City Life: Peking - Sky falls in on China's women

Click to follow
The Independent Online
STANDING IN her threadbare suit outside the Peking Labour Bureau, Wang Lanli bears little resemblance to the sparkling modern women that dominate China's billboard adverts and peak-time commercials. Her skin doesn't brim over with vitality, she doesn't stride with confidence into business meetings, and her prospects of ever getting another job are limited.

But Ms Wang, 38, has not always been an underdog. Twenty years ago she had landed a traditionally male job of electrician - a feat that those in her mother's generation would never have been able to pull off - and was working her hardest to build a New China.

"We had different ideals back then. Now everything has changed and for women of my age, who wants to employ us?" she said. "Sometimes I wish I lived in the countryside because I would at least have some land to work on. Other times I just wish I had enough money to buy some new clothes."

Like millions of middle-aged women in China's cities, Ms Wang grew up amid Chairman Mao Zedong's calls for women to hold up half the sky. When reforms bit into the sprawling state sector in the early Nineties she found herself at the front of the firing line.

"You lose your confidence, you lose your place in society. All these young people and new fashions are passing me by," Ms Wang said.

Increasing unemployment has also taken a harsh toll on the male population - more than six million state sector employees lost their jobs last year while millions of others were sent home on minimum wages. The World Bank estimates the real urban employment rate is around 10 per cent.

Nevertheless, women are still considered more expendable than men and a furious debate has erupted in the official media about the future of women in the workplace. A Peking professor, Zhong Pengrong, added fuel to the flames in a recent China Women's News article when he urged women to leave their jobs to alleviate the employment crisis.

Another controversial proposal, this time from members of the National Congress of Chinese Women, is to criminalise adultery in a bid to prevent middle-aged women playing second fiddle to their husband's younger mistress. Increasing numbers of men are taking advantage of China's fast- changing social mores to acquire mistresses, and Peking's divorce rate isstanding at 25 per cent.

Over on the other side of Peking, Xia Anli has no fears about her husband's fidelity, but she is obsessed with the possibility of him losing his job, following her recent lay-off from a major state-owned auto components factory.

"Another three years working and I would have been 45 and entitled to a full pension. But now I'm sick and I just sit at home and worry about my husband losing his job too," she says over a rare lunch at a neighbourhood restaurant.

"People say that getting laid off is worse than getting a divorce. There's no way to change the situation and it's too late for people like me."