Women's Experiences in a Chinese Economic Zone

Story posted January 22, 2004

For rural Chinese hoping to find a way to move to the more lucrative jobs and better education found in a city, the path to a new life is forged by the wife and mother. Though they lack power in the way many Western women understand it, for many Chinese women this role is of supreme importance in their lives.

Nancy Riley, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, has spent six years talking with women who migrated from rural villages to work in the economic zone of Dalian, a city in northeast China.

Nancy Riley, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, has spent six years talking with women who migrated from rural villages to work in the economic zone of Dalian, a city in northeast China. Riley is on leave this year finishing a book about her findings, which is tentatively titled Laboring in Paradise: Gender, Work, and Family in a Chinese Economic Zone.

She began her work with the intention of studying women's power in Chinese society and how it's changing.

"China is a great place to think about these issues because they have this rhetoric about women being equal," Riley said. "But it's mostly rhetoric."

She knew she wanted access to workers in an economic zone, and she ended up working in Dalian because she had a contact there.

"You can't do anything in China without contacts," she said.

In some respects, Dalian is not an ideal city; in winter it is a bleak place, extremely cold and dark with gale force winds most of the time. But in the end, it was an ideal spot for her research. People have been welcoming, and she did formal in-depth interviews with 38 women. She interviewed each one for at least two hours and some for as many as 12 hours, resulting in more than 150 hours of interviews. She also did informal interviews with many other people.

Riley performs the interviews herself, in Chinese, without a translator present.

For rural Chinese hoping to find a way to move to the more lucrative jobs and better education found in a city, the path to a new life is forged by the wife and mother.

"I had great interviews," she said. "Any trouble I have in Chinese is actually to my advantage, because they aren't intimidated."

Another advantage is that she's easily and believably able to feign ignorance to get the women to explain things in greater detail.

The fact that there are no translators involved helps protect the women she's interviewing from government scrutiny. Because she is concerned about them, she identifies them by pseudonyms.

Finding the framework with which to write about the research took some time. She's had to think about how power is different in different societies and how women assert their power differently.

"I went there interested in gender...and I had to change my interest," she said.

She found that gender equity isn't the concern for these women, but equity between rural and urban people is. Gender issues are important, but they aren't the focus.

"It turns out, to be rural means you aren't modern, you aren't successful," Riley said. "Urban people speak about rural people in the most horrendous ways."

Prior to her research she didn't fully understand these urban attitudes toward rural people.

"I was interested in their struggles with gender inequality. They were interested in their struggles to become an urban resident," she said, "that is the focus of their lives."

Performing research in China requires more involvement with the government than research elsewhere might. When Riley was researching in Beijing, she was watched constantly.

In China you need a residency permit from the government to live in urban areas. Women desperately want this permit so that their children can go to the urban schools. The residency permit travels with the mother, so it's up to her to get the permit to pave the way for a better life for her children.

Even though the women have permission to live and work in the economic zone, most aren't able to get a government permit to be a permanent resident, but it can happen. Riley spoke with one woman who got a high school education, then got a contract to work for a Japanese company, was eventually hired permanently and was given a residency permit.

"Of course these women wanted this," Riley said, "how could I not have realized it?"

She found that the women measure their own success by whether they are able to be good mothers and consider themselves successful women if they are able to get a permit so that their children can go to urban schools. In the home, however, women still don't have much power. They get up early, prepare food, go to work, come home, cook dinner, and stay up late attending to other household chores.

"All the measures I had for power, they have less of," i.e., money, time, decision making power. But the reality in China is more complicated than that. "And it had to do with the way women accept their roles as mothers and in their families more than I would."

"How do I explain the fact that these women don't complain about what goes on at home?"

They talk about their lives in Dalian as if they were paradise, something that's difficult for Western feminists to understand.

"I've been challenged by Western feminists when I say these women don't think gender is as important as other things," Riley said.

Women may not assert themselves in the home, but Riley has found that they do assert themselves as workers. The women Riley has interviewed have even been involved in staging a strike — which is illegal in China. The women didn't want to talk about it, but some of them passed Riley documents about the strike.

"I think these women were willing to fight for what they saw as their rights as workers, but not as women...at home they never protested anything," Riley said.

I think these women were willing to fight for what they saw as their rights as workers, but not as women...at home they never protested anything.

They don't have power over money or their own time, but "they have something else, and it's something that they find rewarding," Riley said. "Women see themselves as part of a family...however, women see themselves as absolutely central to the success of the family."

Performing research in China requires more involvement with the government than research elsewhere might. When Riley was researching in Beijing, she was watched constantly. She also has had to carefully answer questions related to religion, politics and other topics, and once had to apologize to a class for referring to Taiwan as a separate country.

Some of her research was sponsored by the All China Women's Federation. One day, a woman with the Federation told Riley that she had to ask what she asked the women in the interviews. As Riley was trying to figure out how to answer, the woman changed the topic (she'd fulfilled her responsibility by asking, but she didn't really want to hear the answer).

She hasn't had as much trouble in Dalian, however, and now has a very high level visa to allow her to do her research.

In the future Riley plans a survey of women in the economic zones and she also plans to go to rural areas to study the differences between those who make it out of the villages and into the economic zones and those who stay in the rural factories.

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