China's Tiny Revolution

women lined up singing
CBS
Twenty-first century China, with its image as a high-tech, modern nation, is also a place where ancient tradition maintains a powerful hold — especially over the millions of women who still labor there as virtual slaves.

Unchanged in rural areas still locked in the past, and despite China's stunning economic leap forward, these traditions dictate a rural woman's life. She is an unpaid field worker, domestic servant, child bearer and personal property of the man who buys her.

But for some Chinese women, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen, there is now hope of escape at a school outside Beijing.

The students there are teenagers from the rural provinces, young women starting a new life that defies centuries of Chinese tradition.

The school was founded by Wu Qing, a member of the People's Congress who knows leaving home is not easy.

"I think they need a lot of guts to do it," says Wu, "because they don't know what they are going to face."

Most of the women have barely a junior-high level education. At Wu's school, they train for jobs in pattern making, sewing or using computers.

Those skills mean jobs — and jobs, says Wu, mean financial independence.

"They do not have to depend upon a man to change their own lives," she says.

The women Wu teaches are part of a huge migration of peasants flocking to the cities from areas so poverty stricken, many homes have neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. By some estimates, 20 million desperate women are scratching out lives today in the shadows of china's urban prosperity.

Some work as domestics or shop clerks in Beijing. Once a week, some gather to compare notes.

"In my hometown marriages are arranged when girls are 16 or 17," says Li Shi, through a translator. "But coming to Beijing made me independent. Now I would no longer choose the way of my hometown."

Lou Zhe Ma-ma's family accepted a man's offer of marriage. He would pay $50 for her.

"My parents didn't care what I thought," she says, through a translator. "They wanted to force me into the arranged marriage. "

Wu compares the system of arranged marriages to sexual slavery. Some of the students see Wu as their liberator.

"After Professor Wu spoke in my village, I came to her school," says another girl, named Lou. "She saved my life."

For its part, the leadership in Beijing says the challenges facing women are vestiges of a feudal system that modernization has yet to erase.

"Chinese women were long subject to humiliation and brutal oppression in a feudal and, subsequently, semi-feudal, semi-colonial society," the Chinese government wrote in a report to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 1999, its last report to that body. "It was not until the founding of the People's Republic of China that Chinese omen, who make up one quarter of the world's female population, achieved their historic liberation."

But while claiming that China now extends equal rights to women "in the political, economic, cultural, and social spheres as well as in family life," the Chinese government admits there is still a long way to go.

"China is a developing country, hampered by its level of economic and social development as well as by traditional attitudes," the government wrote. "In real life, Chinese women's equal rights to political participation, employment and education as well as in marriage and family life have yet to be fully realized."

The concerns about rural women join a list of human rights concerns raised by Western governments about China. In its 1999 human rights report, the U.S. State Department found that "Violence against women, including coercive family planning practices … prostitution; discrimination against women; trafficking in women and children" were continuing problems.

A report by the Central Intelligence Agency last year found that China was one of several countries from which women smuggled into the United States originated.

(c) MMI Viacom Internet Services Inc. All Rights Reserved