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In China, one giant leap for womankind?

Not really. Even as China launched a woman into space, it was condemned for forcing another woman to have a late-term abortion.

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China now stands in the middle of world rankings, measuring the gender gap published last year by the World Economic Forum, at 61 out of 135 nations.

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Women in contrast

But a cartoon published on the Chinese Internet as Liu took off (and that was quickly censored) drew attention to the starkly contrasting fates that different women in China can meet: It depicted a rocket leaving a dead baby in its wake, and referred to both Liu and to a woman who had been forced by local officials earlier this month to abort her second baby at seven months, in line with China’s one child policy.

“Liu Yang’s mission is a sign of how strong the state is, how it can do anything,” says Ai Xiaoming, a feminist scholar in the southern city of Guangzhou. “But at the same time we see the state has not put enough of its power into stopping violence against women.”

“Both those images illustrate the state of Chinese women,” adds Hong Huang, a well-known magazine publisher and blogger.

“Each is as representative as the other. There are some pretty powerful women in our society … and there are some who have fallen into abysmal situations.”

Reverting to old inclinations?

Women in the middle, meanwhile, are often not making the social progress they hoped for. Their salaries lag behind those of their male colleagues, says Jiang, who co-wrote the national survey of women’s status, partly because “most women are in more junior jobs, and more men become leaders.”

Retrograde attitudes toward women’s place in society are gaining ground, Jiang believes, because “it is more difficult for women to get into politics” from where they might influence opinions.

Women are almost invisible at the top of the Communist Party, which rules China. All nine members of the Standing Committee, the party’s top body, are men. There is one woman on the 25-member Politburo and just 13 women among the 204 members of the Central Committee.

Some women blame free-market economic reforms for the rollback in women’s status. When the state and the Communist Party controlled every aspect of Chinese life they could impose equal salaries and an ideology. Now, says Ms. Hong, “people have reverted to their natural Confucian inclinations to treat women as objects.”

Certainly women who make their careers more important than their prospects of founding a family are regarded as strange and “viewed negatively,” says Jiang. And though sex discrimination is rife in Chinese business “there is not enough implementation of anti-discrimination laws,” complains Professor Ai.

For some, like Jiang, the problem is that “Chinese society is still pretty traditional.” For others, it goes deeper. “Nobody takes the law seriously in China,” says Hong. “And until there is an independent judicial system there will be no way to enforce women’s rights.”

“It’s the system that generates all these problems,” agrees Ai. “They won't be solved until China is a democracy.” 

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