To what extent has China’s modernization improved the position of women in Chinese society today?
After 3 decades of communism followed by 3 decades of liberalism, Chinese society remains, in many ways very attached to its social and family traditions. In recent years, however, modernization has indeed brought about many changes in the role of the position of women. As compared to the olden days where women were not regarded as important as men, today, the role of women has quite radically changed in China due to modernization.
- Increased educational opportunities
Firstly, modernization has helped Chinese women reach an elevated position in society as it has provided them with increased educational opportunities. The rapidly increasing number of better educated professionally trained and self-employed women is testimony to their elevated status in modern China economy today. A survey of rural areas carried out in the 1930s found out that only 2% of the female population aged 7 and above had ever attended school and that only 1% could read a common Chinese letter, whereas 45% of males attended school and 30% were able to identity commonly used letters. This was mainly so given the preference of males as compared to females due to Confucius beliefs. In 2004, the enrollment of boys and girls was 98.97 percent and 98.93 percent, respectively. Furthermore, from 1995 to 2004, 13.4 million illiterate Chinese women had been educated. Thus, women in China enjoy increased opportunities for higher education as a result of modernization, which has in turn significantly raised their status in society.
- Increased employment opportunities
As a result of modernization, more employment opportunities have been created for women in China today. Currently, there are now women in all trades and professions, with women making up 49% of China’s population and 46% of its labour force, a higher proportion than in many western countries. Today, women can be seen working side by side with men on a seemingly equal footing. Furthermore, more Chinese women have been moving away from the countryside and piling into the electronics factories in the booming coastal belts, earning more than their parents have ever dreamt of. As of 2011, China already has a higher proportion of women in the top layers of management as compared to many western countries. Hence, as a result of modernization and the increased employment opportunities that women have today, the position of women in today’s society can be argued to have improved to a large extend.
- Increased freedom in marriage
Modernization has benefited women in China by facilitating the liberalization of the institution of marriage. In the past, many couples were forced to stay in their “dead marriages” just to keep their privacy and avoid social stigma. In addition, marriages were often arranged, with a woman’s responsibility to remain married, no matter how undesirable the match. With modernization, in 2003, a revised marriage law simplified procedures allowing people to get divorced more easily. Over the years, Chinese divorce rates has been increasing and as of 2015, China has seen the largest divorce rate of 3.8million in many years. Thus, modernization has indeed brought betterment to women’s lives as they are no longer required to be trapped in unhappy marriages and can freely divorce if necessary, without the accompanying social stigma.
- Inability to participate in politics (Glass Ceiling)
While modernization has empowered women in some areas, they are not able to infiltrate the traditionally male-dominated political sector. As much as Chinese women are gradually gaining political rights, they are playing only peripheral roles, whereas men continue to dominate the top levels of leadership in the Chinese government. The Politburo Standing Committee, the highest body of the CCP, has not had a female member since its establishment. Scholars have found that women’s participation in rural governance remains seriously limited. Sexist attitudes that “women are of lower quality” are still prevalent in the Chinese countryside. Furthermore, representation of women in local government bodies remains low, and women villagers’ political aspirations and sense of empowerment are similarly limited whereby those who make their way into government bodies or villager’s committees are often assigned marginal portfolios. Out of the 25 members of the 18th Politburo Party of 2012, only 2 are females. Thus, the lack of opportunity and participate and excel in all sectors of society, especially in the political sector, despite the increased freedom that they enjoy due to modernization shows that their position has not really improved over the years.
- Gender Discrimination (Glass Ceiling)
Despite the betterment of women’s lives in some areas, gender discrimination still persists in China today given the deep underlying cultural beliefs about gender roles remain powerful in China. These beliefs, voiced today by most frequently in the countryside, influence the pace of change for women. One belief is that women are inferior to men. The other stems from traditional Confucian notions of filial piety whereby it centers the preference for male babies over female and the associated filial duties of males in the family life. In a 2010 survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation (ACFW) and the National Bureau of Statistics of China revealed that more than 72% of women were not hired or promoted due to gender discrimination and over 75% believed they were “being dismissed” due to marriage or childbirth. Furthermore in 2015, despite a women named Ma Hu applying for a position in China Post to be a courier, she was only called back for an interview for a clerical position instead, with China Post has stating that women are physically unsuitable for the job, having explained that some amount of heavy lifting is required. Thus showing that gender discrimination still persists in China despite modernization
In conclusion, although Chinese women have clearly gained in autonomy since the 1950s, their equality with men is still far from secure, given that they still suffer from growing insecurity in the field of employment, coupled with the growing inequalities between men and women’s salaries. Thus, on a whole, the status of Chinese women often remains inferior to that of men, particularly in public life, and roles within the family and society remain firmly gendered.