If you’ve been following stories on the status of women in China closely over the past few years, you’ve almost certainly come across the name Leta Hong Fincher. Hong Fincher has particularly focused on the lives of educated women in China’s big cities, and the intertwining problems of property ownership and marriage. She has written a New York Times op-ed and a piece in last spring’s Dissent on the subject.
Her book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, which has just come out last week, was one of our most anticipated new books last year.
Hong Fincher spoke to me by phone while stuck in traffic in Beijing. She had a lot to say, all of it interesting, and so I will be putting up pieces of our conversation over the next week.
I think a lot of my questions have to do with the disconnect between some patriarchal traditions and attitudes vs. things like employment equality and pay equality, because I think I had this unquestioned idea that, with greater employment equality or pay equality those traditional patriarchal norms would change. But it seems like after several generations in China, that hasn’t been the case. And so a lot of my questions are about that.
The thing is that actually, in the interviews that I did with men and women in their twenties and early thirties, I found that gender norms really are evolving. So, the younger generation really does believe in more gender equality. They do have more gender-equalitarian beliefs on the whole. I mean, obviously there are a lot of exceptions, but I would say that the younger generation on the whole is more progressive, especially in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
What I argue, though, particularly in my dissertation where I really focus on residential real estate, [is that] the real estate boom following China’s privatization of housing has led to resurgence of gender inequality and created new forms of really stark gender inequality in wealth, because there’s this inextricable link between marriage and home-buying in China. So, when a young couple decides to get married, the norm is that they’re supposed to buy a home in the private market. And that’s when the older generation’s traditional patriarchal beliefs come into play. Buying a home is an extremely complicated financial transaction. And, because homes are so exorbitant now, it is virtually impossible for a young person to buy a home on their own. They have to rely on the heavy financial input from their parents or elders. And so, basically what happens is that you have to have the pooling of family assets to buy a home, and when you come to these vast quantities of money, where the parents and the elders have been saving and scraping their whole lives, that combines with a whole bunch of different norms. One is the norm that the man is supposed to be the official breadwinner and that the woman doesn’t need to own property.
Another norm is basically a myth that is propagated by the state media in collaboration with the real estate developers and the matchmaking industry. They spread the myth that a man has to own a home in order to attract a bride. Which is why so many parents invest so heavily in buying their sons a home, and then they don’t help their daughter buy a home. In my research, I found just a very consistent, a shockingly consistent pattern, when there’s a son and a daughter, the parents buy a home for the son and they don’t for the daughter. But I also found cases even more disturbing, where the parents don’t even have a son, they have an only daughter and rather than help their daughter buy a home, even though she wants one, they help their nephew buy a home. That is a really big part in the creation of the huge gender wealth gap.
And then, as I argue in the book, basically, women have been largely shut out of the biggest accumulation of, certainly residential real estate wealth, and probably the biggest accumulation of wealth in human history. Residential real estate is now worth over $30 trillion US dollars, which is just a staggering amount of money. Most of these homes are registered solely in the man’s name. There is joint property ownership, but it’s really the minority. And it’s an even smaller minority of women who own homes in their own names.
I found time and time again that women really wanted economic independence and they really wanted to have their name on the deed but then when it comes to buying a home, they just come up against these huge economic and social forces and tremendous pressure from the man’s family to just register the man’s name. And they end up being overwhelmed and they back down.
And part of the reason why they back down, well, why don’t they walk away? If they really want their name on the deed, this is important to them, it’s important to a lot of young women, why don’t they walk away from an unequal financial arrangement, why don’t they find another guy? Well, that’s where the Leftover Women ideology comes in. Because state media has aggressively propagated this term, shengnü [ed: leftover woman], ever since 2007 and continues to do so today. It’s very sophisticated propaganda and it’s constantly evolving.
Basically, the message from the propaganda machine says that women have to get married by their late twenties, or, maximum, 30, or they’re going be too old to find a husband. Nobody is going to want to marry them. Unfortunately there are a lot of educated women who have internalized those messages from the media. There’s such tight control on information in China, when the state media really pounds away at a message, then, unfortunately it gets through to lots of people.
So those are two big factors: the Leftover Women campaign and the real estate boom, and the fact that parents and elders with their outdated patriarchal beliefs have a tremendous influence over who gets to put their name on the deed. So, they are crushing the aspirations of young women, which actually are evolving, by and large.
I remember reading, I don’t know if it was an editorial or an excerpt of yours, maybe a year ago, where you write both that the Leftover Women campaign is not an actual problem, that it is a propaganda campaign, and that the idea that young women will refuse to marry a man unless he owns a home [is a myth]. I remember reading your writing on this and I was surprised. But I was also surprised after reading it how both of these things seem to be taken for granted here, just speaking to local people. Especially about men needing to own property, I keep hearing that! And yet I don’t think anybody really knows any of their friends who had that actually happen to them.
In my research, I had a total sample of 283 people from across China and they were all primarily college-educated, in the twenties or early thirties. That was more superficial, because that was online. But then I did do personal, in-depth interviews that were several hours long with 60 people, including men, but more women, in Beijing and Shanghai, and in my entire study did not find one example of a woman in her late 20s who did not marry a man solely because he did not own home. Not a single example.
And yet I came across so many dozens and dozens of examples of young women, they may be 24, even, certainly 25 year olds, who are so worried that they are going to become a shengnü that they are desperate to get married. So it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to them that the man doesn’t own a home. And on the contrary, not only does it not matter, most women contribute heavily to the purchase of the home, but then they don’t own it. They forfeit ownership of this valuable asset. So it simply is a myth that is propagated by the media and the real estate developers and the matchmaking companies. But everyone believes it. And parents certainly believe it, which is critical, because parents actually are the ones who have the money to buy these homes and then parents’ patriarchal beliefs end up kind of dictating who gets the home and who doesn’t, to a large extent.
You can follow Leta Hong Fincher on Twitter at @LetaHong.
Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China is out now in hardback and ebook.
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