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 this, the third and final 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 intended audience for her book and the Western impression of gender inequality in China.
Catch up on part 1 and part 2 of our conversation.
I have a question more generally about this book, and, just out of curiosity, about your PhD and your dissertation. Was there always the idea to write a book for a general public? Or was this something that just came along as you worked on your research for your PhD?
I was approached by Zed Books. I wrote a few op-eds and Paul French, who is the series editor for Asian Arguments, asked me if I would be interested in writing a book for the general public. I’m a former journalist and I want my findings to be known in the world. I don’t want my findings to be circulated among a very small number of select academics because I am feel very concerned by what I found and I really kind of want this book to be a call to arms. I really hope that it is going to be translated into Chinese, for starters. But that, I don’t know. Zed is working on getting the name of publishers. But then, there are all sorts of censorship problems.
But another thing is that I think that there’s a huge misconception out there, outside China, about the status of women in China. And I get really upset about that. There are always these reports about female billionaires, and wow, women in China are so successful, and you know, China has one of the highest female labour force participation in the world! Which is true, but that’s falling. It used to be really high because of the planned economy but it’s fallen dramatically since then. It’s still relatively high now, but it’s falling dramatically.
I really have that feeling as well, that it’s either that China is an extremely sexist place or it’s some kind of wonderful gender-equal place, and it’s really neither. And it’s so much more complicated in ways that are different from how I am used to thinking about it having grown up learning about feminism and gender issues in Western countries. It’s not the problems I’m used to, I guess. That the problem is that there used to be 90% participation and now it’s falling. That isn’t a problem that I’ve had to think about before. And also that even when there was 90% participation in the workforce, there was still a lot of patriarchal norms that people lived by.
Yeah, absolutely. The history chapter that I have [ed. Chapter 4] cites some really good research on how difficult life was, particularly for rural women. Really heartbreaking, what these rural women had to go through. Even though, women, when you looked at their employment rate in the Mao era, or thereafter, (even in the 70’s it was very high) women still had the double burden of having to care for the kids and household chores in addition to working, and so those fundamental patriarchal norms remained the whole time.
But actually, they were really challenged. This is something you have to credit the Communist Party for. Actually, they gave everybody the sense that women should be working, and that’s still a rather strong ethic even today with the resurgence of gender inequality, in many ways. There’s still a very strong sense that a woman should be working. It’s just that labour participation is falling. There’s a big gap in employment. So I think there is a big backlash. I think the leftover women campaign in particular is a backlash against the tremendous educational gains of women in recent years. And certainly you see that with the Ministry of Education’s gender-based quotas which are relatively recent that favour men for admission to certain university programs. Again, it’s all part of pacifying men at the expense of women. Women are really excelling academically and they’re more educated today then ever before in China’s history. So what do you do with that? From the Chinese government’s perspective, well, they don’t want all these educated women to just decide that they don’t want to get married and have children. That would cause a tremendous population crisis, which they already have.
That said, another really important thing is that I did interview some young women who are so angry about the gender discrimination that they’ve decided to reject marriage altogether, that they’ve said that they don’t want to get married at all. And that is the government’s worst nightmare, because these are educated urban women. These are the very women that the government wants to have marry and have a child, or two children, because now they are whittling away at the one-child policy. But the fact is that I think that over the long-run, this is an example of evolving gender norms, that there are young women who are educated, who come out and say, I refuse to get married. Marriage is a bad institution in China. That is a very radical thing to say. Certainly, the government doesn’t want women to keep saying that.
The idea among families that their sons should own property, that men should own property, it seems like a very rural sort of tradition, of property passing onto men, and men only. And that that’s somehow part of being a man. That doesn’t make that much sense in the city, when we’re talking about city apartments as it does in the countryside when we’re talking about a plot of land for farming, but it’s carried over, right?
Yeah and there’s been a huge amount of research about the violation of women’s land rights, rural women’s land rights, in China, and actually around the world, not just China. A huge problem for rural women in developing countries, is that their land rights are violated and that some male family member gets all the land and the women is shut out of land and property ownership. So what’s happening is that China is urbanizing rapidly, and a lot of the people buying homes are young people who are living in the city, but their parents, who are heavily financing the home maybe are rural. And again, this goes back to the outdated patriarchal beliefs of the parents, because the young generation have to rely on their parents or elders to buy a home. So those old very outdated beliefs about gender just reemerge with a vengeance in the urban real estate market.
But I have to say, it’s not just a rural belief, because this is happening even among the urban generation, the young generation that have an urban hukou. So, even the young men and women who were born and raised in the big city, that have an urban hukou, and their parents are urban, some of them also have the same patriarchal beliefs. It’s just that if the woman is urban, she’s more likely to have more progressive beliefs or have aspirations for herself. She’s less likely to just unquestioningly accept that the man’s supposed to be the homeowner. But then, women whose parents are rural, who may have moved to the city when they were teenagers or in college, it’s probable that they have more patriarchal beliefs, that they’ve internalized that patriarchal ideology more.
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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