The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Despite real progress, Chinese women may be losing ground

Tian Jian, right, and her daughter, Cheng Hanxiang, at their home in Nanjing, China, on Sept. 11. (Emily Rauhala/The Washington Post)

When women from around the world gathered in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995, Tian Jian was a 38-year-old mother raising a willful and rambunctious daughter on her own.

She did not witness Hillary Rodham Clinton's keynote speech or meet with the feminist activists who rallied across the capital. She was not there for the planning or the promises of change.

But she carried in her “blood and bones” the stories of Chinese women’s struggles, passed to her from her grandmother, who survived the Japanese occupation, and her mother. And now, 20 years after the landmark meeting, Tian, like many other Chinese women, is proud of real progress — but worried about what’s to come.

On Sunday, China's president, Xi Jinping, will speak at an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the conference. Though it's not clear what he'll say — he has, frankly, said very little on anything related to gender — most analysts say he will trumpet China's progress on women's rights.

An official White Paper released in the run-up to the visit struck a positive tone, praising the government's "unremitting efforts" to promote "women's equal participation in economic development and equal access to the fruits of reform and development."

Though China is right to note improvements in women’s standard of living, welfare and health, the full picture is more complex. While Chinese women are, on average, wealthier, more educated and healthier than they were before, experts say they are losing ground, relative to men.

At the same time, the central government — a sea of middle-aged men in suits — is taking an increasingly hard line on activism, feminist organizing included. In the spring, five young women were detained ahead of International Women's Day for planning what they called "performance art." Months later, they are still being harassed and threatened by police.

“Even though feminists have worked very hard, 20 years after the conference, it is not a rosy picture — not at all,” said Wang Zheng, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who studies China’s women’s movement.

"Chinese women did make progress on various fronts, but that progress is being rolled back," echoed Leta Hong Fincher, author of "Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China."

For Tian Jian, now 58, it feels like walking backward.

Tian was born in 1957 and came of age in the hungry, desperate aftermath of the Great Leap Forward. Her family survived wartime Nanjing only to be plunged again into poverty, selling eggs and scavenging for coal at the railway station to get by.

Tian, like many of her generation, was sent to a commune instead of college. In 1980, she was assigned a job at a machine factory, where she worked until she was transferred to a cultural center and then a museum, where she stayed until she retired.

That was a stroke of luck: Equal employment and equal pay were mandated in Mao’s days, but as China opened up and factories were privatized, many people, including a disproportionate number of women, found themselves without jobs and unable to compete in the new world of private enterprise. In 1990, 77.4 percent of urban, working-age women had jobs. By 2010, that figure dropped to 60.8 percent, census figures show.

Coming of age in the Cultural Revolution, Tian memorized Mao’s Little Red Book and, of course, his proclamation that “women hold up half the sky.” But when her marriage failed and she filed for divorce — rare in 1993 — the sky came crashing down. She was scorned for setting out on her own and struggled mightily to make ends meet.

Tian named her daughter, born in the frigid winter of 1986, Cheng Hanxiang, after plum blossoms, which are at their most fragrant in the harshest cold. In a letter sent to a local newspaper in 1998, she recalled raising her daughter amid tremendous hardship but teaching her to be strong. “I made an eternal wish for her: never fear winter, have a noble heart,” she wrote.

The girl, now a woman of 29, is that wish fulfilled and a testament to how far their small family, and the country, has come.

Since the lean years of Cheng’s 1980s childhood, hundreds of millions of Chinese have climbed out of poverty. Women today are less likely to die in childbirth and more likely to get an education.

Cheng breezed through elementary school, “beating the boys” along the way, studied law at university and now runs a tech start-up that keeps her happy, if not rich. She has more options than her mother could have imagined — from what to wear, to where to work.

But she’s frustrated. China’s economic transformation has created enormous wealth, but that wealth is spread unequally: The wealth gap is one of the most extreme in the world — and women are being left out.

The state's own statistics show that urban women made 77.5 percent of what their male counterparts made in 1990, 70 percent in 1999, and 67.3 percent in 2010. The income gap is also only part of the problem: Differences in real estate ownership also put women at a disadvantage.

What Cheng hates more, though, is what she called “the obsession with marriage.”

Parental pressure to marry is not new. But the huge gender imbalance that is a consequence of China’s one-child policy, producing millions has now prompted the government to add to that pressure by urging China’s badly outnumbered population of women of marriage age to settle down by age 27.

The message she and her friends get, Cheng said, is to be “smart, not smarter, strong, not stronger — to bring face to your husband, but not to outshine him.”

“I am constantly told that I should marry and that if I’m not married, it’s because my standards are too high,’’ Cheng said. “But why can’t I have high standards?”

Her mom gently stopped her: “You must.”

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Today's coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Liu Liu contributed to this report.