Chinese Communist Party founder Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that “women held up half the sky” as he sought a greater role for women socially and to help build industrial power. Women in China did achieve a greater sense of empowerment under Mao than they had enjoyed previously but, in recent years, there is evidence that some aspects of women’s rights in China are eroding.
Former journalist Leta Hong Fincher started researching China’s real estate market in 2010 and quickly saw strongly entrenched gender norms in home buying. As she details in her book, Leftover Women, Hong Fincher told VOA's Jim Stevenson in these excerpts from their conversation that a government program is encouraging women in an indirect manner to voluntarily give up their rights.
HONG FINCHER: When I was doing that research, there was a very major legal change that happened in August 2011. The Supreme People’s Court issued a new judicial interpretation of China’s marriage law. Basically, China’s marital property was common, jointly-owned property – each spouse had equal right to the property. But effectively this change said that if your name is not on the marital property deed, then in the event of a divorce, you don’t get the property.
It was extraordinarily controversial, and there were a lot of women in particular who were very upset about it. In my interviews I came across quite a lot of women in their mid-to-late twenties who were highly educated, living in big cities, who would often transfer their life savings over to their boyfriend, to finance the purchase of a very expensive home that would then only be registered in the man’s name.
The more research I did, I realized that this is very common – I came upon the term shengnü, which means “leftover women.” A lot of these women in their mid to late twenties told me that they were very, very anxious to get married, because they’re at that so-called “leftover” age.
STEVENSON: What makes them feel that they’re at a leftover age? Certainly in the West, the age of 27 is not considered to be that old or out of child-bearing age.
HONG FINCHER: No, certainly not. In 2007, the All-China Women’s Federation defined the term shengnü, or leftover women, to mean an urban, educated woman, over the age of 27 who is still single. And China’s Ministry of Education adopted the term as part of its official lexicon.
And ever since 2007, the official Chinese media have been really strongly pushing the term through with their news reports, and with their columns and commentaries, so that by now, seven years later, the term is extremely common.
STEVENSON: There are many successful women in China who have gone on to become company executives, making large salaries, why is it that some women feel like they have to give up their education and their money just to get married?
HONG FINCHER: I argue that the existence of a small number of female billionaires is not really representative of the overall situation of women in China, at all. I argue that in many, many ways, women’s gains of the early communist era have really eroded relative to men. The government is very worried that these educated women are not going to marry at all, and it really wants these women in particular to get married and have a child.
STEVENSON: The one child policy was not uniform across the country, a lot of people were not subjected to that, but it did have enough of an impact where we have seen gender imbalance that has grown in China. If there are so many more men than women, why is it hard for women to find a mate?
HONG FINCHER: That’s really a very ironic thing about this entire campaign targeting so-called “leftover women.” Demographically, there are actually tens of millions of men in China who won’t be able to find brides. And if you look at the large cities, where the most educated people in China are, the sex-ratio imbalance is not necessarily that extreme. The vast majority of homes in China are solely owned by men, and these homes are worth over U.S. $30 trillion, so I argue that Chinese women have really been shut out of what is probably the biggest accumulation of residential property wealth in history.
STEVENSON: What are some of these myths that the government is putting out, and why is some of the government doing this?
HONG FINCHER: There is very widespread sexism in Chinese society. In January 2007 China’s State Council issued a very important population decision. The State Council said that China has a very serious problem with the so-called “low quality” of its population, and that this was going to hurt China’s economic development in the future, that China would not have high enough quality population to compete in the global marketplace. And so the government set a key goal of so-called upgrading population quality, so I argue that this leftover media campaign is closely linked to China’s population planning policy.
There are women who are resisting the widespread sexism, in spite of the difficulties, women are able to find ways to empower themselves individually or by reaching out to other women. Even though my book may seem pessimistic about a lot of facets of Chinese society, I really am very inspired by some of these Chinese women.