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'Leftover Women' Blamed For China's Surplus Of Unmarried Men


In China there's a phrase that refers to a certain demographic: Educated professional women in their late 20s or a little older who are still single. They're called Leftover Women.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This group of women is growing rapidly in the cities. They're facing an unprecedented unmarried crisis.

MCEVERS: An unmarried crisis. That's from Chinese state TV. Newspapers also use the phrase, which was coined by the government a few years back. Sociologist Leta Hong Fincher tracks how Leftover Women is used in the media.


LETA HONG FINCHER: It is absolutely everywhere. They put out all sorts of news reports and columns and commentaries and cartoons, by the way, that are very insulting.

MCEVERS: Fincher's new book is called "Leftover Women." She told us the government is essentially trying shame women into getting married, partly because officials are worried about the surplus of unmarried men in China.

FINCHER: There are actually 20 million more men under the age of 30 than women under the age of 30. And so this sex ratio imbalance is seen as a threat to social stability because the government is afraid that these unmarried men will be restless and cause all kinds of trouble. So (unintelligible) reason to really push educated women in particular to marry so that they can reduce this proportion of surplus men.

MCEVERS: But it doesn't really make sense. I mean even if every single quote-unquote leftover woman gets married, it's not going to solve the problem.

FINCHER: No. Of course not. But I believe that the term Leftover Women is in part a backlash against the tremendous educational gains that Chinese women have made over the past decade or more. So as women get more educated, they naturally want to delay marriage and they want to spend more time furthering their careers. And the government doesn't want that happening because it wants educated women who are considered to be higher quality by the government, it wants them to be having children for the good of the nation.

MCEVERS: And one of the points you make in the book is that not only are Chinese women getting educated more and more, but Chinese in general are becoming more and more wealthy, yet most of this newfound wealth is going to men. How did this happen?

FINCHER: Marriage is inextricably linked with home buying in China, and women tend to transfer their life savings over to the men when they're getting married to finance the purchase of this very expensive home. But then they're forfeiting ownership of a home by leaving their name off it.

MCEVERS: Why don't they sign a deed?

FINCHER: There are some women who simply accept this norm that the man is supposed to be the official homeowner and the woman doesn't really need to own property. But actually, a lot of young, particularly educated women really want economic independence. But because homes are so expensive, the woman tends to, even though she initially fights to have her name to get on the deed, she tends to just give in at the very end. And because I think that even though they want their name on the deed, more than that they want to get married because they're afraid that if they walk away from this marriage proposal that they'll never find another husband.

MCEVERS: In the book you say that women were better off, you know, before China opened up to the free-market reforms back when it was, you know, a real communist country. How is that possible?

FINCHER: Well, I don't exactly say that they were better off.


MCEVERS: Fair enough.

FINCHER: I'm talking about the inequality between women and men. So women materially are certainly better off today than they were a generation ago.

So I'm talking about the gap - the wealth gap in particular - between women and men. And with the onset of market reforms and the spectacular real estate boom, women - I argue - have largely been shut out of that accumulation of wealth.

MCEVERS: Leta Hong Fincher is a sociologist at Beijing's Tsinghua University and the author of the new book, "Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China." Thanks for speaking with us.

FINCHER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.