A New Year, A New China?

This week’s new moon dawning on February 3 marks the first day of the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rabbit.

In China, the New Year has traditionally been celebrated as a time of family reunions and thanksgiving highlighted by a religious ceremony given in honor of Heaven and Earth, the gods of the household, and the ancestors. Days before the New Year, families busy themselves with housecleaning, hoping to sweep away all the ill-fortune there may have been in the family to make way for incoming good luck.

How telling, then, that the U.S. visit of President Hu Jintao occurred in the run up to the New Year during this traditional period of housecleaning.

Thirty years of dramatic reforms have transformed China from a proverbial sinkhole of poverty into the world’s third largest economy, one projecting to bank a $280 billion trade surplus this year. Decades of massive profits have made Beijing the U.S.’ biggest creditor and have enabled China to gain a formidable foothold in economies of many sub-Saharan African countries and nations of vital significance to the U.S., such as Pakistan. Astonishingly, China is poised to keep growing at a time when its peers struggle to keep their trousers from slipping to their ankles.

Yet, while China’s international profile and economic clout grow and grow, the country continues to draw international ire for policies and practices that run roughshod over civil and political rights. Among the long list of human rights abuses, persistent gender-related discrimination figures prominently.

Socialized to believe that they have little control over their own bodies and lives and no voice in their communities or the wider nation, few Chinese women know their rights. Rural women, especially, suffer under traditional gender roles that exclude them from decision-making and constrain their educational and economic opportunities. A staggering 70 million Chinese women – more than the entire population of France – lack basic literacy skills. Held up against voluminous research demonstrating that education proves among the most expeditious pathways out of poverty, poor health, and exploitation, this error of omission offers cause for ire.

The largely unregulated economic development of recent years has devastated the natural environment on which the country’s population depends. Pesticides and industrial waste are eroding women’s health and threatening agrarian livelihoods. Recent research found 98 pesticides present in rural women’s bodies in Yunnan province, chemicals that have been implicated in a marked escalation of breast cancer incidence. Scant opportunities, poor health, lack of socio-political standing, and the repercussions of environmental devastation have contributed to unusually high suicide rates among rural women. Some 2 million rural women attempt suicide annually; 170,000 succeed. Suicide leads cause of death for rural women ages 15-35.

In response, women have united to address the social, environmental and gender-specific impacts of unchecked growth, unacknowledged poverty, gender-based inequities and rampant suicide. Rural women are opening pathways to education and economic livelihood and spawning grassroots environmental and political movements.

A group of rural women formed the Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women (CDCRW) in Beijing to empower their peers and improve rural women’s status. “I want China to be Rule of Law, and by law, not Rule of Man by man,” asserts the Centre’s founder, Wu Xing. “I think we are laying the groundwork for democracy.” Recognizing education and good health as vital to developing women’s skills and confidence, CDCRW began by teaching basic literacy and offering physical and mental health care, including suicide prevention interventions. CDCRW then started the Women Village Heads’ Support Network, which prepares women to run for election to local posts, to promote women’s role in political decision-making. Since 1994, the San Francisco-based Global Fund for Women’s investments in CDCRW have helped to provide job training to some 2,500 women and informed 6,000 women about gender dynamics and their legal rights.

EcoWomen, based in Yunnan, was the first women's group in China to address the link between pesticide use and women's health. In Yunnan Province, 85% of the population lives in rural areas and agriculture accounts for 39% of the province’s GDP. As men migrate to seek employment opportunities in urban areas, women increasingly enter the agrarian workforce, facing exposure to agricultural chemicals that have specific negative impacts on women’s health.

EcoWomen educates women farmers about pesticide risks and safer pesticide application. Wherever possible, EcoWomen trains female farmers in organic farming practices, using training materials based on detailed research of pesticide use and women’s health. The group also invests in the revival of “heirloom” crops and helps to promote markets for organic produce. EcoWomen also benefited from seed funding from the Global Fund for Women during their first year of operation (2001), when their annual budget was just $400. Today the group has an annual budget of over $90,000.

Both CDCRW and EcoWomen transcend traditional modes of women's political and environmental activism in China, elegantly bridging critical social justice movements with a more holistic, sustainable approach to social change.

According to Chinese tradition, the Rabbit brings a year in which to catch your breath and calm your nerves. As China continues to negotiate the rough waters of phenomenal economic growth and rapid resource consumption while holding the sleek paddle of soft power in its brawny arms, my wish is that the New Year’s incentive to houseclean – and to discard unwanted burdens of the past – coupled with the nerve-calming Rabbit tendencies of the incoming year prevail. May this new year bring with it ever more strategic, humane, and peaceful uses of China’s remarkable power and potential, especially when it comes to women’s human rights.