The ‘Tiger Girls’ doing business in China

Chinese women have always worked, but now they’re making waves in business. Flickr/IISG

There’s a new generation of women quietly getting things done in China. They are insiders: well connected in the Communist Party, and flourishing in the business world.

In Chinese, capable and shrewd women have long been compared to tigers, but often negatively, because the image contradicts the female ideal of a gentle and obedient nature.

In the famous story of Shuihu Zhuan (The Outlaws of the Marsh), one of the rare female characters, Gu Dasao, was nicknamed “the Tigress”, because of her hot temper and leading position at home.

Women who do it all

In 2003, on my first fieldwork trip for the book Tiger Girls: Women and Enterprises in the People’s Republic of China to Jiaocheng County in North China, sitting at the dinner table among a group of female officials, I was told the story of how girls from the poor mountain areas of the county went down to the better-off county town with the hope of finding a husband who could provide them a better life.

But instead of marrying a rich husband, these girls ended up setting up their own businesses and becoming entrepreneurs. The officials referred to these girls as “the tiger girls who had come down from the hills”.

As the conversation flowed, the officials then talked about themselves. Being government cadres, as well as wives and mothers, they not only had to tend to government businesses but also take care of their families and perform household duties.

They started to joke with each other by calling themselves “tiger girls” as well. Women entrepreneurs are referred to as “tiger girls” because of their outstanding ability, as well as their great individual courage.

An unequal playing field

Despite their business success, these women still have to face gender inequality in contemporary Chinese society.

Like their sisters in China’s past, these women are subject to the gendered labour division of “men outside, women inside” of the traditional Chinese agrarian economy. Traditionally men went out to work in the fields and women had to stay at home to look after the family.

Domestic work (cooking, cleaning, laundry and childcare) still largely remains the responsibility of these women. This is commonly regarded by these tiger girls as a disadvantage to women in business.

Moreover, for those who are running their enterprises jointly with their husbands, it is more often than not that the man is the one to represent the business to the outside world. In other words, the enterprise is often registered under the husband’s name.

Decision makers

But China isn’t the only place where women are subordinate to men and still have to shoulder domestic responsibilities. Then what is so unique about these tiger girls?

After all, they have been empowered by their role as entrepreneurs. They are playing a much more active part than their husband in the development and operation of their business.

Even for those women who have to have their husbands as the legal representative of the enterprises, they are often the ones to make executive decisions.

Adapting traditional roles

Equally important, these tiger girls have given the concept of “inside” a new meaning. Business responsibilities such as production, personnel, finance and sales are all regarded by them as “inside” work to be taken care of by women. This has expanded women’s space of operation.

Secondly, research on the tiger girls shows us that political capital is important in the business world of China.

Politics and business power

These women’s connections with the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government are nothing but remarkable.

Many of them are members of the Party, previous government officials or hold different honourable titles given by the government.

At the same time, research indicates that these tiger girls are also well connected, and perhaps even better connected to the Party-state through their families.

Many of them are wives, daughters and daughters-in-law of Party members and government officials. It is possible such individual and familial political capital has brought them substantial opportunities in business.

Moreover, the experiences of the tiger girls also tell us how the Chinese government effectively incorporates and mobilises those in the private economic sector, so as to maintain the economic growth.

Understandably, attention from the government often comes hand in hand with business success.

In many cases, these women reported that they or their family members have received offers from the Party-state to join the Communist Party, to join the congresses or mass organizations led by the government.

Some have received awards from the Party-state and invitations to act as “observers” of government departments. These entrepreneurs, on the other hand, also regard such offers as political honours.

It seems that although the Tiger Girls are changing the face of the business world, they still need the political patronage of men.