Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Economic Reform and the Employment of Chinese Women

Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Economic Reform and the Employment of Chinese Women

Article excerpt

In its transformation to a more market-oriented economy, China has avoided the massive unemployment problems that have plagued Poland and Germany. Rapid growth has supported new opportunities in both the city and countryside. Surplus labor continues to be an obstacle to the competitiveness of state firms, however, and the Chinese leadership has voiced its intention to cut at least 2 percent of the work force in the near future ["Thinner Workforce . . ." 1992, 12]. The hypothesis of this paper is that while the reforms in China create many gains in income and opportunity for both men and women, the costs (especially in terms of employment opportunity) fall disproportionately on women.

The paper uses Sen's [1990a] concepts of capabilities, entitlements, and social technology, discussed in the next section, to assess the changing employment conditions for Chinese women. Changes in capabilities are examined through changes in income, the source of income, and intrahousehold bargaining power. Because China is still a dual society, women face different employment environments in the countryside and the city.

Unfortunately, the data currently available on Chinese women are piecemeal and at times misleading. Because of the lack of data, sources such as FBIS (Foreign Broadcast Information Service) and personal interviews supplement the official statistics from Statistics on Chinese Women: 1949-1989 and the Statistical Yearbook.

The Conceptual Framework: Capabilities, Entitlements, and Social Technology

The paper evaluates the employment effects of the economic reforms through changes in "capabilities" and "entitlements," influenced by "social technology." Capabilities comprise the actual choices of what a person is able to do or be: "The ability to be well nourished, to avoid escapable morbidity or mortality, to read and write and communicate, to take part in the life of the community, to appear in public without shame" [Sen 1990a, 126]. Entitlements reflect a person's control over various commodity bundles and thus affect capabilities. The expansion of entitlements and capabilities improves well-being or human development, and this framework for analysis does not limit the focus to commodities.(1)

At a broader level, the institutions of society exert a strong influence on both entitlements and capabilities. Sen describes this setting as "social technology":

Technology is not only about equipment and its operational characteristics but also about social arrangements that permit the equipment to be used and the so-called productive processes to be carried on. . . . The nature of "social technology" has a profound effect on relating production and earnings to the distribution of that earning between men and women and to gender divisions of work and resources. The divisional arrangements that, on the one hand, may help in the economic survival and the overall opulence of families and societies may also impose, through the same process, a typically unequal division of job opportunities and work freedoms [Sen 1990, 128 and 130].

In China's institutional setting, women have traditionally faced discrimination in education, health care, and employment. Most of China's illiterates are women, with approximately 70 percent of them living in the poor areas [World Bank 1992, 47]. The sex ratio indicates that there are more than 106 men for every 100 women; moreover, the ratio has been getting worse for most of the last decade. Economic reforms occurring in such a setting are unlikely to be gender neutral.

Table 1. Sex Ratio, Female = 100

Year   Sex Ratio      Year   Sex Ratio

1949      108.2       1970     105.9
1950      108.1       1971     105.8
1951      108.0       1972     105.8
1952      107.9       1973     105.9
1953      107.6(*)    1974     105.9
1954      107.6       1975     106.0
1955      107.3       1976     106.2
1956      107.4       1977     106.2
1957      107. … 
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