"I quit a promising career in management to get married at 26. Twelve years later, I saw myself forced to brave the job market at 38, with a child to raise, amidst a battle for divorce and securing a marital allowance that could help me keep both of us," said Yuan Yuan, who left her husband when she found out that he had been keeping mistresses for years. Although Yuan's family contributed heavily to help the young couple purchase a home in Beijing, and while she put her time, effort and more money into making it a home, the wife's name was not included in the house deed. "Looking back, although I loved my husband, I think I rushed into marriage; but 26 is considered the right time for tying the knot and my parents kept asking for a grandchild," said Yuan. Now in her late 30s, Yuan is positive about her future. Putting her knowledge of languages to good use, Yuan is currently working as an assistant manager at a multinational firm. "My divorce was not that bad compared to other cases in which women have no schooling or ended up as victims of domestic violence," she said.
A researcher on gender and wealth equality in China, Leta Hong Fincher argues that a combination of economic restructuring and state-controlled media have actually added pressure on women to settle down in the home.
"One of the focuses of my research and book focus of my book is the state media campaign about so-called leftover women - who are defined as urban educated women who are in their late 20's - that has been churned out very aggressively since 2007. Because the propaganda department has a monopoly on information and the media is still very tightly controlled, this message is really getting through to a lot of young women and is having a very damaging effect on urban, educated women in their late 20's specifically," said the PhD in sociology.
One of the consequences of this campaign on leftover women is that it stigmatizes urban, educated and single women over the age of 27. The pressure from the media builds up social pressure from parents, colleagues and friends, with a lot of young women abandoning their efforts to pursue higher education to focus instead on getting married before they become “too old” to find a husband. Many end up rushing into marriage without considering their economic interests first. In China, parents usually buy homes for their sons, who are usually under pressure to provide real estate upon marriage.
"China's real estate boom in the past decade, with skyrocketing house prices makes it very difficult today for a young couple getting married to buy a home. So often young women and men buy a home even before they get married. But the vast majority of homes in China today are still registered under the man's name. And yet I found that in most cases, the woman uses her finances for the purchase of the home, so she will transfer her life savings over to the man to buy a home, which is in the man's name only. Women end up without formal ownership of this very valuable asset," Fincher explained.
To make matters worse, China's supreme court amended the marriage law in 2011 stating that property purchased by a couple belongs to the person whose name is on the deed. "This means that all these women who are married and contributed heavily to purchasing these very expensive homes, that are by far the family's most valuable asset, are effectively forfeiting ownership of that asset," the author said.
Fincher's book points out that the real estate boom, combined with deeply entrenched patriarchal values, has created an unprecedented gender wealth gap, leaving women largely shut out of what she calls the biggest accumulation of residential real estate wealth in history. After the end of 2012, residential real estate in China was worth over US$ 28 trillion.
"That creation of tremendous gender inequality and wealth has all sorts of consequences. If women get divorced they tend to lose all that wealth but even if they don't divorce, this inequality in wealth and disadvantaged position affects and decreases her bargaining power within the marriage. This can lead to all sorts of other abuses, namely, rampant domestic violence." Fincher talks of an epidemic of spousal abuse. Official statistics state that one quarter of women have experienced domestic violence, but after having interviewed dozens of women Fincher claims her research shows this figure underestimates the severity of the problem. Exact figures are difficult to get as many women keep silent about being victims of domestic violence.
Women are quickly losing ground but optimistic media reports and public discourse seem poised to highlight the achievements of the few to the detriment of the overall of the female situation in the post-socialist era.
In an article entitled China's entrenched gender gap, Fincher described women that are not only being labelled as leftover, they are being left behind. A 2010 census that put the percentage of working-age women in the work force at 74% is decried as not reliable enough, even though it put China alongside developed countries like Sweden (87,5%) and the US (75%).
China's figures in this census were boosted by including women working in the countryside, since nearly half of the population in China is still rural. But other studies show that the situation for urban women has worsened. China’s urban employment rate for working-age women fell to a new low of 60.8 percent in 2010, down from 77.4 percent 20 years earlier, according to census figures. The 2010 rate was 20.3 percentage points lower than that of men.
"This troubling trend matters because the effort to move people from the countryside to cities is a top policy priority of China’s new leaders — one that they see as crucial to boosting economic growth.
China’s urbanisation rate is set to rise to 53.37 percent this year, and Chinese state media say that 60 percent of China’s population of nearly 1.4 billion will likely be urban dwellers by 2020. Yet the presumed economic benefits of urbanisation cannot be realised if the talents of half the country’s population — women — are largely squandered in the process.
The decline in urban women’s labor participation looks even worse if you go further back, to the end of the 1970s, when studies showed that over 90 percent of working-age women in cities were employed.
Historians agree that tens of millions of employees at state-owned enterprises were laid-off in the 1990s as part of a new economic model for the national economy. Women were disproportionately fired over men. Many of the women were later rehired at much lower rates than men who were fired.
"About 68 percent of women were laid-off and sent to early retirement in the late 1980s and 1990s," estimated women's studies experts Wang Zheng. "With the implementation of a market economy, managers were given the power to assign jobs, step up efficiency and reduce labor costs. Women were simply not seen as productive and lost the jobs that had been created for them during Mao's planned economy," said Wang.
Co-author of the book The Birth of Chinese feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory Rebecca Karl agrees that the logic of development that came with reform and opening up deteriorated the role of working women. "Under a capitalistic logic of development focused on productivity, reproduction is a drag on production and therefore women become expendable. The shift in economic logic over the 1980s and particularly after 1989 and through the 1990s, really was a death blow to any broad social awareness or move towards gender equality. Except a small number of women who benefited from these changes, the vast majority have not and certainly the public discourse on women in China is not improving in that direction," Karl said.
Karl's co-authored book focuses on and brings to the spotlight the image of He-Yin Zhen, a Chinese woman who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century (See Famous Feminists gallery for details) and who published numerous essays on female labor and transforming economic systems. According to Karl, He-Yin Zhen's argument that there is no liberation of women without a fundamental restructuring of economic systems in which women's labor is not devalued compared to men's , resonates hugely today, and is an enormous issue in China as well as in countries across the globe, from Vietnam, to the US, Mexico and somehow everywhere.
"He-Yin Zhen's analysis of the ways in which global capitalism does not get rid of pre-existing social forms but instead of doing away with traditional family principles, uses those forms for its own purposes, is still absolutely true today," noted Karl. "Migrant labor in China functions according to a logic that takes advantage of women being somehow embedded in the home and uses this as a mode of capital accumulation. Women can always be spit back into rural areas once their labor capacity has been used up, they don't need to be sustained in urban areas and they can be expelled since their families will take them back. Her analysis in the ways the growth of capitalist preys upon and uses traditional gender oppression in order to advance its own purposes, is relevant today," she said.