Hundreds of girls have been kidnapped from Xupu in the past few years, including more than a dozen from Hu's village of barely 200. Some girlslured into cars by promises of candy or fancy clothes or merely a joyride to the cityare never heard from again. Others, like Hu, eventually find their way back home. But Hu was so traumatized by what had happened that she refused to leave her house for more than a year after her return, spending her days sequestered in a dark room filled with piles of coal. Finally, she fled last year to the boomtown of Shenzhen, where she now toils in an electronics sweatshop. Although the 16-hour shifts are exhausting, they're nothing like the conditions at the brothel, where she was forced to service a stream of men for no pay. "My elders used to sing a song comparing life to a dark well of bitterness," recalls Hu of her months as a sex slave. "Women, who stand at the lowest level, are never able to see the sun or sky."
How times change. When Hu's mother was growing up, her hero was Xiang Jingyu, a Xupu-born revolutionary who was one of China's first crusading feminists. China's communist leaders may have inflicted fear and famine on their subjects, but they were progressive when it came to women's rights. Soon after the communist revolution, Beijing's leaders even designated Xupu as a model town for local efforts to promote equality between the sexes. A feudal country that had bound its girls' feet just a few years before had been transformed into a nation where women, as Chairman Mao Zedong famously declared, could "hold up half the sky." But as China sheds the stifling rigidity of communism for the ruthless disorder of capitalism, the sky seems to be falling in on millions of women. After half a century of struggling to achieve equality with men, women are bearing the brunt of the nation's massive social dislocations.
True, capitalism has benefited an élite group of educated, urban women who are enjoying unprecedented opportunitiesfrom heading to America for M.B.A.s to launching their own companies. But, in general, women are losing out. As discrimination against them increases, they are the first to be laid off from once ironclad state jobs. They are the first to be deprived of local-government seats now that Beijing no longer enforces long-held gender quotas. They are the first to drop out of school as academic fees climb ever higher. And they have regressed financially, too: in the 1980s, women made 80˘ for every dollar that men earned; now, women make only 65˘, as private enterprises are free to pay as they please.
The laws Mao passed to protect women were all the more remarkable given how retrogade China had traditionally been in its treatment of women. Before the communists took over, younger girls in large families were often so unimportant that they weren't even given a nameonce they married, they took their husband's name. Mao allowed women the rights to divorce and to own land, both radical concepts at the time. He funneled as much money into athletic programs for girls and women as into those for boys and men, leading to a bumper crop of women's Olympic golds in the 1980s. Most important, Mao involved women in government; his first Cabinet, assembled in 1949, included two women, and he commanded that local governments must be at least 20% female. By 1973, 10% of the members of the élite Central Committee, equivalent to China's Senate, were women. The nongovernmental sector experienced the same phenomenon: by the 1980s, China was one of the few countries where city wives were almost as likely as their husbands to be asked what job they did. Nearly as many women as men trained as doctors and engineers. For a while, there was even a push to train additional women to become construction workers and bus drivers. For women whose forebears could only hobble around on feet made tiny and deformed by years of painful binding, being able to command a bus or a building crane as freely as a man was an epic change.
Wan Geng was one of the many women in a previously "male" job. For 18 years, she worked in a state-owned factory in Shanghai making intricate television parts. That was where her mother had worked, and the job was a good one with a decent salary. But three years ago, she was one of 60 people laid off from the factory. Of those made redundant, only eight were men. Before the layoffs, there were 50 men and 70 women working in the factory. Afterward, the gender ratio flipped to 40 men and 20 women. Now, Wan, 42, works as an elevator operator, spending her days pressing buttons for $60 a monthhalf what she earned at the factory. Still, it's the best job she can find in a Shanghai market that's flooded with middle-aged women laid off from state-owned factories.
Nationwide, 65% of layoffs in the state sector are women, even though only 40% of the workforce is female, say researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "You have to understand that in China today, men are the priority," remarks Wan, sitting in her elevator. "You can't fire men as easily, because they would lose face." Indeed, according to a 2002 study by officials in northeastern Liaoning province, one-third of private companies say they only want to hire men. This government-run study also reports that of the millions being laid off by state factories, 80% of the men eventually find work vs. only 49% of the women. For its part, the TV factory that laid off Wan asserts that there was no discrimination in its firings. "Maybe there were more women who were laid off, but I'm not sure," says a manager who would only give his surname, Zeng. "We never looked at the statistics." He pauses and then adds: "But I tell you, it's not too big a problem, because women can go home and take care of their children."