Voted one of the 40 Beijing heroes by TimeOut Beijing
A worker-turned writer and social commentator
An expert on the changing Chinese society
Voted one of the 40 Beijing heroes by TimeOut Beijing
ZHANG Lijia is a factory-worker-turned writer, journalist, social commentator and public speaker. She was born into a poor worker’s family in Nanjing, on the banks of Yangtze River. At 16, she was taken out of the school and put to work at a missile factory where she sought in reading and teaching herself English. Her articles have appeared in many international publications, including South China Morning Post, The Guardian, Newsweek, CNN and The New York Times. She is the co-author of China Remembers, an oral history of the People’s Republic of China.Her best-selling memoir “Socialism Is Great!”, about her decade-long experience working at the factory in the 80’s,was first published in US in 2008 and has been translated into numerous languages around the world. She is a regular speaker on the BBC, Channel 4, CNN and National Public Radio in America. She is a recipient of the prestigious fellowship International Writers’ Program at University of Iowa in 2009. She lives in Beijing with her two daughters.
“Applicants limited to male.” 23-year-old job-hunter Huang Rong (not her real name) noticed this line in a job announcement only after she had heard nothing from the recruiter and gone back to check the advertisement online. She had graduated from Xinyang Normal University in Henan province with a degree in social work this summer, and she said the job sounded perfect for someone who enjoyed talking to people: a clerk position, combining executive assistants’ responsibilities with more creative tasks such as coming up with marketing campaign ideas for the well-established New Oriental Cooking School, a company based in her favorite city, Hangzhou.
“I didn’t understand why a clerk’s position would be open only to men,” Huang said in a telephone interview from Hangzhou. So she called the school and was told that the job required travel and some physically demanding tasks such as carrying the school director’s suitcases. Huang made it clear that she didn’t mind traveling and she was physically quite strong, but her application was rejected nonetheless. She went to the school to appeal in person but to no avail.
“I felt very disappointed, like a deflated balloon,” Huang recalls. “The more I thought about it, the more angry I became.” But she had read about the case of Cao Ju and so she decided to sue the school for discrimination. Cao, another young female graduate (Cao Ju is a pseudonym), had made history in 2012 by successfully filing China’s first gender discrimination lawsuit against the Beijing company that refused to consider her for an assistant job because they would only accept a man. The case ended when the company offered Cao 30,000 yuan (a little less than U.S.$5,000) in an out-of-court settlement in January this year.
A Party propaganda poster from 1953. The text reads: ‘Study the battle spirit of the Red Army during the Long March, conquer nature, build up our nation.’
A Party propaganda poster from 1962 titled: ‘When the People Work Hard, the Flowers Are Fragrant.’
Both cases shed light on the problem of widespread gender discrimination and inequality in China. Cao and Huang are just two of millions of victims. According to a survey conducted by the All China Women’s Federation, the Chinese government’s official feminist organ, in 2011 91.9% of female students polled said they had experienced gender discrimination by employers.
As China’s economy has slowed in the recent years, graduates face ever stiffer competition. In 2013, a record 7 million students graduated yet they entered a job market that had shrunk by 15% in a year. Men seem to have an upper hand in this tough competition.
This situation is a far cry from the days before China’s economic reforms, when graduates were assigned jobs by the government, regardless of gender. Nowadays, after they graduate, students have to fend for themselves. While researching his recently published book Class in Contemporary China, David Goodman, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, discovered that the market economy has led to increased gender inequality since the 1990s. “Women are unequal in society to start off with,” he says, “so without encouragement or state intervention (as before) their representation in all forms of social activity will decrease.”
According to Lu and other experts, some private companies try to avoid employing women of child-bearing age and sometimes fire them when they become pregnant. They also worry the relaxed family planning policy, which now allows only-children to have a second child, may make some companies even less willing to hire young women.
The income gap between men and women has widened in the past three decades. The latest official statistics suggest that income for urban women is 67.3% that of men while women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make. Another telling sign is the employment rate. In 2010, among the population above 16 years of age, the female employment rate was 61.7% and the male rate 76.1%.
“Gender discrimination is ingrained and institutionalized in China,” explains Geoffrey Crothall, Communications Director for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin and an expert on employment issues in China. “It begins in school when girls have to get higher scores than boys to get into certain university courses. It continues in the workplace.”
For female students, the biggest hurdle in securing a job is gender discrimination, according to Lu Ping, a top gender expert who runs the Media Monitor for Women Network, an NGO in Beijing that monitors gender-related reports in the media.
On China’s many employment websites, one can often spot job advertisements that specifically request good-looking women. One sales person’s position demands “a pretty woman with height no less than 1.7 meters.” Wuhan Science and Technology University put up an ad last year looking for a counselor who “must be a male, under 26-years-old if holding a master degree or under 29 for a Ph.D., and must be unmarried.” And New Oriental Cooking School is far from the only recruiter that limits some positions to men only, for implausible reasons.
“The blatant discrimination in advertising occurs because people think it is perfectly alright to assign work on the basis of gender. These attitudes, if anything, are getting more common among employers, especially in sought-after professions, because they have the luxury to pick and choose,” says Crothall.
“There’s very little a woman can do when she is being discriminated against by an employer,” says Lu, who closely followed both Cao’s and Huang’s lawsuits.
But Huang was determined. “I wanted to go ahead even though I didn’t have the money for a lawyer,” says Huang, who gets by with piecemeal jobs and still hasn’t found full time employment. A friend introduced her to Cao Ju who offered not only useful advice and encouragement but also some funds to cover her legal costs. “There’s no better way to spend the money,” says Cao Ju. “Squeezing money out of the court case was not my intention. Fighting against sex discrimination is.” Cao also organized an online petition to rally support for Huang. So far, more than 400 women from all over the country have signed it.
Again with friends’ help, Huang found Nanjing-based lawyer Xu Ying who was willing to take on her case. “To me, the case is blatant sex discrimination,” says Xu. “Even the recruiter’s excuses rest on gender stereotypes: women are not suited to travel or they’re too weak to carry a suitcase. The only thing that matters here should be the applicant’s ability, not the person’s sex.”
The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Promotion of Employment, adopted in 2007, includes explicit language forbidding gender discrimination in hiring and noting that, “When an employing unit recruits female workers, it shall not have such provisions as restrict female workers from getting married or bearing a child included in the labor contract.” The law also states that a job-seeker has the right to sue the employer in cases of gender discrimination. Why then have there been so few of such cases in China?
“Generally speaking, people in China are not very aware of their legal rights,” explains lawyer Xu. “There’s no tradition of suing an employer. And of course, going to court is expensive, time consuming, and the whole legal system doesn’t seem to be geared to cope with such cases.”
Indeed, it took well over a year for a Beijing court just to accept Cao’s case. It refused the case at first, citing a lack of precedent. Huang fared a little better. After back and forth negotiations with a Hangzhou court, the hearing took place on September 10, with the accused absent. The verdict is due in December.
A man from the Oriental Cooking School’s HR department, who refused to disclose his identity, said there was no need to appear for the hearing as the court will make a correct judgment according to facts. “Everything the plaintiff said was a lie. Sex discrimination? If so, why are there so many women teachers working at our school?”
Given the difficulties of filing a lawsuit, some have sought other methods to tackle gender discrimination. On December 26, 2013, eight female students from different cities in China wrote to their local governments to report job listings they suspected were discriminatory. Altogether, they found 41 such cases. 80% of jobs advertised were white-collar jobs that were not physically demanding, offered mostly by privately-owned enterprises. The women received hardly any response from the authorities. But young women from across the country continued the reports and they have gradually drawn more responses from the authorities.
The reports and lawsuits take place at a time when China is witnessing an increase in women’s rights activism.
In November 2013, ten university students, wearing giant paper pants over their winter coats, staged a demonstration in front of a local government building in Wuhan to protest invasive gynecological exams imposed on women applying for civil servant jobs.
Earlier that year, 20 women across the country shaved their heads, silently voicing their anger against discrimination in admissions standards at universities. Some universities set higher standards for entrance examination scores for female students. In Beijing, three women dressed up in blood-stained wedding gowns to protest domestic violence; in Guangzhou, women queued in front of a toilet to protest against the lack of public toilets for women.
Lu of the Media Monitor for Women Network believes these examples of activism are significant. “They show a new level of awareness,” she says. “Compared to the older generation, these educated young women are more aware of international norms. They are internet savvy and know how to use modern technology to get in touch with like-minded people and seek help. And they are willing to take a stand.”
Lu also praises the courage of Huang and Cao. “They’ve taken a big risk. If their true identities were exposed, probably no one would ever hire them again.”
There have been discussions among academics and legal experts about drafting a new anti-sex discrimination law. But Lu thinks that existing laws, at least on paper, already cover the major issues. “The real question is to implement them and supervise them,” she said.
Crowthall says such cases raise awareness of gender discrimination. “When cases like the current one do get heard, they play a very important role in bringing the issue of gender discrimination to the attention of the general public and perhaps making employers think twice before excluding women from job openings,” he says.
Huang’s Lawyer, Xu Ying, says it’s not easy to predict the outcome of the case, even though the result of Cao’s case is encouraging. But if the outcome doesn’t go their way, she and her client vow to fight on.
My grandmother was a prostitute-turned concubine, my mother a frustrated factory worker, and myself a rocket-factory-girl-turned-international-writer. The stories of three generations of women in my family illustrate the changing role of women in contemporary Chinese society.
My Grandma’s Story — A Working Girl Turned Concubine
At birth my grandma was named Yang Huizhen, but for many years she was known as Huang-Yang Shi — meaning the woman who was married to a man surnamed Huang and middle-named, Yang. The very name she was given showed how women had no identity of their own just a few generations ago.
Yang Huizhen suffered war, famine and other terrible hardships during her 83 years of life. Born in 1915 in a town outside Nanjing, on the banks of Yangtze River, she was an orphan at a young age, and then was sold into prostitution. In those days, women were a common commodity. She met my grandfather, a married small time grain dealer, on the job. He took her to Nanjing where they set up a home. In 1949, after the Chinese Communists victory, men were ordered to keep one wife. Grandpa decided to keep my grandma, his concubine, as his wife.
Illiterate, grandma never worked outside the house. And like many women of her generation, she lived her life for others.
My Mother’s Story — A Low Factory Hand
My mother Huang Yunfang was 12 years old when the People’s Republic of China was established. She was happy to witness a series of progressive policies introduced by the new government: abolishing feudal tradition of foot-binding, concubine-taking, and arranged marriages — as well as granting women the equal rights to education and employment.
Upon completing middle school, my mother was assigned a job at a state-owned military factory. Jobs were assigned by the government in those days. She considered herself very lucky to have obtained an ‘iron rice bowl’ — referring to a job with a state-owned enterprise, as it meant a job for life. The factory was also prestigious. Among other things, it produced inter-continental missiles that were capable of reaching North America.
My mother was a smart woman and better educated than many of her fellow workers, but she never got anywhere professionally. For nearly 30 years, she did one type of job: “acid-pickling.” It involved lifting machine parts into a tank filled with poisonous chemicals. Chairman Mao’s idea of gender equality was to deny the physical differences between men and women.
My mother, despite her frustrations, fared much better than her mother. Financial independence inevitably meant improved position and power at home. She was always the one who controlled the family purse.
My Story — A Rocket Factory Girl Turned International Writer
I grew up in the residential compound that belonged to the factory my mother worked for all her life. I excelled in school, and had always harbored an ambition of going to university and then becoming a writer and a journalist.
At 16, however, my dream was shattered as mother dragged me out of the school and put me to work at the same factory. The reason was simple: we were poor. My assigned job was to test pressure gauges, simple and repetitive. A mini Communist empire, not only did the factory provide the workers with accommodation, dining halls and hospitals, it also controlled all aspects of our lives, including our hairstyle, our outfits or even our love life — dating wasn’t allowed within three years of entering the factory.
As an escape route, I decided to teach myself English, in the hope of obtaining a job as an interpreter with one of the foreign companies that were slowly setting up shops in Nanjing.
Looking back, learning English effectively changed my life as it has broadened my horizons. What I learnt wasn’t just the ABCs but the whole cultural package.
Of course, my journey from a rocket factory girl to an international writer has been a long and winding one. Having worked at the factory for 10 years, I left China for England. Once over there, a childhood dream stirred. I studied journalism. After I returned to China three years later, I started my career by assisting western journalists before becoming a journalist of my own right.
Now, based in Beijing, I work as a writer, social commentator and public speaker. I feel extremely lucky as I was born in the right time — Deng Xiaoping opened China’s door and introduced the economic reforms which have transformed China. Otherwise, I couldn’t possibly have achieved what I’ve achieved.
Setbacks And The Future
Although Deng’s reforms have brought along plenty of opportunities to both men and women, they’ve also caused setbacks in terms of gender equality.
The income gap between men and women has been widening in the past three decades.
Prostitution has made a spectacular return and the rich and powerful men once again boast to have ernai — the modern version of concubines. And female graduates have a much harder time in finding employment.
The government has retreated some of its responsibilities to the market. Yet the market doesn’t always treat women kindly.
Despite all the problems, I feel hopeful because Chinese women have started to take the matters into their own hands. They’ve set up NGOs, fighting for women’s rights in different ways. In recent years, I’ve noticed increased feminist activism. Women have bravely dressed up in bloodied wedding gowns to protest against domestic violence, shaving off their hair, silently voicing their anger against the discrimination in university admission standards, or filing lawsuits against discriminatory employers. Early this year, I marched for a week in central China with a young feminist friend. She walked all the way from Beijing to Guangzhou, in protest against child sex abuse.
There’s still a long way to go before women can truly hold up half of the sky. The good thing is that we are not sitting here, waiting for the miracle to happen. We are putting on a fight.
Medical workers used to be flatteringly called “angels in white” in mainland China. Now their profession has become one of the most dangerous, following a spate of bloody incidents at hospitals across the nation.
In mid-April, a male doctor on a maternity ward was severely beaten by a patient’s husband in Jiangsu province; in March, a young doctor in Guangdong was attacked and paraded in public by dozens of people after he failed to save a drunken man from a heart attack.
To curb such crimes, on April 24, China’s top legal bodies jointly issued guidelines warranting severe punishment for those who attack medical workers.
Hospital violence attracted massive media attention last October when a patient, Lian Enqing, angry over the outcome of his nasal surgery, stabbed three doctors at the No 1 People’s Hospital in Wenling , Zhejiang province, killing one of them. A few days earlier, another unhappy patient stabbed his doctor six times before jumping to his death in northeast Liaoning province.
Many factors contribute to the growing violence in hospitals. A decline in morality has been blamed; specifically, the lack of channels for patients to complain. And the arbitration bodies, often affiliated with medical associations, are hardly independent. According to the Chinese media, before Lian took drastic action, he had tried repeatedly to complain but got nowhere.
Such attacks underscore the ills of the health care system as a whole. On the heels of economic reforms, hospitals were commercialised. With limited government funding, they have to generate income through treatment and drug sales to support themselves.
When I began work at a state-owned enterprise in the early 1980s, medical care was free, and thus wasted. I remember mock fights with a colleague where we would throw around the bountiful headache pills we had been given.
How things have changed. Three years ago, I went to Beijing Capital Dermatology Hospital, one of the largest of its kind, after finding a strange rash on my arm. Like all major state hospitals, queues snaked everywhere. When it was my turn, the doctor took one cursory look and sent me for an allergy test on an imported machine and then prescribed numerous creams and pills. The total bill was US$800 – more than the average monthly salary in Beijing. That is a typical patient experience in China, at least in one respect: I left feeling short-changed, even cheated. Over-prescription and excessive tests are commonplace.
There are 1,000 top hospitals in China. Each has to deal with some 10,000 people every day. Doctors have at best a few minutes for each patient, often leading to a lack of communication, which plants the seed of doctor-patient mistrust.
Then there is corruption. Some doctors, given their long hours, modest salaries (on average, a doctor’s basic salary is on par with a waiter’s – US$500 a month) and hard-earned skills, probably feel entitled to accept red packets, a common delivery vessel for bribes from patients or kickbacks from pharmaceutical firms.
In September 2011, before my late cousin – suffering from bone marrow cancer – underwent an operation on his spine, his anaesthetist demanded 20,000 yuan (HK$25,000) under the table, saying that it was a dangerous operation, and the cash would help him ensure things went smoothly. Our family decided we couldn’t take a risk and so we paid him.
When I visited the hospital a few days after the operation, a girl who shared the same ward said the anaesthetist had demanded 5,000 yuan after an operation on her leg. Her family also paid.
A survey conducted by the China Youth Daily last November showed that two-thirds of those polled don’t trust their doctor’s diagnosis and treatment.
The problematic doctor-patient relationship can easily lead to violent disputes. According to a survey by China Hospital Management Association, medical disputes have been rising yearly at the rate of 22.9 per cent since 2002. In 2013, about 70,000 cases of disputes were reported.
It wouldn’t be fair to blame unethical doctors for everything. China’s medical care is severely underfunded. Although the total government health expenditure has increased over the years, the amount as a share of gross domestic product has been declining. In the past several years, the proportion has been around 5 per cent, much lower than the world average of about 10 per cent.
The Chinese government has made a major effort in providing health care for rural residents as well as the urban poor. For example, the Rural Co-operative Medical Scheme was introduced in 2003, funded by a combination of individual contributions and government subsidies. However, the coverage is minimal and too localised, meaning you can be reimbursed only for certain things, at limited amounts and for treatments at your local hospitals, which are not always equipped to cope with serious illnesses. Overall, only 30 per cent of total outpatient expenses and 50 per cent of inpatient expenses are covered, on average. The out-of-pocket cost is a serious burden for many.
Rising medical costs and low quality of service have led to ever louder complaints about the health care system. And medical workers have borne the brunt of it.
In the wake of the recent hospital attacks, many experts have come up with suggestions for change. One idea is to issue doctors with business licences so they can practise outside hospitals and provide quality services. Others recommend increasing the number of private hospitals to boost competition and improve quality. More and more are calling for the market to play a bigger role, allowing prices of drugs and services to rise to reduce kickbacks and bribery.
The newly published directive is certainly a positive move. But a comprehensive reform of health care is urgently needed. Without it, the law won’t be enough to curb the violence.
BEIJING — When I was 13, living in the outskirts of Nanjing, China, in the ’70s, my math teacher molested all the girls in our class, including me. Under the pretense of checking my work, he would lean over me, his face so close that I could smell his garlic breath, and he’d move his hand up my shirt, touching my chest.
Apart from trying to avoid him, we didn’t take any action. We knew what he was doing was wrong, but it never occurred to us to report him. A teacher in a Chinese classroom holds tremendous authority over students, and we didn’t even know the term “sexual abuse.” Most of us made it through the trauma, except for his main target, a plump girl who dropped out of school before she turned 14.
In May of last year, a sordid story of child sex abuse made headlines. Chen Zaipeng, then the principal of Wanning No. 2 Primary School, Hainan Province, together with a government official, took six pupils between 11 and 14 years old to a hotel and sexually abused them. Mr. Chen was convicted of rape and sentenced to a mere 13-and-a-half years in prison for his crimes.
The case sparked a national outcry, particularly over the light punishment Mr. Chen received. In one act of protest, a rights activist, Ye Haiyan, went to the school in Wanning, brandishing a poster that read: “Principal, if you want to ‘get a room’ look for me; leave the students alone!” Images of her action went viral.
Ms. Ye’s protest and others like it rippled through the Internet and, along with widespread exposure of Mr. Chen’s crimes, brought child sex abuse out into the open. Chinese people started to discuss the issue publicly and, as a result, other victims came forward. By the end of May, some 20 more sex-abuse cases, mostly at schools, were reported and publicized.
The trend has continued. According to a Chinese government report, 125 cases of child sex abuse were documented in 2013, a record number for China, where people don’t normally talk about these things.
There is insufficient data to claim that sex abuse of minors is rising. What has changed is that the issue is finally getting the attention it deserves, and that the government is reacting.
In the wake of these scandals, the central government issued sex-abuse-prevention guidelines in September for provincial governments, the education bureau and other departments that oversee children. They recommend an increase in sex education: Students, girls in particular, need to know what sex abuse is and how to seek help if it occurs. School authorities are asked to improve background checks on teachers. Local governments are urged to establish hotlines.
In October, China’s top legal authorities issued their own guidelines, stipulating seven circumstances that warrant severe punishment. Though not law, the guidelines provide a legal and moral framework that officials are expected to follow. The guidelines promise “maximum protection” to children, and zero tolerance to offenders.
Heavier sentences are sought for offenses committed by teachers, health workers or other officials responsible for educating or protecting children. If they are caught having sex with a girl under age 14 — whether or not the act is consensual — it will be regarded as rape.
Both sets of guidelines indicate official recognition of the severity of the problem, but they don’t go far enough. A war on all fronts is needed.
The controversial “soliciting child prostitution” law should be scrapped. Introduced in 1997 as part of the revised criminal code, it was meant to deter men from paying child prostitutes. But many men accused of child abuse are able to argue that the victim was a prostitute and that they should be sentenced under the soliciting law, which has lighter punishments than child abuse laws.
The October guidelines have made it significantly harder to abuse the child prostitution law and its abolition is being considered by the authorities. There should be no more delay in repealing it.
But China is infamous for having strong laws that go unenforced. And compared to Western countries, Chinese courts tend to give sex offenders, well-connected officials in particular, light sentences. Changing some laws is a first step. More concrete actions should follow.
Governmental social services are essentially nonexistent. Beijing should set up a child-protection network, including a national department for child protection. Social workers, legal workers and psychologists need to be brought into the system.
A change in attitude is essential. A new emphasis on sex education would help. The subject is mostly ignored by teachers, and children seldom hear “the facts of life” at home. Lack of sexual knowledge and the awareness of potential abuse make young girls, like the group in my elementary school class, prone to exploitation.
Toxic traditional beliefs are another hurdle. A long-held Chinese myth says that having sex with a virgin can boost a man’s virility. The modern version has it that deflowering a girl can enhance a man’s chance of promotion because the word “virgin,” chu, is contained in the term chuzhang, which means section chief.
Chinese society will have to continue to open up, enabling more victims and their families to come forward. Up to now, a large number of cases went unreported, and few victims took legal action because the battles were so hard to fight, the punishment to abusers so lenient, and compensation extremely low. Victims’ families are still often stigmatized.
Today’s China is a much better place than the country of my childhood, but we have a long way to go. I often wonder what became of my classmate, the victim of the child abuse. Would she fare any better today?
“We found Lijia Zhang an ideal speaker for our conference session “What does “yes” really mean? Understanding the Chinese business culture”. Over 400 directors, CEOs and executives from Australia, Europe, America and Asia attended our Company Directors Conference in Beijing in May 2011. Lijia was great to work with prior to the event and was very attentive in her communication to ensure all preparations were made for her to deliver a high quality presentation. She gauged our audience very quickly from our pre conference discussions and from meeting with delegates the morning prior. Her session rated amongst the highest overall.”
National Events Coordinator, Operations, Australian Institute of Company Directors
“Hi Dearest New Friend Lijia! I am very pleased but not surprised to report that your talk was absolutely loved by the Nestle participants. If anything they are wondering if we can move your keynote to the opening dinner for the programme in Guangzhou instead of at the closing dinner! They were thrilled that you were able to put a ‘human face’ to the story of China. Congratulations Lijia you have done an exceptional job.”
Programme Director – Corporate, Executive Education, London Business School
“As usual, your remarks were cogent, evocative, and insightful. You are exactly the kind of speaker we were looking for: a Chinese person who is both bilingual and bi-cultural, who can speak to a foreign audience about your own rich experience in China. We had lots of great comments about your talk, and a lot of interest in your book as well. I’ve seen you now speak to audiences of all types, from experienced China hands, to information-hungry students, to sympathetic outsiders, and I’m always impressed with your ability to convey your experiences and ideas in the most effective, insightful – and entertaining – way. As someone with broad journalistic and academic experience and almost-native English, you are indeed a valuable resource to the sinophile ex-pat community in Beijing.”
CET Academic Programs
“Lijia, Renewed thanks for your participation in the Beijing TERT. You added a dimension which struck a chord with those attending and which was, I thjink, both unexpected and welcome. I am looking forward to reading your book, which is next on my reading list. Renewed thanks and warm regards.”
Chairman of AsiaMatters
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