China's one-child policy has had a profound and unintended consequence: the rise of educated, ambitious single women. This is China's equivalent of the western women's liberation movement in the 1960sby Lesley Downer / July 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
There is a chinese saying: a successful man must have a successful woman, but a successful woman must have many successful men. This old saw is repeated to me by 18-year-old Zhu Zhiang, giggling at her own boldness. “I do not want to get married but I want to have many lovers.”
Zhiang and her fellow students, all young women, are sitting around a table in their spartan dormitory at one of Beijing’s several universities, discussing their families, lives, work and boys. “If I have a boyfriend or lover, I think maybe I can’t pay attention to my study or my work,” says Ying, also 18. “I spend all day caring for him. I prefer to be a businesswoman, not a housewife.”
“We want to have our own careers,” agrees Yuan, aged 19.
In the west, such sentiments are commonplace. But this is China, where until a couple of generations ago women were utterly downtrodden. In the past 10 years China has changed. Women-or at least the university-going elite-are winning power and status. Indeed, Zhiang’s generation is the first to gain an education equal to that of men.
Part of this liberation seems to be an unintended consequence of China’s one-child policy. In 1970 China’s population was growing at the rate of 23.83 per thousand, or about 30m births a year-half the population of Britain. In 1979, under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese government decided to put in place a brutal policy of social engineering to stop it.
Under the one-child policy, urban couples (about 20 per cent of the population) are constrained by law from having more than one child. Rural couples are allowed a second chance to try for a boy if the first child is a girl. The law is ruthlessly enforced, with fines as high as ?4,000 (several years’ salary in China), ostracism, the threat of losing your job, even forced abortions; although, as always in China, there are ample loopholes for those with the right connections.
The policy has succeeded. Population growth has halved; a mere 11.21 per thousand in 1994. But it is only now, some 20 years on, as the first children of the one-child policy reach adulthood, that the consequences are becoming apparent. One consequence, as we have seen, is a sudden increase in the status of women. Another consequence, with perhaps even more dramatic long-term effects, is the creation of generation…