Millions of Chinese women are being denied an equal share of benefits from the past 20 years of rapid economic growth, but the problem has its roots in a culture-wide devaluation of women and girls, according to experts interviewed by RFA's Mandarin service.
In a speech this week to the annual session of China's parliamentary consultative body, All China Women's Federation chief Mo Wenxiu called on the government to act fast to close a yawning gender gap in the workplace which denies fair pay and equal opportunities to Chinese women.
Mo — ; whose Party-affiliated group has always supported women's rights within the framework of loyalty to communist rule — ; said that while the employment rate for urban men had fallen by 8.5 percentage points between 1990 and 2000, the same measurement for women had fallen by 12.5 points.
Her speech was a brisk reminder to China's ruling party of the painful inequalities which have arisen from 20 years of economic reform and increasing integration into the global economy. Chairman Mao, after all, was famous for his slogan that "Women hold up half the sky."
"Previously, the political ideal of equality for women as Mao Zedong said it was achieved through political power, so you could say that the underlying statistics for women have simply reverted back to what they were before," prominent economist and author He Qinglian told RFA in a recent interview.
"The word discrimination is not enough to explain it. It lies in a devaluation of women and girls that runs through the whole of Chinese society," He told RFA. "It lies in a change in women's appreciation of their own value and that of others, and it is not in the interest of Chinese women."
Chinese women face a variety of new difficulties in the reform era. Factories in booming coastal cities frequently hire uneducated peasant women under sweat-shop conditions, often refusing even to sign a labor contract with them. Unprotected female workers are often exposed to low safety standards, and dozens have died in factory fires alone.
While traditional rural Chinese society values sons more highly than daughters because they are supposed to support the aged parents, experts say there is also a growing tendency amid China's emerging consumer society to see a woman's appearance as more important than what she does.
Female college graduates in China find it harder to get jobs than males, even in government departments, Mo said. And when women do find work, they are likely to receive less pay and poorer legal protection than their male counterparts, she said in a keynote speech to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Tuesday.
He Qinglian said the problem was far wider than the need for new laws, which were already very clear on women's rights. "China's legislation on this issue is the equal of any other country in the world. The problem is with its implementation," she said.
Liao said part of the problem was that negative attitudes towards women's participation in society were so entrenched, that extensive education would be needed before any change was likely. "For example, China's laws state clearly that everyone, male and female, has a right to an education," Liao Xianqi told RFA. "But often in the countryside women have given up that opportunity themselves... So the problem has to be tackled throughout the whole of society; it's not enough just to have legislation."