OPINION: The Plight of Leftover Women in China

OPINION: The Plight of Leftover Women in China
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A personal and in-depth review of Leta Hong Fincher’s investigation into the plight of so-called ‘Leftover Women’ in China.

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Gone are the days when each time my three best female friends and I chatted in an online WeChat group (Chinese version of Snapchat), marriage is the last thing we rambled on about. Yet now, about 80 percent of the discussions center on how to expand our social circles to find a potential mate, how to dress in a way that is appealing to males, and recently how to think more down-to-earth in the highly competitive Chinese marriage market. (Basically, it means lowering your high standards.)

My friends, who often mock themselves as single dogs (Human beings are supposed to be couples in their eyes), are exactly the group of women that Leta Hong Fincher, an American-born journalist with a Ph.D in Sociology from Beijing’s Tsinghua University, focuses on in her 2014 book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, except the striking fact that they are even younger than the classic definition of “leftover women” – that is, urban professional women aged over 27 who are unmarried.

Throughout the book, Fincher capably gathers a panorama of material including news articles, in-depth interviews and survey data to describe the challenges facing these young women. By giving them plenty of space to share their own voices, Fincher presents the book in a vivid and engaging style, which allows general readers access to this ongoing subject. As thought-provoking as it is, however, the book fails to meet scholarly standards because most of the surveys that Fincher carried out are via SinaWeibo (Chinese version of Twitter), which rules out women who have less access to the Internet and thus making the sample size too small to lead to an overarching conclusion. Despite the unscientific methodology, the book is insightful overall.

Fincher begins the book with the derogatory term “leftover women,” which was first coined in 2007 by the All-China Women’s Federation, a state feminist agency ostensibly designed to improve gender equality in China. Since then, state-sponsored newspapers, magazines and websites have aggressively pushed the term. As a result, women, especially educated women who are mocked even more vigorously by the media, are socially coerced into marriage. Fincher cites an article from the Women’s Federation website posted in March 2011, just after International Women’s Day, in which the author writes: “As women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their M.A. or Ph.D., they are already old, like yellowed pearls.”

The anxiety among unmarried women is so epidemic that even young girls in their early twenties, like my friends, are feeling the societal pressure. But, as Fincher argues, this fear is illogical in terms of demography. For decades, the Chinese government has tried to deal with the severe sex-ratio imbalance caused by the one-child policy, under which the preference for sons led to the widespread abortion of female fetuses. By 2008, this gender imbalance reached a peak of 1.22 to 1. Though the dire situation has been ameliorated in recent years, marriage-age men in China still outnumber women of the same category by a high margin. So why it is unmarried women, instead of single men, that are repeatedly portrayed by the government as being “leftover”?

Fincher answers this question in two ways. In the short term, from the government’s perspective, “restless single men are seen as a threat to the foundation of Chinese society.” The symbiotic relationship between family and nation can be traced back to ancient Chinese literature such as Confucius’ theory, where marriage and family form is widely seen as the basic cell of society. In this sense, the well-calculated media campaign on urging unmarried women to tame restless men is part of the grand governmental strategy to create an ideal socialist society, where social stability and order prevail. One startling example given by Fincher is the Communist Party’s mobilization of some widows and widowers, who lost their partners in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, to marry each other for the purpose of ensuring social and economic stability.

In the long term, facing a downturn in the domestic economy, along with an ever-increasingly competitive global market, the government blames the relatively low quality of the general population for weakening its national strength, and thus encouraging women to marry, reproduce and rear the next generation. This also partly explains why propaganda is generally tailored towards a so-called “three-high” category of single women (high education, high professional position and high income), because they are viewed by the authorities as “ideal mothers.”

Though the central government is often the ultimate culprit to blame, Fincher book’s core discovery is the sobering fact that the marriage plot is a co-ordinated one promoted by an alliance of the government, property companies and the dating industry.

Since China privatized its housing industry in 1998, skyrocketing home prices have created an unprecedented and fast accumulation of residential real-estate wealth, which worth more than US$30 trillion in 2013. More than a decade after the privatization, the Chinese property market has grown nearly saturated with an urban home ownership rate hovering around 85 percent. Meanwhile, property prices are continuously climbing to new peaks, which far exceed the affordable assets of a single man or woman who wants to buy a new house without financial help from others. As a result, argues Fincher, “the only way that ordinary residents can afford to buy exorbitantly priced homes is by pooling assets,” which is mostly practiced through forming a new family. By this reckoning, property companies, echoing the state-backed media campaign, also want single women to get married to revitalize the withering housing market.

One would think Chinese women could financially profit, or at least lose nothing, in a marriage based on the assumption that the burden of affording a new house always falls on men. But the reality is more complicated. Fincher unmasks the myth and exposes the truth that many women have been shut out of “possibly the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history.” From more than fifty in-depth interviews she conducted with both men and women (the majority of them are from first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai), Fincher found the ultimate irony: women who rushed into hasty, ill-considered marriages often did so without negotiating the terms of purchase for their marital homes. Moreover, in the cases where well-educated and well-employed women are involved, they will, out of fear of becoming “leftover,” provide cash toward the down payment on a marital home without putting their name on the deed.

What’s worse, changes to the Marriage Law in 2011 further exacerbated the disadvantaged position of married women in terms of economic status. Fincher points out that “under the new law, when a couple divorces, if both parties are unable to reach an agreement on the division of property, each side is entitled to keep whatever property is registered in his or her own name.” While it seems gender-neutral, the new law is, according to Fincher, gender-specific as most property deeds are in the man’s name.

The decrease in property rights also leaves these women vulnerable to another increasing and alarming practice in China: intimate partner violence. “Wives are caught in China’s web of abuse,” Fincher writes. Through Fincher’s research, a general trend emerges that those women who are in an abusive marriage tend to tolerant violence because otherwise they will lose everything and become “homeless.” Other than economic interests, cultural components also come into play. As Fincher concludes from the interviews, by seeking help openly, a female victim may open herself up to further retaliatory violence from extended family members for “exposing family ugliness” to outsiders.

Though the broad picture that Fincher portrays on “leftover women” is fairly bleak, the book ends with profiles of other women who have fought back against gender discrimination in the authoritarian state. One group of them is a coalition of like-minded “leftover women” in Shanghai. They support each other in rejecting the intense family and societal pressure to marry. From them, Fincher senses the possibility of a “marriage revolution” in China as many of the single, well-educated, urban women she has interviewed refuse to comply with the marriage plot and tether themselves to another person merely out of pressure.

For those women who are at the front line to resist marriage pressure, the way ahead is no doubt filled with frustration and economic hardship. Nevertheless, revolutions seldom move in straight lines. When it comes to marriage, one of the biggest decisions that women can make in their entire life, it is themselves that, after all, have rights to decide their own future.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole