“Half the Sky” – A Counter Argument

I recently finished reading Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” a probe into the gender-based atrocities that take place worldwide, and the aide efforts that best address them.

In principle, I have to appreciate this book.  Highly credentialed journalists are tackling the cold hard truth of the consequences for viewing women as second and/or third class citizens in a given community, region or nation.

Of course I recommend this book to those who have a bleeding heart for human rights challenges across the globe, as I do. The stories from the women themselves are wrenching and provocative. But alas, as this post is titled, I come to offer a constructive critique of some of this book’s more (at least in my view) misguided elements.

First the title. The title is an abbreviation of a slogan born in the Communist Revolution in the 1950s in China, “Women hold up half the sky.” This is not a proverb, or some lofty notion put to paper by the enlightened scribes of China’s imperial past. As such, this credo, as have all such slogans to come from China’s propaganda department, had a very specific and calculated purpose.  Mao needed women in the work force in order to advance his agenda of matching the West in terms of industrial output. Having more political support and a doubled army of revolutionary zealots were added bonuses. Legislatively speaking, Mao enacted the Marriage Law, which did away with arranged marriages and the power of divorce lying exclusively with the husband. An amazing moment indeed, not to be mitigated by speculation on his motivations. Elevating women may have well been a cause near and dear to Mao’s heart, as it certainly fit with the rest of his ‘equality for all’ narrative, but we’ll never know for sure. At the very least, to insinuate that Maoism is synonymous with feminism is at best ignorant and at worst deceptive to readers unfamiliar with the history of women under China’s Communist Party. As with all notions to come publicly from the Party, there are calculations within calculations within calculations, and that fact should always be kept in mind.

After the title comes the bloated section of the book positing China as some great non-Western model for nationalizing the advancement of women. So there was a rosy-the-riveter-like time under Deng Xiaoping that got girls into factories, giving them an independent income. And? Does this change the abominable practice of female infanticide? Or forced abortions? Or local officials shamefully complicit in the widespread trafficking of girl sex slaves into China’s brothels? No it does not.

But what I find the most troubling, even beyond the horrible acts of brutality, is the clear, top-down (and I mean very tippy top) culture of patriarchy coming from the newest of China’s leadership. The New York Times, ironically since it was the platform for much of Kristof’s book publicity, wrote a thought-provoking article on the public banishment of Xi Jinping’s wife and beloved folk-singer. Peng Liyuan. Her name has been blocked from SinaWeibo, China’s Twitter, and her public appearances are now almost always in the posterior of her husband, trading in her recognizable diva wardrobe for demure suits.

My own experience concurs. In 2008 a group of upwardly mobile young professional men in Beijing told me that women shouldn’t be leaders because they don’t make decisions as well as men do. Ah yes, I forgot that Mao’s decision to proceed with the Great Leap Forward was a raging success. Oh wait, it caused the starvation of tens of millions of people. And more recently, the reverse-reform policies of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao that have advanced state-owned-enterprises at the expense of private sector businesses may send China’s entire banking framework into an abyss of insolvency and debt. These young men weren’t taking an objective look at history’s factoids, they were responding to my question from their guts, and their guts were frothing with attitudes cultured from a steady-diet of messages saying women just aren’t as good as men, period.

How can I say that sexism in professional and political conclaves is more troubling than the dumping of female babies into public shit-holes (see story here)? The answer is they are inextricably connected. Dehumanizing a baby girl is made possible by attitudes that stem from the top, attitudes represented by hiding a celebrated icon of China’s folk music behind her husband for no better reason than that her success should never draw from his image of power. Attitudes matter, especially as you get farther and farther away from the capital.

What Kristoff and WuDunn failed to qualify in their book, is that laws and mandates in China are of little consequence out in the provinces. Incentives are all that matter, and incentives to safeguard the potential of a girl child are simply not landing with necessary scale. It’s not unlike Beijing’s ambitious carbon-reduction targets, promptly ignored by local governments who see their riches tied to rapid city development using the cheapest fuel available.

In Mao’s case. as earnest as his campaign for women may have been, edicts must be followed by local buy-in, which is something Kristof and WuDunn state over and over again in their book quite effectively in the context of many other countries beside China. And local buy-in just ain’t happening. In June of last year there was a well-publicized story of local officials in China’s Shaanxi Province kidnapping and forcing an abortion on a woman seven months into her pregnancy after she neglected to pay the fine for having a second child , even though such brutish tactics are supposedly ‘illegal’.

Kristof and WuDunn also write that generally speaking,  prostitutes in China are willing and voluntary. Those of you who know me well know I rarely buy into any form of prostitution as 100% voluntary, but to make that unqualified claim in this case is just wrong. One of the cables that came to light in 2010’s wikileaks saga stressed the particularly serious situation in China’s Yunnan Province, which is both a source of trafficked individuals, and a destination for trafficking given its borders with Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

I’m happy to give credit where credit is due to China’s non-profit sector and to some of the legal benchmarks that have given precedent for women assuming control over their lives, but it would be a disservice to the Chinese people who want China to assume a more admired role in the human rights community to simply go mute on the challenges that still exist, both on the ground and in the lofty chambers of central leadership.

So by all means, read the book and be moved, but mind the gaps.

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