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Chinese Female Society: Middle Class and its Development in the 21st Century

UN Women 2015 Global Leaders Meeting © UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

China is the most populous country and has one of the biggest economies in the world. Its development, which has been visible in recent decades, has given many opportunities for its citizens in different fields. However, old measures like the One Child Policy have resulted in demographic inequality. Women have borne the brunt of these policies in both the private and social fields. Paradoxically, while taking advantage of improvements in the quality of life, women suffer from high demands and pressure, both mental and physical, in the family and in society. While the quality of life is improving in China, it primarily benefits men, which is a result of traditional aspects and beliefs that are at odds with modern needs and contemporary situations.

Thus, this paper focuses on 20th century assumptions which should have led to the improvement of Chinese society in the first decades after the economic opening. She aims to examine contemporary research studies and data which compares Chinese society from the 20th century with the contemporary one. Moreover, she chose to focus on the middle-class, because it is the rapidly growing group in this developing country. (Sicular, 2017)

Special attention is paid to Chinese women in certain issues by examining the size of gaps in elements related to some cases. It has been a popular topic recently that Chinese women still suffer from the position they take in comparison to men, even when women have similar rights as men right now. Traditional approach and philosophic systems such as Confucianism (still a widely employed political influence) still limit women in some areas and force them to bring rather inside (Soh,1993) responsibilities than having a career life. There exist many elements which direct women to adapt to the world with patriarchy introduced by China for years.

When it comes to the structure and general topics discussed in the paper, the author chooses a few of them related to people's daily life. She examined: demography issues, education structure, professional and labor market and participation in Chinese politics, each issue in one chapter respectively.


Demography is the most significant sign of gender inequality in contemporary China. This is the effect of the One Child Policy that disrupted the balance of gender in Chinese demography from 1977 to 2016. The aim of the Policy was to limit China’s birth rate. Each couple were allowed to raise one child only, and couples that gave birth to a second child would face punishment (generally in the form of expensive fines). In this context, only wealthy people who could afford to pay for the exemption had more than one child, which exacerbated class privilege. Starting in 2016, couples were allowed to have two children, but only if the two spouses were an only child.

Assuming that one generation’s duration is between 20 and 25 years, the One child policy adversely affected two generations of Chinese. It is associated with the female stigma against women that gave birth to a second child, or who gave birth to a girl. This fear led to several cases of selective abortion, which was legal only for the richest families in China. As a result, many women chose dangerous methods like drowning an unborn baby in chemicals or drowning the newborns on rice fields. Some mothers tried to abort their fetus at home, without medical assistance. These methods, in addition to causing many deaths of mothers, affected women’s mental health, a problem that was compounded by the lack of mental health care in China (Rachwaniec-Szczecińska, 2013). It was unknown to psychologically help women who had to kill their babies in such a cruel way. The One Child Policy was not only the reason for the current demographic gender inequality, but also for the subsequent improvement of perinatal care and present accessibility to abortion assistance.

Today abortion in China is legal according to two pieces of national legislation: the Code on Maternal and Infant Health in 1995 and the Code on Population and Family Planning in 2002. The state still controls the birth rate; however it is not as strict as it was in the past and is regulated by laws. Moreover, abortion is in some cases funded, resulting in better pregnancy care, less risky abortion procedures, and more accesible abortion services (Cao, 2013).

The One Child Policy and the Confucian aspiration to raise a son are among the causes of the current gap in the Chinese sex ratio. Although the ratio of males to females has been decreasing, the proportion is still uneven, which will have a devastating effect. Attane (2012) gives an example, that the number of men per 30- to 39-year-old 100 women will exceed 117 in 2050 which is 13 points more than in 2010. She also mentions that according to official estimates, the surplus of men among young adults is expected to reach 24 to 30 million in 2020.

Moreover, the gap may increase because of some women’s approach. The pejorative term Leftover Women refers to women who decide to focus on their career rather than start a family. Such women live in big cities and spend each day developing knowledge and investing in their careers. It is no coincidence the term is mainly used in the countryside, given the higher proportion of men unable to get married to women from higher class, which leads many of them to voluntarily stay single instead of marrying a woman of lower class status. The comfort of deciding about the pregnancy or optional abortion showed that the inducted abortions rate had decreased significantly at the end of the 20th century as compared to the 1980s and 1990s situation (Hemminki et al., 2005).

This situation creates a one-effect, double-caused demography problem in China. Not only the sex ratio of newborn babies is uneven, but also Chinese expectations regarding the opposite sex makes it impossible to increase the number of new marriages.


There are more and more women with access to education, however many of them meet the glass ceiling when it comes to higher education. Generally, the education process in China is 12 years long: a mandatory 6-year elementary education is followed by an also mandatory three years of middle school and three years of secondary school (OECD, 2016). Children usually start their education at the age of six, but sometimes they are forced to start earlier. It is related to situations when rural areas schools are not efficient enough to provide classes at a certain level adapted to the age of the student (Andersson, et al., 2014). The lack of schools for children, especially in rural areas, and the absence of teacher training means that education is usually accessible just for children who live in provinces (Kinglun, 2007).

In spite of the Maoist era’s re-education system toward intelligence (1966-1977 Cultural Revolution and resettlement of the intelligentsia), today the education system should be accessible for everyone (Zhou, et al., 2006). Indeed, Chinese higher education is not funded now by the government and illiteracy levels continue to decline . Focusing on the urban citizens' educational level, the percentage of women with education increased at the turn of the century from 10.9 percent in 1990 to 20.08 percent in 2000 but then decreased to 3.5 percent in the following ten years, meaning that very few women in urban areas remain uneducated (Attane, 2012). Moreover, the percentage of women with a secondary education has increased. The percentage of women in rural areas with a higher education has also increased. Usually it is just primary education, but it has improved in comparison to the previous century. The average years of education also increased - both for men and women. One of a few biggest struggles in terms of education is that higher education is not free and reserved for Chinese whose parents can afford it (or for talented students who are able to get certain scholarships).

Table 1

Level of Education in China

U - Urban; R - Rural; G - General // Sources: ACWF-2010.

Fifty years ago, the Chinese government implemented an education reform based on a Soviet model, the school system was standardised and all Chinese schools were named and given by the government's levels (national, provincial or municipal). Unfortunately, this system was not as effective as was hoped. Widespread criticism against the theoretical content taught in schools led to the introduction of the “Three-dimensional Targets” in the 21st century. The reform was based on the principles of knowledge and skills, processes and methods and emotions, attitudes and values, which aimed to help students “learn to learn,” and give them skills to learn through experience and avoid memorising. Today, Chinese students have the chance to improve their problem-solving abilities; however, it still requires teachers to use atypical methods while they are not qualified enough to work for example with children at different ages at once. (Anderson, 2014)

Professional and Labor Market

Chinese demographics show that the working-age population will decrease to a level compared to that of other countries. It will not work as fast and efficiently as it has in recent years. Rising labor costs and unemployment (related to the mismatches between the graduates from some majors and corporations requiring specialised skills) are slowing down the speed of the expansion of the Chinese labor market. Moreover, new technologies and the modernisation of some labor units have decreased the number of needed employees, who put pressure on the government to create sufficient jobs (Lee, et al., 2013). In the future, these changing demographics will require people to increase their savings and to expect more services.

Data shows that despite the large number of jobs in China, most positions are intended for men, a problem that is exacerbated by the fact that women face limitations when it comes to being promoted. For promotions and senior positions, Chinese companies give preference to men over female staff, regardless of how many years they have been employed. As a result, the gender gap between female and male managers is more than 2:8 (Zoeller, 2014). What follows these figures and the absence of women in the labor market is the fact that China is the country with the highest wage inequality for men and women in the same job and with the same responsibilities, with a 3:7 ratio (Zoeller, 2014).

The access to the labor market looks similar to the access to education. Everyone can take advantage of the opportunity, but men have greater opportunities to get ahead. This state of affairs is often the result of the Confucian doctrine, which advances the notion that a priority for a woman should be to start a family and raise children. In today’s China, however, career development is also seen as one of women’s duties. Nevertheless, this does not mean women have gotten rid of their stereotypical duties. Women face male and social expectations of being good mothers, wives and workers at the same time, without questioning the male superiority. This status quo is based on the Confucian yin and yang: the male yang is discouraged against being dominant towards the female yin, suggesting that the female element is potentially conflicting and can bring destruction. As a result of these assumptions, women tend not to be praised by male employers, even if they perform their duties well, and are expected to always remain with their duties and shade their contribution to the work. In addition, Chinese collectivism, which emphasizes collective responsibility for the quality of work as well as its single components, means that male leaders do not need to distinguish the merits of women above the overall team performance.

Participation in Politics

Although the economic and social status of women in China has improved, they are still held back by the lack of progress in their participation in politics. Only 20 percent of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) delegates are female and the highest level in politics that Chinese women can aspire to are provincial offices. However, even at that level, women make up for only 10 percent of the posts. Moreover, there is a huge gender disproportion in non-CCP members, and the chances of a woman reaching a chief leadership position (higher than a provincial one) are very low (Su, 2006). In this context, women are more likely to join the ranks of the seven parties outside the CCP, even though they are not so relevant in national politics and remain heavily influenced by the CCP.

However, women can still establish organisations and associations (partly) founded by the CCP. An example is the ”All-China Women's Federation,” established on 24 March 1949, which has become the most popular Chinese feminist non-political organisation As this evidence shows, politics still remain unattainable for Chinese women.

Sandra Krawczyszyn is a 3rd year Far Eastern Philology student with Chinese specialisation at the University of Wroclaw (Poland). She is scientifically interested in contemporary China social issues and women’s participation in family and social life. She studies the impact of social problems on the cultural and artistic activity of China. You can contact her via LinkedIn or by email (

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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