In China, One Giant Leap for Womankind?

Article excerpt

Not really. Even as China launched a woman into space, it was condemned for forcing another woman to have a late-term abortion.

In a country where "women hold up half the sky" in Mao Zedong's celebrated phrase, and while one of their number orbits the globe far above the sky, Chinese women's earthly rights are in trouble.

Major Liu Yang's breakthrough as China's first female astronaut and her current exploits in space aboard China's experimental spacelab are symbolically important but irrelevant to most Chinese women, say scholars and feminists here. In a country where gender equality is a pillar of official political rhetoric, some key aspects of women's status are being eroded.

The saturation press coverage that Major Liu has attracted since she blasted off last Saturday offers revealing insights into contemporary Chinese values.

Few of the gushing profiles have played up the qualities normally associated with a pilot/astronaut at the cutting edge of space science; instead one article by Xinhua, the state news agency, began simply "She is a wife."

Another, in the state-owned China Daily, stressed how "modest and obedient" Liu had been as a girl.

Such traditionally feminine virtues are still highly prized in Chinese women, 60 years after the country's Constitution declared that "women enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life."

Indeed, official figures suggest that some of the economic, social, and political gains that women made in China during the first decades after the 1949 revolution are being rolled back.

"There is an imbalance in the way women's social status has developed," worries Jiang Yongping, a researcher at the government- sponsored Chinese Institute for Women's Studies. "We see a group of educated and very successful women like Liu Yang who achieve great things, but in the less developed areas of China women's education and health are still in bad shape."

Survey says

Nor are social attitudes encouraging for women's rights advocates. A nationwide official survey published last year found that the number of men - and women - who believe that "a woman's place is in the home and the public sphere is for men" is on the rise: 62 percent of men believe that, up from 54 percent a decade ago, and 55 percent of women agree, up from 50 percent in 2000.

Another key metric, income, also suggests that women are losing ground to men, even as they grow wealthier overall from China's economic boom. Twenty years ago rural women earned 79 percent of men's wages; today they earn just 56 percent. In cities the proportion has dropped from 78 percent to 67 percent.

The survey also found signs of progress; the average Chinese woman today has been to school for nearly nine years, three years more than a decade ago and almost as long as the average man. The number of women reporting health checks has increased substantially.

"Clearly there has been huge progress in women's social status since 1949," when the revolution swept away feudal traditions such as footbinding, concubinage, and forced marriage, says Ms. …