Leta Hong Fincher is a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York. Her book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, examines the phenomenon of women in China who remain single into their late twenties and beyond. Fincher, who holds a PhD in Sociology from Tsinghua University, spoke to HKFP about property and gender inequality in China, Beijing’s crackdown on NGOs and how she fell foul of censors in the mainland.

Leta Hong Fincher book
Leftover women, by Leta Hong Fincher. Photo: Leta Hong Fincher.

You argue that the state is interested in creating a phenomenon of “leftover women”? Why is this?

When I was looking into the origins of the term, it was defined by the All China Women’s Federation to mean urban educated women over the age of 27 who were still single. That was in 2007. And after that, there was a very aggressive state media campaign which was aggressively promoted by the [mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”It’s all part of an effort to get these educated women to get married and to have babies. It’s not just a cultural phenomenon.” [/mks_pullquote]Chinese government through various propaganda channels.

I also discovered that, shortly before this media campaign began in 2007, the Chinese state council issued an important population announcement where it said that it faces unprecedented population pressures, including the sex ratio imbalance, which it said was a threat to social stability. It also said that China has a very serious problem with the so-called low quality of its population. The leftover women campaign is targeted at educated women who are considered by the government to be high quality.

Even in these last couple of months that there is new propaganda urging these women to have two children instead of one. And this is an extension of previous policies which were really stigmatising urban educated women who were single. It’s all part of an effort to get these educated women to get married and to have babies. It’s not just a cultural phenomenon. It’s actually very important for China’s population planning strategy because of all the demographic problems that China faces, with the ageing of the population and the shrinking of the workforce and falling birthrates.

Do you think the one child policy being relaxed will have an impact on the issue of falling birthrates? 

I do think that we’re at the beginning of a trend where you will see more and more educated urban women significantly delaying, or even rejecting, marriage and childbirth, or childrearing… Now, under the two child policy, the government is trying to get these women to have two children. But I don’t think it’s going to be very effective… The government doesn’t want a general baby boom because it doesn’t want rural uneducated women to have more children.

File photo: Pexels.

Under the period where the one child policy or family planning policies were harshly imposed in the 1980s, there were certainly a lot of rural couples who had more than one child. So to some extent, the term one-child policy is bit of a misnomer because it really refers to the cities. But in the cities, a lot of couples don’t want more than one child. A lot of them don’t even want one child. And then you also have a new trend of urban professional women who don’t even want to get married, or don’t want to have a child.

Do “leftover women” represent a resurgence of inequality?

The main focus of the book of the inequality that I’m referring to is wealth inequality. The gender gap in wealth – and that is due to the real estate boom. Prior to the privatisation of housing – housing was allocated by the state, practically for free or for extremely low rent. But then, with the privatisation of housing, and the government urging people to buy homes in the new commercial market, you started to see a real estate boom starting in the late 2000s… That was combined with a new social norm where couples who are getting married are supposed to buy a marital home.

So women, even before the privatisation of housing, they were at a disadvantage in property in terms of housing allocation. but then this became seriously exaggerated with the real estate boom because homes are so expensive in China. The average income of the Chinese homebuyer is so low that it is almost impossible for any average young person getting married to afford a home.

In 2011, the Supreme People’s court issued a new interpretation of the marriage law. And the essence of the change was that if your name is not on the property deed, and you can’t prove that you contributed money to the home, then whoever’s name is on the deed will get a home.

Photo: Leta Hong Fincher.

Are women discouraged by their families – or their husband and in-laws – to not put their name on the deeds?

Yes. Legally, they are certainly entitled to put their names on the deed – they can have a joint title to the home… In the majority of cases, when couples buy homes it still tends to be just in the man’s name. There are a lot of reasons why that is. One is that the man’s family puts pressure on the woman and says that the home should be placed solely in the man’s name. Part of that is because men’s families tend to contribute more money towards the home because parents tend to be preparing well in advance for their son’s marriage by saving up a huge amount of money to buy their son a home. But you don’t see the opposite happening.

So men are expected to pay for the home but, in reality, the woman also contributes quite a lot?

Yes… most women’s families actually do contribute to the purchase… And they contribute a lot of money. In some cases they’ll contribute more than the man’s side. So it’s a way of propping up masculinity because it seems very important for the man to be the home owner and head of the household…

The outdoor marriage market at Shanghai's People's Park.
The outdoor marriage market at Shanghai’s People’s Park. Photo: Landaishu.

One of the barriers is created by the leftover women media campaign because women are often marrying because they come under intense pressure because of their age. Sometimes the women’s own parents are dissuading their own daughter from putting her name on the property deed out of fear that their boyfriend will be scared off and not want to marry her anymore because she’ll be seen as too demanding. But I found that the majority of the young women I interviewed really do want their name on their property deed. Women want to be economically equal. They want equal relationships…

The total value of residential real estate – at least at the end of 2013 – was over US$30 trillion… And when women are being shut out of this vast accumulation of wealth, that has a lot of other consequences.

Such as? 

First of all, even if a woman is earning a relatively high income, the fact that she does not own, that she has forfeited the ownership of the most valuable marital asset, means that she does not have as much power within the relationship, within the marriage.

For most women who are not earning very much money, it tends to trap them in marriages that may be abusive. It’s a particularly severe problem if there’s domestic violence. Maybe the woman doesn’t have a job at all. In that case, she basically is an indentured servant – effectively – because she doesn’t own any assets even though she contributed to the purchase of the home.

 Shanghai's People's Park
Shanghai’s People’s Park. Photo: Landaishu.

Do you think there’ll be pushback from women in the future to put their names on the property or will they still succumb to pressure?

I definitely see pushback now. In fact, I already see it in the last couple of years. More and more women who are determined to have their names on the property deed. In part that’s because of the marriage law, because it spells it out so clearly that if your name is not on the deed, then you basically don’t own that home. So that has certainly raised awareness among quite a lot of women.

How would you describe the landscape of women’s rights in China right now?

There’s a massive crackdown on women’s rights activism right now, which is really very disturbing. Last year, [there was] the arrest of the feminist five for doing really nothing other than planning to hand out some stickers about sexual harassment. There’s really an egregious abuse of their rights. They weren’t challenging the government in any way. It’s really appalling what has happened.

Then there have also been some women’s rights NGOs that have been forced to close over Chinese New Year. A really important pioneering centre providing legal advice for women by a pioneering women’s rights lawyer Guo Jianmei was also forced to close, just recently. To some extent this is just falling under a bigger, wider oppression of civil society in general where the government is becoming more and more paranoid about any groups that organise outside the communist party. Overall, the situation for women’s rights is very bad…

Leta Hong Fincher
Leta Hong Fincher (right) with human rights defender Zhou Fengsuo. Photo: Leta Hong Fincher via Twitter.

On the other hand… there are more and more women who are becoming aware of the need to stand up for their rights. In some way, this heavy crackdown on women’s rights activists is creating or radicalising more women who wouldn’t ordinarily be paying attention. But I would never say that women’s rights crackdown is good.

Are you hopeful about the future for Chinese women?

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”…there is a noticeable trend in the last couple of years of more women, in particular urban women, who identify themselves as feminists.”[/mks_pullquote]Everything depends on the government and what it does. I think that there is no question – on an individual level – that women are increasingly aware of their rights and are increasingly wanting to push back against government repression. However, that’s not enough. If the government is determined to wipe out a feminist movement, then it certainly has the capability to do that. I hold out hope because I see that there is a noticeable trend in the last couple of years of more women, in particular urban women, who identify themselves as feminists. They may openly call themselves feminist, which was not happening many years ago. But the government is so powerful that it has the power to just arrest people and completely stamp out these kinds of movements so it’s very hard for me to say if I am hopeful or not.

Your book was recently published in Chinese – was it censored in China?

They censored the entire section I did interviewing Zeng Jingyan, who was married to the prominent dissident Hu Jia. I wrote a section about her, and her experience under house arrest, which was completely taken out of the book…. I’m looking at the responses on Weibo from women who say that there’s nothing being wrong with being single, that they’re happy being single. So I definitely see a shift in women’s attitude towards the pressure to marry. There are more women pushing back against it and that is a good thing, and I’m hopeful about that.

Chantal Yuen is a Hong Kong journalist interested in issues dealing with religion and immigration. She majored in German and minored in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University.