I've never looked to Maoist China as an apogee of human rights, but I always assumed that the egalitarian dictatorship had done right by a lot of female comrades -- especially compared with the feudal pre-revolutionary gender roles that kept women foot-bound and pregnant in households where men's word was law. (As the property of men, women had no rights to own property, choose their husbands or divorce; suicide was considered the honorable path upon becoming a widow.)
After the revolution, women's liberation became part of the Chinese Communist Party's platform. Perhaps it was a matter of pragmatics -- an "all hands on deck" approach to the revolution. But during the early '50s, women benefited from a flood of new laws designed to protect them: equal pay for equal work, prohibition of arranged marriage, the freedom to remarry and inherit property, 56 days of maternity pay with full leave, and an equal allocation of property in land reform. (For one synoptic view of women's history in China, by Xie Heng of the China Family Planning Association, take a great leap here.)
But, according to U.S. State Department transcripts released this week after 25 years and reported by the BBC, the man who once said that "women hold up half the sky" also seemed to think his female comrades were bringing down his country. Apparently, in conversations with then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in 1973, Mao offered to send 10 million Chinese women to the United States. In what matches my most paranoid hallucinations about the old boys' network, the discussions on bilateral trade transpired while the two world leaders smoked cigars, talked and laughed into the wee morning hours.
The offer of 10 million Chinese women was a scandalizing joke, to be sure, but a reoccurring one that threaded through the talks. At first he offered tens of thousands, then later upped his offer. According to the Associated Press, when Kissinger broached the possibility of a Soviet invasion, Mao replied: "Let them go to your place. They will create disasters. That way you can lessen our burdens." After raising the number to 10 million, he added: "By doing so we can let them flood your country with disaster and therefore impair your interests. In our country we have too many women, and they have a way of doing things. They give birth to children and our children are too many." When reminded that such comments might provoke public wrath, Mao successfully kept the minutes from the meeting private.
Perhaps such news shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, the great red hope uttered these knee-slappers only three years before his death, when according to a memoir by Li Zhisui, Mao's personal physician, the chairman devolved into an increasingly deranged horn dog. What's more, his female translator and English teacher, Zhang Hanzhi, who just died last week, already reported on the jokes years ago. Still, it's disheartening to see that sometimes, scenes of the old boys' club joshing about trading women isn't just the purview of paranoid herstorians; it's part of the public record.