Mia Wang, right, with her mother Zheng Hong, centre, and aunt Zheng Chunfeng at their home in Benxi, north-eastern China. With women now accounting for half of full-time undergraduates, Ms Mia is part of the most educated generation of women in the nation's history. Ng Han Guan / AP Photo
Mia Wang, right, with her mother Zheng Hong, centre, and aunt Zheng Chunfeng at their home in Benxi, north-eastern China. With women now accounting for half of full-time undergraduates, Ms Mia is partShow more

The year of the girl dawns in China

BEIJING // The Tsinghua University first-year student Mia Wang has confidence to spare.

Asked what her home city of Benxi in China's far north-eastern tip is famous for, she flashes a cool smile and says: "Producing excellence. Like me."

A Communist Youth League member at one of China's top science universities, she possesses enviable skills in calligraphy, piano, flute and ping pong.

Such gifted young women are increasingly common in China's cities and make up the most educated generation of women in Chinese history. Never have so many been in college or graduate school, and never has their ratio to male students been more balanced.

To thank for this, experts say, is three decades of steady Chinese economic growth, heavy government spending on education and a third, surprising, factor: the one-child policy.

In 1978, women made up only 24.2 per cent of the student population at Chinese colleges and universities. By 2009, nearly half of China's full-time undergraduates were women, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Since 1979, China's family planning rules have barred nearly all urban families from having a second child in a bid to stem population growth. With no male heir competing for resources, parents have spent more on their daughters' education and well-being, a groundbreaking shift after centuries of discrimination.

"They've basically gotten everything that used to only go to the boys," said Vanessa Fong, a Harvard University professor and expert on China's family planning policy.

Ms Mia and many of her female classmates grew up with tutors and allowances, after-school classes and laptop computers. Though she is just one generation off the farm, she carries an iPad and a debit card.

Ms Mia's all-girls dorm used to be jokingly called a "Panda House", because women were so rarely seen on campus. They now make up a third of the student body, up from one-fifth a decade ago.

Ms Fong says today's urban Chinese parents "perceive their daughters as the family's sole hope for the future", and try to help them to outperform their classmates, regardless of gender.

Crediting the one-child policy with improving the lives of women is, however, jarring for some. Facing pressure to stay under population quotas, overzealous family planning officials have resorted to forced sterilisations and late-term abortions, sometimes within weeks of delivery, although such practices are illegal.

The birth limits are also often criticised for encouraging sex-selective abortions in a society that favours sons. Chinese traditionally prefer boys because they carry on the family name and are considered better earners.

To combat the problem, China allows families in rural areas, where son preference is strongest, to have a second child if their first is a girl. The government has also launched education campaigns promoting girls and gives cash subsidies to rural families with daughters.

Ms Mia's birth in the spring of 1992 triggered a family rift that persists to this day. She was a disappointment to her father's parents, who already had one granddaughter from their eldest son. They had hoped for a boy.

"Everyone around us had this attitude that boys were valuable, girls were less," Gao Mingxiang, Ms Mia's paternal grandmother, said.

Small and stooped, Ms Gao perched on the edge of her farmhouse kang, a heated brick platform that in northern Chinese homes serves as couch, bed and work area. She wore three sweaters, quilted trousers and slippers.

Her granddaughter, tall and graceful and dressed in Ugg boots and a sparkly blue top, sat next to her listening.

Ms Fong, the Harvard researcher, says that many Chinese households are like this these days: a microcosm of third world and first world cultures clashing. The gulf between Ms Mia and her grandmother seems particularly vast.

The 77-year-old Ms Gao grew up in Yixian, a poor corn and wheat-growing county in southern Liaoning province. She had three children and never dared to dream what life was like outside the village.

She relied on her daughter to help around the house so her two sons could study.

Ms Mia's mother, Zheng Hong, grew up 300 kilometres away in the steel-factory town of Benxi with two elder sisters and went to vocational college for manufacturing.

"I remember feeling very angry and wronged by them. I decided then that I was going to raise my daughter to be even more outstanding than the boys," Ms Zheng said.

From the age of six, Ms Mia was pushed hard, beginning with ping pong lessons. She also learnt classical piano and Chinese flute, practised swimming and ice skating and had tutors for Chinese, English and maths. In high school, Ms Mia had cram sessions for China's college entrance exam that lasted until 10pm. She routinely woke up at 6am to study before class.

If she had had a sibling or even the possibility of a sibling one day, the stakes might not have been so high, her studies not so intense.

The Beijing-based population expert Yang Juhua has studied enrolment figures and family size and determined that single children in China tend to be the best educated, while those with elder brothers get shortchanged. "I do think the [one-child] policy has improved female well-being to a great extent, but most people want two children so their children can have somebody to play with while they're growing up," said Ms Yang, who works at the Centre for Population and Development Studies at Renmin University.

While strides have been made in reaching gender parity in education, other inequalities remain. Women remain woefully under-represented in government, have higher suicide rates than males, often face domestic violence and workplace discrimination and by law must retire at a younger age than men.

It remains to be seen whether the new generation of degree-wielding women can alter the balance outside the classroom.

Some, like Ms Mia, are already changing perceptions about what women can achieve. When she dropped by her grandmother's house this spring, the local village chief came by to see her. She was a local celebrity: the first village descendant in memory to make it into Tsinghua University.

"Women today, they can go out and do anything," her grandmother said. "They can do big things."

* Associated Press

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