Single, urban, highly educated, unmarried women in their late twenties are deemed ‘leftover women’ or ‘shengnu’ by a state-backed campaign that rolls back gender equality rights, according to Leta Hong Fincher. She is the author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014), and the first American granted a PhD in Sociology from Tsinghua University. Her research points to the emergence of the term, shengnu, in 2007, when the All-China Women’s Federation started using the term, and with Chinese state media widely propagating reports on the so-called leftover women phenomenon. 

We spoke with Fincher over the phone and she gave us some new insights on the ‘leftover’ women discourse in China. Below is an edited excerpt of our Q&A session.

Young China Watchers (YCW): You wrote that the leftover women campaign really started in 2007, when state-sponsored media and the Women’s Federation started aggressively promoting the term. What kinds of changes, if any, have there been about the leftover women discourse since then?

Leta Hong Fincher (LF): It doesn’t appear to be as aggressive as it was for the first six or so years.  In part, I think that’s because there’s been so much news coverage criticizing the term for being sexist.  There’s been a big outcry on Weibo.  And so the state media has also been, I think, responsive to that outcry…But with regard to how they define, so-called leftover women, there’s also been an evolution because it’s a long time – seven years, and society changes very rapidly in China.

I noticed they’ve come up with some new categories of some leftover women, for example, the single, divorced mother…this kind of woman who has children, who is not going out and looking out for another husband is behaving badly because she’s neglecting her natural biological needs as a woman and her children are going to end up blaming her for sacrificing her life for them. They blame her for using her children as an excuse to avoid looking for another marriage partner. So that’s particularly bad.

Another new sub-category of so-called leftover women is single female homeowners. I’ve seen quite a few reports talking about how these single women who buy their own homes are just deluding themselves into thinking they have economic security.  But in fact, by buying a home, that’s going to be very intimidating to men and going to make it much less likely for women to find a husband in the future – so this is a bad idea, according to Xinhua news. That’s another way the propaganda has evolved.

Another report I came across…was aimed at the parents of these so-called leftover women…there’s been more of an emphasis on the parents and the older generation because a lot of the younger generation of women in China are no longer buying into the very gender discriminatory norms that are being pushed by the state media for years. But I haven’t seen an end to the media campaign. It’s just changing its rhetoric and coming up with new ways to keep up the marriage pressure on these single, educated women.

YCW: You also write that this campaign was meant to address the sex-ratio imbalance and ‘upgrade’ the population. But with easing of the one-child policy, would this ‘leftover’ woman category still be relevant to the state?

LF: I can’t predict how long the media campaign stigmatizing these single, educated women will go on.  It’s still going on now…it’s possible that the media campaign in its current form will actually end, and I’m sure it will at some point. But that doesn’t mean that [state-driven promotion of] marriage is going to end.  The state is concerned, it’s very obvious,…with what it considers to be the quality of the population.

When I looked into the origin of the term, this was one of the key factors, I believe, in this whole media campaign to begin with.  In the beginning of 2007, China’s State Council came out with an important population decision. They said the Chinese government had a severe problem with the so-called low quality of its population, and it needed to upgrade the quality.  And by [that]…they mean things like genetic makeup.

China’s population planning policy has had this strain of eugenics for quite a few decades.  So this is nothing new, actually.  But the media campaign targeting these so-called leftover women is new.

So getting back to your question about the one-child policy. [It] was most rigidly enforced in the cities.  With the loosening of the policy, the most important impact is in the cities. It’s not going to be in the countryside because even when the one-child policy was most rigidly enforced throughout China, throughout the countryside, local officials often routinely allowed couples to have more than one child if their first child was a girl. That was routine practice and there are many countryside parts of the country,…where families have three children or even more…Leftover women, as defined by the government, are single, urban, educated women.  So the leftover women campaign is not targeting rural women because the government doesn’t want rural women to have more children.  [Instead] it wants urban, educated women to have more children.  So I don’t think that the loosening of the one-child policy is going to affect marriage pressure on these urban, educated women.

YCW: Have you received any pushback about your work – either from authorities or the Chinese public?

LF: In terms of official pushback from the government, I haven’t seen anything overt, although I’ve certainly heard from some people who work with the All-China Women’s Federation that the Women’s Federation is not happy with my argument, and that is understandable because I really criticize the women’s federation for not standing up for women’s rights, and they deserve to be criticized for that…

If you’re talking about just people in China, or Chinese citizens who don’t like what I say, yes there are some people who, particularly men, who don’t like my argument because it’s very feminist. First of all, I have to say, that the overwhelming response I’ve received from young Chinese women has been very positive and enthusiastic, but I’m making a very provocative and very bold argument about sexism in China.  And so it’s only natural that there are going to be some people who don’t like my argument, and that some women also don’t like it. Some women are very nationalistic and they feel that I’m attacking China and they’re trying to defend China.  That tends to be the tone of the criticism – that I am not a Chinese national and don’t understand China, therefore I can’t really criticize the country.

YCW: Arguably, there hasn’t really been a history of a women’s rights movement in China that is independent of national or social policy.  Could this change in the near future?  Are there grassroots women activists in China?

LF: I interviewed some of these grassroots women activists and featured them in my book, so there definitely are…in China. However, can you really call that a genuine social movement that is large-scale [with] an impact across the country – … I personally don’t think you can call that a genuine women’s movement, it’s just not big enough. And that is not criticism of these feminist activists. It’s simply a statement about civil society in China. The government has placed very tight constraints on these grassroots organizations…for example, even if you become a registered so-called non-governmental organization, and there are these women’s rights NGOs, they can be shut down.

Just a few months ago, the anti-domestic violence network, which is the most influential NGO that worked on issues of domestic violence and women’s rights abuses, was shut down. And so the people involved…now have to regroup and come up with another organization. That’s the political environment in China. And I do not see a genuine independent, large-scale women’s rights movement emerging now. I think that unless the political environment changes radically, I don’t foresee it in the immediate future. Or maybe in the medium term, maybe after 10 years, but again, we’re talking about predictions and I get very uncomfortable in making predictions.

– Interview by Phoebe Yu

Speaker Interview – Leta Hong Fincher: China’s ‘Leftover Women’
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