In the last week of 2020, I led a team to the China-Vietnam border area to do field research in various port cities of South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Coincidentally, many of the deputy mayors of these cities who received us were female. This made me reflexively want to write about changes in China beyond the perspective of men.
These female deputy mayors left me in awe. One has two children, the younger one only 10 months old, but she accompanied us until the midnight. Another has been working along the border for many years. When she occasionally goes back home, her kid sometimes doesn’t recognize her. The third one had to drive back home for two hours after we finished a dinner.
Working women have more concerns than men. This is especially so for women working in officialdom. But in recent years, the number of female officials has been steadily increasing.
At the end of the 1970s, there were about 420,000 female civil servants in China. By 2017, the number was nearly five times to almost 1.9 million, taking up 26.5 percent of all Chinese civil servants nationally. That same year, 52 percent of newly employed civil servants in central departments were female. Women’s participation in politics is an important measure of the social status of women and civilization. China’s progress in this regard is not far behind European countries and the US.
In terms of education and culture, increasing numbers of Chinese women have played more important roles in high-tech areas, including high energy physics, aerospace engineering, artificial intelligence, and chemical materials. According to the China Women’s News, in 2018 the number of female high-tech workers had reached 36 million, or 40 percent of that sector’s total labor force. This ratio is almost the same as developed countries.
In social and legal domains, the status of females in many regions of China has surpassed those in Western countries. In the workplace in China, males and females are paid the same when performing the same job in the same organization. Furthermore, Chinese employees in many regions can receive maternity and paternity leave. There are over 100 separate laws and regulations to protect women’s rights and interests. In 2018, there were 3,080 maternal and child healthcare institutions nationwide, making it one of the top 10 countries with the highest levels of maternal and child health performance, according to a ranking by the World Health Organization. In China, it has become common for women to take charge of household finances.
Statistics from 2019 shows that China’s labor participation rate stood at 76 percent, and its female labor participation reached 70 percent. By contrast, this was only 50 percent in France, 58 percent in the US, and 28 percent in India. Chinese women tend to have more to balance than their counterparts in many countries. In nearly half Chinese households, females do most of the housework. A Chinese mother not only has to be a good employee, wife, and daughter, but also has to be a qualified chef, baby-sitter, driver, accountant and even psychologist.
I feel that China’s development speed is moving faster than most countries because Chinese women work harder than women in other countries.
Chinese men are often taunted by the public by the rise of powerful women. For example, in the Olympic Games, most of China’s medals are won by female athletes. In three traditional ball games (soccer, basketball, and volleyball), the men’s teams of China are all weak. But women’s sports teams have won many gold and silver medals.
Of course, to affirm the progress of Chinese women is not to say that the status quo of Chinese women’s development has been impeccable. In China, a large number of female problems still exist, such as preferences for sons, left-behind women in rural areas, the lack of female education, domestic violence, and threats to women’s health. These are exactly what China needs to improve in the future.
By discussing the neglected rise of Chinese women, this column intends to remind my English readers of a new angle: females as key variables to the rise of the Chinese state.
Western observers tend to criticize China more than recognize the improvement of China. Just as the West usually ignores China’s contribution to poverty alleviation, climate change, infrastructure, and global governance, they also pay no attention to the improvement of Chinese women.
This reminds me of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. One of the world’s most successful working women has inspired women to “be more open to taking risks.” In fact, this advice applies to everyone.
The author is professor and executive dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.