China gains big windfall from women Once considered worthless, they lead economic revolution

November 29, 1998|By Maggie Farley

LIANHUACUN, China - In Liu Chunlan's remote hamlet in the rolling hills of Sichuan, the old folks used to tell her that girls were a curse.

Raising a daughter only to marry her off to another family was like fattening a hog for someone else's banquet, they'd say. Spending money on a girl was like scattering seed to the wind.

Here, as in thousands of villages across China, boys were prized. They did heavy farm labor, bore the family name and cared for their elderly parents. Limited to one or two children by China's population-control policies, parents sometimes aborted or abandoned their baby girls.

Young women such as Liu, a bright-eyed 24-year-old whose hair hangs in two long, girlish braids, had few choices but early marriage, followed by grinding farm work in their husbands' village.

So, 10 years ago, when China's market reforms freed people to work outside of their hometowns, provincial farming villages figured they had nothing to lose by allowing their dispensable young women to join men migrating to China's coastal boom towns.

From those scattered seeds, villages across China are reaping an unexpected windfall. The earnings of "excess" young women are helping pull the countryside out of poverty. The money they send home also gains them new status and respect in their communities, and allows them a margin of independence they didn't have.

The result: Women once thought worthless are at the forefront of a social and economic revolution.

"I think it's the single most important element transforming Chinese society," said Stephen McGurk, a Ford Foundation program officer in Beijing overseeing a study of the phenomenon. "The migrant workers are the channel of China's rapid urbanization, the source of its increased production and economic vitality. It's happening on a scope that is unprecedented worldwide, and it means radical, revolutionary changes for women."

This transformation is as unwitting as it is momentous. Young rural women are not setting out to create a revolution. The chance to work "outside," as they say in Sichuan, is mostly about survival, but also about adventure.

"I know I could be busy every day on the farm," Liu said. "But every day would be the same. I wanted to see what it was like outside."

When she turned 20, Liu followed a steady stream of women and relatives away from the corn rows and cotton fields of Lianhuacun on a 1,500-mile trek to Shanghai to labor in a factory making cigarette lighters. The $70 she sent home every month was nearly six times her family's profits from their farm, and allowed them to buy enough seeds and pesticide to stay one step ahead of starvation.

Their single luxury sits atop a battered wooden table in her parents' thatch-roofed farmhouse: a dust-coated, black-and-white television.

By the time Liu returned in August, four years after she left, she not only had helped secure her family's survival, she also had earned respect, admiration and a touch of envy.

"It's always better to make money than to spend it," said her mother, Zhang Yixiang, 45, her hands a blur as she plucked puffs of cotton from ripened pods, a harvest that her daughter's money helped secure. "She has helped loosen the tightness of family expenses.

"Now," Zhang said with a smile, "I think girls are better than boys."

Across China, an estimated 85 million people have left their home province in search of work. About half are women, but their significance is magnified by the fact that such "working sisters" typically earn more and save more than do the men, who tend to do heavy manual labor.

Families, towns and entire provinces have come to rely on migrating women. In Sichuan, migrant workers - men and women - sent home $2.34 billion in 1996, equaling the earnings of the entire province. In China's drive toward a more competitive, market-driven economy, the countryside has long lagged behind the cities and special economic zones. Unleashing rural labor is the government's roundabout way of sharing the wealth. The flow of village women to and from the boom areas allows them to catch up with their urban sisters, who have benefited from a half-century of industrialization.

Changes, opportunities

But as the changes offer opportunities for rural women, they are taking a toll in the city. The shift away from a command economy means that unprofitable state-run industries, where most urban workers have labored all their lives, are cutting back or shutting down. As they do, city women far more than men are losing their jobs.

While the rural workers are not immune to the downturn, they tend to end up at newer, more profitable private factories and joint ventures in special economic zones. Because most plan to work for only a few years, they settle for lower wages and few health and housing benefits.

However, for women such as Liu, the most important benefits are the changes that their earning power brings back home.

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