Revolution #140, August 17, 2008

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Watching “The People’s Republic of Capitalism”
and Remembering the Liberated Women of Socialist China

We received the following correspondence from a reader:

I’m watching Ted Koppel’s “The People’s Republic of Capitalism” on the Discovery Channel. Three high schoolers are window shopping and joking around as they walk through the mall. It could be anywhere in the U.S., but this is in Chongqing, China. Cut to a Karaoke Club where thin, short-skirted young women strut on stage, identified by numbers pinned at their hips so well-to-do businessmen can indicate which one they want to “rent” for the evening. Koppel moves in to interview the women and it’s the three high school students. Cut to Koppel driving through Chongqing’s red light district where storefront after storefront hawk prostitutes to poor migrant workers, who crowd into the city by the millions looking for work. This, says Koppel, in his no-nonsense, matter of fact way, is allowed by the Chinese leadership to release social pressures.

I know China is no longer the socialist country I visited in the early 1970s. But this?! It is estimated that there are now 20 million prostitutes in China, most of whom come to the cities from the impoverished rural areas. This is one of many complete reversals of the tremendous advances that had been made under socialism.

With the victory of the revolution in 1949, prostitution, which is nothing more than paid rape, was virtually eliminated. Not only were laws immediately passed to guarantee women’s rights, but society was being remade economically, politically, and ideologically. Prostitutes were given new jobs and new meaning to their lives as women and emancipators of humanity, no longer abused and demeaned as mere objects for men. “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” was the guideline for the role of women. It sharply challenged the centuries-old Confucian ideal that a virtuous woman obeyed her father when young, her husband when married, and her son in old age. Now young people were growing up in the most gender-neutral society that the world has ever seen. They saw themselves as “socialist constructors,” capable of contributing equally to building a new society. You could see this in the confident, non-self-conscious faces of the people.

I was there during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the revolution within the revolution, and visited schools, communes, and factories. We saw collective kitchens and day care centers at both urban and rural work sites, which were paving the way for women breaking out of the confines of the home. In the evenings we were treated to cultural events where we were introduced to the previously-reviled national minority cultures and to model revolutionary works of art where very often the main character was an inspiring woman leader.

One of the “socialist new things” that was brought into being was Iron Girl Brigades. These were teams of young women who smashed old stereotypes by taking on work that had previously been reserved for men. One Iron Girl Brigade in a coastal area dared to go deep-sea fishing. Traditional anti-woman thinking had it that if a woman rode on a boat in the deep seas, the boat would sink. But these young women insisted on learning the necessary skills and in the process produced amazing results in harvesting fish. They also brought to life the saying “Times Have Changed; Men and Women Are the Same.”

It wasn’t a utopia; in fact, there was a tremendous amount of struggle and debate. Tradition’s chains weren’t broken overnight. In pre-revolutionary China, women like my grandmother were forced into arranged marriages, and had been raised with the proverb that “a wife married is like a pony bought; I’ll ride her and whip her as I like” (divorce was not an option!). And when I visited, you could still see elderly women with bound feet,* who had been brutally crippled physically, but also spiritually.

But there were unprecedented transformations in socialist China that greatly inspired us, and millions around the world. We could see that it’s not human nature for women to be oppressed. In an interview with Wang Zheng, professor of women’s studies at the University of Michigan and editor of Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era, she said, “For my generation, there was a goal. We knew that we wanted to be different human beings, new kind of human beings, to create a different society so there’s some vision, some purpose there and these different human beings were not just craving material possessions, houses, cars, consumer goods. We wanted to make contribution to the common good, we were concerned about human beings as a whole, society as a whole, not only just China, the whole world, how the whole world can be peaceful, happy without exploitation and oppression.” (See Revolution #59, September 3, 2006.)

In capitalist China today, this outlook is gone. And what is life like for women in China now? One statistic reveals a lot: one of the highest rates of suicide in the world today is among women in rural China, many of whom swallow pesticide as the only solution they see to a life trapped in misery and poverty. Also, female infanticide (the murder of girl babies) is back on the map in China, the unthinkable crime that had been wiped out under socialism when girls were no longer viewed as less valuable than boys.

Our trip to China had been an all-too-rare glimpse of the great and beautiful change a revolution can bring. We had spent a month in a society where we had been treated as human beings, not objects. And the minute we arrived back in Hong Kong we were slapped in the face by the billboards and ads using women’s bodies to sell everything from automobiles to perfume.

* * * * *

Cut back to Koppel. He’s slandering the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when dreams of prosperity and creativity were supposedly smothered. I want to ask him a question, but I know he won’t get it. “Those dreams of prosperity have now been set free in capitalist China. If your uncritical reportage of prostitution in China today are the cost of these dreams, can we call that progress?”


* In pre-revolutionary China, female children’s feet were bound into supposedly attractive 3” stumps by breaking the arches and tightly binding the toes under the soles. Every step taken with bound feet was excruciatingly painful, and the women, of course, became totally dependent upon others, even to walk.  [back]

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