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How China’s New Market Economy is Affecting Women

Aug. 23, 2007 — The accession of China to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the growth of the Chinese economy have elevated the overall well-being of many Chinese women but have adversely affected others, according to the latest issue of the journal Feminist Economics. In a special double issue on gender, China and the WTO, the journal examines the consequences of China’s opening up to international trade and its transition from socialism to a market economy.

Günseli Berik, associate professor of economics and gender studies at the University of Utah is one of three guest editors for the special issue which explores women’s well-being relative to men’s in rural and urban China by looking at land distribution, labor-market discrimination, earnings, household decision-making, health, the representation of women in advertising and beauty pageants and the consumption of beauty products.

“We tend to focus on how China’s economic transformation affects the U.S. economy and overlook the fact that not everyone in China benefits from its remarkable growth,” says Berik. “Joining the WTO and other recent economic reforms contributed to the widening income gap between the rich and the poor in China. Not much is known about how women compared with men are being affected by these reforms. This special issue aims to fill that gap.”

The collection shows that while Chinese women as a whole have benefited from varied employment options, there is a striking decline in the rates at which women participate in the labor market, especially for women from ethnic minorities. This signals a return to traditional gender roles. While property rights have become more secure with the adoption of 30-year leases, women’s rights to land are becoming less secure. Many recently wed women are finding themselves landless dependents rather than joint holders of the family’s land because maintaining equity in land is no longer a priority.

Women also face growing employment insecurity, declining access to health care and have increasingly less support for the care of elderly parents and children. In addition, they face a barrage of advertisements for beauty products and televised beauty pageants depicting an unattainable standard of feminine beauty.

“The adoption of Western beauty standards that commodify women’s bodies is troubling,” notes Berik. “In many ways, China is more egalitarian than other developing countries, but labor market discrimination is rising and women’s control over land is being eroded.”

Diana Strassmann, editor of the journal and professor of the practice in humanities at Rice University, says that she hopes the special issue reaches as many people as possible, including advocates and policymakers.

In addition to Berik, the special issue was guest-edited by Xiao-yuan Dong from the University of Winnipeg and Gale Summerfield from the University of Illinois, in collaboration with the journal’s Rice University-based staff and with the support of Rice University, the Ford Foundation-Beijing, and Anne and Albert Chao.

The issue is available through the journal’s publisher, Routledge, for free online for a limited time at The print version was released on Aug. 17.