Confucian confusion a blow to women

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 January, 2010, 12:00am

The irony is notable. Beijing is establishing Confucius institutes around the world and Hong Kong has contemplated instituting a Confucius Day holiday. The same week, it is learned that the male-female imbalance on the mainland is now so severe that, in some areas, 30 per cent of men will have to go without wives - unless they can be imported from foreign countries or abducted from other regions. Overall, the gender gap for those who will reach marriageable age by around 2020 is running at 19 per cent.

The inferior status of women is only one of many aspects of Confucian teaching. Much else may be relevant to today - particularly clean government. But, Confucian ideas, namely the importance of male heirs, family hierarchy and dynastic continuity, contributes to a gender imbalance.

Indeed, the gender bias so explicit in Confucian thought stands in contrast to the non-Confucian societies of Southeast Asia - Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and the like - which may differ in their religion but where population gender imbalance is unknown and in which women traditionally had - at least before the arrival of Islam and Christianity - equal inheritance and divorce rights. Some societies were matrilineal.

It says volumes about the intellectual vacuum which is the Chinese Communist Party that, a few decades ago, Confucius was reviled as a symbol of a feudal and backward China yet he is now wheeled out to emphasise the importance of obedience to authority. Women in Chinese societies have made major advances over the past 100 years largely due to a rejection of Confucian ideas.

It would be typical of the Tsang administration to want to ape Beijing's current pro-Confucius stance in the name of Chinese values. For women, especially, that would be a big setback. Already, there is a disturbing trend in births here: in 2008, there were almost 114 boys born for every 100 female births. A breakdown by sex between mainland and local mothers is not available. However, there is clearly some link between the imbalance and the influx of mainland mothers. In 2008, of 78,822 births in Hong Kong, 26,337 were to mainland women whose husbands were not Hong Kong residents and 7,228 were to the mainland wives of locals.

The mainland influx may sustain Hong Kong's population when the fertility rate of local women is so low - little over half the replacement level. But that is an issue that should be addressed by the sort of maternal and family economic and social support found in developed countries with replacement-level fertility. It is unclear how far Hong Kong families are being influenced by the gender prejudices of mainlanders.

This may all signal a retrograde trend to a focus on 'traditional values'. The central government officially deplores the imbalance resulting from ultrasound tests and selective abortion of females, and from local policies that allow couples to have more than one child only if the first is a girl. But the party's own behaviour scarcely suggests it is leading by example to ensure that women are accorded the equality implied in Mao Zedong's favoured proverb that 'women hold up half the sky'. Few women occupy senior party and government posts.

Ultimately, the gender bias will be self-defeating. As Marx might have put it, using his comment about capitalism, it 'contains the seeds of its own destruction'.

A shortage of women will, in itself, raise their value and bargaining power, and future generations of women will resist aborting female fetuses. Women's economic role is already being enhanced by urbanisation and technological change. Until the change, men will suffer from a lack of mates and China's demographic profile will continue to deteriorate.

If Hong Kong really needs more specifically Chinese holidays, why not celebrate modernist May Fourth instead of gender-biased Confucius?

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator