Mao envisioned a China in which women would “hold up half the sky.” But as the nation embraces capitalism, women are losing ground

Before she was abducted, Hu Lixia had never been alone in a room with a man who wasn’t a relative. The plum-cheeked teenager had never had a boyfriend or even a secret crush. Every day, after she finished work at an ice-cream factory in central Hunan province, she would rush home to help cook dinner. She was, as her mother puts it, “a good country girl.” But one evening in November 1998, Hu didn’t return to her tiny village in remote Xupu county. Her parents, sugarcane farmers with only four years of schooling between them, were frantic. They contacted the local police, but their pleas for help were ignored. A month later, a bribe to the father of a local gangster with a suspiciously fancy house brought them grim news: Hu had been kidnapped, raped and forced to work at a brothel in Guigang city in nearby Guangxi province. Desperate to get his daughter back, Hu’s father, Hu Yangduan, together with the father of another missing girl, paid the traffickers $180—about one year’s income—and both children were returned. “I was so angry at her for letting someone deceive her that I wanted to beat her,” recalls Hu’s father, clenching his weathered fists. “But when I saw her, all I could do was cry.”

Hundreds of girls have been kidnapped from Xupu in the past few years, including more than a dozen from Hu’s village of barely 200. Some girls—lured into cars by promises of candy or fancy clothes or merely a joyride to the city—are never heard from again. Others, like Hu, eventually find their way back home. But Hu was so traumatized by what had happened that she refused to leave her house for more than a year after her return, spending her days sequestered in a dark room filled with piles of coal. Finally, she fled last year to the boomtown of Shenzhen, where she now toils in an electronics sweatshop. Although the 16-hour shifts are exhausting, they’re nothing like the conditions at the brothel, where she was forced to service a stream of men for no pay. “My elders used to sing a song comparing life to a dark well of bitterness,” recalls Hu of her months as a sex slave. “Women, who stand at the lowest level, are never able to see the sun or sky.”

How times change. When Hu’s mother was growing up, her hero was Xiang Jingyu, a Xupu-born revolutionary who was one of China’s first crusading feminists. China’s communist leaders may have inflicted fear and famine on their subjects, but they were progressive when it came to women’s rights. Soon after the communist revolution, Beijing’s leaders even designated Xupu as a model town for local efforts to promote equality between the sexes. A feudal country that had bound its girls’ feet just a few years before had been transformed into a nation where women, as Chairman Mao Zedong famously declared, could “hold up half the sky.” But as China sheds the stifling rigidity of communism for the ruthless disorder of capitalism, the sky seems to be falling in on millions of women. After half a century of struggling to achieve equality with men, women are bearing the brunt of the nation’s massive social dislocations.

True, capitalism has benefited an èlite group of educated, urban women who are enjoying unprecedented opportunities—from heading to America for M.B.A.s to launching their own companies. But, in general, women are losing out. As discrimination against them increases, they are the first to be laid off from once ironclad state jobs. They are the first to be deprived of local-government seats now that Beijing no longer enforces long-held gender quotas. They are the first to drop out of school as academic fees climb ever higher. And they have regressed financially, too: in the 1980s, women made 80 cents for every dollar that men earned; now, women make only 65 cents, as private enterprises are free to pay as they please.

At the extremes, old bad habits from China’s imperial past are also resurging: prostitution, concubinage, wife buying, female infanticide. One symptom of the intensifying pressure is that nearly 300,000 women in China committed suicide in 2000, making it the only country in the world where relatively more females than males take their own lives. “China is progressing in so many ways,” says Deng Li, deputy director of the government-run All-China Women’s Federation. “But for many women, their lives are going backward, because the rules to protect them are no longer being followed.”

The laws Mao passed to protect women were all the more remarkable given how retrogade China had traditionally been in its treatment of women. Before the communists took over, younger girls in large families were often so unimportant that they weren’t even given a name—once they married, they took their husband’s name. Mao allowed women the rights to divorce and to own land, both radical concepts at the time. He funneled as much money into athletic programs for girls and women as into those for boys and men, leading to a bumper crop of women’s Olympic golds in the 1980s. Most important, Mao involved women in government; his first Cabinet, assembled in 1949, included two women, and he commanded that local governments must be at least 20% female. By 1973, 10% of the members of the èlite Central Committee, equivalent to China’s Senate, were women. The nongovernmental sector experienced the same phenomenon: by the 1980s, China was one of the few countries where city wives were almost as likely as their husbands to be asked what job they did. Nearly as many women as men trained as doctors and engineers. For a while, there was even a push to train additional women to become construction workers and bus drivers. For women whose forebears could only hobble around on feet made tiny and deformed by years of painful binding, being able to command a bus or a building crane as freely as a man was an epic change.

Wan Geng was one of the many women in a previously “male” job. For 18 years, she worked in a state-owned factory in Shanghai making intricate television parts. That was where her mother had worked, and the job was a good one with a decent salary. But three years ago, she was one of 60 people laid off from the factory. Of those made redundant, only eight were men. Before the layoffs, there were 50 men and 70 women working in the factory. Afterward, the gender ratio flipped to 40 men and 20 women. Now, Wan, 42, works as an elevator operator, spending her days pressing buttons for $60 a month—half what she earned at the factory. Still, it’s the best job she can find in a Shanghai market that’s flooded with middle-aged women laid off from state-owned factories.

Nationwide, 65% of layoffs in the state sector are women, even though only 40% of the workforce is female, say researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “You have to understand that in China today, men are the priority,” remarks Wan, sitting in her elevator. “You can’t fire men as easily, because they would lose face.” Indeed, according to a 2002 study by officials in northeastern Liaoning province, one-third of private companies say they only want to hire men. This government-run study also reports that of the millions being laid off by state factories, 80% of the men eventually find work vs. only 49% of the women. For its part, the TV factory that laid off Wan asserts that there was no discrimination in its firings. “Maybe there were more women who were laid off, but I’m not sure,” says a manager who would only give his surname, Zeng. “We never looked at the statistics.” He pauses and then adds: “But I tell you, it’s not too big a problem, because women can go home and take care of their children.”

Women in higher-paid jobs aren’t having much better luck, either. Back in the 1970s, when Dr. Pang (she won’t reveal her full name for fear of losing her small pension) was studying medicine at Shanghai Hygiene University, the gender ratio among students was equally balanced. When she began working as a doctor at a clinic attached to a state-owned steel factory, six of the 10 physicians were women. But two years ago, when the factory merged with another one, Pang was forced to take early retirement—along with all the other female doctors. (China’s official retirement age for women is 55 and for men 60.) Although Pang’s male bosses never told her outright that she and the other women were laid off because of their gender, a male colleague whispered to her that perhaps it was time for her to stay home and be a good wife. “I never imagined this would happen to me because I am a woman,” says Pang, still dressed in a professional-looking pin-striped blazer despite being out of a job. “But China has changed, and women don’t have the same rights as before.”

Even government jobs, the traditional refuge for bright women, are no longer a haven these days. Back in the 1970s, at least 20% of government jobs went to women, because of quotas set by Mao. But with Beijing’s control over the countryside easing, fewer women are getting the opportunity to join the civil service, as local officials simply ignore national quotas set up to ensure women a place in government. Only 8% of top provincial jobs are held by women, according to a survey by the All-China Women’s Federation. Mayor Li was elected to head her 350-strong village in eastern Anhui province last summer. But despite her ballot-box victory, she hasn’t been able to wrest the keys to her rightful office from her predecessors. “They tell me a woman is not smart enough for this job,” says the 58-year-old, speaking through the only phone in her village in a whisper lest others hear. “But I think they are just afraid that I will expose their corruption.” Nearly a year on, Li’s attempts to seek help from higher-level government officials have met with no success. Early this year, provincial bureaucrats even sent her a letter stamped with two official seals: “Auntie Li, we cannot help old women like you who insist on making trouble. You should stay at home. Let the men take care of your village affairs.” Rejoins Li: “I have been a member of the Communist Party for 30 years, so why is no one helping me anymore?”

The higher the government ranks, the more it feels like an old boys’ network. When the 16th Party Congress convened in Beijing late last year to elect the Central Committee, only five of the 198 members were female—the lowest number since the People’s Republic was founded. The Beijing leadership was sufficiently concerned about the dwindling ratio of women in government that in 2001 then President Jiang Zemin ordered a campaign encouraging women to join the civil service. But this mandate was one of many reform goals before Jiang handed over the reins to his successor, Hu Jintao, and one of the first to fall by the wayside. Today, the glass ceiling prevents all but the most capable women from rising in the ranks: there is only one woman in China’s Cabinet, Wu Yi, who was recently appointed Health Minister after the sars scandal claimed her predecessor. “Some men don’t trust women in power,” says Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “But with the number of women in government declining, we’re actually losing our power.”

The most powerless of China’s new generation of women sit huddled in a row of brothels in Xingsha, a grimy town in Hunan province where some of the kidnapped girls from Xupu county have ended up. Red and purple lights illuminate the girls’ narrow frames, many barely past puberty. A few girls lounge under a giant photograph of a naked couple, while others smoke cigarettes and play cards to pass the time. One trick costs $18; a whole night is double that. No one talks about arresting the pimps who keep a watchful eye over the girls lest they try to escape. A police car is parked next to one brothel, but a passerby snickers and whispers that the officer is a regular. Cops, of course, get a discount.

During Mao’s heyday, China had virtually no prostitutes, as every man, woman and child was tracked by Orwellian neighborhood-watch committees. But when Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping opened the country to economic reforms, people began to roam—and disappear from neighborhood radars. Men traveling on business could visit newly opened brothels without anyone knowing, and pimps could gather truckloads of girls from the countryside without raising suspicion. Today, prostitution is so rampant that the latest edition of the Xinhua Dictionary of New Words has a new entry: pao niu, or looking for prostitutes.

The traffickers first descended on Xupu county in 1995, and at least 600 local girls are now thought to be serving either as prostitutes or as brides illegally sold to farmers too poor to pay for a more expensive traditional marriage. Last year, some 20,000 women nationwide were rescued before being sold as wives. The All-China Women’s Federation estimates that the rate of female abductions is increasing by an average of 30% a year. Residents of Xupu county have tried to combat the kidnappings any way they can. After a local middle-school principal’s daughter was snatched between classes, he ordered the walls surrounding the schoolyard to be made higher. Parents in the village now keep their children at home after dusk.

Villagers say they’ve had little help from the police, and they suspect local officials may be complicit in the abductions. After an elderly activist named Zhang Xisheng spoke to the local media about the epidemic of missing girls, he was suddenly jailed and is now serving a seven-year sentence for subverting state security. Despite villagers drawing up a list of likely traffickers, only one suspected kidnapper has been arrested—and he was later released. In Hu Lixia’s one exchange with a local police officer, she says he dismissed her entreaties for justice and then asked her to service him. When Hu’s father spoke to the local press about the incident earlier this year, officials from both the provincial- and national-level security bureaus showed up at his door, promising violence if he talked again. Yet when contacted about the kidnappings, a local police spokesperson at first professed no knowledge of the case, then added that it was too sensitive to talk about. Like other locals, Zhou Ruwen, a farmer whose granddaughter was abducted, claims cops turn a blind eye because they’ve been paid off by traffickers: “The police don’t make money if they stop the kidnappers,” says Zhou. “They only make money if the kidnapping continues. We have to accept that we will keep losing girls from our homes.”

But even the girls who have been able to stay at home are losing out. One of Mao’s proudest accomplishments was increasing the number of girls in school. A century ago, barely 2% of women were literate. By the 1990s, village-committee leaders had seen to it that most girls had attended at least a few years of grade school. But over the past decade, China’s cash-strapped Education Ministry has started allowing schools to increase their fees to make up for financial shortfalls. In some rural school districts, the fees are half a peasant’s yearly income. The first ones to drop out, naturally, are girls whose families cling to the feudal notion that only boys need an education. Last year in rural areas, girls were 11 times more likely than boys to drop out of primary school. Unsurprisingly, there are also fewer women going to college: since 1995, the number of female university students has declined every year, to one-third of the student body today, according to the State Education Commission.

Yang Li was a fifth-grade bookworm who was always reading ahead of her class in the mountains of Jiangxi province. True, the kids were often forced to make fireworks during class time, but at least she was getting in a little learning. Then her brother stopped sending money from his job as a construction worker, so Yang had to drop out of school. She had been one of only two girls left in her class of 30-odd kids. Now, Yang lives in the teeming southern metropolis of Guangzhou, selling roses for a living. The 14-year-old shares a cramped eight-square-meter room with nine other girls from Yangfang village who pool their earnings for rent. As the oldest, Yang cooks turnip rice for the younger ones and dispenses hugs to the lonely new arrivals. In a way, they’re lucky: a worker who helps care for Guangzhou’s homeless estimates that two-thirds of the city’s 10,000-plus street children are girls.

Last year, Yang’s 11-year-old sister arrived to start work in the big city, but Yang wasn’t around to greet her. The day before, she had been arrested for loitering and was dumped in a cell with drug dealers and other miscreants. “To make it less scary, I closed my eyes and thought of the happy endings in books I read in school,” says Yang. “But I don’t know if I will have a happy ending or not.” For many women in China, happy endings are becoming ever harder to find.

(adapted from TIME)