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Column: China’s Sexist ‘Leftover Women’ Campaign

Washington

China’s government has some advice for the country’s young, highly educated women: Get married early, or you’ll regret it.

The official propaganda puts it more eloquently. “As women age, they are worth less and less,” one government article reads. “So by the time they get their M.A. or Pd.D., they are already old, like yellowed pearls.”

Another article, published by Xinhua, the state news agency, bluntly demands that women stop being so picky and just settle down: “Does the perfect man exist? Maybe he does exist, but why on earth would he want to marry you?”

A better question is why China’s leaders would want to push a generation of professional women back into the home at a time when Japan and South Korea are desperately trying to leverage the economic potential of women workers. At the World Economic Forum in January, for example, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted that increasing women’s labor participation could boost Japan’s GDP by as much as 16 percent. Other studies suggest that restricting job opportunities for women costs Asia $46 billion a year.

The answer, argues sociologist Leta Hong Fincher, lies in the Chinese government’s determination to maintain social order at all costs, a subject she explores in her forthcoming book, Leftover Women. The book’s title refers to a pejorative term, sheng nu, used by the government to describe unmarried women in their mid- to late-20s. Fincher argues that the “leftover women” campaign — comprised of media propaganda, mass matchmaking events and bogus studies about the debilitating effects of singledom — are one piece of a larger state effort to control women, and society, through economic and cultural means.

As Asian women have attained higher education levels and more economic opportunity, they have begun delaying marriage. That trend hasn’t yet reached China but, presumably, as Chinese women get more educated, they, too, will choose to focus on their careers and put off marriage. But that, Fincher argues, would undermine government population goals, and would — according to one Xinhua report she cites — “greatly increase the risk of social instability and insecurity.” A surplus of young, unmarried men is evidently a dangerous prospect for an authoritarian state.

“There’s no indication whatsoever that the government is concerned about losing talented women from the work force,” Fincher said in an interview. “China sees social stability as the bigger problem, because it threatens the fabric of the Communist Party. … A harmonious family is the foundation of a harmonious society.”

By Fincher’s estimation, the campaign has been remarkably effective. Though Chinese women are more educated than ever before, the average marriage age hasn’t increased over the past decade. And Chinese women — at least the several hundred that Fincher interviewed — are so anxious about becoming “leftover” that they’re going to extraordinary lengths to get married, sometimes with virtual strangers.

The trend has facilitated an incredible transfer of wealth from women to men. It’s customary in China for couples to pool their savings and buy a marital home even before they’re married. But even though women contribute financially to 70 percent of marital homes, their names appear on only 30 percent of the deeds, according to recent studies cited by Fincher. “Chinese women,” she writes, “have been shut out of arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history, worth more than $27 trillion in 2012.”

The reasons for Chinese women’s willingness to sign away their assets is partly cultural (marriages tend to be patriarchal) and partly legal, the consequence of regulations governing real estate transactions (listing two names can be both inconvenient and bureaucratically inefficient).

But the outcome is the same: According to a 2011 interpretation of China’s marriage law cited by Fincher, marital property belongs entirely to the person whose name appears on the deed for the couple’s home, regardless of whose money paid for it. That so many women go along with this scheme is evidence, Fincher suggests, of how deeply women have internalized the sexist message of the “Leftover Women” campaign.

That unequal arrangement manifests itself in a particularly sinister way for women who are the victims of domestic violence. Fincher argues that China’s marriage campaign pushes women to get married too soon, to men they don’t really know, which increases the risk of marrying someone who will physically abuse them. The fact that a husband is likely to own and control all marital assets, moreover, renders many women helpless to leave an abusive relationship.

But times are changing, whether the state likes it or not. “There’s evidence that gender norms really are evolving among young men and women alike,” Fincher said. “It’s not just educated women who want more freedom and independence — there are quite a few men who express that ideal for women as well.”

Catherine Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.