IT is not that Chinese women ever really held up ''half of the sky,'' as the late Chairman Mao promised them. During the early years of the revolution, women were given a limited role in the unfolding drama of Chinese political and socioeconomic life. Party leaders were the nominal ''protectors'' of women and promised them a range of legal rights. The New Marriage Law of the 1950s was supposed to emancipate women from homes, from bound feet, from arranged child marriages and concubinage, and from forced labor and prostitution. But now, in spite of China's recent endorsement of the United Nations Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women and its laws protecting women's rights and interests, women are losing the battle for equality in the new market society. Women's opportunities for professional (high-paid) jobs are shrinking, while more jobs for secretaries, office assistants, and ''Miss public relations'' are advertised for women who are ''young'' and ''good looking.'' Women accounted for 38 percent of the total work force in 1993, concentrated in low-skilled and low-paying jobs. They make, on average, 77 percent of men's salaries. Female enrollment in schools has risen at a sluggish pace. Of the more than 300 million children aged 6 to 14, only three-quarters attended school regularly in 1990. Eighty-seven percent of the school dropouts or unschooled children are girls. About 70 percent of illiterate adults in China are women. Women make up about 25 percent of all university undergraduates. As millions of rural women, eager for jobs, flock to coastal economic zones, they are subjected to various forms of disadvantage and exploitation: low salaries, arbitrary dismissal, unsafe working and living facilities, and sexual abuse. Eager to attract overseas investment, the government has mostly declined to enforce laws requiring safe labor conditions, minimum wages, and equal payment for men and women. Market-induced profitmaking has spilled over to the trafficking and selling of women into marriage, prostitution, and forced labor. Studies indicate that between 1980 and 1989, 32,632 women were sold in Su County, Anhui Province. The youngest among them were only 12 years old. Though laws have been enacted against this practice, authorities have rarely prosecuted men who purchase women as wives. Cruel practices such as forced late abortion, female infanticide and abandonment, and the abuse and neglect of baby girls have rarely been punished, since prosecuting such crimes does not contribute to the ''national priority'' of fertility reduction. Perhaps the Chinese government has simply lost control of the situation and is unable to handle the job of protecting women's rights in a time of increasing decentralization of power. The story of Chinese women under the current regime, however, has longer roots than that As early as the Long March in the 1930s, the Party tried to mobilize women's support for its mass political/military campaigns. Since then, women have been ''liberated'' from homes in order to assist in battles ''liberating'' the country - to construct the new socialism, increase productivity (as during the Great Leap Forward), rally support for Mao in the Cultural Revolution, and practice birth control in the family planning campaign. The campaigns for ''women's liberation'' offered Chinese women perhaps everything but the independence they need to gain respect as equal human beings. Their ''equality'' with men meant only that they were expected to behave like men, dress like men, and to take jobs designed for men, while caring for the young and performing housewives' duties. They were to rid themselves of any femininity and remake themselves after the male example. This pattern of instrumentalist and patriarchal treatment of Chinese women helps explain what has been happening to women since market forces arrived. While some women have benefited from expanding social mobility and managed to flourish in their own businesses, others are returning to the home and the kitchen. In doing so, women feel they are rebelling against the social and political roles that were once imposed on them by the Party patriarchy. They identify their ideal role as ''the benevolent wife and good mother.'' But some have realized that, in fact, they do not have much choice. As society becomes increasingly profit-driven, the government seems all too eager to let women be used instrumentally in the country's ''economic reform.'' Though laws have recently been enacted to protect women's and children's rights, some of these laws grant legitimacy to limits on women's reproductive choices, some are unenforceable due to a lack of specific penalties for violations, and some are too lenient toward government officials who abuse power. If the Chinese government has the sincerity to enforce the laws and fulfill its obligation to the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women, it could make good use of the opportunity of the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, to be held in Beijing Sept. 4-15. As the world's attention focuses on women's issues, the government should allow free and open discussions of the pressing problems facing women and welcome constructive policy suggestions from feminist critics. The gathering of international nongovernmental women's groups and feminists near Beijing Aug. 30 to Sept. 8 should not be feared as an occasion to voice concerns about the condition of women in China. Instead, the official Chinese women's organizations should take stock of other countries' rich experiences and helpful suggestions for protecting the rights of women.