The China files, postscript: Feisty females

May 12, 2011

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

By Hugo Dixon

My first visit to China was in 1979. I was a schoolboy. It must have been one of the earliest Western school trips to the mainland. Mao Zedong had died three years before, Deng Xiaoping had launched the country on three decades of supercharged growth and the one-child policy had just been initiated. I hadn’t been back until this March.

Back then, Mao’s image was plastered everywhere and almost everybody wore Mao suits. I even bought one for myself. I also bought a Mao poster and stuck it in my bedroom at school. Nowadays, the posters have virtually vanished, along with the suits.

But that wasn’t the only thing that was different in my recent visit. The main thing that struck me were China’s feisty females. Could this be a by-product of the one-child policy that led to selective abortion, female infanticide and an excess of boys?

Two young women picked me up inside Beijing’s Forbidden City, home of the pre-revolutionary imperial family. Both had steady boyfriends. One actually felt her bargaining position was so strong that she should upgrade her man because he wasn’t rich enough to buy a home. In China, grooms are expected to provide the home, which is quite a burden in the property-bubble infected cities.

I accepted an invitation to tea, even though I don’t like the drink. And when we arrived at the tea house, I went along with the suggestion that we try a little bit of every type. The bill came to a staggering 2,160 yuan ($333). That was eight cups of tea each for three people at a cost per cup of 49 yuan — plus an elaborate assortment of extras. I had been scammed. I negotiated the price down to 400 yuan, still way over the top for the tea but perhaps a reasonable price for the field research.

Zhang Xin

My next encounter was with Zhang Xin, the billionaire chief executive of Soho China, a cutting edge property group. Suave, attractive, sophisticated, she’s not just a member of the Beijing elite; she’s part of the global elite. Zhang had a cameo appearance in the film “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” Oliver Stone, the film’s director, is a friend. Zhang also doesn’t slap up non-descript office buildings. She has commissioned no fewer than three separate complexes by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-British superstar architect.

Back in 1979, I doubt there was anybody who straddled these worlds as smoothly as Zhang. But go back another three or four decades and you had Soong Meiling, wife of Chiang Kai-shek, China’s leader before Mao. She didn’t just hold sway in China; she wowed the Americans too. She stayed in the White House with Franklin Roosevelt, was the first woman to address a joint session of Congress and had a close relationship with Wendell Willkie, the Republican whom Roosevelt defeated in 1940.

Karen Chen

A few days later, I sat next to Karen Chen, another fascinating woman, at a dinner in Shanghai. When I travel, I often have round-table dinner parties. In some countries, it’s hard to find a round table. But this isn’t a problem in China. At this particular dinner, in an exquisite boutique hotel, the guests were young millionaires with a conscience. Most had charities they had established, many concerned with the environment.

We were having a lively conversation about culture, politics and economics — or, at least, that’s what I thought — until my neighbor erupted.

“You think you are a hot-shot journalist,” Chen said — or something like that, because this isn’t a verbatim quote. “But you can’t just come here on a Friday night and organize a debate in the way that you want. We want to have fun. We want to relax. You don’t understand China. If you want to understand, you should listen. You shouldn’t try to impose your ways on us.”

My neighbor was “old money” — which, in China, means roughly two decades old, given that it has only been possible to accumulate wealth since Mao’s death. She’d been educated abroad and worked in investment banking before returning to Shanghai to start taking over her parents’ real-estate business. Her big idea was xiao — a word which roughly means respect for one’s elders.

I was reeling. Was I a neo-imperialist, despite my best intentions? All I felt I could do was roll with the punches.

“What’s more, you slaughtered the dumpling.” Chen pressed her advantage. “We were laughing at you. You didn’t notice it. This was a delicious, elegant dumpling. But you don’t know how to eat it. You didn’t ask us. You just poked it with your chopstick and all the juices spurted out.”

It was true. I didn’t know how to eat the dumpling. It was just too vast to pop in my mouth. The correct procedure is to pick it up with your chopsticks, bite the head off, suck out the juice and then gobble up the shrunken mass. But I also reflected that I was nearly twice Chen’s age. I was delighted that, in giving me a dressing down, she had not shown me too much xiao.

My dumpling assailant isn’t the only one demolishing the stereotypical image of the demure Chinese woman. Some 69 percent of China’s women aged 15-64 work, compared with an OECD average of 60 percent and only 34 percent in India. That’s a huge asset, although, of course, it means Beijing has one fewer lever to pull as it looks for new sources of growth. Countries like India can, if they choose, turn to a huge source of untapped labor.

But an army of educated, opinionated women could be a powerful engine of change. If the rest are anywhere near as dynamic as my three experiences suggested, China’s feisty females may be one of the country’s best chances of taking on its considerable vested interests.

This is the final installment of a series. Earlier installments discussed China’s crony capitalism, its brave new economic model, and just how much China can continue to grow.

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