The Sky is Falling

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Before she was abducted, Hu Lixia had never been alone in a room with a man who wasn't a relative. The plum-cheeked teenager had never had a boyfriend or even a secret crush. Every day, after she finished work at an ice-cream factory in central Hunan province, she would rush home to help cook dinner. She was, as her mother puts it, "a good country girl." But one evening in November 1998, Hu didn't return to her tiny village in remote Xupu county. Her parents, sugarcane farmers with only four years of schooling between them, were frantic. They contacted the local police, but their pleas for help were ignored. A month later, a bribe to the father of a local gangster with a suspiciously fancy house brought them grim news: Hu had been kidnapped, raped and forced to work at a brothel in Guigang city in nearby Guangxi province. Desperate to get his daughter back, Hu's father, Hu Yangduan, together with the father of another missing girl, paid the traffickers $180—about one year's income—and both children were returned. "I was so angry at her for letting someone deceive her that I wanted to beat her," recalls Hu's father, clenching his weathered fists. "But when I saw her, all I could do was cry."

Hundreds of girls have been kidnapped from Xupu in the past few years, including more than a dozen from Hu's village of barely 200. Some girls—lured into cars by promises of candy or fancy clothes or merely a joyride to the city—are never heard from again. Others, like Hu, eventually find their way back home. But Hu was so traumatized by what had happened that she refused to leave her house for more than a year after her return, spending her days sequestered in a dark room filled with piles of coal. Finally, she fled last year to the boomtown of Shenzhen, where she now toils in an electronics sweatshop. Although the 16-hour shifts are exhausting, they're nothing like the conditions at the brothel, where she was forced to service a stream of men for no pay. "My elders used to sing a song comparing life to a dark well of bitterness," recalls Hu of her months as a sex slave. "Women, who stand at the lowest level, are never able to see the sun or sky."

How times change. When Hu's mother was growing up, her hero was Xiang Jingyu, a Xupu-born revolutionary who was one of China's first crusading feminists. China's communist leaders may have inflicted fear and famine on their subjects, but they were progressive when it came to women's rights. Soon after the communist revolution, Beijing's leaders even designated Xupu as a model town for local efforts to promote equality between the sexes. A feudal country that had bound its girls' feet just a few years before had been transformed into a nation where women, as Chairman Mao Zedong famously declared, could "hold up half the sky." But as China sheds the stifling rigidity of communism for the ruthless disorder of capitalism, the sky seems to be falling in on millions of women. After half a century of struggling to achieve equality with men, women are bearing the brunt of the nation's massive social dislocations.

True, capitalism has benefited an èlite group of educated, urban women who are enjoying unprecedented opportunities—from heading to America for M.B.A.s to launching their own companies. But, in general, women are losing out. As discrimination against them increases, they are the first to be laid off from once ironclad state jobs. They are the first to be deprived of local-government seats now that Beijing no longer enforces long-held gender quotas. They are the first to drop out of school as academic fees climb ever higher. And they have regressed financially, too: in the 1980s, women made 80 cents for every dollar that men earned; now, women make only 65 cents, as private enterprises are free to pay as they please.

At the extremes, old bad habits from China's imperial past are also resurging: prostitution, concubinage, wife buying, female infanticide. One symptom of the intensifying pressure is that nearly 300,000 women in China committed suicide in 2000, making it the only country in the world where relatively more females than males take their own lives. "China is progressing in so many ways," says Deng Li, deputy director of the government-run All-China Women's Federation. "But for many women, their lives are going backward, because the rules to protect them are no longer being followed."

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