminists. China's communist leaders may have inflicted fear and famine
on their subjects, but they were progressive when it came to women's
rights. Soon after the communist revolution, Beijing's leaders even
designated Xupu as a model town for local efforts to promote equality
between the sexes. A feudal country that had bound its girls' feet just
a few years before had been transformed into a nation where women, as
Chairman Mao Zedong famously declared, could "hold up half the sky." But
as China sheds the stifling rigidity of communism for the ruthless
disorder of capitalism, the sky seems to be falling in on millions of
women. After half a century of struggling to achieve equality with men,
women are bearing the brunt of the nation's massive social dislocations.

True, capitalism has benefited an élite group of educated, urban women
who are enjoying unprecedented opportunities—from heading to America for
M.B.A.s to launching their own companies. But, in general, women are
losing out. As discrimination against them increases, they are the first
to be laid off from once ironclad state jobs. They are the first to be
deprived of local-government seats now that Beijing no longer enforces
long-held gender quotas. They are the first to drop out of school as
academic fees climb ever higher. And they have regressed financially,
too: in the 1980s, women made 80¢ for every dollar that men earned; now,
women make only 65¢, as private enterprises are free to pay as they

At the extremes, old bad habits from China's imperial past are also
resurging: prostitution, concubinage, wife buying, female infanticide.
One symptom of the intensifying pressure is that nearly 300,000 women in
China committed suicide in 2000, making it the only country in the world
where relatively more females than males take their own lives. "China is
progressing in so many ways," says Deng Li, deputy director of the
government-run All-China Women's Federation. "But for many women, their
lives are going backward, because the rules to protect them are no
longer being followed." 


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