Nobody could expect a rural woman with limited schooling to become a Hillary Clinton in a matter of a week.
But after attending a seven-day training program, the 40 women from villages in Mancheng, a rural county in Hebei Province 150 km southwest of Beijing, found themselves ready to make an impact in their respective communities' politics.
"I'm running against my own father for the position of village head," said 19-year-old Li Yinghui, in a mock campaign at the end of the training. "I have more education than he does, and I understand the difficulties confronting rural women better."
The youngest trainee might not sound politically seasoned but she does realize that rural women have to learn to stand up for themselves and fight for gender equality.
"I don't want to live a life like my mother and my two sisters do," she says. Her mother is illiterate and her two sisters have only elementary school education.
Zhao Yanhui, a mother of two from Yangzhuang Village, says after going home she will get together with her fellow villagers, women first, to keep a close eye on the next election of village officials.
In previous village elections, she says, some candidates running for office were suspected of buying votes, at about 15 yuan (US$1.80) per vote.
Villagers never used to say anything about such crooked conduct, said the 49-year-old Zhao.
Now, with what she has learned from the training program, she says "we won't let the illegal tricks continue in our village election," adding that she will tell potential candidates to run the election legally and fairly.
Li Yinghui, who has 9 years of schooling and is planning to pursue a senior high school education, says both her sisters married young. "It's very common for rural women to pin their hope for a good life on a good marriage and a good husband. But the fact is that my sisters, just like many other women in our village, have become silent after marriage. They always listen to their husbands, and don't speak out for themselves," she notes.
In her family, Li Yinghui says, her father, head of the village, is an absolute authority. "We all have to do what he says, right or wrong." Indeed, she will have to pluck up courage to challenge him, she admits.
The training program called Rural Women's Political Participation, launched in early April by the Rural Women Knowing All Training School in Beijing with the support of the International Republican Institute based in the United States, aims to empower rural women like Li Yinghui and Zhao.
"We don't expect them all to be politically ambitious and chase after an official position," says Wu Qing, head of the non-governmental school run by Rural Women Knowing All, a monthly magazine affiliated with China Women's News, a daily newspaper for women.
"But we want them to become politically active and exercise their right as citizens to supervise the government's performance, as Zhao Yanhui is going to do," she says.
An outspoken deputy to the Municipal People's Congress of Beijing, the local legislature, Wu Qing keenly feels it is an urgent mission to empower rural women through training programs like this to strengthen China's drive for sustainable development.
Statistics from the All-China Women's Federation indicate that Chinese women make up 36.2 percent of the public servants in the Party and government organs, and that each of the 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities of China's mainland has at least one woman in its leading body. Women's representation at the provincial decision-making level is up by 46.47 percent over what it was five years ago.
However, says Wu Qing, a retired professor of English from Beijing Foreign Studies University: "The percentage of women's representation in leading bodies at various levels is still low. Traditionally in the shadow of men, many rural women in China are not conscious of their right to be involved in politics. If their voice is not heard, their interests and rights will not be properly recognized; or rather, on the contrary, their interests and rights are likely to be violated from time to time. This eventually will handicap any attempt they make to develop."
The seven-day training program, she says, is to "heighten the political awareness of women in China's rural areas. That is the first step for women to become politically active."
The training program also tries to alert the participants to the visible and invisible barriers in the path of rural women on their way to political participation.
Wu Qing's partner, Xu Fengqin, the executive principal of the training school, has personally experienced these barriers. After serving for 15 years as chairwoman of the Women's Federation of Qinhuangdao, a city in northeastern Hebei, Xu was appointed deputy director of a local industry and commerce administration in 2000.
But she was never able to assume the post. She said some male colleagues who resented her promotion had her birth date in her file changed so that she was too old to take the position. According to China's personnel policy, women officials are expected to retire at the age of 55.
Xu, who is actually 52 years of age, did not appeal. She quit her job in officialdom and came to the school to cultivate political consciousness among more of her rural sisters so that they would not repeat her fate.
"I don't care if I'm promoted or not," she says. "I wish to reach a large number of rural women and train them to fight against gender discrimination and for an equal say in policy-making."
Rural women in China are a social group who live in silence, observes Li Huiying, a professor with the Central Party School in Beijing. "Their voice is almost always absent in rural communities," she says, "as though they do not exist."
This training program, she says, is like the single spark that can grow into a prairie fire, a phrase that late Chairman Mao Zedong used to describe the way revolution works. It is hoped that these trainees, who all have some schooling, will influence other women with the political knowledge they have acquired through the training.
The training is not about how to win an election, or win a leading seat in the power structure, says Li Tao, director of the training program. Rather, "it's about casting off the conventional concept that women are inferior to men. This concept has shackled women's minds and kept them from taking an active part in public and political affairs."
"We try to convince the rural women participants that political involvement means actually exercising their democratic rights. The program seeks to get them to shoulder their political responsibilities, and the mock political campaign is just to show them how they can exercise their rights."
China, the most populous country in the world, has a rural population of 870 million, of which women make up 52.09 percent, or 450 million, about 75 percent of the total number of women in China.
Therefore, it is important for the country as a whole to transform rural women's conception of their role in a male-dominated society.
"The changing of rural women will make China a better country in the long run," says Wu Qing. "Because a woman is a mother who can influence a family and the family is the core component of the country."
Following in the footsteps of the Mancheng women, a group of 160 women of the Manchu minority from northern Hebei's Qinglong County are taking the same training on political participation. In Mancheng, a three-year experimental project is to start later this year for rural women's economic empowerment.
"A small-loan program for rural women could be an important source to lead them to prosperity," says Li Tao. "They could use the money to start a farm for organic fruit and vegetables, for example. When they do well economically, they may win men over to their side more easily."
(China Daily May 14, 2002)