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Material girls

20 June 2014 By Katrina Hamlin

Women’s rights have taken a step backwards in China. A new book by Leta Hong Fincher blames that on the ruling Communist Party’s desire for social stability. But China may be depriving itself of an economic opportunity.

The title ‘Leftover Women’ borrows a distasteful contemporary term coined by a state campaign to stigmatize unmarried women. The government considers social stability the foundation for its authority: bullying young women into traditional roles supposedly fosters a harmonious society by mopping up surplus young men – a troublesome legacy of the One Child Policy. The idea caught on, and the stigma has the desired effect. Women as young as 25 rush into marriage to escape dreaded spinsterhood.

That has contributed to a broader resurgence in gender inequality, says Hong Fincher, which makes women financially vulnerable. What’s important about the book is that it looks beyond shallow analysis of spending habits to see who owns assets. Women’s property rights are particularly vulnerable. The author reports families will often allow a husband to be sole homeowner even if his wife contributes her savings to the purchase. As the author notes, China’s middle class doesn’t have many other ways to park spare cash, so this excludes many adult women from “what is arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history, valued at around 3.3 times China’s GDP”. Should a couple divorce, a new law dictates that the family’s property goes to whoever’s name is on the deeds. This represents a very real risk; the number of divorces in China rose by 12.8 percent in 2013 from a year earlier.

While Hong Fincher’s careful exposé and moving interviews are liable to leave the reader indignant, that’s not enough to change the status quo. The government isn’t worried about playing fair.

What it should worry about is wasted economic opportunities. Changing attitudes to gender have reshaped livelihoods. Mao said “women hold up half the sky”, but by 2012 less than 44 percent of the country’s labour force was female, and only 70 percent of those women were working – leaving more than 100 million jobless, according to a Breakingviews calculation. The situation is worse in the cities, where the urban employment rate for women aged 20 to 59 fell to as low as 61 percent by 2010, according to Hong Fincher.

If women do work, preconceptions about which jobs are more suited to women tend to steer them into less demanding roles. A recent study of over a million job advertisements found that firms seeking more experience tended to request male candidates. On top of that, the retirement age for most women stands at 50, compared with 60 for men. As a result only around 20 percent of women are the primary breadwinners, according to Xinhua. That’s despite the fact that more women than men have benefitted from a tertiary education in recent years.

A paranoid state won’t drop its obsession with stability any time soon. But growing pains may well trigger a reappraisal of what is needed to build a stable society. Premier Li Keqiang has vowed to avoid a hard landing and achieve 7.5 percent growth in 2014 – ideally with an emphasis on more sophisticated service industries. Encouraging women to compromise a professional career won’t help him realise his goals. Other aging Asian nations such as South Korea and Japan have already begun to recalibrate policies to recognise women’s economic potential. China has yet to make such a move, but if the neighbours’ experiments pay off, that could change.

Hong Fincher says women have been “‘left over’ and left behind” in China’s rise. Convincing as her account is, change may only come when growth starts to look like it’s left behind too. 


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