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To Impress APEC Leaders, China Cracks Down on Beijing Life

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At the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing, burned offerings have been banned as a way to help clear the air during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW
November 7, 2014

BEIJING — As she does every year on the same day, Ms. Zhu hauled a large wreath of multihued paper chrysanthemums to Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in western Beijing. Ms. Zhu, who declined to give her full name, planned to burn it, as Chinese tradition dictates, to honor her husband and parents, who are buried here.

But when she reached the cemetery’s Office of Burning on Thursday, she found the ritual had been banned during daytime hours for two weeks.

“APEC restrictions,” her friend explained.

The ban on burned offerings was one of a cascade of government orders, from the draconian and sweeping to the picayune and puzzling, aimed at reducing air pollution and securing azure skies when government leaders meet in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which began Wednesday and runs through Tuesday.

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At the cemetery, paper flower offerings are placed next to a furnace. To make Beijing look cleaner, the Chinese authorities have ordered dozens of temporary changes that are upending people’s lives and dampening commerce.
Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

Determined to offer visiting heads of government, including President Obama, a cleaner, emptier version of China’s capital, where the air is often dirty and the streets always full, the authorities have ordered dozens of temporary changes that are upending people’s lives and dampening commerce, affecting activities like marrying, driving, eating and mourning the dead.

Thousands of factories have closed and thousands more have been ordered to reduce emissions by 30 percent. Across a nearly California-sized area around Beijing, tens of millions of people in 17 major cities can drive only on alternate days, depending on whether their license plate ends in an odd or even number. Trucks carrying goods can enter Beijing only between midnight and 3 a.m., affecting deliveries of supplies like furniture and milk.

Gas stations have been barred from selling gas in canisters, and some have been shut entirely, though these measures may be aimed more to discourage the making of firebombs than to clear the air.

The government has also tried to shed some of the city’s 21 million people, declaring an APEC Golden Week, a six-day vacation modeled on the Golden Week public officials get each year around National Day in early October. Public schools have been closed, work has been halted on construction sites, and public services such as issuing marriage licenses and passports have been suspended.

Newlyweds may not set off firecrackers, a common feature of a wedding celebration. Hospitals have closed nonessential departments and are turning away patients with nonemergency ailments.

One prestigious government institute told researchers to avoid “dangerous locations” like rivers, reservoirs, ponds or wells, and to avoid crowds, but if they could not, then to avoid causing stampedes by not pushing people.

Some residents are furious.

“All this is such an overreaction,” said a Beijing resident who gave his name as Chen. “Ridiculous.”

Shopkeepers are complaining.

“Business is down, since the day they cut the cars," said Tang Wen, who was behind the counter at his liquor and cigarettes store in Goldfish Lane. “If people can’t get here, they can’t buy.”

At the landmark red-and-gold Buddhist Yonghe Temple, a monk said they were checking visitors to stop the burning of unauthorized incense. Worshipers can only burn incense sold by the temple, which is said to produce less smoke.

With trucks largely barred from entering Beijing, deliveries have dropped. “Usually I deliver about 100 parcels in a morning,” said Liu Minghuan, a worker at Yunda, a delivery company. “But now I’m only delivering about 60 and it’s getting fewer.” He predicted a surge in deliveries would overwhelm the system after the APEC meetings. “But that’s something for the bosses to worry about,” he said.

A suburban milk company warned customers that it could not deliver any milk during the APEC event.

Peking Union Medical College Hospital, the country’s top hospital, has restricted access, reportedly to keep the usually jampacked aisles clear for potentially ill dignitaries, though emergency services remain open.

A notice in the reception area, normally packed with people buying a $3 “see the doctor” ticket, said treatment was available half days from Friday through Sunday and not at all from Monday to Wednesday, when the leaders of more than 20 Asian and Pacific Rim countries will be in Beijing.

Outside, a scalper offered tickets for $49.

“This is a total pain,” said a woman named Ms. Huang, who was trying to book a chest examination for her mother.

Some joked. A post circulating on the text service WeChat said APEC stood for “Air Pollution Eventually Controlled.”

State news media has taken note of the inconveniences, publishing reports in which those affected seem to come around to accepting that it’s for the greater good.

Xinhua, the state news agency, told the story of Qu Nan, a waitress at the APEC venue, who had to wean her baby early in order to go into the required work lockdown for several days before the meeting.

“I felt like I couldn’t handle weaning my baby,” she said. “On the evenings before, whenever I thought about it, I’d cry and say I couldn’t bear to be parted from my baby.”

But her husband comforted her and said, “Never mind.”

“He really got it,” Ms. Qu said. “I guess there are some personal problems that you just have to deal with yourself.”

In Fangezhuang village, in the chilly mountains north of Beijing, Zhang Yongfu, 73, lamented that the ban on wood burning would hurt children and the elderly, who would not be able to fire up their kangs, the wood fire or coal briquette-warmed stone beds common in the countryside, Chinese Business View, a Shaanxi Province newspaper, reported.

But he, too, saw the bigger picture, the newspaper noted.

“APEC is a big deal,” he said. “We can all overcome our difficulties.”

Despite these measures, the air was foul on Friday morning but had cleared somewhat by the time Secretary of State John Kerry landed in the afternoon.

Ultimately, the authorities would have to pray for a good strong wind, but nature was not cooperating.

Meteorologists expected air quality to deteriorate as northwest winds from Mongolia fell. They projected pollution would build over the weekend and continue during the week.

At Babaoshan cemetery, a crestfallen Ms. Zhu left with her wreath intact. “I’ll just have to burn it at home later,” she said.

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Caixin OnlineSociety & CultureTwo or Three Things about Mr. Lu Xun
10.31.2014 15:51

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Two or Three Things about Mr. Lu Xun

The remarkable re-emergence of Confucius in China has been quietly paralleled by the slow diminishment of the status of Lu Xun
By Sheila Melvin
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Back when I first came to China, Lu Xun was an inescapable presence – it was almost as though he were still alive. Everyone I knew had a favorite Lu Xun story and many could quote him at length. "The True Story of Ah Q" – a scathing critique of national character that Lu said he wrote to expose "the weakness of my fellow citizens" – was perhaps his best known work, but "A Madman’s Diary" with its chilling conclusion – "Save the children…" – was a close second. My personal favorite was "Medicine," the heartbreaking tale of a poor, benighted family desperate to prevent their son from dying of consumption. To this day, thanks to that story, I cannot see a mantou without imagining it soaked in human blood (I don’t eat a lot of mantou) and every time I notice a crow on a bare tree branch I imagine a mother in a graveyard praying for a sign from heaven – and not getting it. (Nobel Prize-winning author Mo Yan wrote an updated version of "Medicine" called "The Cure" that is set in new China and is even more harrowing, and damning, than Lu’s original.)

Lu Xun’s status in modern China was sanctified by Mao Zedong, who deemed him to be "a great Chinese saint – the saint of modern China, just as Confucius was the saint of old China." In Mao’s estimation, Lu Xun "was not only a great man of letters, but a great thinker and revolutionary… On the cultural front, he was the bravest and most correct, the firmest, the most loyal, and the most ardent national hero, a hero without parallel in our history."

Of course, Lu Xun died in 1936 – before the Communist Party came to power – and by the 1942 Yanan Forum on Arts and Literature, Mao had already begun what the scholar Merle Goldman called "the distortion of Lu Xun for political purposes." While still praising Lu Xun to the heavens, Mao noted that, though the writer’s use of "burning satire and freezing irony" was the correct response for someone living "under the dark forces and deprived of the freedom of speech," for those living in the Communist areas "where we can shout at the top of our voices" such a critical approach was no longer needed. According to Julia Lovell (in the introduction to her translation of The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun), Mao once even acknowledged that the actual Lu Xun would not have survived new China, but would "either have gone silent, or gone to prison." That is certainly true – but at least much of his writing, however manipulated, did survive; to see his unflinching social criticism and indelible fiction starting to go silent now, 25 years into the era of reform and opening, is discomfiting.

In 2007, it was reported that Beijing was removing "The True Story of Ah Q" from teaching materials for high school seniors; in 2009, newspapers reported that the number of Lu Xun’s essays included in the curriculum was steadily declining; in 2013, People’s Education Press removed Lu Xun’s essay "The Kite" from seventh grade textbooks. Meanwhile, of course, study – or, more often, cherry-picking and pseudo-study – of the works of "the saint of old China" has become ever more popular, with writers like Yu Dan turning Confucius into a happiness-preaching, self-help guru (and becoming millionaires in the process). Confucius Institutes have opened around the world and some Chinese parents are sending their children to Confucius Schools, where they dress in ancient robes and recite the sage’s aphorisms. This year, Chinese President and Chairman of the Communist Party Xi Jinping even gave a speech at the official commemoration of Confucius’ 2,565th birthday.

Of course it is important to study Confucius, whose influence on Chinese culture is enduring. And yet, somehow, the more I hear about Confucius, the more I miss Lu Xun. Indeed, while I can honestly say that I have never once wondered what Confucius would think of any given situation, I increasingly find myself playing the "What would Lu Xun say?" game. This is a question that has been asked for years, starting, perhaps, with the literary critic Hu Feng’s 1941 essay "If He Were Still Alive." (Hu Feng was mentored by Lu Xun, but jailed in the 1950s for a period that would last 25 years and from which he never recovered.) It springs from the fact that Lu Xun, who managed to wield an acid-tipped pen with both wisdom and compassion, would have just the right response to anything that leaves most of us speechless– and, most importantly, wouldn’t be afraid to give it.

If only, for example, Lu Xun were here to offer a blistering response to the recent characterization of unmarried women over the age of 27 as "leftovers" – or that of women pursuing advanced degrees as "yellowed pearls," which was unbelievably promoted by the Chinese Women’s Federation. Lu Xun wrote a number of thoughtful essays on the status of women. He denounced the "thigh culture" that eroticized women and turned them into sexual objects and he scoffed at the hypocrisy of men who "advocate equality between the sexes in order to escape the shackles of traditional thinking" but nonetheless insisted on transliterating the surnames of foreign women with "soft and beautiful characters." He mourned the suicide of the 25-year old actress Ruan Lingyu with a quote from her suicide note, "Gossip is a Fearful Thing," excoriating the way women’s private lives were sensationalized by the media. And, reacting to the widespread popularity in China of Henrik Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House," in which Nora leaves her husband and children for a life of independence, he wondered "What Happens After Nora Leaves." In the China of his day, Lu concluded sadly, "Nora" would either have to become a prostitute or return home.

I thought of Lu again when I saw a young actor tearfully apologizing on television after he, and others, were banned by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television for crimes related to drugs and prostitutes. Certainly I don’t condone either activity – and neither would Lu Xun – but neither do I see much fairness in throwing stones at young stars who are far from the only sinners. As Lu Xun once wrote, "That gentlemen sigh when they meet is only natural. But now even murderers, incendiaries, libertines, swindlers and other scoundrels shake their heads in the intervals between their crimes and mutter: ‘Men are growing more degenerate every day!" He also asked bluntly, "What purpose is served by upholding chastity?" and went on to criticize those who tried to address such matters by "the weird idea of inviting the ghost of Mencius to devise a policy for them."

In addition to being instructed to be more moral, artists have also recently been asked to focus on embodying traditional Chinese culture and to reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuits. I am sure that Lu Xun would object to such advice. He was a committed cosmopolitan who recognized that artistic inspiration has no political or geographical boundaries. He lived for years in Japan, he read and spoke Japanese and German, and he devoted much of his creative energy to translating and disseminating works from the West. And, though he certainly had political opinions, he remained profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that artists should take orders from politicians.

"I have always felt that art and politics are often in mutual conflict," he wrote. "At first, art and revolution were not opposed to each other; they shared the same discontent with the status quo. Yet politics attempts to maintain the status quo, so it naturally stands in the opposite direction of art, which is discontented with reality."

Our world still needs Lu Xun.

Sheila Melvin is a newspaper columnist

Lijia Zhang

Writer, Journalist and Public Speaker

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by Lijia Zhang

Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and public speaker. She describes herself as a communicator between China and the world and has given talks at conferences about contemporary China and lectured at many top universities including Stanford, Harvard, and The University of Sydney.

Oct 29, 2014
The Changing Role of Chinese Women

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My grandmother was a prostitute-turned concubine, my mother a frustrated factory worker, and myself a rocket-factory-girl-turned-international-writer. The stories of three generations of women in my family illustrate the changing role of women in contemporary Chinese society.

My grandma’s story – a working girl turned concubine

At birth my grandma was named Yang Huizhen, but for many years she was known as Huang-Yang Shi – meaning the woman who was married to a man surnamed Huang and middle-named, Yang. The very name she was given showed how women had no identity of their own just a few generations ago.

Yang Huizhen suffered war, famine and other terrible hardships during her 83 years of life. Born in 1915 in a town outside Nanjing, on the banks of Yangtze River, she was an orphan at a young age, and then was sold into prostitution. In those days, women were a common commodity. She met my grandfather, a married small time grain dealer, on the job. He took her to Nanjing where they set up a home. In 1949, after the Chinese Communists victory, men were ordered to keep one wife. Grandpa decided to keep my grandma, his concubine, as his wife.

Illiterate, grandma never worked outside the house. And like many women of her generation, she lived her life for others.

My mother’s story – a low factory hand

My mother Huang Yunfang was 12 years old when the People’s Republic of China was established. She was happy to witness a series of progressive policies introduced by the new government: abolishing feudal tradition of foot-binding, concubine-taking, and arranged marriages – as well as granting women the equal rights to education and employment.

Upon completing middle school, my mother was assigned a job at a state-owned military factory. Jobs were assigned by the government in those days. She considered herself very lucky to have obtained an ‘iron rice bowl’ – referring to a job with a state-owned enterprise, as it meant a job for life. The factory was also prestigious. Among other things, it produced inter-continental missiles that were capable of reaching North America.

My mother was a smart woman and better educated than many of her fellow workers, but she never got anywhere professionally. For nearly 30 years, she did one type of job: “acid-pickling”. It involved lifting machine parts into a tank filled with poisonous chemicals. Chairman Mao’s idea of gender equality was to deny the physical differences between men and women.

My mother, despite her frustrations, fared much better than her mother. Financial independence inevitably meant improved position and power at home. She was always the one who controlled the family purse.

My Story – a rocket factory girl turned international writer

I grew up in the residential compound that belonged to the factory my mother worked for all her life. I excelled in school, and had always harbored an ambition of going to university and then becoming a writer and a journalist.

At 16, however, my dream was shattered as mother dragged me out of the school and put me to work at the same factory. The reason was simple: we were poor. My assigned job was to test pressure gauges, simple and repetitive. A mini Communist empire, not only did the factory provide the workers with accommodation, dining halls and hospitals, it also controlled all aspects of our lives, including our hairstyle, our outfits or even our love life – dating wasn’t allowed within three years of entering the factory.

As an escape route, I decided to teach myself English, in the hope of obtaining a job as an interpreter with one of the foreign companies that were slowly setting up shops in Nanjing.

Looking back, learning English effectively changed my life as it has broadened my horizons. What I learnt wasn’t just the ABCs but the whole cultural package.

Of course, my journey from a rocket factory girl to an international writer has been a long and winding one. Having worked at the factory for ten years, I left China for England. Once over there, a childhood dream stirred. I studied journalism. After I returned to China three years later, I started my career by assisting western journalists before becoming a journalist of my own right.

Now, based in Beijing, I work as a writer, social commentator and public speaker. I feel extremely lucky as I was born in the right time – Deng Xiaoping opened China’s door and introduced the economic reforms which have transformed China. Otherwise, I couldn’t possibly have achieved what I’ve achieved.

Set-backs and the Future

Although Deng’s reforms have brought along plenty of opportunities to both men and women, they’ve also caused setbacks in terms of gender equality.

The income gap between men and women has been widening in the past three decades. Prostitution has made a spectacular return and the rich and powerful men once again boast to have ernai – the modern version of concubines. And female graduates have a much harder time in finding employment.

The government has retreated some of its responsibilities to the market. Yet the market doesn’t always treat women kindly.

Despite all the problems, I feel hopeful because Chinese women have started to taken the matters into their own hands. They’ve set up NGOs, fighting for women’s rights in different ways. In recent years, I’ve noticed increased feminist activism. Women have bravely dressed up in bloodied wedding gowns to protest against domestic violence, shaving off their hair, silently voicing their anger against the discrimination in university admission standards, or filing lawsuits against discriminatory employers. Early this year, I marched for a week in central China with a young feminist friend. She walked all the way from Beijing to Guangzhou, in protest against child sex abuse.

There’s still a long way to go before women can truly hold up half of the sky. The good thing is that we are not sitting here, waiting for the miracle to happen. We are putting on a fight.

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The everyday challenges of China’s ageing population demand attention

Lijia Zhang says her experience of one care facility brings home immensity of the ageing problem

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 October, 2014, 4:06am

UPDATED : Monday, 27 October, 2014, 4:06am

Lijia ZhangLLOW SCMP

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A retirement home in Beijing. China’s care facilities can accommodate only around 1.6 per cent of its old people. Photo: EPA

At 50 and in excellent health, I had hardly given any thought to ageing. Having spent the past two weeks at my father’s hospice in Nanjing, however, I was pushed to confront the grim reality of it and the extremely alarming situation China’s vast ageing population will face.

My 86-year-old father, terminally ill with a heart condition, had lived at home with my 78-year-old mother who cared for him. When she could no longer cope with her heavy-boned and demanding husband (he would wake her up in the middle of the night just to ask for some warm tea), our family decided to send him to this nearby hospice.

It consists of a concrete yard with a flowerbed in the centre, and a nondescript four-storey building which houses 70, mostly terminally ill, patients.

It’s not a grand establishment by any standard. Yet there’s a three- to four-year wait to get in. My father was ushered in through the back door, thanks to a good guanxi there.

The hospice was established 10 years ago in response to market demand and to cope with China’s "grey tidal wave".

Many countries, in Europe, North America and some Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, face similar problems, but none is nearly as severe as China’s. Some 185 million Chinese are aged 60 and above. It is also ageing with unprecedented speed, thanks to a sharp increase in the average life span and a dramatic drop in the fertility rate.

Traditionally, Chinese parents relied on their children for old-age care. My beloved grandmother, a courtesan turned concubine, suffered war, famine and other hardships in life. By the time she neared the end of her life, however, she regarded herself as a very fortunate woman as she was well cared for by her daughter’s family. For someone of her generation, having "three generations of the family under one roof" was the ultimate happiness.

Today, rapid development, urbanisation, smaller families, a more mobile population and an ever more individualistic society have loosened family ties and broken the traditional elderly care system.

According to research released last year by Peking University’s China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study, only 38 per cent of old people live with their offspring.

Those who live away from their parents usually cannot manage frequent visits home due to work and other demands. Many of the millions of migrants labouring in the cities only have the time and money to visit home once a year – during the Lunar New Year.

Those who can’t rely on their family to provide care may be dismayed to discover the appalling social provisions for the elderly.

China’s care facilities can accommodate only around 1.6 per cent of its old people. It’s unrealistic to expect a sudden or massive investment by the government on the provisions. China, after all, is still a developing country.

Here is another challenge: China became old before it got rich, unlike its neighbour Japan.

Even if you are safely inside a care facility, it doesn’t mean you are home and dry. In my father’s hospice, caregivers are supposed to provide a 24-hour service, from changing nappies to feeding people and cleaning rooms. Weighed down with too many tasks, however, they cannot respond to each patient’s every need instantly.

Once, my father’s roommate, a semi-paralysed, childless 80-year-old, was left in the corridor to do his business – his wheelchair also functions as a toilet. For hours, he sat in the grilling sun, clutching his trousers and grunting for attention whenever he saw a caregiver passing by. When you have so little control over your life, dignity shatters all too easily.

My father is much luckier. His wife and three children take turns to be at his bedside. At one point, when my sister and her grown son were visiting, my sister half-joked: "Son, one day, you’ll have to treat me the same way I am treating my father." Her son scratched his head and smiled politely.

The truth is that he may not be able to, even if he is willing. He and his wife, also a single child, will have to look after her parents as well. By 2053, some 35 per cent of the total population will enter the so-called "grey tide", compared with the world average of 20 per cent.

This issue will have to be jointly dealt with by the government, society, family and individuals. In fact, an all-out war is needed. The government should build more affordable old people’s homes; communities should build leisure centres and other facilities for the elderly and train community nurses to provide basic medical care.

Volunteers should be encouraged to visit the elderly. One of my father’s neighbours, a bed-bound old woman, told me that she hates the loneliness more than the physical suffering.

In Nanjing, the local government is considering a new policy: to pay a family member to care for the old person at home, provided some criteria are met. Different levels of the government will all have to come up with more, similarly creative, ideas.

Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as The everyday challenges of China’s grey tidal wave demand our

In the end of last month, I was invited to give a paper on women at a seminar organized by the Italian cultural section in Beijing. Since I was in Nanjing with my sick father, my elder daughter May read my essay on my behalf. Apparently she did a stunning job. bebelow is the piece.

Chinese Women between Past and Future

By Lijia Zhang

My grandmother was a prostitute-turned concubine, my mother a frustrated factory worker and myself a rocket factory girl turned-international writer. Today I am going to tell you the stories of these three women in my family, to illustrate the changing role of women in Chinese society. I am always hugely interested in women’s issues and have written many stories on the subject because I believe women’s position and the attitude towards them, tell you a lot about a society.

As in many parts of the world, Chinese women have not reached the same status as men, even though Chairman Mao famously declared that “Chinese women can hold up half of the sky.” I think the statement is as elusive as the sky itself. But I have to point out that the Chinese Communist Party has done a great deal for women, probably more than what has been acknowledged. I believe all three women in my family have, to a greater or lesser degree, benefited from the revolution led by Mao.

The story of my Grandma – a working girl turned concubine

My grandma was called Yang Huizhen. But ever since she became my grandpa’s woman – well, she was his concubine before becoming his wife – she was known as Huang-Yang Shi – meaning the woman who was married to a man surnamed Huang and nei Yang. This is an example of how women had no identity of their own in the olden days.

Grandma was born in 1915 in a town called Zhenjiang in the eastern part of China, not far from Nanjing. She became an orphan at a young age – she was six, I think, when her parents died in a famine. She was at first adopted by her auntie’s family who treated her like a slave. Then they sold her into a brothel. In those days, women were a common commodity.

I do not know the details of this part of her life. In 1998, in front of my Grandma’s deathbed, my mother revealed this secret to me that grandma was once a working girl. I was shocked. When I calmed down, my respect and love for my grandma only deepened. This was a woman who endured incredible sufferings, the famine, the Japanese invasion, the hardship of a prostitute, yet was never embittered by those experiences; she was the most loving and giving person I’ve ever known.

She met my grandfather, a small time grain dealer, on the job. He took her to Nanjing, on the banks of Yangtze River. There, they set up a home. Grandpa’s first wife and her children remained in a village outside of the city. In 1949, after the Chinese Communists victory, men were ordered to keep one wife. Grandpa decided to keep my grandma, his concubine as his wife.

Like many women of her generation, grandma had bound feet. Fancifully described as ‘three inches of golden lilies”, the practice of foot-binding caused great pain and misery. A girl’s feet were bounded by many layers of cloths to prevent growth. As she grew up, she couldn’t even walk properly with her deformed feet. This was the Chinese men’s way to make women dependent on them.

Grandma was illiterate. She learnt to write a few basic characters from the anti-illiteracy classes organized by the government after the liberation. She was encouraged to use her own name instead of Huang-Yang Shi.

My mother’s story – a low factory hand

My mother Huang Yunfang was born in 1937. She was 12 years old when the Chinese Communists took over and established the People’s Republic of China. Like many progressive young people, she was happy about the dramatic social transformation because the new regime brought along new hope to millions of Chinese. Also the new government soon introduced a series of policies favorable to women, abolishing feudal tradition of foot-binding, concubine-taking, and arranged marriages as well as granting women the equal rights to education and employment.

After finishing middle school, my mother was assigned a job at a state-owned military factory. Jobs were assigned by the government in those days. She considered herself very lucky to have obtained an ‘iron rice bowl’. It referred to the job with a state-owned enterprise as it meant a job for life and cradle to grave social warfare. The factory was also prestigious. Among other things, it produced inter-continental missiles that were capable of reaching North America.

In the early days of her factory life, my mother was happy enough. In the late 50s before China was hit by a series of political campaigns, the country was filled with aspiration and the young people were very enthusiastic in making a contribution to build socialist china.

My mother got married at the age of 22. That was not a happy story. My father was tall, dark and handsome but selfish and ill-tempted. Also for most of his working life, he lived in another city. Thanks to the ‘hukou’ – family registry system, he couldn’t just move back to Nanjing, his own hometown. Every year, he spent about two weeks at home with us. My mother should have divorced him but she held the traditional belief: “marry a dog; stay with the dog and marry a rooster, stay with the rooster.”

Mother is a smart woman and better educated than many of her fellow workers but she never got anywhere professionally. For nearly 30 years, she did one type of job – acid-pickling, one of the lowest jobs at the factory. It involved lifting machine parts into a tank filled with poisonous chemicals. A man’s job, really. In Mao’s era, his idea of gender equality was to deny the physical differences between men and women. The model women were the ‘iron maidens of Dazhai”. Dazhai was China’s agricultural model. These women dressed like men and could carry as much night soil as men folks.

Almost all urban women from my mother’s generation had full-time jobs. After the birth of her children, my mother returned to work after three months of maternity leave. We were brought up by our grandma.

My Story – a rocket factory girl turned international writer

I grew up in the residential compound that belonged to the factory my mother worked for all her life. All my neighbours were workers and all my friends were the children of factory workers. Becoming a worker was my most likely fate. But I had grand plans: I wanted to go to university and then become a writer and a journalist.

When I was 16, however, my mother dragged me out of the school and put me to work at the same factory. The reason was simple: we were poor. My assigned job was to test pressure gauges, simple and repetitive. A mini Communist empire, not only did the factory provide the workers with accommodation, dining halls and hospitals, it also controlled all aspects of our lives, including our hairstyle, our outfits or even our love life – dating wasn’t allowed within three years of entering the factory.

As an escape route, I decided to teach myself English, in the hope of obtaining a job as an interpreter with one of the foreign companies that were slowly setting up shops in Nanjing.

Looking back, learning English effectively changed my life as it has broadened my horizons. What I learnt wasn’t just the ABCs but the whole cultural package. It also gave me my own ‘rice bowl’ – English has become my working language.

Of course, it has been a long journey from the factory floor to this stage. Having worked at the factory for ten years, I left China for England. Once over there, a childhood dream stirred. I studied journalism. After I returned to China three years later, I started my career by helping western journalists as their assistant before becoming a journalist of my own right. Some of my feature stories were noticed by a commissioning editor from Oxford University Press, I was commissioned, together with my ex-husband, to write a history book on contemporary China.

Now, based in Beijing, I work as a writer, social commentator and public speaker. I feel extremely lucky. Along the way, I met people who have gone out of their way to help me. And I was born in the right time – Deng Xiaoping opened China’s door and introduced the economic reforms. Otherwise, I couldn’t possibly have achieved what I’ve achieved.

Set backs

I was just singing the praise of Deng’s reforms. They have brought along plenty of opportunities to both men and women but also caused setbacks in terms of gender equality.

The income gap between men and women has been widening in the past three decades. Prostitution has made a spectacular return and the rich and powerful men once again boast to have ernai – the modern version of concubines. Women workers are always among the first to be laid off in the ailing state-owned enterprises. And female graduates have a much harder time in finding employment.

The government has retreated some of its responsibilities to the market. Yet the market doesn’t always treat women kindly.

China lags behind the world in terms of female political participation, especially in the grassroots and top governmental level. These days, the head of the village is brought about through direct election. Currently about 2% of the village heads are women. Some still hold the belief that decent women shouldn’t take an interest in public affairs and women are bad decision makers. We have a saying: women have long hair but short wisdom.

Now look at the senior government level. Women account for about 22% of people’s representatives in National People’s Congress, China’s parliament; only 15% in the standing committee. In the next level, there are only two women in the politburo and no women in the standing committee.

Future

Unlike in the political field, Chinese women are faring better in the business. Half of the world’s self-made richest women come from the mainland China. Business is the area where women can fully explore their potentials.

Despite all the problems, I feel hopeful about women’s future in China, because Chinese women have started to take the matter into their own hands and are putting up a fight. They’ve set up NGOs, dealing with the issue of domestic violence, providing legal aid to women and helping sex workers. In recent years, I’ve noticed increased activism. Women have bravely gone to the street, to protest against domestic violence, against discrimination in employment and against lack of female toilets. Early this year, I marched for a week in central China with a young feminist friend. She walked all the way from Beijing to Guangzhou, in protest against child sex abuse.

There’s still a long way to go before women can truly hold up half of the sky. The good thing is that we are not sitting here, waiting for the miracle to happen. We are taking action.

On this positive note, I shall end my speech. Thank you for your attention.

COMMENT›INSIGHT & OPINION

OCCUPY CENTRAL

Mainlanders remain cool to Hong Kong’s democracy fever

Lijia Zhang says few on the mainland appear to be interested in finding out about Hong Kong’s democracy protest, much less sympathising with it – clearly a reflection of their political apathy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 October, 2014, 5:51pm

UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 October, 2014, 4:25am

Lijia Zhang

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As Hongkongers experience a political awakening, mainlanders are becoming less interested in politics, as the government desires.

When the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests started, I was still in India, attending the Bangalore Literature Festival. As someone who took part in the pro-democracy movement back in 1989, I followed the unfolding events with keen interest and found the images of umbrellas being used as shields against the pouring rain, and later tear gas, exciting and inspiring.

However, my sentiments are not shared by all my fellow citizens on the mainland. I cut short my trip due to my father’s ill health. As soon as I returned to China, I started to ask everyone I came across their views on the events in Hong Kong. Although people gave me different answers, overall, I was struck by a lack of interest, and little if any signs of sympathy for our compatriots across the border.

Over the dinner table at the hospital canteen in Nanjing , where my father is now, I couldn’t help but probe my relatives for a reaction. They all turned to look at me, frowning. "Why would you be interested in such a matter?" they asked. "It has nothing to do with you."

Beyond the hospital gate, people from this prosperous eastern city were enjoying the national holiday, busy shopping, eating and merry-making in the warm sunshine. It was a world away from the tense atmosphere in Hong Kong.

Even if my relatives had not been preoccupied with my father’s terminal illness, they would not care about the "umbrella movement". Like millions of ordinary Chinese, they don’t have a clear idea what has been happening in Hong Kong. The dramatic images of the protests that have snatched headlines in most parts of the world were absent in the strictly controlled mainland Chinese media. Even the word "umbrella" was blocked on Sina Weibo, China’s microblogging site.

Not highly educated, my relatives don’t know how to jump over the firewall to access the international media. Nor would they have any interest in doing so.

Even among the more sophisticated crowds who do take an interest in the Occupy movement, sympathy is thin on the ground. A friend in her 30s who works for a feature programme on CCTV said they were told not to report on the movement. She and her colleagues have been discussing it, however. The consensus is that the protesters are ungrateful.

To start with, Hong Kong is nothing without the mainland, she pointed out. It wouldn’t survive a day if the mainland didn’t supply it with water and vegetables. Secondly, since 1997, Hong Kong has belonged to China following the handover by the British. And, finally, Hongkongers enjoy more prosperity and political rights today than they did under colonial rule. So what’s the fuss about? And the troublemakers are only a handful of the total Hong Kong population, my friend added.

Of course, there are those on the mainland who support the movement. According to Western media, at least a dozen mainlanders who dared to voice their support openly have been arrested, some at Songzhuang, an art colony in Beijing, and others in a Guangzhou park. Most sympathisers have made their stand known subtly, by writing on WeChat or discussing with friends. I received plenty of WeChat notes from my feminist group and from an art salon in Beijing. Still, I would say supporters only number a handful.

In recent years, Hong Kong residents’ resentment towards the Beijing authorities has been growing as the latter tries to exert their influence on electoral freedom, media and politics. The rift between the two sides has been further deepened by squabbles over the ill-behaved, massive number of mainland tourists.

The protesters in Hong Kong are demanding not only universal suffrage but also their own political identity.

Interestingly, as Hongkongers experience a political awakening, mainlanders are becoming less interested in politics, as the government desires. Since 1989, it has deliberately channelled people’s energy into making money while showing them how futile it is to get involved in politics.

Naturally, Beijing authorities worry about the contagious effects of the Hong Kong protests. But they needn’t worry too much, in my view. A few days ago, in a commentary published in The Guardian, dissident writer Ma Jian ended in an uplifting tone, talking about "the unstoppable river of democracy". "The river will flow again, despite efforts to block it, and will one day, perhaps this year or many years from now, surge across the border all the way to Tiananmen Square."

I don’t think it will be this year; the Lo Wu border divides more than the physical territory.

Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator

Voices of reason

Maxin Mathew, TNN | Sep 28, 2014, 06.35AM IST

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Four women with strong opinions – an Alternative Nobel-winning Pakistani human rights activist, the first woman chief justice of the Delhi High Court, a celebrity Indian author and columnist and a former rocket factory workerturned Chinese journalist – left the audience in raptures with witty anecdotes and sharp views on why it is difficult to separate politics from women’s lives at the Bangalore Literary Festival on Saturday.

"It was very difficult for me as Chief Justice to deal with men," 83-year-old Leila Seth said. "On my first day in the lunch room, I was told, `Now that you are here, when we have tea parties, you can look after it.’ I said, I certainly will not," Seth remarked indi gnantly to loud applause from the audience.

"When my colleagues used to introduce me, they would say, ‘Meet our new lady judge.’ I told them, why don’t you say, ‘meet our gentleman judge’ for the men? It’s ridiculous! They can see me. That’s why women can never stay out of the political. Because it is forced on you," Seth added.

Shobhaa De minced no words in expressing her concerns about the `emergencylike situation’ that women are facing now.

"Anything any woman does in public domain becomes political. Women’s lives, no matter how privileged it may seem from the outside, are difficult. We have choices either we pick playing victims and surrender to the system or we become ninjas. The minute you suppress women’s voices, the world will become a poorer place. It’s important that we are heard," she said.

Asma Jahangir, who won the Alternative Nobel three days ago, chose to skip the spotlight in her homeland and come to India instead to discuss women’s issues. "When I started working, there were only 2-3 women lawyers in Pakistan. When we were growing up, we were never asked about our goals. I had to fight to become a lawyer. I had to promise that I would never go to court, but then later I did. It’s like asking a singer never to sing in public," she reminisced.

Chinese writer Lijia Zhang too echoed De’s concerns. "I decided I will learn English and bring about a change for myself," she said.

Fittingly it was Seth who had the last word. "Being a wom an and a mother, you know how to deal with men," she said, "you make them feel that they are the most important and then do what you think is right."

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