From Half the Sky to ‘Leftovers’

A Q+A with Leta Hong Fincher, Author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China”

The three-plus decades since the inception of the ‘one child’ policy have resulted in a huge female shortage in China. The country is now seriously unbalanced, with 18 million more boys than girls. By 2020, there will be some 30 million surplus men in China, a condition some demographers call—in all seriousness—a male bulge.

The laws of supply and demand, which armchair social scientists seem to apply to this situation with abandon, China’s women should have the upper hand.

Former journalist and sociologist Leta Hong Fincher disagrees.

“There’s very little evidence that urban women have turned their scarcity into economic gain,” she writes in Leftover Women, the result of three years voluminous research towards a Ph.D. at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, which will be released on May 1 in the United States by Zed Books.

Hong Fincher presents compelling evidence women’s rights in China have seriously regressed since Mao Zedong proclaimed, “Women hold up half the sky.”

Hong Fincher makes her claims based on two major factors: an insidious state-backed media campaign designed to hurry single urban women to the altar, and a combination of legal restrictions and cultural norms that keep all but a few women from being listed on property ownership deeds.

Citing a 2012 survey by research group Horizon China, Hong Fincher notes only 30% of marital home deeds in China’s top cities include women’s names, even though more than 70% of women contribute to purchases. This, of course, leaves women in a vulnerable position in cases of divorce and the division of marital property.

In 2011, the issue became more contentious when China’s Supreme Court issued a new interpretation of the country’s Marriage Law, specifying that unless legally contested, marital property belongs to the person listed on the property deed—which, Hong Fincher notes, is almost always the husband.

As a result, Hong Fincher contends, Chinese women have missed out on China’s huge property boom that began within the last decade, “arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history,” worth U.S.$27 trillion, she estimates.

I spoke to Hong Fincher on the eve of her book launch.

Mei Fong: Your book focuses on a rather nasty and pervasive campaign by the All-China Women’s Federation that stigmatizes single women as “leftovers” (sheng nü), if they are unmarried after twenty-five.

In doing so, you argue, the All-China Women’s Federation works as a tool for the Communist Party, helping promote its goals of preserving social stability and creating a more educated population, since urban women presumably raise smarter babies.

Can you explain how an organization that supposedly promotes women’s rights—something people might see as kind of equivalent to NOW (the National Organization of Women)—could actually be working against women?

Leta Hong Fincher: If you think of China’s labor groups, for example, you’ll see state-backed labor unions don’t really protect workers’ rights. Similarly, the Women’s Federation is supposed to promote the rights of women, but structurally they are a Communist Party apparatus, thus the mandate to heavily promote marriage among women. Hence the sheng nü label. It’s appalling, and there’s been a huge backlash.

And yet, you say, it works. Women in China are downplaying their achievements, not asserting their marital property rights, and being hurried into less-than-ideal unions.

Many young women genuinely believe the myths perpetuated by the state media. In all my interviews, I found it very demoralizing that time after time I would talk to women who should have the world as their oyster, with Masters degrees, great careers—and they just give it all away because of the fear they won’t find a husband.

Power of advertising.

Right. Most reports denigrating leftover women have been republished almost verbatim, multiple times, through Xinhua and other state media. It’s hard to resist the influence.

You cite examples of paternalistic editorials that seem straight out of 1950s America. Ones that basically accuse educated women of being immoral, or tell married women with cheating husbands it’s their fault. You’d think, given the male-female imbalance, there should be a ton of advice for men on how to make themselves more charming, attractive.

Unfortunately, the tide is quite in the other direction. I didn’t find any state media editorials, for example, warning men to be more caring husbands or their wives could be unfaithful.

There have been quite a few stories portraying leftover women as materialistic, having too many demands, like the contestant [in popular dating show If You Are The One] who said she’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle. But people don’t realize those bits are scripted.

What was the genesis of the book?

I’ve always been interested in women’s issues. I’m a feminist. We moved to Beijing in 2009, on our second tour of duty in China. I was working for the Voice of America.

Well, I waited nine months for a journalist visa! I was thinking of what to do. I wasn’t thinking of writing a book initially, when I noticed this extreme obsession with real estate. [Beijing’s real estate market was just beginning to take off at that time.]

At some point my mother, a China scholar, suggested doing a Ph.D, and then I got a scholarship from Tsinghua, and so it evolved.

When I took a seminar in economic sociology, I did a mini ethnography survey on real estate. I noticed tremendous gender norms and stereotypes. Then in 2011, the amendment to the Marriage Law created a big outrage among feminists.

I started a weibo account and called for people to take part in a study on how gender was affecting home buying. I was overwhelmed [with responses].

It’s interesting that such a powerful work came about because of the delay of your journalist visa. Maybe the government should take that into account and not take so long with foreign visas.

When reading your book, I was thinking of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. I found the parallels interesting. How times of economic prosperity can actually result in a rollback of women’s rights. In 1950s, ’60s America, this was kind of a Mad Men push to promote suburbia, sell houses, cars, appliances.

In China, you point out, property developers keep values up by sponsoring surveys that promote the idea of brides needing husbands with houses.

Friedan’s book sparked off a “second wave” of feminism in America. Do you think your book could have a similar effect in China? For starters, will it be published there?

As you know, China has censorship issues. There’s no present plan for publication there.

I think there’s interest. I wrote some op-eds in places like The New York Times that got a good response.

When I wrote Leftover Women, I was motivated by a sense of outrage, urgency. I really, really want Chinese women to read it.

Your book describes a situation where Chinese women have lost power. Yet, a book like Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China presents almost the opposite scenario. She documents rural women going to work in factories, being empowered, changing their lives. How can readers square between these two apparently different pictures, and get a true understanding of women’s lot in China today?

[Chang’s] book is about migrant women. Mine isn’t about rural women, although I do mention property rights of rural women are being violated.

I do think rural women moving to cities are empowered, escaping restrictive situations and the lowest rungs of society, and staking a space. But what astonishes me is this leftover women label.

Academics like Vanessa Fong [no relation] argue urban women’s situation has improved because of the one-child policy, since parents are more willing to invest in daughters when they have no sons.

I would agree they have advanced educationally, because of the one-child policy. But what after?

In my interviews, I found parents were more likely to buy a girl a home if she is an only child. If there is a son, they will almost always buy for the son. I had five cases of only-child girls and one with no brother in which their parents opted to help a male relative purchase a home, instead of their own daughter.

How do you think the loosening of the one-child policy will affect urban women?

I think it’s very obvious with the dandu policy [a recent change which allows couples to have more than one child if one of the parents is an only child] and from the leftover campaign that the government is determined to raise the “quality” of the population. I would guess in the future there will be more measures to encourage educated women to have children, and discourage uneducated children.

Certainly the one-child policy has always been predicated on the basis of quality, versus quantity.

Yes. You never see an educated woman being forced into an abortion.

What can be done or is being done to change the existing social injustices you describe? Is there any kind of silver lining, any prescription on how to change things?

The political system is so severe, what is left seems to be individual resistance. I did want [the book] to end on a more upbeat hopefulness, so I chose to end with an anecdote of a very angry woman refusing to marry.

There has been talk about China’s Supreme Court passing a law on domestic violence, which I talk about in the chapter on Kim Lee, the ex-wife of “Crazy English” founder Li Yang. [China doesn’t have a specific law punishing domestic violence.] But basically … the system is very bad for women’s rights.