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Chinese culture is traditionally centred on the family, which was once considered a microcosm of society as a whole. In past Chinese society, the family provided support for every family member, including livelihood and long-term security. Extended family remains exceedingly important, with grandparents commonly acting as caretakers for grandchildren with adult children working and financially supporting their ageing parents. The end of cradle-to-grave welfare (the 'iron rice bowl') has brought increasing pressure on families who struggle to meet the rising costs of health care and education.

Economic pressures have had an impact on many young Chinese who are putting off marriage or having children until they've acquired enough money to ensure their financial security. It's estimated that today 14% of Chinese urban households consist of a single adult or childless couple who both work. The rapid development of the 1990s has raised the standard of living for many Chinese, who now face a dazzling array of choices in consumer items and experience a lifestyle very different from earlier generations.

Unfortu- nately, recent educational and economic opportunities are only available to a small segment of the population. The majority of Chinese live in the countryside, shut off from the benefits of China's economic reforms.

The growing gap between China's rich and poor is one of the worst in the world. City dwellers earn 2.8% more than those living in rural areas and receive subsidised health care and welfare while rural residents do not. The rural communities in inland China are the most poverty stricken, but those on the investment-laden east coast fare better. In the interior provinces, farmers eke out a meagre living growing just enough vegetables and rice to feed their own families but little to sell on the market. To make things worse, epidemics such as AIDS have hit inland provinces especially hard. Many farmers have sold their blood to unscru-pulous 'blood brokers', who collect the blood using unsanitary methods and pass the AIDS virus to donors and recipients.

There are few government programmes in place to help rural towns and villages, where farmers are expected to pay tor their own health care and the education of their children. This unequal treatment has spurred many rural families to move to the cities to try and find work, where they often find low-paying jobs in unsafe conditions. The government has promised to address these devastating trends, but few incentives have been put in place.

While all of this sounds pretty bleak, development has also had some positive  effects.  With  an  increasingly  open  society,  and  with, more exposure to the outside world, the Chinese are finding new forms of self-expression  that were previously frowned upon by the communist authorities. Artists and writers are freeing themselves from earlier politi- cal restraints, contributing to a burgeoning literary and art scene that has been stifled for many years.

Censorship is still common, though what defines something as 'taboo' or 'off limits' can be arbitrary.

Though Chinese women suffer from low political representation and strict family policies (see China's One-Child Policy, p54), the women's movement has made considerable progress. The Marriage Law of 2001 gives victims of spousal abuse official protection and orders that abus- ers be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Victims can also sue for damages. In education, women make up 44% of students in colleges and universities and their average life expectancy is 73.7, 3.3 years more than men.

China's gay and lesbian community is also taking steps to ensure its rights as citizens. Homosexuality in China is technically illegal and any official discussion of the matter is taboo. Gays and lesbians can  face harassment by police and, at times, criminal punishment. Regardless, the gay community has begun to organise social-service programmes and promote education about gay and lesbian issues on a grass-roots level. One well-established organisation is the Hong Kong-based Chi Heng Foundation which promotes gay rights through public education and media campaigns. This foundation has expanded into mainland China, focusing on AIDS prevention and the gay community.

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