China says these are good days for women

Times Staff Writer

Chinese officials painted a bright picture of gender equality in the country Tuesday, saying more women are entering the workforce, getting a basic education and moving into positions of power in government.

However, women have yet to break into the highest echelon of the Communist Party, and other recent reports have offered a grimmer view of their daily lives.

Calling the advances “remarkable achievements” that other countries should follow, Huang Qingyi, vice chairwoman of the National Working Committee on Children and Women under the State Council, said Chinese women make up 45% of the workforce and account for about 40% of official positions in government.

“The number of female cadres has increased rapidly with an increasing participation in the political affairs of China,” Huang said in a briefing. “Currently in China, there are nine female state leaders -- that’s five more than 2001.”

By the end of 2005, Huang said, 241 officials at the provincial or ministerial level were women. She did not release past figures.


However, all nine members of the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee are men. The highest-ranking woman in the party is believed to be Vice Premier Wu Yi. She sits on the 24-member Politburo.

Since the 2001 implementation of two national programs aimed at improving the lives of women and children, more than 4 million rural women have been lifted out of poverty, Huang said. Women’s average life expectancy reached 74.1 years and the infant mortality rate dropped 41%. Virtually all young people attend the compulsory nine years of school, and literacy among the young and middle-aged reached 98% last year, she said.

Despite the government’s glowing statements, other reports have been less optimistic about the status of women and the rural poor.

According to census data published last month in the China Daily, the number of Chinese who can’t read rose by 30 million over the last five years to 116 million. The statistic was an embarrassment for the Communist Party, which has long fought illiteracy in the world’s most populous country. Officials attribute the setback to the mass migration of rural poor searching for work in the cities.

Many children, especially girls, tend to choose jobs over school to help support their families. The traditional Chinese preference for boys, especially in the countryside, has led to a high number of abortions, often aimed at preventing the birth of girls. The result has been a birth ratio of about 119 boys for every 100 girls.

This gender imbalance means men will have a harder time finding wives, which experts say could lead to more prostitution and kidnapping and trafficking of women.

The misery of some impoverished rural women is evident in China’s high suicide rate. According to the World Health Organization, rural China is the only area of the world where more women than men commit suicide. Every year, an estimated 1.5 million women try to kill themselves and about 150,000 succeed, the government says.

Though women who find factory work in the city have a better chance of improving their lot, analysts say, they pay a high price by working long hours for low wages and few benefits.

“Of course some women are better off today, especially the professionals in the cities. They can even drive BMWs and Mercedeses,” said Apo Leung, director of the Asia Monitor Resource Center, a labor organization based in Hong Kong. “But rural migrant women work predominantly in the labor-intensive industries like electronics, garment and toys.

“In terms of their contribution to the GDP, these women are heroes,” Leung said. “But they don’t get the respect and dignity that are enshrined by the constitution.”