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With booming economy in China comes unexpected offshoot: beauty pageants

Melissa Mitchell, News Editor

Released 9/20/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There she is ... Miss China?

Photo of Gary Xu
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Gary Xu, an Illinois professor of East Asian languages and cultures, discusses the Chinese government's recent preoccupation with beauty pageants in a special double issue of the journal Feminist Economics. The popularity of the pageants, according to Xu, is symptomatic of a broader cultural shift taking place in China.

Four years have passed since the Chinese government endorsed the appearance of Wu Wei as the nation’s first-ever competitor in the Miss World competition. Since then, governmental support and cultural preoccupation with such pageants just keeps growing.

“In 2004, China hosted more than six major international beauty competitions, including Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Asia, Miss Tourism World, Miss Tourism International and Miss Intercontinental,” notes University of Illinois China scholar Gary Xu in a special double issue of the journal Feminist Economics.

Among the guest editors of the edition on “Gender, China and the WTO” is Gale Summerfield, the director of the U. of I. Women and Gender in Global Perspectives program and a professor of human and community development, agricultural and consumer economics, and of gender and women’s studies. Summerfield also contributed an article with U. of I. graduate student Junjie Chen that documents a case study of population control and land rights policies in Northern Liaoning.

The popularity of the pageants, according to Xu, a professor of East Asian languages and cultures, is symptomatic of a broader cultural shift taking place in China. As the nation’s economy becomes increasingly market-driven, he said, a curious side effect of recent economic reforms and an increased trend toward Westernization has been the widespread linkage of beauty and economic gain.

The coupling is so pervasive that a new phrase has been coined to describe the phenomenon: meinü jingji.

“Broadly defined, meinü jingji refers to activities like beauty pageants that are typically commercialized and localized festivities that put beautiful women on parade, as well as the accompanying range of advertisements for TV shows and movies, cosmetics, plastic surgery centers, weight-loss products, fitness programs and the ubiquitous beauty parlors,” Xu and co-author Susan Feiner (University of Southern Maine) write in the journal article.

The overwhelming message beamed to women through the media, Xu said, is that beauty – often defined in Western terms – equals on-the-job success.

But China’s new-found obsession with fashion and beauty is not just skin deep. It is fueled by those who oil the machines of China’s commerce.

“The Chinese bureaucracy is heavily invested in the promotion of the beauty economy as a source of employment, growth and glory for China,” Xu said.

Xu and Feiner indicate in the article that, along with real estate, meinü jingji is among China’s most productive economic sectors. Citing a 2005 report in the People’s Daily, they noted that the beauty industry employed more than 16 million people. Another newspaper story quoted women who claimed that half of their monthly paychecks is spent on skin-care products and cosmetics.

While lucrative, China’s beauty industry isn’t necessarily advancing the status of women.

Photo of Gale Summerfield
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
In the introduction to the double issue of the journal Feminist Economics, Gale Summerfield and co-editors argue that women’s rights have been eroded in a number of other areas since China’s transition from a socialist to a capitalist economy. Summerfield is the director of the U. of I. Women and Gender in Global Perspectives program.

“Misogyny is running rampant,” Xu said. “Women’s rights are more violated than men’s. Women’s value is more likely determined by appearance than anything else.”

In the introduction to Feminist Economics, Summerfield and co-editors Günseli Berik (University of Utah) and Xiao-yuan Dong (University of Winnipeg) argue that women’s rights have been eroded in a number of other areas since China’s transition from a socialist to a capitalist economy. While sweeping changes began to take place in 1978, the journal focuses mainly on “gendered processes and outcomes” that have occurred since 1992 and China’s affiliation with the World Trade Organization.

Summerfield said that period has been one of tremendous growth, punctuated by a number of positive changes for women. But along with what the editors call China’s “imperative for accumulation and efficiency,” they maintain that certain policies – or lack thereof – have led to a weakening of land rights, income insecurity and declining access to healthcare for women, along with gender disparities in urban and rural wages and disproportionate layoffs.

While some of these problems have surfaced since China joined the WTO and became an active participant in the global economy, Summerfield noted that “it hasn’t really affected people’s day-to-day life much in some of the rural areas.”

“But with the growing inequality that’s associated with this lop-sided income growth, you can’t just stay in one place. You’re actually getting worse off if everyone else is getting better off.”

One example of this is occurring in the villages, where women typically lose rights to long-term leases to farmland when they marry and move to their husbands’ villages and take up residence with the men’s families. Even though the government issued a regulation stating that women should keep rights to their original plots, issued in their parents’ land allocation, “having that law didn’t really change what was happening on the ground because traditions trumped law in many cases.”

In larger towns and cities, employment practices such as discrimination and wage disparity exist, but are not always apparent, she said.

“Discrimination is not just a relic of the past; it’s built into the incentives of the current period, too,” Summerfield said. For instance, “even though you have (had) two-earner families since the socialist period, there’s a sense that men are the real heads of the family and the ones who have to earn the income. And if somebody has to go home, it would be better to be the wife, so she can take care of the children.

“When they lay off people, it’s amazing how common and repetitive it is to see a figure like two-thirds of the lay-offs are women and a third are men.”

With respect to wage disparity, Summerfield said many in China would maintain there is no such thing.

“They are more egalitarian than in many places, and it is generally illegal to pay different wages for the same work.” But, she noted, “where the disparities show up more frequently are things like bonuses or promotions – especially bonuses because, obviously, if you’re going home to make dinner and feed kids, the male is working the extra hours.” Therefore, when employers issue bonuses, the men are first in line.

Summerfield is hopeful that by bringing together and highlighting current scholarship on the gender impacts of China’s reforms in the journal, some of these problems will receive more attention in the future.

“Putting light on the problems that crop up strikes a chord with some people, and they do act,” she said. “And it’s much more likely that the government would take some of these things into account in their official regulations. Sometimes they just don’t realize there are these gender issues going on in the reform. They think it’s just a family issue.

“That’s what policies for intervention are about. There is no reason a market (automatically) is going to come out on a gender-equitable solution. You have to have other mechanisms in place to achieve social goals that relate to forms of equity, whether it’s gender or rural or urban issues.”

In an effort to better reach those most able to affect change – Chinese scholars and government officials, Summerfield said the special issue of the journal will be translated into Chinese and published as a book within the next year.