Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Shaun Rein, the founder and managing director of China Market Research Group, is an engaging and eloquent speaker. We were speakers at quite a few events together. I’ve been to his talks and was always impressed by his confidence – obviously he knows his stuff. Armed with a master degree from Harvard University and flawless Chinese, Rein is one of the world’s recognized thought leaders on strategy consulting.

Rein writes in the same engaging and confident manner. I found his latest bookThe End of Copycat China: The Rise of Creativity, Innovation, and Individualism in Asia, a sequel to his The End of Cheap China, a better read.

Is China an innovation powerhouse yet? This has been a hot topic lately. China may not be quite an innovation powerhouse yet but Rein argues in his book that China has been shifting away from simple coping of successful business models from the west. True, China used to pick the low-hanging fruit in the investment-driven economy. With China’s economic restructure, intensified competition, higher labor costs and changing consumer tastes, Chinese companies have been forced to move up the chain value.

Rein uses the success stories of Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei, Lenovo and Xiaomi to make his point. And he knows the CEOs of those companies or interviewed them.

I learnt a lot from the book.

Some chapters are well-crafted, for example the first part of chapter 7 China’s Expanding Consumer Class, set in new mother Vanessa Zhu’s flat. It reads like a well-written feature piece, with full-fledged scene, interesting dialogue, vivid description of the people and atmosphere. “The lingering scent of spicy Sichuan food hung in the air.” Such descriptions help the western readers, who have little idea what a Chinese home is like, to build a mental picture and make the book a pleasure to read.

Personally my least favorite are the Q and As. Dry in parts, it demands readers’ patience. They can also do with a bit of trimming.

Overall, I think the book can serve as a valuable guide to any businessmen lured by China’s vast market and potential or a good educational source to anyone interested in China. I also hope will help to break the stereotype of China image.

header_small

Main menu

Search form

Search

Asia Society

No Women Need Apply

Chinese Women Fight to End Workplace Discrimination

  • LIJIA ZHANG
  • 11.06.14

(IISH/Stefan R. Landsberger Collections)

A Party propaganda poster from 1953 titled: ‘New View in the Rural Village.’

“Applicants limited to male.” 23-year-old job-hunter Huang Rong (not her real name) noticed this line in a job announcement only after she had heard nothing from the recruiter and gone back to check the advertisement online. She had graduated from Xinyang Normal University in Henan province with a degree in social work this summer, and she said the job sounded perfect for someone who enjoyed talking to people: a clerk position, combining executive assistants’ responsibilities with more creative tasks such as coming up with marketing campaign ideas for the well-established New Oriental Cooking School, a company based in her favorite city, Hangzhou.

“I didn’t understand why a clerk’s position would be open only to men,” Huang said in a telephone interview from Hangzhou. So she called the school and was told that the job required travel and some physically demanding tasks such as carrying the school director’s suitcases. Huang made it clear that she didn’t mind traveling and she was physically quite strong, but her application was rejected nonetheless. She went to the school to appeal in person but to no avail.

“I felt very disappointed, like a deflated balloon,” Huang recalls. “The more I thought about it, the more angry I became.” But she had read about the case of Cao Ju and so she decided to sue the school for discrimination. Cao, another young female graduate (Cao Ju is a pseudonym), had made history in 2012 by successfully filing China’s first gender discrimination lawsuit against the Beijing company that refused to consider her for an assistant job because they would only accept a man. The case ended when the company offered Cao 30,000 yuan (a little less than U.S.$5,000) in an out-of-court settlement in January this year.

(IISH/Stefan R. Landsberger Collections)

A Party propaganda poster from 1953. The text reads: ‘Study the battle spirit of the Red Army during the Long March, conquer nature, build up our nation.’

(IISH/Stefan R. Landsberger Collections)

A Party propaganda poster from 1962 titled: ‘When the People Work Hard, the Flowers Are Fragrant.’

Both cases shed light on the problem of widespread gender discrimination and inequality in China. Cao and Huang are just two of millions of victims. According to a survey conducted by the All China Women’s Federation, the Chinese government’s official feminist organ, in 2011 91.9% of female students polled said they had experienced gender discrimination by employers.

As China’s economy has slowed in the recent years, graduates face ever stiffer competition. In 2013, a record 7 million students graduated yet they entered a job market that had shrunk by 15% in a year. Men seem to have an upper hand in this tough competition.

This situation is a far cry from the days before China’s economic reforms, when graduates were assigned jobs by the government, regardless of gender. Nowadays, after they graduate, students have to fend for themselves. While researching his recently published bookClass in Contemporary China, David Goodman, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, discovered that the market economy has led to increased gender inequality since the 1990s. “Women are unequal in society to start off with,” he says, “so without encouragement or state intervention (as before) their representation in all forms of social activity will decrease.”

According to Lu and other experts, some private companies try to avoid employing women of child-bearing age and sometimes fire them when they become pregnant. They also worry the relaxed family planning policy, which now allows only-children to have a second child, may make some companies even less willing to hire young women.

The income gap between men and women has widened in the past three decades. The latest official statistics suggest that income for urban women is 67.3% that of men while women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make. Another telling sign is the employment rate. In 2010, among the population above 16 years of age, the femaleemployment rate was 61.7% and the male rate 76.1%.

“Gender discrimination is ingrained and institutionalized in China,” explains Geoffrey Crothall, Communications Director for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin and an expert on employment issues in China. “It begins in school when girls have to get higher scores than boys to get into certain university courses. It continues in the workplace.”

For female students, the biggest hurdle in securing a job is gender discrimination, according to Lu Ping, a top gender expert who runs the Media Monitor for Women Network, an NGO in Beijing that monitors gender-related reports in the media.

On China’s many employment websites, one can often spot job advertisements that specifically request good-looking women. One sales person’s position demands “a pretty woman with height no less than 1.7 meters.” Wuhan Science and Technology University put up an ad last year looking for a counselor who “must be a male, under 26-years-old if holding a master degree or under 29 for a Ph.D., and must be unmarried.” And New Oriental Cooking School is far from the only recruiter that limits some positions to men only, for implausible reasons.

“The blatant discrimination in advertising occurs because people think it is perfectly alright to assign work on the basis of gender. These attitudes, if anything, are getting more common among employers, especially in sought-after professions, because they have the luxury to pick and choose,” says Crothall.

“There’s very little a woman can do when she is being discriminated against by an employer,” says Lu, who closely followed both Cao’s and Huang’s lawsuits.

But Huang was determined. “I wanted to go ahead even though I didn’t have the money for a lawyer,” says Huang, who gets by with piecemeal jobs and still hasn’t found full time employment. A friend introduced her to Cao Ju who offered not only useful advice and encouragement but also some funds to cover her legal costs. “There’s no better way to spend the money,” says Cao Ju. “Squeezing money out of the court case was not my intention. Fighting against sex discrimination is.” Cao also organized an online petition to rally support for Huang. So far, more than 400 women from all over the country havesigned it.

Again with friends’ help, Huang found Nanjing-based lawyer Xu Ying who was willing to take on her case. “To me, the case is blatant sex discrimination,” says Xu. “Even the recruiter’s excuses rest on gender stereotypes: women are not suited to travel or they’re too weak to carry a suitcase. The only thing that matters here should be the applicant’s ability, not the person’s sex.”

The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Promotion of Employment, adopted in 2007, includes explicit language forbidding gender discrimination in hiring and noting that, “When an employing unit recruits female workers, it shall not have such provisions as restrict female workers from getting married or bearing a child included in the labor contract.” The law also states that a job-seeker has the right to sue the employer in cases of gender discrimination. Why then have there been so few of such cases in China?

“Generally speaking, people in China are not very aware of their legal rights,” explains lawyer Xu. “There’s no tradition of suing an employer. And of course, going to court is expensive, time consuming, and the whole legal system doesn’t seem to be geared to cope with such cases.”

Indeed, it took well over a year for a Beijing court just to accept Cao’s case. It refused the case at first, citing a lack of precedent. Huang fared a little better. After back and forth negotiations with a Hangzhou court, the hearing took place on September 10, with the accused absent. The verdict is due in December.

A man from the Oriental Cooking School’s HR department, who refused to disclose his identity, said there was no need to appear for the hearing as the court will make a correct judgment according to facts. “Everything the plaintiff said was a lie. Sex discrimination? If so, why are there so many women teachers working at our school?”

Given the difficulties of filing a lawsuit, some have sought other methods to tackle gender discrimination. On December 26, 2013, eight female students from different cities in China wrote to their local governments to report job listings they suspected were discriminatory. Altogether, they found 41 such cases. 80% of jobs advertised were white-collar jobs that were not physically demanding, offered mostly by privately-owned enterprises. The women received hardly any response from the authorities. But young women from across the country continued the reports and they have gradually drawn more responses from the authorities.

The reports and lawsuits take place at a time when China is witnessing an increase in women’s rights activism.

In November 2013, ten university students, wearing giant paper pants over their winter coats, staged a demonstration in front of a local government building in Wuhan to protest invasive gynecological exams imposed on women applying for civil servant jobs.

Earlier that year, 20 women across the country shaved their heads, silently voicing their anger against discrimination in admissions standards at universities. Some universitiesset higher standards for entrance examination scores for female students. In Beijing, three women dressed up in blood-stained wedding gowns to protest domestic violence; in Guangzhou, women queued in front of a toilet to protest against the lack of public toilets for women.

Lu of the Media Monitor for Women Network believes these examples of activism are significant. “They show a new level of awareness,” she says. “Compared to the older generation, these educated young women are more aware of international norms. They are internet savvy and know how to use modern technology to get in touch with like-minded people and seek help. And they are willing to take a stand.”

Lu also praises the courage of Huang and Cao. “They’ve taken a big risk. If their true identities were exposed, probably no one would ever hire them again.”

There have been discussions among academics and legal experts about drafting a new anti-sex discrimination law. But Lu thinks that existing laws, at least on paper, already cover the major issues. “The real question is to implement them and supervise them,” she said.

Crowthall says such cases raise awareness of gender discrimination. “When cases like the current one do get heard, they play a very important role in bringing the issue of gender discrimination to the attention of the general public and perhaps making employers think twice before excluding women from job openings,” he says.

Huang’s Lawyer, Xu Ying, says it’s not easy to predict the outcome of the case, even though the result of Cao’s case is encouraging. But if the outcome doesn’t go their way, she and her client vow to fight on.

Topics:
Society

Keywords:
Gender, Gender Equality, Women’s Rights, Working Women, Graduates, Employment

Lijia Zhang

Lijia Zhang is a factory-worker-turned writer, columnist, social commentator, and public speaker. She was born into a poor worker’s family in Nanjing, on the banks of Yangtze River. At 16, she was…
More

Features

07.24.13icon4.gif

Carried Off

CHARLIE CUSTER

Features

07.23.13

To Impress APEC Leaders, China Cracks Down on Beijing Life

07beijing-articleLarge.jpg
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.

07beijing02-articleLarge.jpg
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.

Sign In | Register | NEWSLETTER | 中文
logo.jpg

Monday, November 3, 2014 Beijing

Follow Us share to facebook share to twitter

1447_1.jpg

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

    • print.gif
    • email.gif
    • singlePage.gif
    • enlarge.gif
    • reduce.gif

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
SHARE:

  • Facebook.gif
  • Linkedin.gif
  • Twitter.gif
  • Digg.gif
  • Yahoo.gif

RELATED POSTS

pic04.gif

null

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

Subscribe to new articles
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

#145642674 / gettyimages.com

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.

-

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

Most Popular

Recommended by

SCMP and RTHK present Hong Kong’s Top Story 2014

·

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.