Monday, 24 September 2012

Gender Inequality & Imbalance in China

Everyday I wrestle with the many faces of China because it went through the greatest changes in the shortest period in the history of womankind (and ok, mankind as well). Gender inequality is a good case in point.

The well known, shocking case of the Chinese woman with 23 needles buried in her body is a glaring indictment of the outdated feudal tradition of favouring male over female (重男轻女). This is more prevalent, although not limited, to the rural areas. This heart rendering issue of baby girl killing is addressed briefly in a multi-award winning movie Blind Mountain. Mainly the movie tackles the social issue of arranged marriage, but also touches briefly on baby girl killings. Both of these problems are distinct but related. They're both rooted in the adherence of outmoded feudal tradition that are typical of pre-industrial, agricultural society that are no longer applicable in China. This practise is thus very outdated in this new social order. Some people attribute this problem to One-Child Policy. This policy only exacerbates the problem, but not the root cause. If a girl is just as good as a boy, no ridding of girls are necessary.

Today the killings are done more 'humanely' by gender-selective abortion with the help of technology like ultrasound. This makes the gender selection even more effective, leading to the further skewing of male population. Before the Opening-Up of 1978, the male to female gender ratio is about 105 to 100. Today the figure is about 120 to 100. This gender imbalance leads to another social issue of single men having problem finding wives, especially in villages where this problem is most acute.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Forbes' 2012 List of Top 14 Richest Self-made Women is populated mostly by Chinese women. Of course the list of richest women in the world has family names like Walton and Reinhart, who are heiresses to their daddy's fortune. They're not in the self-made rich list. Because China begun its ascent to prosperity really only in the last 20 years or so (it opened its door 30 odd years ago), so ALL Chinese billionaires are invariably 1st generation. In other words, self-made.

The simple reason that there are more Chinese women in this self-made rich list than any other country is because in the last 30 years China is the Land of Opportunity (obviously more so than USA. A ratio of 7 Chinese to 4 Yanks). Of course, the women in China had to be given the same or at least similar opportunity as men in order for them to grab these opportunities that arose from the rising China. At least in the large cities, the Mao's message of "women hold up half the sky" is being heard, and put into practise. Women in the workplace in the major cities don't really face sexism at all.

A closer look at the list also reveals that ALL the Chinese women in this list struck it rich in the traditional male domain while MOST of the women in the West in this list made their fortune in female related products and services like fashion and TV personality that aims squarely at female audience (with the only except of Meg Whitman, the founder of EBay. And as for Russia, I don't know to qualify them as the West or the East. Russia is part of BRICS as does PRC). Not to mention that the average age of the Chinese women in this list is considerably younger. These 2 points - the male dominated industries, and age - highlight even further how remarkable their achievement are. Once again, they had to be given the opportunity to do it. Without it, none of this is possible.

And it wasn't just the business world, Li Na, a woman Chinese professinal tennis player, had achieved something that no Asian - male or female - had accomplished by winning the French Open.

Mosuo Chinese minority
Chinese Mosou minority
Let's not kid ourselves that glass ceilings exist in China, which is quite universal except for a few minorities. Of course, 1 of them is in China, and is known as the Mosuo people, which ias a matrilineal and matriarchal culture.

This reasonable high level of Chinese gender equality could be better be reflected when compare to its neighbour of Japan. While Japanese per capita GDP is almost 10 times that of Chinese, and had been the world 2nd richest country for several decades until PRC surpassed it just last year. More importantly its industrialisation/modernisation is at least 1/2 century ahead of China, and yet no Japanese women made into this self-made rich list (probably never had). It's very well known that despite Japanese advanced Westernisation/modernisation in the political, economic, scientific, and technological arenas, when it comes to women's place, it trails behind Chinese womenfolks. Japanese kimono - originated in Chinese Tang dynasty - it's still being worn by modern Japanese women. The most traditional thing Chinese women wear today is qipao, which is a hundred years old or so, not over a few thousand years old like kimono. The difference between PRC on the one hand, and Japan, HK, and Taiwan on the other is economic development. There's no major cultural difference between Taiwan and Mainland China. The difference is economic. In fact, many many social issues that people think has to do with culture is in fact an economic problem. The issue maybe rooted in culture, it could be solved by economic progress. For one thing, with increasing prosperity, One-Child Policy will be abolished. In fact the relaxation of the One-Child Policy is taking place selectively, and gradually in Mainland China right now.

With the Chinese government's effort to promote the women's right, a number of female fighter pilots are in service in PLA, and 1 of them end up as the 1st Chinese female taikonaut. This gender equality PR exercise is wonderfully liberating and soaring into space, while baby girls are being terminated on earth. The gap is dizzyingly hard to reconcile. But  it's narrowing. Look at the other 2 Chinas - HK & Taiwan - they don't have this baby girl killing problem. Of course, with the size of Mainland, it would take much longer.

The conclusion should be clear: the gender equality between the progressive large cities and backward and traditional communities in China  is like heaven and earth. One is inspiring, and the other heart wrenching. And so these extreme contrasts make generalising China quite impossible. You can't view China in black and white. China is BOTH black AND white. This is typical of a developING economy, especially 1 that is the size of China (and India has similar baby girl killings, which suggest sadly this inhumane feudal tradition isn't unique to China. And both countries in transitions suffer similar social tragedies). Yep, it's all part of the growing pains.

It's this developing stage of economic progress that led to very uneven opportunities in different groups of women in different socioeconomic ladder and geography that lead to this tragedy. I guess the best long term solution is the narrowing of the income gaps between the rich and the poor. This challenge is far far more daunting than landing on the Moon. Well, didn't the Yank land on the Moon in 1969 at a time when there was great social strife and upheaval on earth in America (both gender and racial inequality issues). Yep, how different are PRC and USA? And Yep, PRC is in a more or less similar stage of socioeconomic development as USA in the 1960s (actually more similar to 1940s). The more things change, the more things stay the same. isn't it? President JFK said that "US goes to the Moon not because it's easy but because it's hard". He's wrong, going to the Moon is easy. Solving social problems on earth is hard. Way harder. In 1969 where the Yanks flew to the Moon, they struggled with racial and gender inequality on earth. Human problems are far more intractable than technological problem.

This kind of contradictions of gender equality aren't limited to China. Have you noticed, the most of the female leaders are countries with low female status? S.Korea, India, Pakistan, Burma, The Philippines, etc. On the other hand, there're still no female leaders in countries where women's lib is considerably quite advanced. For example, France, USA, etc. It's a bit like saying since USA had elected an African-America president, there's no more racial prejudice in America.

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