The Times Literary Supplement reports on an evening with author Zhang Lijia of Lotus: A Novel on prostitution in China recently in London. One of the subjects: how did Chinese women fare under the market economy, introduce by Deng Xiaoping. About the government as a big boys’ club.
Zhang commented that since the Cultural Revolution, changes may have enabled corporate growth, but haven’t done much for social welfare or social equality: “Deng Xiaoping’s reforms afforded some opportunities for educated, urban women. But the market economy has undermined gender equality. The government retreated from its role and let the market take over, but the market doesn’t always treat women kindly. Women are bearing the brunt of the shift from the planned economy to the free-market economy: women have to attain higher grades to be admitted to universities, women are the ones who are laid off first, women over forty-five are sacked from companies, companies can stipulate that they want only young and pretty women”.
Zhang’s research showed that prostitutes are not just vulnerable to violent men, but also to police harassment and abuse. Although prostitution is considered a social evil, Zhang added, “it’s placed under administrative law, not criminal law, so it’s dealt with through fines and sanctions. The police interpret the laws themselves. They beat up the women and extract ‘confessions’, put them in detention with no legal representation. They have leeway for corruption, abuse and a violation of the women’s rights”. Meanwhile, she argued, measures to curb prostitution “don’t tackle fundamental social problems. The root of the problem is the growing gender gap and a thin social safety net”.
Will gender equality improve in this fascinating and rapidly transforming country? When it comes to change driven from the top down, Lijia Zhang isn’t hopeful: “Female political participation is low – women make up less than a quarter of the National People’s Congress and well under a fifth of the Standing Committee. And the top level of government is just one big boys’ club”.
Are you interested in more speakers on cultural change at the China Speakers Bureau? Do check out this list.