BEIJING -- Chinese women are widely believed to be among the main beneficiaries of much heralded economic reforms. But surveys, published articles, and protests from women indicate women are still the victims of widespread prejudice, discrimination and "feudal" concepts.
For millions of women working in factories, the situation appears to be getting not better but worse.
Many factory directors, now given more autonomy under industrial reforms introduced several years ago, have decided that women should be the first to be fired and the last to be hired.
In some cases, if a manager is unable to fire a woman employee, he simply reduces her pay.
With an eye to enhancing profits, factory managers also sometimes eliminate maternity leave, which is supposed to last as long as six months.
In a recent investigation, the All-China Women's Federation found that some enterprises denied young mothers time during the workday to feed their babies. Some factories have closed their nurseries and rooms reserved for pregnant or breast-feeding women, according to a recent report in the official China Daily newspaper.
For some, the biggest shock of all came last fall, at the end of the 13th Communist Party congress, when the country's new Politburo was announced. Alternate member Chen Muhua, the only woman on the Politburo, was dropped from the country's highest political body.
Later this year, Chen Muhua, now in her late sixties, is expected to lose her job as president of the People's Bank of China and take up a less impressive post, possibly as one of the leaders of a consultative body or as one of the deputy chairmen of the National People's Congress, China's largely powerless legislature.
Wang Deyi, a women's federation leader, has called for passage of a state law to protect women's rights. And the women's federation is issuing statements to try to get the point across that things are not going well.
In defense, Communist Party officials argue that more women are employed than ever before -- more than 50 million in urban areas -- and that there has actually been an increase in the number of women officials. For example, they say, the number of female vice ministers increased from 10 to 12 between 1983 and 1986.
But women's federation officials point out that prospective employers last year rejected a significant number of female graduates from China's most prestigious universities, including 100 from elite Beijing University. The employers argued that women are less competent than men and less able to function well once they have children.
One of the biggest problems is that many Chinese women accept the idea that they are inferior, said Li Gangzhong, chairwoman of the Women's Federation of Beijing.
Women are showing a new assertiveness in what they want out of marriage and they initiate the majority of the country's divorce proceedings. But many women act helpless when it comes to asserting their rights in the workplace.
"According to the constitution, women enjoy equality with men . . . ," said Li Gangzhong in a recent interview. "But the situation is complicated by a long history of feudalism in which the influence of women is still pretty low.
"The idea that women are inferior in the professions is not only established in the minds of men but also in the minds of women," Li added. "Some women feel they should sacrifice themselves."
Li said that leaders of the women's federation hold two conflicting views. One is that women are the "victims" of the economic reforms. The other view -- which she tends to support -- is that the reforms have given women who work hard and raise their educational level greater long-term opportunities to compete with men.
Li points to the example of women who have been successful at leasing enterprises, such Guan Guangmei, a much publicized woman in her thirties in a northeastern city who has made big profits by leasing failing state-owned grocery stores and making them more efficient.
But a government survey of 1,500 working women conducted in 1985 and 1986 showed that more than 75 percent were obliged to work a double day "without any real support."
Many of these women spend 3.5 hours on housework every day. And close to 50 percent have to look after their aging parents-in-law as well, according to the survey.
In newly established private enterprises, women workers sometimes put in extremely long hours. The China Women's Journal said recently that 4,500 women workers with private enterprises in Yueyang, a city in the southern province of Hunan, were forced to work 15 to 20 hours a day. The weekly journal said some Hunan employers beat female workers.