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In China, one giant leap for womankind?

Not really. Even as China launched a woman into space, it was condemned for forcing another woman to have a late-term abortion.

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In this May 26 photo, local women are transported for rice planting in Yingjiang, Yunnan Province, China.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP

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In a country where “women hold up half the sky” in Mao Zedong’s celebrated phrase, and while one of their number orbits the globe far above the sky, Chinese women’s earthly rights are in trouble.

Major Liu Yang’s breakthrough as China’s first female astronaut and her current exploits in space aboard China’s experimental spacelab are symbolically important but irrelevant to most Chinese women, say scholars and feminists here. In a country where gender equality is a pillar of official political rhetoric, some key aspects of women’s status are being eroded.

The saturation press coverage that Liu has attracted since she blasted off last Saturday offers revealing insights into contemporary Chinese values.

Few of the gushing profiles have played up the qualities normally associated with a pilot/astronaut at the cutting edge of space science; instead one article by Xinhua, the state news agency, began simply “She is a wife.”

Another, in the state-owned China Daily, stressed how “modest and obedient” Liu had been as a girl.

Such traditionally feminine virtues are still highly prized in Chinese women, 60 years after the country’s Constitution declared that “women enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life.”

Indeed, official figures suggest that some of the economic, social, and political gains that women made in China during the first decades after the 1949 revolution are being rolled back.

“There is an imbalance in the way women’s social status has developed,” worries Jiang Yongping, a researcher at the government-sponsored Chinese Institute for Women’s Studies. “We see a group of educated and very successful women like Liu Yang who achieve great things, but in the less developed areas of China women’s education and health are still in bad shape.”

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