'Leftover Women' reveals unequal shares of China’s growing wealth

Mao Zedong's communist party was set to modernize the rights and roles of women in China. However, within years of taking power, the party stopped its efforts – leaving Chinese women facing societal gender bias even as China rises as a dominant power. 

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China by Leta Hong Fincher Zed Books 224 pp.

Shortly after Mao Zedong took power in China in 1949, it appeared that he would follow through on promises to “liberate” the country’s women. Mao had already proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky.”

And Communist Party officials introduced a marriage law in 1950 that abolished arranged marriages and the purchase of girl brides, allowed women to divorce, and gave women new rights to inherit property. But several years after the new law was introduced, officials retreated from efforts to enforce parts of it after meeting resistance from tradition-minded parents and parents-in-law.

In her thoroughly documented book Leftover Women, sociologist Leta Hong Fincher shows in vivid detail how women in China have suffered a rollback since those early days, especially when it comes to property rights.

Before studying for her doctorate in sociology, Hong Fincher worked as a journalist, which may account for her ability to succinctly describe the challenges facing these young women as well as bring them to life in individual profiles. (I should state here that Hong Fincher worked briefly for me in Hong Kong in 1996 when I was helping to establish Radio Free Asia as its executive editor.)

Progress in education

Hong Fincher acknowledges that urban women have made “great progress” in education over the past decade or more. It should also be noted that Chinese women have achieved more top management positions than have women in many other countries, and based on a survey cited by Hong Fincher, women regularly outperform men at universities.

But, the author argues, that’s where the trouble starts for many of them.

A government-sponsored media campaign – part of an effort to promote marriage for “social stability” – now carries warnings that highly educated women who put their careers ahead of marriage risk never finding a marriage partner. In China, the term “leftover women,” or shengnu, is widely used to describe single women 25 years old or older who are likely to remain unmarried. Cartoons depict these women as being self-centered and too intimidating ever to attract a husband. One such cartoon shows skeleton in a woman’s clothing shrouded in cobwebs on a park bench, with the caption: “Still waiting for the perfect man.”

End of the one-child policy

Hong Fincher thinks it’s no coincidence that China’s Women’s Federation posted its first article on “leftover” women in 2007, shortly after the State Council, the country’s cabinet, issued an edict mandating programs to counter “unprecedented population pressures.” Those pressures were created to a great extent by a one-child policy that resulted in families, faced with the prospect of having only one child, choosing to abort female babies.

A preference for male children has resulted in a population ratio of nearly 118 males for every 100 females as of 2012. It has also led to a shrinking working-age population that must support a rapidly growing number of retirees. In an effort to offset a labor shortage and create more young workers to bolster economic growth, China recently adopted a policy that would allow most couples to have two children.

But many urban Chinese have grown used to one-child families and can ill afford the rising costs of housing that a larger family would require. When a woman in a big city like Beijing or Shanghai decides to get married, she and her family immediately come under pressure to contribute to purchasing a home. But the woman typically cannot put her name on the housing deed. And if the marriage breaks up, the man gains full ownership of the home.

As Hong Fincher explains it, “Even if a woman earns a high income, the fact that the most valuable asset in the marriage, real estate, is registered in her husband’s name is likely to reduce her bargaining power in the relationship.”

Violence against women

At one point, Hong Fincher cites Wang Xiangxian, a Chinese sociologist doing research on domestic violence and deep-seated prejudices against women that he says can be found among individuals, communities, and even Chinese society itself.

The good news, according to Hong Fincher, is that some women are fighting back. In her book, she tells the story of China’s most famous case of domestic violence in recent years. This involved Li Yang, a multimillionaire and property investor who had married an American woman, Kim Lee.

As home prices began to skyrocket in China more than a decade ago, Li Yang bought dozens of properties. But Kim Lee’s name was not added to the property deeds, and Li began transferring property ownerships to his relatives and friends.

After Li Yang violently attacked Lee in 2006 when she was pregnant with a second child, Li’s sister told her, “It’s nothing. All men are like that.” In 2011, Lee posted photos of injuries that she’d suffered from beatings by her husband. The police had declined to take action when she reported the violence to them, but her photos went viral on China’s most popular social networking site.

Fighting back

After thousands of women became her online followers, Lee decided not to return to the United States but to stay in China and fight her case through the Chinese court system. Lee took her husband to court, focusing on the real estate that he owned and demanding a divorce settlement and a division of properties.

In early 2013, the court ruled in a landmark case that it was granting Lee a divorce based on domestic violence and issued the first-ever restraining order in Beijing, which lasted for three months. Finally, it ordered Li to pay a fine of around $8,000 for committing domestic violence and awarded Lee a financial settlement of nearly $2 million.

But the court had failed to get Li to reveal his true assets. Had he declared them, it would have resulted in a much larger settlement for Lee.

Thanks to China’s new social-media sites, more than a thousand women quickly expressed their support for Lee and shared their own stories of suffering under abusive husbands.

But Hong Fincher, citing legal scholars, notes that even if the Chinese government passes a law – one is currently in draft form – targeting domestic violence, “there still exists an enormous gap between Chinese laws on paper and how the police and the courts actually operate.”

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