China’s leftover women: an interview with Leta Hong Fincher

Chinese women face a resurgent crisis of gender inequality, argues Leta Hong Fincher in her new book Leftover Women. She talks to openDemocracy about the future of feminism under socialist neoliberalism.

Linda van der Horst En Liang Khong
21 April 2014

Women’s emancipation, within socialist theory and the policies of the ruling Communist parties, has always been intertwined with the revolutionary project, and has come to mean the mobilization of women into the labour force. But in practice the Communist record has been a protracted one of intermittent progress. Whether the substantial shortcomings of women’s emancipation arise out of the inadequacy of socialist theory, or the precise developmental strategies pursued by such states, is hotly contested.

The situation in China perfectly encapsulates this. In spite of its failures, the Mao era was relatively successful in challenging traditional forms of gender inequality. Declaring that “women hold up half the sky”, Mao abolished footbinding, promoted female education and participation in the workforce, and overturned traditional notions of marriage with the Marriage Law in 1950.

But from the turn towards economic modernization in China, women’s past gains began to be eroded and the material status of women relative to men has dropped. “At the end of the 1970s statistics showed an extremely high female labour force participation – but many officials and academics said this was artificial – and in a sense it was: women placed in managerial positions as state policy and out of economic imperative,” the American sociologist Leta Hong Fincher tells us. “There are a lot of people today who do not see the declining participation of women as a bad thing. The government merely pays lip service to the idea of gender equality.” 

Leftover women 

A resurgent crisis of gender inequality has found itself aligned with the reform era’s changing representations of femininity. From the early 1990s, women were urged to assist economic modernization by withdrawing from the labour force amidst increasing urban unemployment, and once again the private sphere was aggressively reasserted. Iconic images of China’s “Iron Girls”, once cast as working heroines, were now dismissed as “fake men”.

The work of Hong Fincher, publicised in the New York Times and Dissent, and now in her book Leftover Women, unveils the drivers behind a recent campaign from China’s state propaganda complex: the preoccupation with shengnu, or ‘leftover women’. In 2007 the state-backed All-China Women’s Federation issued a declaration targeting women who delay marriage in favour of careers: “Leftover women are modern urban women, most of whom have high education, high income, and high IQ. They are nice-looking, but they are relatively demanding in choosing spouses, so they haven’t found ideal partners for marriage.” But the irony, of course, is that China’s one-child policy and a traditional preference for sons have reinforced a male surplus. “Despite the media frenzy over “leftover” women who are supposedly doomed to stay single forever, China actually faces a shortage of marriage-age women”, Hong Fincher writes.

It is this male surplus that worries the Party – the prospect of the rise of a large class of angry, single young men, who cannot match employment prospects with expectation. Hong Fincher distills what is at the heart of the notion of shengnu: a state campaign aimed at instilling fear in educated, socially mobile women, forcing them into solving the crisis by marrying young. “I think that from the government’s perspective, the resurgence of gender inequality is not a failure, in fact it is its intention,” Hong Fincher says. “Many government officials and academics see the lowering of women’s status as a good thing – part of dismantling the planned economy.”

The shengnu campaign, as Hong Fincher explains, is part of a deliberate overarching project to improve the population quality and create ‘neoliberal subjects’: “The very people the Chinese government would like to see having babies are highly educated urban women, who would be able to produce children with “superior” genetic make-up.” Hong Fincher charts the shengnu discourse as emanating from the Women’s Federation shortly after China’s State Council issued an edict on recharging the Population and Family Planning programme to address “unprecedented population pressures”, including the sex-ratio imbalance which “causes a threat to social stability” and the key goal of “upgrading population quality”.

The shengnu campaign is therefore far from atypical; the CCP has adopted sophisticated techniques of mass persuasion to dictate the party line on everything from ethnic groups to LGBT activists. And as the political scientist Ann-Marie Brady writes, the Party’s propaganda machinery becomes increasingly more sophisticated as CCP-backed messages are absorbed by its subjects. Highly educated women in China, as Hong Fincher explains, have deeply internalized the label and benchmarks associated with “leftover women”.

Merely cultural? 

Fincher acknowledges that Chinese society is suffused with deeply patriarchal norms. At the same time, the “leftover” stigmatization, as Fincher writes, is “not just a curious cultural phenomenon.” The shengnu campaign has significant wider implications as it interacts with other dynamics in society.

Hong Fincher sets out to demonstrate how women have largely been shut out of the largest real-estate wealth accumulation in history, valued at over US$30 trillion. The shengnu campaign has been instigated within far-reaching changes to the law. In August 2011 the Chinese Supreme Court ruled that after a divorce, the person whose name is on the deed to the family home owns it solely. That person is usually a man. This new interpretation of the country’s Marriage Law has reversed a cornerstone of the Communist Revolution, which in 1950 granted women rights to property and in subsequent revisions strengthened the notion of common marital property. 

At the same time, parents in China are more willing to assist their sons with the purchase of a property than their daughters, but, as Hong Fincher’s findings demonstrate, it is even more troubling that parents “with an only daughter decline to help her make a down payment on a home specifically because she is female”. Instead, they prefer contributing to a male cousin’s property purchase. Hong Fincher argues that, “urban home ownership has become such a defining feature of masculinity that well-educated men who cannot afford to buy a home may feel a sense of shame or failure.”

Not only do “leftover women” therefore face severe pressure to rush into marriage, but they are now in a weaker bargaining position to challenge patriarchal norms. Hong Fincher observes that because the real estate is registered in the husband’s name, the woman’s bargaining power within the relationship has weakened and this means she is less likely to seek divorce, even if the husband is abusive. And again, the law does not step in to assist the woman. Cases of domestic conflict rarely succeed in a court of law: “the system is designed to make you give up”.

Hong Fincher’s great insight here is to link a theory of patriarchy back to a wider critique of China’s high home ownership rates and real-estate boom over the last decade, and the economic dynamics and welfare failures of the post-socialist regime. “It is possible that if China has a comprehensive social security system”, she posits, “young Chinese would no longer feel the need to buy a home to achieve a sense of economic security.”

Organisational prospects

For Hong Fincher, the future prospects of feminist activism in China remain bleak, especially when set within a wider context in which middle-class activism remains largely ineffectual in posing a serious collective threat to the Party line. “I would draw an interesting comparison between this absence of a significant women’s movement in China with the development of an environmental movement,” Hong Fincher offers. “The vibrant organisation of the latter has resulted in significant protests, often from the middle class, who care deeply about environmental issues. These protests have impacted the very top tiers of the Party, and we see this now in new transparency regarding pollution.”


Smog in Shanghai. Demotix/Thierry Coulon. All rights reserved.

Hong Fincher argues that this is witness, “not to some kind of deficiency in feminists’ organisational capability, but rather a totalising lack of concern over women’s rights in Chinese society.” Amidst what Hong Fincher describes as “rampant gender descrimination alive and thriving in the workplace,” a glimmer of hope came earlier this year when Cao Ju won the first gender discrimination lawsuit in China and settled for 30,000 yuan. But this is likely to be a standalone victory rather than an overturning of structural problems. Hong Fincher recalls the many constraints activists face: “you can witness the sheer amount of problems they have encountered, with onerous registration policies for NGOs, and the most innocuous actions resulting in police harrassment. This is the level of control and paranoia we are facing.”

It is also still unclear where a significant feminist force might emerge from. Hong Fincher cites the radical feminist Li Maizi who upbraids Chinese social media, so often seen as a critical component in the manufacturing of Chinese dissent: “Weibo is very patriarchal. It’s a platform for scolding and abusing women, so there’s no way it can be used effectively to support women,” Li laments. In Hong Fincher’s eyes, “the internet can be an important platform for women to feel less alone”, but it remains far from clear whether Weibo will birth a feminist movement.

Hong Fincher’s wider history of the women’s movement in China stresses the critical role of feminism in progressive ideologies of equality. The anarcho-feminist He-Yin Zhen founded the feminist journal Natural Justice in 1907 which carried the first Chinese translation of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Against the Party narrative of the Communists bringing feminism to China, Hong Fincher observes, it was feminism which carried Communism to China. But “the signs that were seen in the women’s movement leading up to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty – they are nowhere to be seen today,” Hong Fincher states. “The future of a radical feminism in China today is dim – this is simply stating the political reality.”

Against those who argue that the oppression of women is not the product of abstract necessity in the same kind of way as capitalism’s exploitation of wage labour, she argues that practical attempts to challenge gender oppression also involve a challenge to China’s neoliberal turn. “The shengnu campaign is part and parcel of the privatisation of housing, market reform and the march towards capitalism,” Hong Fincher says, “the broader context behind all of this is an unbridled capitalism aligned with a dominant state.” Women are being forced into sacrificing their interests for the sake of social stability, distinctly laming the fortunes of women’s social progress in China.

Leta Hong Fincher’s “Leftover Women: the resurgence of gender inequality in China” is published by Zed Books.

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