A Chinese 'Ms.' Magazine Gives Women A Peek Outside

SHANG SHAOHUA dares not call herself a feminist.

But her publication, World Women's Vision, is as close as China comes to its own version of Ms. magazine.

Ms. Shang, a veteran Chinese journalist and an admirer of that American feminist journal, launched her magazine two years ago by capitalizing on the United Nations-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women due to be held in Beijing beginning Aug. 30 through mid-September.

In a country with a staid, state-controlled media, a government intolerant of controversy, and a culture that holds women in low regard, the magazine must walk a fine line between offending officials and stirring serious debate. By highlighting problems abroad, it hopes to raise issues of concern to women in China.

Interspersed among glowing reports on the UN women's conference and the parallel Non-Governmental Organizations' (NGO) Forum of private women's groups are a variety of features. They cover a range of topics from beauty and manners; translated profiles of prominent Western women; and serious articles on rape, violence against women, prostitution, discrimination; and other topics too delicate to touch in China.

In any one issue, stories on the scandal-ridden British royal family and the world's 10 most famous women can run alongside others on American teenage mothers, prostitution in Southeast Asia, and a 1993 conference on abuse of Asian women.

Discreetly and ironically, the magazine is packaged in covers graced by glamorous Western fashion models more often seen in Vogue rather than in serious women's magazines. Shang says it is just a marketing ploy to boost circulation and attract male readers. She ''will change it once the magazine becomes popular, because then people will pay attention to the content, not the cover.

''Right now, we don't label this magazine feminist. We are just trying to speak out about what we are thinking,'' says the editor, a savvy, intense women whose magazine is widely read among Beijing women intellectuals and students. ''[Some] of the articles are feminist. But other articles and stories just show people in other countries overcoming hardship. They are not openly written as feminist. It is up to people to see it.''

Controversies unreported

What World Women's Vision and other Chinese women's magazines have been unable to report on, however, is the international controversy surrounding official Chinese preparations for the women's conference, which has made the summit the most contentious to date.

Earlier this year, China moved the site of the NGO Forum from a central Beijing stadium to the distant suburb of Huairou. The action was seen by many as a move to isolate the more than 30,000 women activists, representatives of women's organizations, and journalists expected to attend.

Amid the unease and political maneuvering surrounding the leadership succession to paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Beijing fretted over the prospect of thousands of women activists moving freely about the security-conscious Chinese capital and meeting with residents and students.

With the forum less than a month away, the government has yet to finish the makeshift conference site, grant many of the 34,000 visas requested by participants, and finalize procedures for the conference, including those governing the press.

The government is building a wall around the NGO conference center to tighten security and control entry. And in an apparent disinformation effort to justify the stringent precautions, the Chinese press has recently warned city residents about prostitutes and lesbians expected to attend the conference.

Last week, the Chinese organizing committee insisted that planning was going like clockwork but admitted that the Huairou facilities, including conference halls, meeting rooms, and tents set up for seminars, will only hold 10,000 participants, less than one-third of those expected. The rest will be sent on sightseeing tours or to watch cultural entertainment.

Although thousands of hotel confirmations have been sent out by express mail, many women worry whether they can obtain their visas in time. Since the forum was shifted to Huairou, hotel confirmations are required for a Chinese embassy or consulate to issue a visa.

''I first applied to attend the NGO Forum as long ago as February. I had to submit a fresh application when the venue changed,'' says an Indian professor who hopes to attend. ''I still have not heard anything, and worry I won't be able to come to Beijing.''

In addition to bureaucratic barriers, participants are also encountering political roadblocks. Although Beijing had pledged not to exclude any private groups from the forum, last week China and Iran persuaded the UN to bar 11 activist groups from the conference. China also announced that a Taiwanese delegation would not be allowed to attend.

Despite congressional calls for a boycott over Chinese rights abuses, Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador to the UN, will lead the official US delegation. But with Sino-US relations strained, the White House has yet to announce if Hillary Rodham Clinton, the delegation's honorary chairwoman, will attend.

Although chaotic preparations have overshadowed the women's summit, Chinese and Western observers say women's issues have received more serious attention here because of the meeting. This week, China announced a plan to elevate more women to high government posts; improve education, health care, and special programs for minority women; and find jobs for laid-off women workers. During the last decade, more than 40 Chinese women's publications have sprung up and, escaping the close scrutiny reserved for political journals, found more room to experiment and innovate.

''The fact that these meetings are being held in Beijing has given women more confidence in acting and women journalists a basis to take women's issues more seriously,'' says Judy Polumbaum, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa and a Chinese media expert.

Fulfilling a need

With World Women's Vision, Shang has filled a gap in Chinese publishing and appealed to the craving of educated women for international news. During a 1992 visit to remote Heilongjiang Province, the journalist met foreigners and was struck by how quickly China was opening up.

''By the next century, it will be a more open world.... I decided to start a magazine that would open up Chinese women's outlook to the world,'' says Shang, who says her daughter has been influenced by the magazine and calls herself a feminist.

''There is a lot in Western women's' minds that can be accepted by women here.''

So, with the backing of Shang's employer, Women of China magazine; more than $90,000 in loans; and a small but dedicated staff, World Women's Vision was launched. Less than two years later, the journal has a 100,000 circulation, is self-sustaining, and has struck a chord among urban intellectual women and students.

Translated articles - such as a recent one by the late American feminist Audre Lorde - often draw an outpouring of letters from readers, Shang says.

The coverage of World Women's Vision ''is not being done anywhere else in China. It stands out from the others,'' says Ms. Polumbaum, the Iowa researcher. ''I admire her for being so careful and diplomatic in how she goes about doing things.''

''Feminism has different meanings.... In China, if you try to protect women's rights, that's feminism,'' Shang says.

''I don't like to stand in opposition to men and try to fight them. We should try to be equal to men and enjoy the same rights.''

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