Women lose some Maoist ground sex sells products in today's China Focus is profit, not equality. Discrimination is rampant.

July 28, 1992|By New York Times News Service

BEIJING -- The capitalistic changes in China in the past dozen years have made almost everyone richer, but in some ways they have also made life more difficult and more frustrating for the nation's 565 million women.

As Chinese society focuses more on profit than on equality, and as Communist morality loses its influence, women are, in some cases, losing the ground they gained during the Maoist years.

More now than under Mao Tse-Tung, they are being discriminated against in jobs, in housing, in land allocation. Physical attractiveness has become a crucial factor in hiring women. Women are increasingly used as ornaments in the office or lures to bring in business.

The proportion of women in the most powerful positions has declined. And traditional practices that the Communists had virtually eliminated, like the selling of women as wives, have reappeared on a significant scale. New technologies like ultrasound testing allow a couple to know the sex of a fetus -- and they often get an abortion if it is female.

"Everyone has benefited from the reforms, but men have moved ahead at a faster pace than women," said Tao Chunfang, deputy director of the Women's Research Institute, an official organization in Beijing. "This is China, where the man has always been the focus of the culture. China has glorified the man for several thousand years."

The glorification goes on, in new ways. In Shanghai in May, at the opening banquet of the Metal Exchange, a new commodity futures exchange, 50 attractive, seductively dressed women were brought out after dessert to dance with the guests, of whom one-third were women.

"These days if you're a woman, you're as good as a commodity," a Chinese businesswoman said. "You're either worth six pounds of gold or two tons of aluminum."

Chinese attitudes toward women appear fraught with contradictions and complexities.

Women face greater economic opportunity than they did under Mr. Mao, but also more discrimination; they may drive buses and taxis, but they usually take only one-third of the spots in universities; they enjoy excellent maternity benefits, but they are the first workers sent home with part pay during times of economic austerity.

In the 1990s, China's women continue to gain in many ways: maternal death rates are declining, women are running successful businesses, and many factories give preference to young, unmarried women in manufacturing toys, clothing and other products.

When Mr. Mao and his fellow Communists took power in 1949, they imposed far-reaching measures to improve the status of women. They eradicated prostitution, child marriages, the use of concubines and the sale of brides.

The number of women in the industrial labor force soared, from 600,000 in 1949 to more than 50 million, or 82 percent of urban women today, compared with 29 percent in 1949.

The gains gave women a measure of economic independence and self-confidence.

To be sure, discrimination existed even under Mr. Mao. But in those days factories and offices had little autonomy, and they were not much motivated by market economics, so they tended to observe central guidelines against sex discrimination.

With the collapse of Maoism, however, the traditional male-dominated nature of Chinese society has reasserted itself.

At the same time, Western approaches to advertising -- using images of beautiful young woman to sell products -- have been imported since the early 1980s, along with pin-ups and pornography.

As a result, discrimination against women in many factories and offices is not only more widespread now but also more blatant than in Maoist days.

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