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Talking Policy: Leta Hong Fincher on Feminism in China

After the 1949 Communist Revolution in China, the Communist Party attempted to improve gender relations in the new People’s Republic. However, in the post-socialist era, Chairman Mao’s proclamation that “women hold up half the sky” seems forgotten. In her book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, Leta Hong Fincher explores the losses of women’s rights in China and media stigmatization of “leftover women”—professional, educated women who are unmarried or childless. World Policy Journal spoke with Hong Fincher about changing state policies on gender, women’s financial independence, and feminism in China.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In your book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, you write the Communist Party actively sought to transform gender relations with expansive initiatives in the early years of the People's Republic. How did they do this and what did they accomplish?

LETA HONG FINCHER: Before the founding of the People's Republic, during the Communist Revolution, the revolutionaries themselves—Communist Party guerillas—really made gender equality a rallying cry to help recruit women for their cause. It's quite interesting to look at Mao Zedong's early writing from way back in 1919. He wrote some very interesting essays about how feudal society oppressed women. One of the goals of the Communist Revolution was not just creating an equal society for everybody but very much emphasizing equality for women. Then, once the Communists won the revolution, and with the establishment of the People's Republic of China, they launched some sweeping initiatives such as introducing the Marriage Law in 1950. That was one example that triggered an effort to completely transform marital relations, abolishing the tradition of multiple wives for example, giving women the right to have property—although private property was later eliminated—and the right to divorce their husbands.

Another example is, with the introduction of the planned economy, men and women were assigned jobs. Women were seen as very important contributors in building the new planned economy and strengthening the new, Communist nation. In the cities, women worked in factory jobs. They were also given management jobs as part of the planned economy. The female labor force participation was extraordinarily high—among the highest rates in the world.

So those are some examples, but all along there was still tremendous gender inequality. There were a lot of gender inequalities in the home, where women still had to give birth and still had to do a lot of the housework on top of their new public jobs. So it was an incredibly difficult time for women, too.

WPJ: In what ways have those accomplishments been changed? Was it overnight or something that was gradual as China's economy picked up in the post-socialist era?

LHF: It was very gradual, beginning with the introduction of economic reforms and the dismantling of the planned economy in the 1980s and 90s, essentially because the traditional gender norms returned. Women were the first to be fired from state-owned enterprises and employers now had the power and freedom to hire whomever they wanted, so they started to discriminate against women in their hiring.

One thing that I looked at in my research in particular was the residential real estate market, which grew out of the privatization of housing in the late-1990s. I looked at the allocation of property wealth, and while housing was publicly distributed in the early Communist era, I argue that the development of the residential real estate market created tremendous amounts of gender inequality in property wealth and that property wealth is one of the most important, if not the most important form of wealth in China today. Women really missed out on the tremendous accumulation of property wealth from the late 1990s until today.

WPJ: So you're attributing this inequality partially to property law and the allocation of wealth?

LHF: I think that trends are changing a little bit now, but most property was designated in men’s names only. There are many different ways in which women were shut out of that property wealth. It’s not so blatantly a result of an unjust law alone; there was also a new Supreme People’s Court judicial interpretation of the Marriage Law in 2011, which contributed to more gender inequality in the sphere of property wealth.

WPJ: Groups of Chinese feminists have emerged after the Women’s March, both in the streets and on social media, but their outspokenness has received mixed reactions in China. What challenges do Chinese feminists face today?

LHF: First of all, that feminist wave began quite a few years ago; it wasn’t just with the Women’s March and with the Trump administration. The arrest of the Feminist Five in 2015 was the really critical turning point, which showed women's determination not to let the government wipe out the nascent feminist movement. By “nascent,” I mean emerging feminist movement. The number one obstacle, by far, facing feminism is the government crackdown. The core feminist activists are all being persecuted by the government.

WPJ: Do you think China needs a feminist movement similar to the one in the U.S. back in the 1920s? And would a mass feminist movement look like in China?

LHF: It’s hard to compare the two countries, because China is ruled by the Communist Party and to this day, the government is cracking down much more on all political activists. It's extremely difficult for any kind of mass organized social movement to emerge, because the government is targeting the most prominent activists and trying to neutralize them by threatening them and, for example, making it difficult for them to have jobs. But the U.S. has freedom of assembly and wasn't bent on eliminating feminist movements. That's a huge difference.

But I would say that, actually, feminism itself—or at least the idea that women are equal to men—is a belief that has become tremendously popular across China's cities. The concept of women’s rights resonates with millions of Chinese women, even if only some of them are feminist activists.  

WPJ: Gender is largely seen as a social rather than political issue in China. Where do you think the momentum will come from in pushing for greater equality and awareness?

LHF: I would disagree with this separation between social and political; I think the issue of gender is extremely political in China. Can you imagine what China would be like if it weren't for the oppressive authoritarian state? If you look at young, urban, educated Chinese, they often have extremely enlightened beliefs about gender. Government policy and the authoritarian hold over a security state is really keeping back a lot of progress that would happen naturally otherwise. One of the big questions for the future is how are China’s young people going to behave? Are they going to just think about themselves and their own narrow goals in life? Or are they going to become more engaged citizens in criticizing the government and becoming more engaged politically? Is that possible? What is it going to look like? Feminism is very much a part of that. If you look at the individual aspirations of women, they want, first of all, careers—they don't want to just get married and have children. These are actually very political questions, particularly in a society like China, where the government is determined to pressure women into marrying and having babies early. If you look at the population pressures overall, you see the severe aging of the population, the shrinking of the work force, and the plummeting birthrate. These are all serious problems for China's economic growth, so the way the government treats women in general has to take everything into account. It has to do with politics and the economy, too. It's all related.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Photo courtesy of Nora Tejada]

[Interview conducted by Connie E]

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