The Lives of Urban and Rural Chinese Women Under

Market Capitalism


In 1992, the Law on the Protection of Women's Rights set down the rights of women at home and in the family. According to the law, men and women should enjoy equal pay for equal work. They should be treated equally when it comes to housing assignments, material benefits and remuneration. The principle of equality between men and women should be upheld and no discrimination against women is allowed when it comes to promoting a higher position or grade and assessing special skills or duties. However, the current situation for women in China, especially rural and older women who have lost their jobs in state-owned enterprises, is bleak. According to China's Ministry of Labor's report in 1997, women accounted for only 39% of the labor force but 61% of the total laid off workers. Structural economic changes have disadvantaged women who are now at the mercy of foreign multi-national firms who exploit women without other options. In many ways, the lives of Chinese women in the rural as well as the urban sector have reverted back to the ways of traditional China before Mao.

In the rural sector, joblessness and oppression have produced a myriad of social problems among women. China has one of the highest suicide rates as well as the highest female suicide rate in the world (56%). The reasons behind these suicides are numerous but a main theme which links them all is the feeling of uselessness. According to one woman whose grandmother committed suicide, "In many rural areas they still think women are useless. They do field work, give birth, take care of the husband, the children, the in-laws. So to them if there is a family problem they think that the sky has collapsed." (RW Online) This feeling of useless is similar to the feeling women had before the state-capitalistic programs of Mao.

The countryside is home to 80% of the population of China. In the 1980's, new programs were implemented in order to increase the productivity and efficiency of the farm workers. The program of rural production responsibility is similar to pre-state-capitalism. The aim of the system was to increase the productivity of the agricultural sector by minimizing the number of labor organizations and rewarding individuals financially who were the most productive. Though there are many forms which can be found under the system of rural production responsibility, one of the main forms likens to wage labor. On wage labor farms, production teams own land which they hire workers to work for a wage. Therefore, the production team makes the rules and decides what gets grown and how much of it. The worker is responsible for working as hard as he or she can in order to gain work credits to buy the necessities he or she might need. The worker's wage is determined by their output. In an ideal world, this system would be beneficial to women who would receive the same wage for the same amount of output they produced as men but there have been numerous reports that women are being paid fewer points for the same amount of work done by men. Wage discrepancies also arise due to the division of labor between men and women. On average, women are given lighter and less-strenuous work which also tends to be lower paid. However, these wage discrepancies only arise if women are able to find work. It is estimated that over 90% of women in the province of Zhejiang alone are unemployed.

Similar to the rural sector, in the cities men are clearly favored over women in most profession fields which leaves most women scrambling for the few opportunities in the low wage fields. Over 60% of female civil servants are in low and mid-level jobs while the majority of top and senior positions are held by men. This poses a large problem for older women who are the largest unemployed population in China. Older women normally have children and in-laws to care for but are seen as unemployable due to their age and the dependency their families have on them. Older women also make up the largest population because they made up the largest population in the state-owned enterprises which were replaced by privately owned ones. These laid off women have limited skills and many are too old to learn new ones. Many in China have begun to call older women the "disadvantaged class".

This unseen population is often overshadowed by the newly educated young women who have enjoyed the benefits of both the cultural revolution and the new market capitalistic system. These financially independent women have the upper hand in China but also have new problems to overcome. Women of all ages have found it difficult to compete in a market which still have high levels of sex discrimination. While sex discrimination existed during the era of Mao, it has been most revealed in market capitalism. According to one woman, "In Mao Zedong's days, it didn't matter how you looked as long as you could do the work. Mao liked women who could work 20 hours a day, like a cow." But because of the high unemployment rate amongst women, employers are using looks and appearance to choose women for employment.

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