Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping; drawing by David Levine

After thirty years, how successful has the Maoist regime been in conquering the terrible poverty and inequality which China suffered under capitalism?

In the last issue we looked at the regime’s record in dealing with health and hunger, which determine whether life can be lived at all (NYR, April 5). We found that such typically enthusiastic surveys of China as those by Al Imfeld and John Gurley did not recognize many of the regime’s failures, especially in food production. The work of the late Alexander Eckstein was more accurate and realistic. In this issue we consider a few of the things that make for a decent social life: literacy and respect for women. By examining how well the Maoist regime has provided such benefits to its people, we will be in a better position to arrive, in a final article, at conclusions about existing inequality in China and to compare China’s successes and failures to those of other nations.



Before 1949, something like five-sixths of China’s adults were illiterate.1 How well can the Chinese read today? Father Imfeld in his recent book claims that “in barely a generation, a nation of 700,000,000 [sic] people became literate.” He tries to back assertion with fact. Here is the “fact”: “Today almost everybody in China belongs to an organized study group.” True, but this is irrelevant: the groups to which he refers are for political study (self-criticism, memories of bitterness, and the like); they are not calligraphy classes. Professors Gurley and Eckstein talk about “rising” literacy, but since more than 80 percent of the Chinese couldn’t read or write before the Liberation, there was considerable ground for improvement. How much of this gap did the Maoist experiment actually close?

The fact of the matter is, no one knows, not even the Chinese. There are no figures on literacy, and statistics on education are scanty and unusually contradictory. Even if our information on China were perfect, however, we would be hard pressed to come up with a single statistic that would represent basic educational attainment unambiguously, for “literacy” is an especially slippery concept. “Functional literacy” is different today in India and England, just as it has differed from generation to generation within England as well. Remember: two centuries ago any European who could sign his own name in the parish marriage register was considered literate.2 How would we define literacy today? By the ability to write an order for a bag of fertilizer? To read a telephone book? To fill out one’s own income tax form? Probably the definition would vary not only from country to country, but also from region to region, from city to countryside, and even from profession to profession.

Since information is scarce and the definition of literacy is confused, it should not be surprising that estimates of China’s literacy rate differ. Still the differences are astonishing. The Asia Society cites a figure of 95 percent literacy. This would be twelve points higher than Cuba, eight points higher than Israel. At the other end, the CIA estimates only 20 percent. This would be five points lower than either Bangladesh or Nigeria, nearly twenty points below Iran. Clearly, both these figures are absurd. For the Asia Society’s figure to reflect reality, not only would every single child raised under communism have learned to read and write—an achievement which even East Germany, a nation with near universal literacy to begin with, cannot claim—but more than 80 percent of the adults raised before the Liberation would have to be literate as well.

We know, however, that more than 80 percent of them were illiterate, and that, sadly, after a generation of adult literacy campaigns around the globe, no poor country has been able to keep anywhere near that proportion of its late-starting pupils reading after they leave the schoolhouse.3 The CIA figure is equally implausible: it would imply that the vast adult education campaigns of the early 1950s bore absolutely no fruit, and that less than one child in four has picked up basic skills since the Liberation. Some adults, of course, learn to read in any program, despite their teachers, and there is no known school system where more than half of the students fail to learn to read. To say that the true literacy figure is somewhere between these two extremes is not much help, since they are seventyfive points apart.

To estimate how many children had passed through primary school, and try to infer literacy rates from this, might seem fruitful. But going to school and being able to read are not synonymous. In early modern Western history, many people learned their three Rs outside the classroom (although it may be more difficult to master an ideogram system than a phonetic alphabet). Conversely, if secondary schools in New York City can turn out functional illiterates, it would not be unreasonable to assume that primary schools in rural Hunan or Kansu might have done so as well—especially during the years when students were graded on political attitude rather than written performance. Finally, even after students graduate from primary school, they can forget how to read and write if these skills are not regular parts of their lives. At the beginning of the Meiji era in Japan, for example, just under half of all men had been schooled,4 but there is good evidence that only about a third of the adult male population could read or write.5 School attendance, nevertheless, will tell us something about literacy; in any event it is the only handle we can grasp for.


Our best hope for getting at enrollment ratios is to take the reported proportion of the total population that is in primary school and compare this with the proportion of China’s total population that we would expect to be of primary school age. Conveniently, D.M. Lampton, a political scientist at Ohio State University, has done this.6 He shows that over 14 percent of the country is attending primary school now, and this would be consistent with an enrollment ratio of over 90 percent. For 1952, he shows that just under 9 percent were in primary schools; this would be very roughly consistent with an enrollment ratio of 50 percent. The increase from 9 percent to 14 percent seems to follow a smooth pattern, although we do not have figures for every year, and we know that education was disrupted during such campaigns as the Cultural Revolution. If we had to quantify the proportion of children who passed through primary school for 1952 to 1976, the best range would seem to be two-thirds to three-quarters. These children would now be between fifteen and forty years old, and given the age structures implied by the figures of John Aird and Leo Orleans,7 they would make up between three-fifths and two-thirds of the adult population.8 Of their elder comrades, probably no more than a third went through grade school. We can calculate that between a little over 50 and a little over 60 percent of Chinese have had some basic education.

What level of literacy would this range suggest? The literacy rates of other countries where around 40 or 50 percent of the population never went to school may be instructive. In Turkey, where nonattendance is about 50 percent, literacy is believed to be around 55 percent. In Peru, where a third of those over twenty-five (and an even smaller fraction of those over fifteen) missed schooling, 28 percent of the country is still unable to read or write.9 If we give China the benefit of the doubt, and assume not only that all who passed through school kept their skills but that some who were passed by picked up literacy later on, then we might get literacy rates as high as 60 to 70 percent today.

If this guess is right, how would China compare with her other Asian neighbors? She would be far ahead of India and Pakistan (36 percent and 25 percent, respectively), but significantly behind Sri Lanka (84 percent); ahead of Laos (22 percent), and “Kampuchea” (50 percent), but not necessarily ahead of Indonesia (60 percent) or Malaysia (61 percent), and definitely behind Singapore (76 percent), the Philippines (80 percent), Thailand (82 percent), Taiwan, and South Korea (88 percent each).

In some sense, comparing literacy in China and the Philippines is unfair. For the first forty years of this century the Philippines was an American “Protectorate,” and one of the “gifts” our colonial bureaucrats bestowed upon the archipelago was a system of “near-universal” primary education. When the Maoist regime was still sizing up the dimensions of its educational problem, this system was fully functioning. On the other hand, some countries were at a distinct disadvantage against China. It was part of Dutch policy, for example, to keep the Indonesians uneducated; one of the factors contributing to Sukarno’s phenomenal rise to power was that he was one of about four dozen native college graduates in a country whose population was then already over sixty million.

China, it must be remembered, started out as a relatively literate civilization; in fact, for most of recorded history the Chinese were the best educated people in the world. After the generation of the education explosion, a literacy rate of 16 percent may not look very good, but think what this meant. More than 30 percent of China’s men could read. Around the turn of the century, only 20 percent of the men in what is now the Soviet Union could do so. Southern and Eastern Europe certainly could not have bested China’s literacy rate for men, nor, with the single exception of Japan, could any country in Eastern Asia.

In estimating literacy rates for China, of course, we have been indulging in a guessing game; we simply do not have the information we need, and even if we did, definitions of literacy would complicate matters. And there would always be the problem of comparing cultural systems which use very different alphabets—the Chinese is much harder to learn, much easier to forget. But unless these speculations are entirely off base, there is really little reason to believe that China has eradicated illiteracy, or even that its educational strategy has produced decidedly more impressive results than those of its nearest neighbors.


Who are China’s illiterates? Chinese reports claim that both school attendance and literacy are close to universal in the urban areas, and visitors’ reports confirm this. Illiteracy is a problem of the countryside, and if our guesses are in the right range, it is still a serious problem: as much as half of China’s rural population may not be able to read or write. Illiterates tend to be older. They also tend to be women, not men. The reason China’s overall literacy rate was a sixth when nearly a third of the men could read and write was that more than 98 percent of the women could not. Even if the gap between access to school for men and women is now entirely wiped out—and as we shall see there are hints that it may not have been—the proportions of women going to school or taking the sorts of jobs that would teach them to read over the past two generations have been lower than for men.

Like hunger, illiteracy is a problem of backward communities. Enrollment ratios show that it was the poorest and the most isolated provinces where schooling was hardest to get—in Tibet the 1950s, barely I percent of the eligible children were attending primary schools10—and even though the government has done a commendable job of increasing education in the hinterlands, the generation which is now of working age still suffered severe inequality of access. It seems reasonable to assume that China will not be a fully literate nation until the generation currently in school replaces the generation currently at work. For a country dedicated to bringing forth the New Man, whose potential to develop is held back neither by social nor by material circumstances, this may seem like a very long time.


Status of Women

Contrary to received wisdom, the world’s majority is not now female, and in fact never has been.11 There are more men than women in the world today simply because women don’t last very long in most countries. As babies,12 they are the prime victims of infanticide; in youth, they die in terrible numbers through childbirth; in middle age they are worn away by “women’s work”—that ironic euphemism for all the tedious, sometimes painful, and always low-paying tasks men will not do. In most of the poor world, where three quarters of all women live, being born a girl is not really a disadvantage: it is more like a curse. Are things different in China?

For all his concern with the poor and the disadvantaged, Professor Gurley skirts the plight of China’s largest disadvantaged minority, women. Perhaps he believes, as Lenin did, that the progress of women is an issue quite subordinate to the progress of the class struggle. Eckstein’s treatise on China’s economic transformation mentions women only twice: once in a discussion of mess halls in communes, another time through an oblique reference to rising labor force participation rates. Imfeld to his credit tries to examine the status of women several times, but the result is laden with platitudes. These are typical:

…in old China they were strictly subject to their husbands’ authority. Today, they are given full equality in the communes, sharing respect, authority, and the workload…. They also have equal educational opportunities, and in China they are represented in every profession…. It must be admitted, however, that in the Chinese Communist Party and the army, men still have a dominant role.

This actually does not tell us very much. If we were willing to look the right ways at the right times, as Imfeld clearly is, we could force this sort of congratulatory evaluation to ride over the facts about any country. If we were actually interested in investigating the status of women, we might want to look at their access to political power, education, and employment, and to see how their responsibilities at home have changed.

Only two countries in the less developed world have been governed by women who came into power on their own. These are Israel, with Golda Meir,13 and India, with Indira Gandhi. A number of other countries, Sri Lanka and Argentina among them, have seen the widows of presidents, generals, or dictators assume control of the state after their husbands’ deaths. In still others, such as the Philippines and Iran, wives of rulers have gained enormous power by making themselves their husbands’ most trusted advisers.

China falls into this last category. In the mid-1970s Chiang Ch’ing, leader of the currently vilified “Gang of Four,” seems to have exerted increasing influence over a dying Mao as he became progressively weaker and less clearheaded; after Mao’s death, however, she was purged. The highest-ranking woman in the Chinese Communist Party today is Teng Ying-chao, Chou En-lai’s widow. If we run down the list, we find Soong Ching-ling, Madame Sun Yat-sen, and Cho Lin, Mrs. Teng Hsiao-p’ing. The pattern is clear: if women have made it to the very top in China, with few exceptions they have done so by marrying well. This is no different from Imperial China, or indeed from most of the rest of the world today.

For the great mass of Chinese women, of course, access to schools and to jobs may seem more important than access to the premiership. In opening up education to women, the Maoist regime did very well. As we have seen, fewer than 2 percent of the women raised before the Liberation could read or write; presumably the proportion of girls going to primary school was not much higher. By 1958 probably over half the girls of primary school age were in the classroom, and according to Leo Orleans almost 39 percent of the children in grade school were female.14 Today the proportions must be higher. If the overall enrollment ratios for boys and girls is close to 90 percent, then the ratio for girls could not be much below 80 percent, nor could the proportion of female grade school students be much less than 45 percent of the total.

But some differential between boys and girls almost certainly still exists. As Orleans explains, “Efforts to get as many girls as boys to attend primary school in the countryside are still in progress, and a 60-40 ratio is not uncommon, because girls are more likely to be kept home to take care of younger siblings while the mother is out working in the fields.”15 Unequal though this still may be, it is clearly a dramatic improvement. Interestingly enough, however, the proportion of female students in the grade school population is probably no higher in China than in most of its East Asian neighbors, and neither Thailand nor Indonesia, for example, has earned a reputation for enlightenment on women’s issues.

Have Chinese women been allowed access to higher education, which trains students for the high pay, high prestige jobs? Imfeld claims, incorrectly, that there were no women in any Chinese university in 1919; the numbers were, however, extremely small. In 1958, by Orleans’s calculation, women made up 23 percent of China’s college population. For 1978 there is no reliable estimate. The high figure seems to be Sivard’s 49 percent; this was apparently arrived at by assuming that the rate in China was the same as for the average of the Warsaw Pact countries!16

A more reasonable figure is Orleans’s informed guess of 40 percent. 17 Whichever figure is better, there can be no question that China has been successful in opening its higher schools to women. But China is not the only country to have done so. If the 49 percent figure is to be believed, China would be similar to countries like Swaziland, Kuwait, Brazil, Jamaica, and the Philippines, in all of which close to or just over half the university students are women. If the 40 percent figure is on the mark, then China is on par with Argentina and Mongolia, and behind such countries as Lesotho, the Dominican Republic, Thailand, and Madagascar.

Although hard statistics on the participation of women in the labor force in contemporary China are scarce, many more women seem to be in paying jobs than a generation ago. Nonagricultural jobs are naturally the most desirable, since they tend to be less dreary and better paying. Today there are probably more than a hundred million nonagricultural positions,18 and according to Peking, women fill about a third of them. This is a high proportion by international standards (though by no means the highest), and has doubtless made a big difference to the thirty or forty million families who have been lucky enough to find themselves with a second wage earner. We may guess that most of these fortunate households are in or near the cities. In the countryside, despite the growth of small-scale industry, agriculture is still the largest employer, and employment figures by sex for farm work are extremely difficult to come by.

In the mid-1960s, something like 30 to 40 percent of the labor in the fields came from women;19 today the proportion is probably higher. These estimates suggest a very substantial increase since the 1930s, when even the labor-intensive paddy economy in the south used three times as many men as women. But if more women are working, this is consistent with a better life only if women are paid for their work, and if household responsibilities ease as duties outside the home increase. In Tanzania, Gabon, and Zaire, for example, the majority of field laborers are female,20 but this has not prevented these women from being among the most miserable on earth.

In China, women are indeed paid for collective labor, although at a distinctly lower rate than men. No national figures are available, but discrepancies of 20 or 30 percent of a day’s labor seem frequent.21 New employment opportunities for women have brought tens of millions of rural families extra income, but it has not provided the women themselves with an alternative to their housekeeping regimen; rather, it seems, they are increasingly shouldering a double burden. In the words of Leo Orleans: “Peking’s insistence that ‘agricultural production is a right and a duty of rural women’ has resulted in extremely high participation of women in the rural labor force, but it did little to relieve them of their domestic duties.”

What are these domestic duties? Over- shadowing all other is child care; in Communist China it has never been suggested that this is the husband’s responsibility. As we have seen, city women, who generally are more prosperous, probably have smaller families; their burden has no doubt been reduced. In the countryside, however, birth rates may not be down all that far, and four children are not that much easier to raise than six. Now that rural health is so much better, moreover, an increasing fraction of homemakers must care for elderly parents or parents-in-law as well.

While the daily routine for most of China’s women may be just as rigorous as before the Liberation, the tenor of family life has improved. Arranged marriages, while still part of Chinese life, are actively discouraged, but the age of footbinding, child betrothal, and slavery is past. China was not the only Asian nation to enshrine cruelty to women in mystic custom. The sale and harsh treatment of women was as much a part of Indian life, for example, and in India there was suttee, the practice of setting a widow on fire on the theory that she was now a worthless accessory.22 It was the Chinese government, however, which came down hardest on these inhumane rituals; probably no other really poor country, except perhaps Sri Lanka, has so successfully freed its women from them.

Chinese women are still a long way from Mr. Imfeld’s “full equality” with men, but they have risen from the status of beasts of burden to second-class citizens. Such a change may leave us short of what we hope for; nevertheless, it is a huge leap in human dignity. Can the same be said for economic equality generally—whether between groups or within them? Here, as we shall see in a final article, the record of the Maoist regime is far more vulnerable than many of the claims for it would suggest.

This is the second part of a three-part article.

This Issue

April 19, 1979