BEIJING — WANG JIAXIANG and Wu Qing don't mince words about women's inequality in Communist China.
''For 40 years, class struggle overshadowed women's struggle here,'' says Ms. Wang, an English professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. ''Because of the predominance of political struggle, sexual issues were pushed to the side.''
''In theory, Chinese women enjoy all the rights of men, but in reality, the gap is still great,'' says Ms. Wu, Wang's colleague and a professor of American Studies.
The two women are part of a core of outspoken intellectuals trying to jump-start an independent women's movement in China. Their effort has gained some momentum with the presence of thousands of international advocates and delegates for the Fourth UN Conference on Women in Beijing this month.
The meeting has spotlighted human and women's rights in Communist China, where women's groups traditionally are under government control. And the UN conclave has given Chinese women a higher profile, albeit still not prominent.
''I think more and more women are becoming active in trying to make women more aware,'' says Wang. ''How much of this is awareness? Well, I think it's better than not having it at all.''
Activist women say the nascent women's movement is building on Communist accomplishments in raising women's status under the Maoist banner: ''Women hold up half the sky.''
Thousands of women, 90 percent of city women of working age, hold down jobs. One-third of government officials are women. Chinese women are educated in large numbers and enjoy better access to health care than in many other developing countries. China ranks high in many key indicators of women's position, according to a study by Nancy Riley, a sociologist at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
Still, communism has fallen far short of its rhetoric. Within the vast female labor force, women workers are more likely to be relegated to lower-paying jobs, lose out to men for promotions, fall short of top government and political posts, and bear the brunt of work at home, Ms. Riley says.
A strident one-child family-planning policy burdens Chinese women with severe penalties for violations and has also fostered a tragic gender imbalance as girl infants are victims of sex-selective abortion, infanticide, and abandonment.
Since Marxism and rigid ideology gave way to market-style economics, new problems have emerged. Women are often the first to be fired from jobs, work in the poorest conditions, and are paid the lowest wages. Also, oppression of women has produced ''an epidemic of violence [that] affects the lives of ... millions of Chinese women,'' says a recent report by Human Rights in China, an American advocacy group.
China watchers say recent economic changes have also led to more freedom for women but little political openness. During the last two weeks, as Chinese security officials imposed tight surveillance on the Non-Governmental Forum running parallel to the women's conference in Huairou, they kept close watch on Chinese participants and warned them away from foreign activists, Western diplomats say.
While previously Chinese authorities paid little attention to women's issues, ''as a result of the conference, I'm afraid the public security [officials] could start to see women's groups as a threat,'' says one Western observer.
In China, women have not shied away from a visible role in political opposition, although not as prominent as men. Women have been cornerstones of the underground Christian movement and emerged as leaders in their own right during political protests in the late 1970s and 1980s.
The wives and mothers of political activists are also emerging as a moral force in Chinese political opposition, according to Robin Munro of Human Rights Watch, Asia.
''One thing [paramount leader] Deng Xiaoping has done is given people back a sphere of personal privacy. Before everything was political,'' says Mr. Munro referring to relaxed state controls. ''The accouterments of civil society are coming up now. But that still depends on guarantees of basic freedoms. And until those come, nothing is going to get off the ground in any sphere, including women's rights.''
Still, pressure from women is paying off and has led to the formation of infant nongovernment organizations. In Beijing, activists operate several hotlines for women callers. And at their university, Wang and Wu started a women's study forum attended by students and foreign teachers.
Wu also is part of a new influx of more independent women entering into politics. As a member of the Beijing People's Congress, she has shown an independent streak by voting ''no'' and abstaining, unheard of in China's rubber-stamp politics. She was elected despite opponents criticizing her for supporting her students in the 1989 protests. ''I believe in democratic participation,'' she says.
Wang, the English professor, says awareness of women's issues is slowly making inroads among Chinese women students, particularly when they start job-hunting.
''Until the girls are confronted with sexual discrimination, they don't recognize it,'' she says. ''But, when on the eve of graduation, they are told that only boys are wanted, they are shocked.''