Women in China: Free Market Outcasts

Revolutionary Worker #999, March 21, 1999



During the first half of the 20th century, the people of China waged an epic struggle to throw off oppression. It was Mao Tsetung who pointed out that three mountains weighed on the Chinese people. They were feudalism, bureaucrat-capitalism, and imperialism. Each of these mountains produced untold suffering for women. But in 1949, after more than 20 years of armed struggle led by the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Tsetung, the Chinese people overthrew these mountains. From 1949 until 1976, there was great struggle against women's oppression and the life of women improved dramatically. Today, these three mountains of feudalism, bureaucrat-capitalism, and imperialism have returned, and so too the most horrendous oppression of women. Once again, these mountains will have to be destroyed.


"When we first started work, our ideological level was not very high. Most of us were working just to get more money. Then we came to understand that our jobs were an important part of building socialism. But we didn't really have a thorough understanding of this. During the Cultural Revolution we all studied together. We read works by Mao, especially `Serve the People.' We learned that all our jobs serve the people, whether they are high or low. After the Cultural Revolution we linked up our present work with the world revolution...We have the whole world in view so we will never leave the revolutionary road."

A revolutionary woman
in socialist China in the early 1970s

Secretary, Beijing resident, female, under 30, above 1.65 meters, must have regular features.

ad for job placed by
Jinzhiyuan Garment Co. in Beijing Youth Daily, 1998

Promotion girl, female, under 28 years old, above 1.65 meters tall, white skin, skinny, healthy.

ad placed for job with
L'Oreal Cosmetics in China, 1998


Tianjin, China: Every afternoon, in the small courtyard outside the Machang Street Re-employment Center, small groups of laid-off workers anxiously scan the day's help-wanted listings. They are all women, all over 35 and all unskilled.

"If you're over 35, it's very hard to find work," said a 43-year-old woman who said she had been laid off this year from a food-processing plant and was preparing to go out on an interview for a part-time job cleaning windows at 60 cents an hour. "What can you do?" she asked. "You have young and old ones to look after. You're old to learn new skills. You're not attractive anymore. Nobody wants us."

The New York Times, "In China, 35+
and Female = Unemployable,"

October 13, 1998

Tianjin, a coastal manufacturing city of nine million people, is a center of the textile industry in China. In 1997, 320,000 people were laid off here and women were hit the hardest.


China's Ministry of Labor reported that in 1997, women accounted for only 39 percent of China's work force but nearly 61 percent of its laid-off workers. Surveys showed that 75 percent of laid-off women were still unemployed after one year, compared with far fewer than 50 percent of the men who were laid off at the same time. And since jobs at state industries have historically come with a wide range of social benefits, laid-off workers often lose, in addition to their job, medical care, child care and funeral benefits.

The cruelty of free market capitalism is in full effect--making it even more difficult for older women to find jobs. With state-owned industries closing and shrinking, women over 35 years old are far more likely to be laid off and far less likely to find a new job than any other group in China. Many of these women are unskilled and companies are also reluctant to hire older women, since they usually bear full responsibility for taking care of children as well as older parents.

Standing in line at an unemployment center, Sun Jingqi, a 41-year-old former textile worker, told the New York Times, "At our factory everyone who was laid off was a woman. Look around you, everyone here is female. Now what can we do? We're not young enough. We don't have experience."

Official laws promote, in words, equal job opportunity for women. But in real life, companies openly favor men over women for many types of work. One law school graduate looking for a job said many companies thought jobs were too strenuous for women if they involved travel or work in rural towns. "It's harder for women to find work," she said. "When they are willing to hire a woman, they want someone who's beautiful and capable, too."

Not surprisingly, Chinese surveys have found higher-than-normal rates of depression, family violence and divorce in households where women have been laid off.


Socialist revolution liberated China in 1949 and for over 25 years, Mao Tsetung led the people to build a new society free of all oppression. Fighting for the equality and full participation of women in all spheres of life was an integral part of building this new socialist society.

In the countryside, for the first time, women were given equal rights to work the land. In city factories, the wage system was changed to narrow differences and inequalities, including those between men and women. And measures were taken to make sure women's special needs were taken into account.

Before the revolution, women were stuck in the home and kept very isolated from the broader life and struggle that went on in the community and workplace. After the revolution, there was a lot of struggle to set up collective kitchens and childcare in order to free women from the oppressive conditions of individualized household chores. In the countryside there was tremendous struggle against traditional feudal traditions which made women totally subordinate to fathers, husbands and mother-in-laws.

In the cities, small "street factories" were set up to allow women to work part time and bring their children to work where they were taken care of. Many of these small factories grew into larger collectively owned and run factories employing hundreds of workers and producing all kinds of goods. In Beijing, 180,000 women were involved in setting up more than 400 street factories and 2,900 street production units.

Many factories got rid of bonuses and material incentives (giving workers more pay for more and better work)--which tended to favor men who were stronger and more free to work overtime. And while differences in wages still remained, big efforts were made to "bring the bottom up"--increasing benefits and wages of workers in the lowest paying jobs, where a lot of women were still concentrated.

In all this, women were brought forward as leaders in the revolution. In order for women to really be liberated they had to participate in revolutionizing every part of life--not just those things which narrowly concerned family, children and the household. The Communist Party set up special groups for women to study and discuss Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. And a lot of times this meant combining political study with teaching women to read. These groups also helped women overcome various obstacles that had prevented them from becoming politically active. For instance, they made sure there was childcare so women could attend meetings.

After Mao died in 1976 and capitalism was restored in China, all these steps toward liberating women were brought to a halt. Under socialism, women were treated as a precious resource in building a new society. But today, the dog-eat-dog laws of capitalism are making it hard for millions of women to even find a job.

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