Economist – Leftover Women in China
IN 2007 China’s official Xinhua news agency published a commentary about women who were still unmarried at the age of 27 under the title, “Eight Simple Moves to Escape the Leftover Woman Trap”.
The Communist Party had concluded that young Chinese women were becoming too picky and were over-focused on attaining the “three highs”: high education, professional status and income.
Newspapers have since reprinted similar editorials. In 2011 one said:
“The tragedy is they don’t realise that as women age they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their MA or PhD, they are already old, like yellowed pearls.”
The tone of these articles is surprising, given the Communist Party’s past support for women’s advancement. Mao Zedong destroyed China, but he succeeded in raising the status of women. Almost the first legislation enacted by the Communist Party in 1950 was the Marriage Law under which women were given many new rights, including the right to divorce and the right to own property. Though collectivisation made the latter largely irrelevant, women played an active role in Mao’s China, and still do today. By 2010 26% of urban women had university degrees, double the proportion ten years earlier. Women now regularly outperform men at Chinese universities, which has led to gender-based quotas favouring men in some entrance exams. However, many of the earlier advances have been eroded in recent years by the gradual re-emergence of traditional patriarchal attitudes.
Leta Hong Fincher, an American journalist-turned-academic, argues that the same party that pushed through the elevation of women’s status in the 1950s is now trying to engineer their return to the kitchen.
The new campaign seems to be working. In 1990 urban Chinese women’s salaries were 78% of the level of men’s pay. In 2010, that had decreased to 67%. The female urban employment rate also fell, from 77% in 1990 to 61% in 2010.
Under Mao almost all women married, but now the expanding social freedoms of the new century have led more women to remain single, whether by choice or not.
That alarms the party, says Ms Fincher. Society, it believes, is more stable with fewer single people. New families, it argues, can drive consumption and the property boom, and if most educated, alpha females are married, then, it believes, better “quality” children will be born.
The party has joined an alliance of property companies and dating websites to confront the issue.
Government surveys on marriage and property are often sponsored by matchmaking agencies, and perpetuate the perception that being “leftover” is the worst thing that can happen to a woman.
They also promote other myths, such as the idea that a man must have a house before he can marry.
The law is reflecting the shift away from women’s empowerment too. An interpretation by the Supreme Court in 2011 of the 1950 Marriage Law stated that, when a couple divorces, property should not be shared equally, but each side should keep what is in his or her own name. This ruling, says Ms Fincher, has serious implications. In the big cities a third of marriages now end in divorce but, based on hundreds of interviews, she finds that only about 30% of married women have their name on the deeds of the marital flat.
Women believe the party hype about becoming a “leftover” woman so strongly, she says, that many rush into unhappy marriages with unsuitable men, made on condition that the brides agree not to put their name on the property deeds.
Consequently, many women have been shut out of “possibly the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history”, worth more than $30 trillion in 2013.
“Leftover Women” is a compelling piece of original research, though the author may be over-egging the pudding a little. Compared with women in most developing countries Chinese women are still doing quite well. Even compared with Korea or Japan, in many areas of society their status and participation are high. And there are signs that they are fighting back. Determined not to be re-subjugated, some have taken a word that sounds like “leftover” in Chinese but means “triumphant”, and are using it to describe themselves and defend their decision to remain single.