March 8, 2010 / 2:05 AM / 10 years ago

China's women struggle for a foothold in power

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chairman Mao famously said women hold up half the sky, but in today’s China, the half that matters, the economy, often remains out of their reach.

Attendants stand in a line to pose for a picture outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, during the second plenary meeting of China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) March 8, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Women make up the backbone of production-line workers in China’s private, export-oriented factories, and gravitate to professions such as medicine, journalism and teaching.

But they have done less well in entering the centers of power — China’s ruling Communist Party, and the giant corporations that form the core of the state-dominated economy.

At the annual meeting of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), and an auxiliary advisory body that both opened this week, women were very much a minority, especially female Communist Party members from the majority Han Chinese population.

“While there are a lot of women at all levels of politics, proportionally their numbers are small. This is because in the old feudal system there was no equality between men and women,” said Guo Shuqin, a doctor from Hebei in north China attending as a parliamentary delegate.

“I think it’s very likely that in the near future we’ll have a female president. I’m very hopeful that will happen.”

One fifth of Chinese NPC parliamentarians are female, higher than the 17 percent of the U.S. Congress who are women. But China’s parliament comes under the firm thumb of the Communist Party, where real power lies.

All nine members of the Party’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, who marked the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on Sunday, are men.

Chinese women’s economic power and wealth are still lower than men’s. They own 20 percent of businesses, compared to a world average of 30 percent, said Global Summit of Women president Irene Natividad.

In China, the ownership pattern of an industry is a good indicator of women’s foothold in management.

Conventions for the steel industry, the bastion of the state-owned enterprise, are full of men; by contrast, the lead smelting industry, with its higher ratio of small private firms, has many more female bosses.

China’s retirement age is five years earlier for women than for men, a situation that women would like changed, said Qin Bailan, an artist who belongs to the advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

“Because of the one-child policy, women have to spend less time on family, so they hope to be treated the same.”

MODERN LIVES, MODEL WIVES

Modern China contains many paradoxes for women.

The one-child policy, designed to rein in population growth, freed many women from caring for large families but has caused pain for those who aborted children the law did not allow them to bear.

Even “3.8,” the term for International Women’s Day on March 8, has become a derisive slang term in Chinese for women.

“China is still a very traditional society. Women have heavy family responsibilities, while men have more room to interact with society,” said Qin Wenjing, a children’s book publisher from Guangxi, southwest China, attending the CPPCC.

“A husband and wife will often start out at the same level in their careers but in the end, the man rises higher in his field.”

Many poor rural women face the painful choice of seeking work in distant factories and cities, where they often work as poorly paid waitresses or nannies, or staying in villages where farm work is hard and in-laws can be harsh.

“Since the men have all left to find jobs, all the work there depends on women, from teenagers to the very old,” said Liu Qiaoying, a parliamentary delegate from the rural southwestern province of Guizhou.

“Previously we said women can hold up half the sky,” she told reporters. “But nowadays most women in my hometown are holding the whole sky.”

(Additional reporting by Huang Yan, Ben Blanchard and Yu Le)

Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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