From Long March to Leftovers

The ramifications of China’s one-child policy on its female population are provocatively laid out in Leta Hong Fincher’s new book.

April 30, 2014

From Long March to Leftovers

Leftover Women by Leta Hong Fincher. Zed Books. 192 pages.

CHINA IS NOW FACING an unprecedented female shortage, thanks to its 30-plus-year-old “one-child” policy and a cultural preference for sons, a volatile combination that has led to sex-selective abortions and cases of female infanticide. By 2020, the world’s most populous nation could possibly be the world’s horniest as well, with over 30 million surplus males. This group of young single men will outnumber the entire population of Saudi Arabia or Australia, and have mathematically no hope of finding mates, unless China were to improbably open its borders to wholesale immigration.

Given this huge sex imbalance, logic suggests Chinese women should currently have the upper hand, with greater bargaining power in love and marriage.

This isn’t the case, however, according to Leta Hong Fincher. In her short book, Leftover Women, she makes a powerful — and provocative — argument that China’s female shortage, far from empowering women, has actually resulted in a situation where urban women’s rights are increasingly imperiled.

That’s a far cry from gains made by women during the Republican era (1912-1949) following the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, and even more so in the early Communist era. Then it was farewell my concubinage, hello half the sky.

Now, says Hong Fincher, those gains made during Chiang Kai-shek’s and especially Mao Zedong’s times in power are being dramatically rolled back. It’s Backlash, China-style, on a scale that Susan Faludi never envisioned, touching the lives of 650 million women, almost a fifth of all the women in the world.

How did this come about? Hong Fincher, an American-born former journalist and now PhD candidate in sociology at China’s elite Tsinghua University, details a series of measures ranging from a media campaign to legal setbacks, all of which are ultimately aimed at deterring college-educated women from putting off marriage and family. By doing so, the Communist Party hopes to maintain its goals of achieving social stability — weiwen — and raising the quality of its population — suzhi. Ironically, these same goals prompted the implementation of the “one-child” policy, which in turn created the worker-women shortage. Which led to today’s situation. Think about it hard enough, and your head could explode.

Most insidious is the government-backed “Leftover Women” propaganda campaign. Launched in 2007 by the All-China Women’s Federation, the party organ tasked with promoting women’s rights, the campaign coined the insulting term “leftover women,” or sheng nü, to describe over-25 females as having been too long on the shelf, the stuff of kitchen scrapings and doggy bags.

Of course, the vilification of single women happens in other societies with demographic pressures. In Japan — also facing a shrinking, aging workforce — terms like “parasite” and “Christmas cake” (bad after 25) floated into the national zeitgeist in the late 1990s. Hong Fincher makes clear, however, that China is different, because this messaging is coming from the top and amplified by a compliant state media, making it that much harder to resist and avoid.

According to Leftover Women, urban women in China face a constant barrage of surveys, articles, editorials, and cartoons that purport to show the perils of holding off marriage. In 2013, for example, People’s Daily reported: “Due to the increasing proportion of older women giving birth over the years, and other social factors, statistics show that Beijing’s rates of birth defects have risen in recent years.” Despite increasing evidence linking birth defects to China’s increasingly toxic pollution, state media rarely link the two in reports, says Hong Fincher, choosing instead to “blame women for choosing to delay marriage and childbirth.”

Then there’s property. Mao famously said women hold up half the sky — but they certainly don’t own anything close to half of China’s ground. Only 30 percent of marital home deeds include the wife’s name, even though over 70 percent of women contribute to the purchase, says Hong Fincher. That becomes a huge problem when marriages sour and matrimonial assets are divided up in divorce court. In 2011, China issued a new interpretation of its Marriage Law specifying marital property as belonging to the person named on the property deed — almost always the husband.

What’s more, Hong Fincher discovers through interviews that in families with more than one child, parents almost always help sons financially with home purchases, not daughters. In some cases, parents opted to help a male relative with buying property over their own daughter.

Given that much of the wealth in China has come from the appreciating values in soaring property markets, Chinese women have been left out of some $27 trillion worth of wealth creation, “arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history,” says Hong Fincher.

The picture on domestic abuse is even bleaker. China still has no specific law to prevent or punish domestic violence, and marital rape is not considered a crime in China. Citing a Xinhua report, Hong Fincher notes, “The Beijing municipal Women’s Federation has set up women’s shelters in the city, but not a single woman has used them […] in part because the government requires women to secure an official permit to stay there.”

Most of Hong Fincher’s interview subjects use pseudonyms, except for Kim Lee, the ex-wife of Li Yang, the founder of a hugely popular language teaching system known as “Crazy English.” Lee, a battered wife, published pictures of her abuse on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, but found it an uphill battle getting legal restitution and protection in Chinese courts, even after her husband admitted to assaulting her. In 2013, she was granted a divorce on the grounds of domestic violence, a landmark ruling, and was awarded a settlement of RMB 12 million, or around $1.9 million. Still, writes Hong Fincher, the settlement was “barely enough to buy one three-bedroom apartment in downtown Beijing.” At the time of writing, Hong Fincher notes, Lee had spent over US$30,000 in legal fees trying to enforce the court order, has yet to fully collect on her settlement, and is bearing the full cost of raising the couple’s three daughters.

By rights, urban women should have been the biggest beneficiaries of the one-child policy. Shielded from the worst excesses of the policy — such as forced abortions and sterilizations, which mostly happened in the countryside — women who were the only offspring reaped the benefits of having no siblings to share parental resources with. In particular, they made huge strides educationally, with women making up over half of master’s degree students in China in 2010, according to the newspaper 21st Century Business Herald. Leftover Women shows a more complete picture of these women’s fates after college, as society and the government conspire to hurry them to wed.

When I spoke to Hong Fincher, she said:

In all my interviews, I found it demoralizing that time after time, I would talk to women who should have the world as their oyster, with master’s degrees, great careers. And they just give it all away, because of the fear they won’t find a husband.

The picture Hong Fincher paints is dark indeed. Under Xi Jinping, authorities are tightening controls on all kinds of civil rights groups, not just feminists. The best course left appears to be individual resistance, a sort of Lysistrata-like refusal to go with the flow. Hong Fincher, saying she wanted to end on a hopeful and “upbeat” note, closes the book with an anecdote of a woman who has refused to get married.

There are many kinds of works documenting social injustices. The less successful ones leave readers with a sense of hopelessness and depression. More successful ones, like Leftover Women, leave readers coldly angry, even if there is little sense that much can or will change. Given China’s tight reins on censorship, it’s regrettable that Leftover Women may face hurdles being published in China, where it would deservedly find a large and indignant audience.


You can read more on the topic of “leftover women” at the China Blog.

Note: since this review was written, the welcome news came to the reviewer that a mainland Chinese translation is in preparation.


Mei Fong is an award-winning journalist with more than a decade of reporting in Asia, most recently as China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.


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