Wednesday 17 October 2012

China's 'leftover' women

By Leta Hong Fincher, Published The Straits Times, 16 Oct 2012

THE headlines scream like sensational tabloids: Overcoming the Big Four Emotional Blocks: Leftover Women Can Break Out Of Being Single. Eight Simple Moves To Escape The Leftover Women Trap. And my personal favourite: Do Leftover Women Really Deserve Our Sympathy?

These eye-catching topics do not appear in supermarket-aisle gossip magazines. They are articles about single, professional women published on the website of China's state feminist agency, the All-China Women's Federation. The Communist Party founded the Women's Federation in 1949 to "protect women's rights and interests".

In 2007, the Women's Federation defined "leftover" women (sheng nu) as unmarried women over the age of 27 and China's Ministry of Education added the term to its official lexicon. Since then, the Women's Federation website has run articles stigmatising educated women who are still single.

Take this uplifting column from March last year that ran just after International Women's Day: "Pretty girls don't need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family, but girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult. These kinds of girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness.

"The tragedy is, they don't realise that as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their MA or PhD, they are already old, like yellowed pearls."

After knocking some good sense into those misguided women who pursue a higher education, the column accuses educated, single women of sleeping around and having degenerate morals: "Many highly educated 'leftover women' are very progressive in their thinking and enjoy going to nightclubs to search for a one-night stand, or they become the mistress of a high official or rich man. It is only when they have lost their youth and are kicked out by the man, that they decide to look for a life partner. Therefore, most 'leftover women' do not deserve our sympathy."

Glad we got that straight.

Now, why would China's state feminist agency conduct a scare- mongering campaign against single, educated women? Curious, I searched the Women's Federation website and found that it posted its first article on "leftover" women in 2007, shortly after China's State Council issued an edict on strengthening the Population and Family Planning programme to address "unprecedented population pressures".

These pressures include the sex-ratio imbalance - which "causes a threat to social stability" - and the "low quality of the general population, which makes it hard to meet the requirements of fierce competition for national strength", according to the State Council.

The State Council names as one of its key goals "upgrading population quality (suzhi)" and appoints the Women's Federation as a primary implementer of its population planning policy.

What better way to upgrade population quality than to frighten "high-quality" women into marrying and having a child for the good of the nation?

The Women's Federation columns on sheng nu all share the same goal: convince single, educated women to stop being so ambitious and get married already: "The main reason many girls become 'leftover women' is that their standards for a partner are too high... If girls are not too picky, finding a partner should be as easy as blowing away a speck of dust."

Some of the columns have been reposted several times over the years and list helpful tips, such as "seduce but don't pester" and "be persistent but not wilful": When holding out for a man, if you say he must be rich and brilliant, romantic and hardworking... this is just being wilful.

"Does this kind of perfect man exist? Maybe he does exist, but why on earth would he want to marry you?"

Since 2008, local population planning commissions in cities such as Nanjing and Ningbo have carried out "interventions" to address the "leftover women crisis". Local Women's Federation branches have arranged matchmaking events for "highly educated, high-quality" women.

This March, there was a drive in Pinghu, Zhejiang province, for "leftover women to speedily find conjugal happiness".

And once a "leftover" woman finds marital bliss, what should she do if her husband has an affair?

The Women's Federation comes to the rescue, with the headline, Faced With A Marital Crisis, Women Need To Improve Themselves. "When you find out that he is having an affair, you may be in a towering rage, but you must know that if you make a fuss, you are denying the man 'face'... No man is capable of spending a lifetime being loyal to an outmoded wife who never changes...

"Try changing your hairstyle or your fashion. Women must constantly change for the better."

In short, it's the woman's fault for refusing to get married, and once she is married, it's the woman's fault if her husband has an affair. Of course.

The writer is an American doctoral student in Tsinghua University's department of sociology.


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