Leta Hong Fincher is a journalist and academic focusing on the issue of gender inequality in wealth and the so-called “leftover women” problem. In the second part of an in-depth interview conducted by phone about her new book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, we discussed the government’s campaign to encourage educated women to reproduce.
Read Part 1 of our discussion here.
I was also interested in your explanation about the propaganda campaign on leftover women and how that is related to quasi-eugenicist or eugenicist beliefs about encouraging “quality people” to marry [and produce children] and improve the quality of citizens. That was very interesting and something that I hadn’t heard talked about very much at all.
Right. Well, in 2007, China’s State Council came out with a very important population decision. They announced that China had a severe problem with the so-called “low quality” of the population, that it’s going to cause problems for China in the future, in the global marketplace, that it’s going to affect China’s ability to compete with other nations, because the quality of the population is too low. So they made it an urgent priority to “upgrade population quality” (tigao renkou suzhi). And then they designated certain agencies to be the primary implementers of the goal of upgrading population quality. One of the agencies they named was the Women’s Federation. And they also named the Public Security Bureau. Shortly after that population decision, the state media suddenly came out with all these Leftover Women media reports, news reports cartoons, commentaries, columns, and it was just ubiquitous.
And then, the Women’s Federation defined the term and the Ministry of Education adopted the term shengnü [ed: leftover woman] as part of its official lexicon. And it’s just amazing when you look at these reports and cartoons just how little they vary. Fundamentally it’s the same message, kind of reworded. It’s the same theme over and over again, year after year.
The basic message is targeting urban, educated, successful, professional women. And it shows these women as being too picky. They’re too focused on their careers. They’re overly ambitious. If they simply lowered their sights, and made more compromises, then they would easily find a man to marry. So it’s the woman’s fault that they are not getting married, that their standards are too high. And then there are a wide variety of insults hurled at these women: that they don’t like sex, that they’re afraid of commitment.
And I noticed that they are evolving. The propaganda machine is evolving now to include single, divorced mothers. Just a few months ago, I noticed Xinhua News came out with something talking about how single, divorced mothers also have an obligation to go out and get married again and that they shouldn’t use their children as an excuse not to get married. They also have a new category of so-called leftover women which is single female homeowners. They say that single women lull themselves into a false sense of security by buying a home of their own. In fact this is going to make it even more difficult for them to find a husband.
All of this is really tightening its hold on this group of urban, educated, professional women. And why are they focusing on these women? It’s because these women have, in the view of the government, higher quality. The government has a tradition of eugenics. These educated urban women are seen as having higher quality, but these are the very women who are choosing to delay marriage because they want to pursue their educations, because they want to pursue their careers. It’s a very natural thing to do and that’s what women around China are doing. In South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and even Hong Kong, women are delaying their age of first marriage and some of them are even rejecting marriage altogether.
And so the Chinese government feels this urgency, I believe, that they need to stop this trend. They have to get these educated women to get married and have a child because they see this as the basic function of a woman. Her duty to the nation is to have a child. But they are focusing on educated women. They’re not encouraging the illiterate rural woman to have children, because those women are considered to be of “low quality”.
That’s so interesting. You say that the government sees women’s sole purpose as giving birth. But at the same time, I sometimes get the feeling that people don’t have an awareness that there is this inequality, because (it’s less high now, but) women’s participation in the workforce is much higher in China than in many places. Things on the surface seem pretty good! There’s also the idea that everything was solved by Mao in 1949 and women were liberated. And when I bring up these issues with Chinese friends, they dismiss it.
Yeah, well, those people who dismiss it do so because they’ve been told to do so. That’s how they’ve been educated. But it’s a very important to note that during the Mao era, the Communist Party really did put a heavy emphasis on employing urban women. So the female labour force participation in the cities at the end of the 70s was around 90% or even higher. And that was because everybody was supposed to work. The government actually wanted to enlist women’s labour power to help build the nation and fuel economic growth. But what’s really interesting and disturbing now is that the government doesn’t seem to care anymore about female labour force participation, because the urban rate for women’s employment is actually dropping quite dramatically, if you look at the census statistics. And the government, on the contrary, rather than trying to encourage more women to stay in the workforce, is doing the opposite. Basically, the Leftover Women campaign is a form of these other campaigns, the Women Return to the Home campaigns that they’ve had off and on again over the years.
And I think that the government see unemployment among men as a threat to social security but it doesn’t see the same with women. In fact, there are academics who’ve said that the solution to the unemployment problem is to have all women return to the home. There are quite a few people who say that publicly.
There’s a huge contrast between China’s approach to gender and economic growth, compared to Japan and South Korea. Japan has long been rightly criticised for having low female labour force participation, but recently Prime Minister Abe has gone public with these big initiatives to try to retain women in the workforce longer, and to set quotas for corporations and to appoint a certain number of senior women in the management level. And South Korea’s doing the same thing. So, those countries that are also quite patriarchal and similar in many ways in their traditions and norms to China, they’re actually at least saying publicly that they need to do something about it to address the problem. But the Chinese government is doing the opposite.
I think it really boils down to, first of all, the government’s obsession with population quality. That’s very important for the government. So you have to have these educated women have children, otherwise… I mean, the population is already ageing. So, how is China going to compete in the future if they don’t have enough young people of so-called “higher quality”? And then another problem is the obsession with social stability. All the surplus men, the tens of millions of surplus men, are seen as a threat to social stability and so the government is worried about angering unemployed men who can’t find brides but it’s not worried about affecting women.
And the fact is that, unfortunately, a lot of women do believe and swallow all of the propaganda. They’ve been educated to think this way, so they don’t have a problem with it. But then again, as I’ve said, at the beginning, that’s just a part of the population. There’s a significant number, a very significant number of young people who actually do believe in gender equality and have much more progressive values.
You can follow Leta Hong Fincher on Twitter at @LetaHong.
Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China is out now in paperback and as an ebook.
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