Interview: Leta Hong Fincher on Advances and Setbacks in Women’s Rights Over the Past Decade

In 2014, Leta Hong Fincher published her first book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, which used the lens of home ownership and marital property rights to examine women’s rights in China and the broader social, political, and economic factors that have prevented Chinese women from achieving full equality. Hong Fincher interviewed hundreds of women, many of whom shared deep unease and fear about entering into a marriage and giving birth under such a fundamentally unequal system. Since the book was published, both marriage and childbirth rates have plummeted in China. For the past nine years, China’s marriage rate has declined every year, with  6.8 million couples registering  for marriage in 2022, compared to 13.5 million in 2013. In 2022, the country’s birth rate dropped to a record low, despite the government easing the one-child policy in 2017. At the same time, an ongoing crackdown on speech and activism has continued unabated since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, specifically targeting feminist activists, many of whom have since fled overseas. This year, in an effort to boost the country’s declining birth rate, Xi Jinping recently launched a campaign to promote a “new marriage and childbirth culture” in China, encouraging young women to marry and have children. In order to document and analyze these changes in Chinese society in the ten years since her book was published, Hong Fincher has issued a revised edition published this week by Bloomsbury.

Leta Hong Fincher was the first American to receive her PhD in Sociology from Tsinghua University in Beijing. She has worked as a journalist and, in addition to Leftover Women, has published Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, a portrait of the feminist movement in China and its participants. She is also a Research Associate at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University. Read previous CDT interviews with Hong Fincher about the first edition of Leftover Women, and Betraying Big Brother. She spoke to us recently about her new book and developments in women’s rights in China over the past ten years.

China Digital Times: This updated edition of the book seems like a natural and inevitable progression from the first edition, largely because so many of the nascent trends you spotted have become more or less full-fledged social change in the past 10 years. In particular, you revealed fears and doubts among Chinese women towards marriage and childbirth. And in the past 10 years since the book was published, marriage and childbirth rates have plummeted. Have you been surprised by the speed with which attitudes towards these institutions have changed? 

Leta Hong Fincher: I am certainly not surprised at the direction because I was very confident when I wrote this book about everything that I put in it. And I knew, and I wrote in the book, that if women’s rights in China don’t improve, that it’s quite likely that you’re going to see more and more of these young women just turning away from marriage. Even just talking about the turn away from marriage, that’s a dramatic development, in terms of the size, the impact on nationwide birth rates and marriage rates. Now, that has been a surprise to me, because it’s such a seismic change, a really stunning development. It’s so large that last year, China’s population shrank for the first time, and now India has surpassed China as the world’s most populous country. So that in itself is a huge change. I’m surprised by the dramatic speed and the magnitude of the change, but not by the direction. 

In fact, even in the original version of the book, I have quite a lot of interviews with young women in their 20s, some even in their early 20s, who were extremely radical in their rejection of marriage. And I was really taken aback at the time, meeting these young women who were so militant, and they said, “There is no way I’m ever going to get married. Marriage is a living hell in China,” and all sorts of things. I tell a lot of these women’s stories. So I could see, there were definitely young women over 10 years ago who felt this way, but you just couldn’t see that attitude in the statistics. The statistics at the time showed that virtually all women in China were still getting married, although the average age of first time marriage was increasing somewhat. So I haven’t been surprised that more and more young women are turning away from marriage. My second book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, went into the birth of what I described as a major political feminist movement, with a real awakening among especially young women in China, about how sexist society is. I was so struck by that new consciousness of sexism and consciousness about their own rights and wanting to speak up more about their rights that I wrote another book about it. 

But it is really still stunning to see literally, when you look at the statistics, millions and millions of young women just saying no to marriage and childbirth. I’m really heartened by that. In the new edition in particular, I write about how when I was conducting a lot of those original interviews over 10 years ago, I would get so demoralized. Of course, there were the women who said, “There’s no way in hell I’m going to get married.” But really the majority of the women I interviewed, at the time, were not saying that. They were just passively accepting a blatantly unequal relationship, unequal in so many ways. And these were really young women, in their early to late 20s, in many cases, sometimes in their early 30s. And it made me very sad to hear how unhappy they were in their relationships, even before they married, and yet they would go into the marriage anyway. Or they would accept this outrageously unequal situation where they handed over their life savings to their boyfriend, to finance the purchase of a marital home. And the property deed would exclude the woman’s name, so then she would be completely shut out of that enormous source of wealth, which is the biggest asset, by far, of Chinese people today. There are many, many stories like that in this book. And that really made me sad. I would try time and time again, talking to these women, I would ask them, “Do you really think this is fair, the way you’re being treated?” And, “Why are you going through with this marriage?” But as a researcher, I wasn’t their friend, I was interviewing them. I felt quite sad a lot of the time because I wanted to say, “Please don’t go through with the wedding. You don’t have to do it. You’re so young.” But a lot of these young women also explained to me, they felt the pressure to marry was so intense. They also described why they decided to go ahead with the marriage anyway. At the time, this was going back to 2011, 2012, 2013, there wasn’t a real feminist discourse that was mainstream at that time. These women felt privately, very desperate and very unhappy about their situation, really unhappy about the injustice of it, but thought there was nothing they could do about it. Obviously, there’s a range of opinions. There were women who initially fought back, fought with their boyfriends or fiancés, fought with their husbands and tried to get their name on the property deed. But then they would end up giving up because all of the different societal pressures, including from the government, including from their own parents, who discriminated against their daughters in so many ways, that the pressure was just too intense, and they would give up. And so in revisiting this book later, in spite of this overall deterioration in women’s rights, particularly within the institution of marriage, overall I am so much more hopeful, because I see individual women really taking charge of their destiny and saying, “No, I don’t have to get married. I don’t want to and I don’t want to have a child.” That gives me a lot of hope, in spite of all of the bad things that have been happening under Xi Jinping.

CDT: Speaking of the pressure that women feel from society and their parents and the government, your book title Leftover Women is taken from a disparaging term that’s used, especially by the government, to describe and shame women who are in or past their late 20s, who haven’t married. Has the propaganda changed in its attitudes toward women and marriage in the past 10 years? You’ve touched on this a little bit, but have attitudes in broader society changed, especially among the women themselves?

LHF: That term [“leftover women”] is still widely used in propaganda. It’s not as prominent in headlines, I think because it’s so old. The government first started propagating the term all the way back in 2007. So that’s 16 years ago. So the term itself has lost its potency as something really poisonous. One thing that surprised me about the propaganda was when I was looking it up, just doing a refresher on what’s the latest pro-marriage, pro-natalist propaganda, I looked up all of the examples of the propaganda from my original book. And with very, very few exceptions, they are still being circulated today, by state media, almost verbatim—with slight changes in wording, the headline is different. So the pro-marriage push is still very, very strong. Xi Jinping just said himself, at this every five-year conference of the All China Women’s Federation, that China needs to embrace a new culture of marriage and childbearing. So that’s coming straight out of his mouth. But really, this has been going on ever since 2007 which I originally documented. The propaganda has the same goal, but in addition to being strongly pro-marriage today, it’s also strongly pro-natalist. 

When I originally wrote this book and was doing interviews for it, China was still officially under the one-child policy. The propaganda was really focused on pushing women into getting married, and there was the pro-natalist element there that once these women get married, they’re supposed to have a baby. But back then, when I was doing my interviews, 2011 through 2013, the propaganda couldn’t say, “Now you need to have three babies,” it was, “You need to have your baby during your, ‘best childbearing years,’” which are ideally, according to propaganda, between 24 and 29. So there was already this scare element. It’s all scare-mongering, scaring women into thinking they have to hurry up and get married, or no man will ever want them. And then also the scare-mongering around birth defects, that if you don’t have your baby while you’re still in your 20s, then your baby’s going to have a birth defect. Today, it’s very heavily pro-natalist because of course China has now adopted a three-child policy. Marriage is definitely a part of it because China’s population engineering program still is not encouraging single women to have babies at all. You have to go through the marital process, because marriage is seen as a politically stabilizing institution. It’s also just heterosexual; same-sex marriage is still illegal. This is a way the government can promote political stability by pushing men and women into these marital relationships, and then only in the marriage institution, are you really allowed total freedom to have babies and now you’re very strongly pushed to have three babies. So there’s a lot of that propaganda. 

I would say that in general, the tone is still shockingly misogynistic. But there is also a lot more positive propaganda–which is ridiculous–showing how happy you can be as a young woman. People’s Daily sometimes runs pieces about young women who can actually have babies while they’re still in college. That’s just preposterous, absolutely preposterous. “Look how happy you’re going to be, if you become a mother early. You can do it while you’re still in school!” But there’s still the punitive element that “You better hurry up, or you’re going to miss out, you’re never going to be able to get married.” But the term 剩女 [shèngnǚ, leftover women]  itself, because it’s been around for so long, doesn’t have as prominent a scaremongering roll in the headlines. It’s just kind of naturalized. 

As you can see from these stunning statistics on birth rates and marriage rates falling for so many years—consecutively, the marriage rate has fallen every single year since 2013 and the birth rate has been falling since 2017—young women are increasingly ignoring the propaganda. They have a lot more of a sense of solidarity with other like-minded women. And I would add, there’s a lot of content in the book as well about LGBTQ+ communities, there’s a lot of overlap there. I have quite a lot of interviews with queer young women and men as well, and how they’re affected by this pro-marriage, pro-natalist policy and propaganda. But more and more young people are rejecting the propaganda. That’s really good, and that gives me a lot of hope. 

However, what is incredibly ominous is that the pressure from the central government is intensifying, and it’s going to get a lot worse. A lot of the propaganda is aimed more at the older generation now, the parents, and so of course, the most effective form of pressure for daughters in particular to get married comes from their parents. Some of the examples I give in the book are the most heartbreaking, like one example of a mother threatening to throw herself off a building if her daughter doesn’t get married, and the daughter wasn’t even 30 years old yet. That’s just heartbreaking. Yes, young men come under marriage pressure and pressure to have children as well. But in my research, the pressure is so much greater on young women, and the propaganda is as well. And the pressure from parents—it’s very, very difficult to shrug that off if you’re a daughter, and your own parents whom you really love, and you want to honor, and they’re just telling you, “You’ve got to get married, stop my suffering, it’s your fault that I’m suffering.” It’s very personal, that is incredibly intensely emotional. The younger generation can ignore the propaganda, but it’s very hard to completely ignore your own parents and your family. So that pressure is just intensifying, and it’s going to get a lot worse. 

Another thing is that in addition to having this new three-child policy, the government has made it much more difficult to get a vasectomy now. And there is little by little slight changes in wording about the availability of abortion. This is a big concern of mine: what restrictions on abortion may be introduced? I don’t think that there would be a nationwide ban on abortion announced. I think that the pushback would be really extreme coming from especially young Chinese people. But things are going to be very difficult for women, especially young women, who are in their 20s and early 30s, who are coming under that kind of pressure. I expect that pressure and that kind of intervention from local government officials, intervention into private lives of families and young people, is going to increase.

CDT: With this switch from the one-child policy to the three-child policy, can you discuss how eugenics has played a role in the implementation of the policy change, especially for Uyghur and other minority women?

LHF: Yes, that’s another really huge change since I first wrote this book. I did write about eugenics in the first book, because when I was looking at this whole propaganda campaign using the term “leftover women” it was stigmatizing, specifically, college educated Han Chinese women who are in the [ethnic] majority, targeting this demographic of educated Han Chinese women in their 20s and early 30s, pushing them into getting married. The language and the imagery around the propaganda makes it very clear that that’s who they’re targeting. They use the term “high quality” (高素质, gāo sùzhì), saying that these women need to get married and have babies. I made the argument through my analysis of the situation in my interviews. I believed that this propaganda campaign was aimed not only at pushing these educated women into getting married, but also aimed at “upgrading population quality,” because right after the 2007 propaganda campaign about leftover women began there was the State Council decision, saying that China has a severe problem with the, “low quality of its population,” that China’s going to have a lot of trouble competing globally and it needs to, “upgrade population quality.” It has to do with developing a skilled worker base of the future. 

At the time, there wasn’t this mass targeting and oppression and mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and that changed under Xi Jinping. 2017 was a turning point where not only did you have the mass detention of Uyghurs, but you also had this huge campaign across Xinjiang targeting especially Uyghur and Kazakh women, forcibly sterilizing a lot of them, forcibly inserting IUDs if the women had already had three children, because at that time, they were supposedly allowed to have three children. Minorities were allowed to have one child more than Han Chinese families. I added a section to the new book talking about this, and I interviewed one woman with just a really harrowing story about being a Uyghur woman who managed to escape China. She described being forcibly sterilized. And before she was forcibly sterilized, she was actually arbitrarily detained as well. 

At the national central government level in 2017, when the Chinese government had ended their one-child policy, they announced that all married couples in China would now be allowed to have two children. So that’s a relaxation of birth restrictions for Han Chinese married couples. But for ethnic minorities, that was a tight restriction on their reproductive rights, because prior to 2017, you were allowed as an ethnic minority to have three children. And in fact, local officials turned a blind eye to a lot of ethnic minority families that had many more than three children. It’s clear eugenics is a part of China’s population engineering policies. It’s very clearly stated in fact. It used to be more clearly stated, but it’s still there, optimizing population. 

When the government is really alarmed at the falling birth rates, in general, they’re speaking about the majority Han Chinese population where the birth rate is plummeting. But if you look at the birth rates in Xinjiang, they have really even more dramatically fallen since 2017. A lot of people have done research on this. That’s the result of forcible intervention, including forced abortions, or sterilizations. And that is just the eugenics population planning in action because these women are seen as perceived troublemakers and seen as “low quality.” The Chinese propaganda says that high birth rates in Xinjiang are a threat to social stability. But then when they’re talking about low birth rates among the Han Chinese majority, low birth rates are seen as a threat to social stability. Because you have all these millions of men who don’t have women because of the sex ratio imbalance—there are around 30 million more men in China than women, and all of these millions of men are not going to be able to find a wife. So it’s always this obsession with social stability. That’s another major change over the last decade.

CDT: Shifting the topic a little bit, your book largely focuses on women’s low rate of real estate ownership to demonstrate other economic and social inequalities they face. And in this new edition, you acknowledge that women’s homeownership has increased in the past 10 years, but say that they’ve already missed out on the greatest growth period in the real estate market in China. Right now, real estate in China is facing a crisis, with several major developers defaulting on their debts and the real estate bubble imploding. How has this housing crisis affected women in China in particular?

LHF: There’s no question women have missed out on this gigantic accumulation of wealth in the form of property because they were shut out of that real estate boom, in all these different ways, through gender discrimination, through government policy, discrimination from their own families, those kinds of things. But now that the real estate boom is over, there are surveys indicating that there are more single women who are buying homes in their own name. I can’t say this very scientifically, but I fear that basically now these housing developers are having trouble finding people to buy housing, single women are the ones who really want to buy. They’ve been wanting to buy for more than a decade, but they were shut out by unaffordable prices. So yes, you see more single women buying homes in their own name, and that’s good for the women, as long as the real estate market doesn’t completely crash, which I don’t think it will because it is, after all, not a totally free market, it’s supported by the state. The state doesn’t want real estate, certainly not residential real estate, to completely crash. 

It’s certainly an indication of this big demographic shift where young women are thinking more about how to lead the lives they want—they want more independence, they don’t want to marry, and they don’t want to have children as much as they used to. They want more economic independence, and they want a home of their own. There are real estate developers who clearly see an opportunity to market to single women who want economic independence and want their own home. And so they’re targeting that demographic. But at the same time, if you look at the housing restrictions that are still in place for consumers buying housing, you still generally will have a much easier time buying a home if you’re married. There’s still a real bias towards men buying. And it’s still very difficult. If you don’t have a hukou [household registration] from that city, it’s still very difficult, in some of the biggest cities like Beijing and Shanghai, to buy a home. As we speak, in Shanghai, if you don’t have a Shanghai hukou, you’re still not allowed as a single woman to buy a home. Maybe that policy will change. The fact that there are more single women buying homes is another indication of how young women are really trying as hard as they can to take control of their lives. And it’s something that gives me hope. 

CDT: In the preface to your book, you discuss that your initial research and essays based on it were pretty widely circulated in China initially, and that they had a significant impact there. In addition, a Chinese version of your first edition was published, albeit a censored one. It’s hard to imagine today any of those publications being allowed to circulate in China. Can you discuss how increased censorship over the past 10 years has impacted your ongoing research? And also more generally, how it’s affected the ability of women in China to express themselves, to access information, and to find solidarity online over the past 10 years?

LHF: There are really two parts to that. One, there is no question, I could not do this again, if I went back to China and tried to duplicate this entire study. First of all, I would require enormous resources, because it was a massive study, where I interviewed many hundreds of people and I did a lot of face to face interviews. But I also relied initially on Weibo to advertise the survey. I had about 1000 people getting back to me, and then I had to cut it off there because that was too many people. Then I directed them to an email account that I created. The people I couldn’t interview face to face, I did online interviews with. But then some of the discussions I had were also just through private messages on Weibo, which I just can’t even imagine being able to do today. It is just so aggressively surveilled. If you’re not an academic based in China, then your access is also really heavily restricted. And if you are an academic based in China, you’re even more closely monitored by your university, by the Communist Party. They monitor you much more tightly than they did when I was doing my PhD at Tsinghua. I don’t even know if I would be accepted to the PhD program if I applied. I can’t even imagine being able to write my dissertation on this topic at Tsinghua. So that’s one element of it. I did a lot of new interviews with people who were outside China. But also I hired a couple of research assistants to do some interviews for me. I didn’t want to put anybody at risk with the new interviews. But all of the old interviews that I did stand up really well. 

With regard to the censorship online in China, there is a massive anti-feminist crackdown going on. Individual feminist accounts have been deleted en masse. Feminist discourse is heavily censored, much more so than it was all the way back to when I started my research in 2011. At that time, Weibo was only just taking off. And so at that time, it was in the Weibo Spring, when people were discussing their ideas more freely, even though there was of course censorship at the time. In 2011, 2012, even 2013, there was still a lot of vibrant discussion happening online. Today, what is so interesting, and this is one of the fascinating things about contemporary China, is that in spite of this incredibly aggressive censorship, and surveillance from the government, that there is still space for conversations among young feminists who identify themselves online as feminists, in spite of the anti-feminist crackdown. It’s less of a public identification as feminist than just discussing things like, “I really don’t want to marry.” Then it’s much easier to reach out and find your online community of other young women who don’t want to get married: How do you deal with pressure from your parents to marry? How do you deal with all that family pressure when you go home over the Lunar New Year, and your entire extended family is nagging at you, “Why aren’t you married yet?” Those kinds of discussions are still pretty vibrant. That shows you that civil society hasn’t been completely killed. 

Another interesting thing is that even though discussions of feminist topics about China specifically are much more heavily censored, you have somebody like this Japanese sociologist, the feminist Chizuko Ueno, whose books have been translated into Chinese. And her books are best sellers in China, books about everyday feminism. Her books do not explicitly talk about problems with women’s rights in China. She’s talking about Japan and abstractly about gender inequality. That is just another indication of how feminism in general has become more popular in China, even as the government persecutes individual feminist activists and throttles overtly feminist discourse. When you’re not talking about the internet, you can’t have street displays of feminist performance arts, as the activists call it, which is something that I also wrote about even in the original book. There were these feminist activists doing what they called performance art on the street, drawing attention to things like domestic violence or sexual harassment. They can’t do that on the street anymore. So these are the gray areas where I still have hope for the younger generation in China, amid an otherwise really gloomy political environment.

CDT: You have mostly answered my next question, but just in case you have anything to add: are there other changes that you’ve seen in the past ten years that mark progress for Chinese women and give you hope? 

LHF:  Another thing that is really important, the so-called White Paper protests at the end of last year. That was really extraordinary. Even though overall it wasn’t a huge number of people who took to the streets, the fact that these protests took place, in all these different cities across China. All these young people took to the streets, and some of them were calling for Xi Jinping to step down. One thing that is incredibly striking, and I noticed a lot of people have reported on this, is how many young women were on the front lines of those protests. That is another indication of the depth of the frustration experienced by young women in China at gender discrimination, at sexism, and injustice. And these women have less to lose in taking political risks than their male counterparts. The young people who are taking big risks, politically, are increasingly young women, and on the one hand, this gives me a lot of hope. It’s inspiring to see. On the other hand, of course, I really worry about what’s coming next from the government. 

Another major development as well is that the diasporic feminist community has just grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. That’s another way in which the internet comes into play, that social media still is a vehicle for communication across geographical boundaries. When you have a lot of young Chinese people who are studying abroad or leaving—there are these indications that more young people want to leave China, or runxue 润学, “runology.” Then you run into problems with other countries giving them visas. Increasingly in recent years, there are young Chinese and LGBTQ+ people who’ve really not shied away from being in the limelight, leading protests, and building up a feminist movement that has a lot of activity outside China, but that also interacts a lot within China. It’s such a large community of feminists now. This is something that makes young women as a whole, and feminists, very hard for the Chinese government to control, because it’s not like in the past, where you would have individual, largely male dissidents, who would become quite well known, and then they might be kicked out of the country and then lose relevance, like the Tiananmen protest generation. This new generation of feminist activists who do believe in a lot of tenets of feminism, they believe in equal rights and LGBTQ rights, but also human rights. They’re much more complicated a challenge for the Chinese government. 

This is another thing that gives me hope, because of course, the government can be obviously extremely brutal. They could carry out another mass jailing of young feminist activists to try to scare young women in general, but I don’t see how that would be effective at all. Because the government is trying to co-opt largely educated Han Chinese women in their 20s, mainly in their 20s and early 30s, trying to persuade them to marry and have babies. How do you do that, while also conducting mass jailings of feminists? So I do think that there is real room for resistance in the future. You just don’t know what the next trigger might be for another event, like the White Paper protests from the end of last year, thanks to this younger generation that is much more aware of the need to take control of their lives and speak out and take some risks. That is something that the central government has to take into consideration to some extent. And that gives me hope. Whereas getting back to the situation of Uyghurs, unfortunately the Uyghur people are in the distinct minority, and unfortunately, most Han Chinese still don’t really care about Uyghurs, and so that means that the central government is able to get away with really egregious violations of the rights of all the Uyghur people. But I don’t see how it could do that with the entire population of China, or especially the young generation of educated Chinese people.

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