Dr Minglu Chen

They say behind every great man is a great woman, but China’s ‘Tiger Girls’ are doing it for themselves. This growing group of female entrepreneurs represent the surprising, under-publicised side to China’s phenomenal rise as a world power.

Dr Minglu Chen, from the Department of Government and International Relations, first encountered this emergent group of women while conducting PhD fieldwork in 2003. Over the following three years, she travelled to several provincial areas to unearth the truth behind China’s
glossy façade of economic prosperity. Conducting 170 interviews with businesswomen in charge of state-owned or private enterprises, she uncovered some fascinating insights into the socio-cultural transformation accompanying China’s economic awakening.

“Whenever I tell people about the term ‘Tiger Girls’ in China, people just laugh!” Dr Chen says. “Female Tiger Girls, or tigresses, refer to a very powerful female character. She’s dominant, bossy, and capable, but it’s not always a positive idea.”

This intriguing case study into the shifting state of gender and political relations in China informed Dr Chen’s book, Tiger Girls: Women and Enterprise in the People’s Republic of China (Routledge). This work contributes to the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre, a cross-faculty initiative drawing on the expertise of scholars working across many China-related fields.

While China’s public face to the world is one of towering skyscrapers and booming economic development, this progressive image belies some staunchly entrenched traditions. Upon scratching the surface, Dr Chen discovered the Tiger Girls’ radical potential was mired by convention; the expected correlation of economic success with political clout only half-realised.

“It was very obvious that this group is very closely connected to the Communist Party,” she says. “The bigger the business is, the more attention they get.

“But quite often they run the business either with their husband, or they just took over from their father,” she explains. ”For lots of these women, though it was probably their idea to start the business, it was actually registered under the husbands’ name. They mentioned a lot that as a woman, they didn’t want to come up on stage too much and overshadow their partners.”

Dr Chen sees this reluctance to overstep social mores as an indication that customary gender
stereotypes still hold sway in modern China. “In traditional China, women were just not supposed to be powerful. A good woman was expected to be uneducated and very obedient. They just had to listen to men; to their fathers, to their husbands, and if the father and husband died, they had to listen to their sons. So it’s always a subordinate role.”

She notes this same dynamic continuing across the political spectrum, with the few female officials within China’s Communist Party relegated to what are regarded less significant roles, such as education or culture. “It would be very rare to see female officials in charge of things like finance, industry and agriculture,” she says.

These findings have drawn Dr Chen towards a further examination of the distribution of wealth
and influence in China. She is currently working with Professor David Goodman (China Studies Centre) and Beatriz Carrillo Garcia (Deparmtent of Sociology and Social Policy) on the ARC-funded project, The new rich and the state in China: the social basis of power.

But Dr Chen has plans to follow the rise of China’s Tiger Girls. She and colleague Associate Professor Ben Goldsmith (Government and International Relations) are working together to further investigate the relationship between the Party-state and female entrepreneurs in China. “We are re-analysing my data by adopting a quantitative method to better reveal the connection between business success and political capital,” she says. “I haven’t abandoned my Tiger Girls topic; I quite like it.”