Men behaving boldly

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2005, 12:00am

ON THE FACE of it, Alex Zhang lives an enviable life. At 30, he holds a master's degree from Tsinghua University, earns a comfortable salary as an engineer with a major firm, and has bought a flat with his wife. But despite the trappings of a successful life, Zhang is frustrated.

He devotes all his energy to his career, setting a brisk pace at the office during the day and networking furiously in the evenings. At weekends, he visits his parents or accompanies his wife shopping. There are always bills to pay, the mortgage to keep up, and projects to complete.

Zhang feels worn out by it all - by the burden of being the pillar of his family and his company. 'You know how hard it is to be a man? We're not machines, but human beings,' he says. 'We also need a day to live for ourselves. If there's a Women's Day, why isn't there a Men's Day?'

Zhang is just the kind of urban male being targeted in a campaign to establish August 3 as Men's Day on the mainland - a move initiated by several men's magazines as a riposte to International Women's Day.

Economic liberalisation on the mainland has brought its share of problems for the male population, as they're forced to display a gung-ho entrepreneurial spirit and greater openness to new ideas. Along with a get-rich-quick mentality, there's been a surprising roll-back of the mainland's move towards equality of the sexes.

A survey on gender expectation conducted last year by the Women's Studies Centre of Peking University found that two-thirds of men think career is most important, whereas 40.5 per cent of women put family obligations ahead of work. Returning to tradition, 70 per cent of the respondents believed husbands should earn more than their wives.

In the first three decades after 1949, spouses would generally share family responsibilities, ranging from banal cleaning chores to parenting duties, as tiny incomes meant both had to work. But since economic reforms began in 1978, men have reverted to their traditional role as breadwinners, leaving women to be the homemakers. And they're apparently paying a price.

Jin Jun, chief editor of the Chinese edition of FHM, got the idea for Men's Day three years ago after reading a survey by a sister publication on mainland men's health status. Conducted jointly with the Trends Magazines Group, the poll showed that about 80 per cent of men were unwilling to consult a doctor or seek help when they were unwell. Male life expectancy was six to eight years shorter than for women, and men were more inclined to commit suicide.

'Men bear the double pressure of career and family in modern society,' says Jin. 'To conform to the male stereotype, they're afraid of showing their weak side. By designating such a holiday, we wish to draw attention to their situation. We hope we can help them relax and face up to their problems on a day of their own.'

More than 50 companies, including BMW and Marlboro, have agreed to give their male staff the day off on Wednesday.

Jin is also touring the US to lobby for celebrity support - Arnold Schwarzenegger is on his list - as part of his campaign to promote Men's Day as an international event. A formal proposal to Unesco is also being considered.

On the mainland, though, Jin expects his support to come mainly from well-educated, thirtysomething men living in major cities. 'Our online survey shows this group is the most active in responding to our proposal. I think it's because this group has borne the brunt of social changes and they have the desire and capability to improve their situation,' he says, acknowledging the limitations of a survey conducted among well-educated, internet-savvy respondents.

Not surprisingly, a number of scholars and women professionals have dismissed the idea, noting that the two sexes are treated differently even though men and women are equal under the law. 'Men's Day only takes note of men's problems, but forgets that women suffer more in a society without gender equality,' says Fang Gang, a researcher at the People's University in Beijing. 'Besides, Men's Day is a holiday for younger, successful urban males. But, in fact, it's those workers and farmers at the bottom of the social hierarchy who need much more attention.'

Beijing lawyer Melinda Liu Li, who still encounters misgivings from male clients because of her gender, is scornful. 'Don't men think they're privileged enough? What's the use of an extra holiday? I bet they won't spend the day helping me with the housework,' says the 34-year-old mother, deriding the venture as a stunt to attract readers for the men's magazines.

While acknowledging the gap between urban and rural societies and inequality between men and women in parts of the country, Zhang says it's more of a human rights issue than a gender issue. 'The more aware of human rights the society is, the more equality men and women would enjoy,' he says.

A straw poll of male passers-by on a Beijing street found that three out of four hadn't heard of the proposal. Most were indifferent. 'Holidays are never for us,' says Xiao Yong, a construction worker from Shaanxi province. 'We are paid by the day. If I work one day less, I'll be paid less.'

'If it's a real holiday for disadvantaged men,' Fang says, 'why not choose an ordinary man, for example, a house husband, to advocate it? What we see now is a group of already powerful men demanding more rights for themselves.'

Huang Lin, an academic advocating women's rights, is angry that women are excluded from Jin's holiday plan.

'Why can't they solve the problems with women? They just want to evade their responsibilities. Do they notice that women professionals face the same pressures, in addition to taking on the bulk of household chores?'

Huang says the mainland still lags many other countries on issues of gender equality. In cities, women are often the first to be laid off. In the countryside, women are less likely to have access to training, land and financing, even though they make up 60-70 per cent of farm labour. Baby girls continue to be abandoned at birth in rural areas.

'It's good for men to have the desire to change, but can they first throw away their self-centred ideas?' Huang says. Significantly, she says , the 50 sponsors are brands that focus primarily on male consumers. Call it equality in retail therapy.