Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

By Sarah Graham

Leftover WomenLeta Hong Fincher is the author of ‘Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China’, published by Zed Books. She gave Deputy Editor Sarah Graham an in-depth interview on the state of Chinese gender politics.

During the Mao era gender equality was seen as an important revolutionary goal – Mao famously said “women hold up half the sky” – to what extent was that aim achieved, both legally and in terms of attitudes?

In the early period, following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party publicly celebrated gender equality and sought to harness women’s labour in boosting the nation’s industrial production, so it introduced many initiatives such as assigning urban women jobs in the planned economy. Women’s labour had traditionally been agricultural, but under Mao women were told they could do anything that a man could do and were recruited into formerly male-dominated work. The Communist Party frames the 1950s as the age of “women’s liberation,” and for many women previously bound to the home, unable to participate in public work, it was.

One of my professors at Tsinghua University, Guo Yuhua, says that women were objects of mobilisation in China’s gigantic social engineering experiment in the 1950s, so their “liberation” was an important symbol of the success of the prole­tarian revolution in the Communist Party’s rendering of history. But the state-imposed equal employment of women and men failed to transform underlying gender relations. Behind the public celebration of gender equality in the Communist workplace, women continued to shoulder the heavy burdens of childcare, housework and cooking at home. Rural women in particular suffered tremendously.

A year or so ago I read Xue Xinran’s book The Good Women of China, which is largely based on interviews conducted during the 1980s (i.e. post-Mao) and addresses issues like suppression of homosexuality, rape, forced marriage, and abuse carried out by government figures. In what ways has China today progressed and/or regressed since then?

It’s a very complicated picture but briefly, women’s rights abuses have occurred throughout Chinese history and since the Communist Revolution of 1949. Xinran’s book tells some very moving tales about the suffering of women. At the same time, the early Communist-era policy of mobilising women to take part in the workforce had the long-lasting, positive effect of very high female labour force participation compared to the rest of the world. At the end of the 1970s, over 90 percent of working-age women in the cities were employed, so this significantly raised their social and economic status relative to men.

But since the onset of market reforms in the 1980s, the state has retreated from its previous role in mandating gender equality in the workplace. Women’s employment rates started to drop significantly in the 1990s, and today urban women’s employment rates have fallen to new lows, while the gender income gap has also increased sharply. Combine that with the unprecedented gender wealth gap caused by China’s real estate boom, deeply entrenched patriarchal norms, and the new state media campaign against “leftover” women, and gender inequality has come roaring back.

The name of your book refers to those “leftover women” – the notion that unmarried, educated women over the age of 27 are “leftover”. Compared to women in the west (as in You’re such a nice girl, why aren’t you married?) how strongly is that pressure and stigma felt by women in China?

Women around the world face all kinds of gender discrimination, so Chinese women are certainly not alone. I have received mes­sages through my Twitter account from women in India, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Singapore, Nigeria, Kenya, the Philippines and other countries telling me that they also face intense pres­sure to marry.

The difference in China is that gender-discriminatory norms are exacerbated by a one-party state intent on social engineering, with a massive propaganda apparatus that maintains a tight grip on information. So when the state media mobilise to push the message that women in their late 20s are “leftover”, like rotten food, and those messages are repeated ad nauseum ever since 2007, even university-educated, young women may internalize that ideology because they don’t have enough access to alternative sources of information.

The “leftover” women media campaign is also aimed at the parents and other older relatives of young women, so even if the young woman rejects the sexist media messages, she still comes under intense pressure from her parents and others to get married. Arranged marriages are supposed to be a thing of the past, but I see quite a lot of young women rushing into marriage with a man pushed on them by their relatives, just because they are afraid of winding up “leftover” in their late 20s or early 30s.

One of the biggest regressions you’ve mentioned in your writing on the subject is the amendment to marriage laws, which dramatically reduce women’s property rights. What have been the biggest practical knock-on effects you’ve seen for women?

China’s privatisation of housing since 1998 has resulted in an unprecedented and fast accumulation of residential real-estate wealth, but this wealth is out of reach for women whose families are unwilling to help them make the down payment on an urban home. I argue that Chinese women have been largely shut out of the biggest accumulation of residential property wealth in history, worth around US$30 trillion in 2013, since parents tend to buy homes for sons but not daughters; most homes are registered in men’s names; and many women transfer their life savings to their boyfriend or husband to finance the purchase of the home, but then forfeit ownership of this valuable asset by leaving their names off the property deed.

The 2011 new judicial interpretation of China’s Marriage Law was a severe setback for women’s legal property rights because it essentially says that if you don’t have your name on the property deed, and you can’t prove your financial contribution to the home’s purchase, you don’t get to keep the home in the event of a divorce. I didn’t focus on why the Supreme People’s Court made this change in the law, but the amendment has been extremely controversial.

Many of the married women I interviewed were dismayed by the legal change because their names were not on the marital home deed. And I found that time and time again, young women in their 20s might first insist that their name is registered on the deed before they agree to marry, but in the end, they tend to back down and give in to an unequal financial arrangement because they are afraid they might become a “leftover” woman, who will never be able to find a husband. Not all women are like this, of course, but social and regulatory forces work overwhelmingly against women’s interests.

You also mention that women have “almost no recourse” if their husband abuses them – what is the legal status of domestic violence, and how does the system work in practice?

Official statistics state that one-quarter of China’s women have experienced domestic violence, though activists say the real figure is much higher. But the biggest problem is that it is exceedingly difficult for a woman to gain protection from a violent partner. The government has stalled on enacting targeted legislation to curb domestic violence, despite years of lobbying by feminist NGOs.

Since China doesn’t have a specific law on domestic violence, feminist activists say that judges routinely refer to intimate partner violence as “family conflict” instead. My book gives some chilling examples of how women suffered horrifying abuse at the hands of their husbands and made multiple police reports and went to the hospital to document their injuries, but still received no protection from the police or the courts. There is now talk that a domestic violence law may finally be passed, but so far it hasn’t happened.

What role has the one-child policy played in cultural attitudes towards women’s position? 

Some scholars argue that the one-child policy has empowered urban women because they don’t have to compete with brothers for parental investment in education. And it’s true that urban women today are arguably the most highly educated in Chinese history. But the one-child policy also exacerbated sex-selective abortions because of the strong cultural preference for boys, so that China now has a severe sex ratio imbalance.

The National Bureau of Statistics says there are now about 20 million more men under 30 than women under 30, and the State Council calls the surplus population of men a “threat to social stability.” State media reports say these unmarried men are more likely to disturb the social order by “rioting, steal­ing and gang fighting.” So restless, single men are seen as a threat to the foundation of Chinese society. And single women threaten the moral fabric as well, for being free agents, and unnatural in failing to perform their duty to marry and give birth to a child.

What is the position of lesbian and bisexual women in Chinese society? 

The Chinese govern­ment took homosexuality off its list of “mental diseases” in 2001 and, since then, the Chinese public’s acceptance of lesbian and bisexual women and the entire LGBTQ community has increased. The Internet and social media like Weibo have helped to build an expanded online network of support for the LGBTQ community in recent years.

Still, LGBTQ websites are often targeted by the police in “anti-pornography” media crackdowns. LGBTQ films are banned from being shown in public and must be screened quietly in non-public spaces. Lesbian activists have formed support groups, but they complain that they are marginalised by mainstream women’s rights NGOs, and have a lot of trouble getting legally registered.

You’ve mentioned the role of the (state-run) Women’s Federation in the campaign to pressure women into marriage – do you believe the Women’s Federation really serves Chinese women’s interests?

There are a lot of genuinely committed feminists working within the Women’s Federation who have done important research on women and who work to protect women’s interests. But the organisation itself is in many ways just like other agencies controlled by the Communist Party. So, for example, the Women’s Federation has played a major role in organising mass matchmaking fairs targeting educated women, which only further intensifies the marriage pressure.

What work are independent feminist activists and organisations doing to push back against the regression of women’s rights? 

Some registered women’s rights NGOs, such as the Anti-Domestic Violence Network in Beijing, do effective work to raise awareness about China’s epidemic of intimate partner violence, and they are eligible for funding from international donor groups. But by and large grassroots feminist activists in China are extremely cash-strapped and often harassed by the police. It is very difficult for them to register as legal organisations, so it is hard for them to get funding from outside sources and their ability to organise is severely constrained by the state’s security apparatus.

My last chapter profiles some extremely courageous feminist activists fighting against the widespread gender discrimination in Chinese society against tremendous odds. It’s not easy for readers outside China to support these activists, but there are some international groups that manage to fund meaningful women’s rights activities.

Leta Hong Fincher is an award-winning former journalist who has been published in a number of magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times. She is completing her Ph.D. in Sociology at Tsinghua University. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China was published this month by Zed Books, as part of their ‘Asian Arguments’ series.

Leta Hong Fincher will be appearing at two Zed Books events taking place on Thursday 17 April, with a book signing at 1pm at the Arthur Probsthain bookshop and the Leftover Women book launch from 7pm at the Royal Asiatic Society lecture hall. See Zed Books for more details.

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One thought on “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

  1. Roy

    I wonder, reading this I would assume that China has no Equitable interest in Property law, such as exists in the UK when a different party pays towards the property, but is not on the deeds.


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