Women and the state in post-1949 rural China.

Author:Tsai, Kellee S.
Position:Contemporary China: The Consequences of Change

In old China, women were bound up by the shackles of power in politics, clan, husband and religion. They were kept at the bottom of society. Women were liberated after the birth of New China in 1949.(2)

- Huang Qizao, Sichuan Province npc Deputy, Vice President and First Member of the Secretariat of the All-China Women's Federation

The irony of Beijing's recent hosting of the United Nations' fourth World Conference on Women was apparent to many observers, but not to the Chinese government and perhaps a few ideological holdovers in former socialist countries.(3) Revolutionary regimes inspired by Marxist theory during the first half of the twentieth century recognized the liberation of women as a key component of transition to socialism.(4) Upon the Communist political victory, women were granted full legal rights and mobilized to participate in production. Meanwhile, the authoritarian nature of the socialist state demonstrated command capacity to transform the structure of economic and social relations. Yet after several decades of Communist governance, gender gaps in political and socioeconomic indicators remain salient.

By focusing on the position of women in post-1949 rural China, this study seeks to shed light on the persistence of gender inequalities in socialist countries despite their ideological commitment to the emancipation of women. Analysis of this paradox raises two broader issues concerning the relationship between the state and women: i) state capacity to implement its developmental strategy; and ii) the sources of gender biases. Accordingly, the first section of this analysis proposes a synthesis of state-centered and women-in-develop6lent (WID) theories for explaining gender inequalities under social m. While a state's ideology and mode of production may have a substantial impact on the definition of gender, I will argue that the endurance of gender inequalities suggests the centrality of patriarchy as a socially-constructed system; and that the institutional dynamics of patriarchy may survive changes in particular political orientations or economic modes precisely because they are deeply embedded in the very efforts themselves. The bulk of this paper therefore examines the position of women in rural China in both the Mao and post-Mao reform periods. The third part analyzes the relative impact of the state and the household in reinforcing gender biases; and the final section offers theoretical implications.

Theoretical Context

Despite their efforts to conceptualize gendered distributional asymmetries, individually, neither standard political science nor WID frameworks can explain the persistence of gender inequalities in socialist countries. Conventional theories if the state may be employed to demonstrate the limits of state capacity for implementing policies beneficial to women, but they are not concerned with the sources of gender biases. WID theories in the liberal tradition generally focus on the effects of capitalist development on women.(5) Similarly, Marxist and neo-Marxist explanations of gender inequality point to the oppressive structures of capitalism.(6) Nonetheless, valuable concepts may be extracted from them for framing the present analysis.

First, the state is a significant actor. In socialist countries, the Communist party-dominated state formulates developmental policies that affect the structure of economic and social relations. However, the Party-state's institutional capacity for policy implementation should not be assumed despite its apparent strength.(7) As more contemporary theorists of the state point out, state autonomy is neither a zero-sum function of power relative to society nor is it an isolated determinant of capacity.(8) To elucidate the state's relative effectiveness, the relationship between state and society may thus be analyzed as a series of linkages between policy elites, central and local authorities, local and village cadres, and cadres and households, which in turn are influenced by the interactions within each level.(9) It is also important to consider the role of informal actors and organizational structures relative to that of formal institutions and ideology in policy implementation. The operational tasks at this level are to examine the following: i) state developmental policies relating to women; ii) the relationship between the state and societal institutions that directly involve women, particularly, the household unit and; as a result, iii) the relative impact of state policy on society in general and women in particular. Most state-society and WID theorists confine their debate to these considerations. They offer varying interpretations of the extent to which state policy reflects or shapes the interests of society, and evaluate the effectiveness of state action.

Acknowledging that the state has an impact on the household as a component of society provides a base for explaining gender inequalities. To the extent that the household or family represents the most fundamental sphere of interaction between women and men, and hence, the most fundamental unit of society,(10) it is relevant to bridge the gap between state policies and the household. Furthermore, the liberal and Marxist feminist approaches offer insight on the specific consequences of economic development on the sexual division of labor and other gender-differentiated indicators.(11) They do not, however, explain the discrepancy between the relative success of socialist countries in transforming other social relations and their failure to eradicate biases against women. These theories generally assume capitalist development.(12) Still, these frameworks can be tested by the experience of socialist countries that have embarked on market-oriented reforms. With the decreased reliance on Marx-Engels ideology, are gender inequalities exacerbated as Marxists would expect? Do they take on a different character? Or does the position of women improve as a by-product of reform, thereby broadly confirming liberal hypotheses?(13) Given that the latter situation has yet to be evidenced, additional analysis is warranted.

In order to explicate the endurance of gender inequalities, it is necessary to go beyond fundamentally state-centered perspectives. State and economic policies alone cannot account for gender differentiation. An additional structural variable, as socialist feminists point out, is the institutionalization of patriarchal norms.(14) Although the state represents the most salient patriarchal institution within national boundaries, the definition of gender as a social construction implicates a broader range of sources in perpetuating biases. In other words, accepting that gender identities are not innate, but learned through social and cultural interactions,(15) means that the household plays an equally powerful if not greater role in this context. Marx and Engels viewed the state and the household as the primary institutions that embody class antagonisms in society. The socialist feminist formulation of class and gender struggle derives from this argument. But recognizing the household as an oppressive institution and gender norms as a social construction does not require embracing the historical materialism of Marxist paradigms. Arguably, the class element of socialist feminist theory obscures its most important contribution: patriarchy as an institution. The reductionism of class analysis restricts its ability to delineate the expression of patriarchy in other terms that may be more appropriate for gender analysis. As Catharine MacKinnon, a feminist legal scholar observes, "Method shapes each theory's vision of social-reality. It identifies its central problem, group and process, and creates as a consequence its distinctive conception of politics as such."(16) The challenge for feminist theory, therefore, is "to demonstrate that feminism systematically converges upon a central explanation of sex inequality through an approach distinctive to its subject yet applicable to the whole of social life, including class."(17) A fundamental premise is the recognition of patriarchy as a socially-determined system that exists within and beyond state, economic and societal structures. This assumption does not preclude materialist approaches. Rather, it adds depth to the analysis by identifying the sources of gender norms and exploring their interaction.

The persistence of gender inequalities in socialist countries

may thus be seen as deriving from the relationship between the primary instruments of patriarchy: the state and the household. That is, gender norms are constructed and realized at both levels in a mutually reinforcing manner. Operationally, this entails examination of the state and the household as interactive, rather than parallel institutions in generating, perpetuating and actualizing gender biases. This approach seeks to expand the definitional boundaries of state and society in mainstream discourse by focusing on the structural oppression of actors whose "interests" remain unarticulated by class, civil society(18) or the state. The dynamics and consequences of patriarchy in post-1949 rural China are presented in next section.

The State and Women in Post-1949 Rural China

Ideology and Post-Revolutionary Strategy

The Russian experience in implementing a communist revolution in general, and the liberation of women as a component of the process, served as a model for the Chinese Communists throughout the revolutionary period. Both the Bolsheviks and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mobilized the most oppressed groups in society, namely peasants and women, to serve as the revolutionary base. While women were not considered a distinct class, their oppression symbolized the dynamics of class struggle. Under Lenin, the Soviet Union enacted significant legislation to liberate women from "bourgeois feudalism" and integrate them into the continuing revolutionary process...

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