A vendor stands next to wedding dresses during the China International Wedding Expo in Shanghai February 15, 2012. The expo provides exhibitors with the opportunity to showcase their products, high-level equipment and the world's wedding photography trends, plus the exchange and trade between the domestic and overseas wedding industries. REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA - Tags: BUSINESS SOCIETY)

A while ago on Demography is Destiny, we discussed the shortage of young women in China (due mainly to sex selective abortions exacerbated by the one-child policy) and the paradoxical phenomenon of “shengnu” (leftover women): young women who can’t find a husband. In that blogpost we explained this as due to women wanting to find husbands who were higher than them on the financial, educational, and social status ladders. As women in China upskill and become better educated and have better employment prospects, the chance of a woman finding a husband higher than her on these ladders decreases.

Now we can return to the “shengnu” phenomenon from another perspective.  Writing in Prospect Magazine, Jennifer Abrahams describes it as a rollback of feminist advances in Communist China. First she points to the term itself:

“Sheng nü, or ‘leftover women’ are defined as unmarried women over the age of 27 by the All-China Women’s Federation, a state organisation. The word for “leftover”—sheng—usually describes rotten food.  Since 2007, the phrase has been adopted enthusiastically by the press, mostly aimed at the young professional single women living in China’s cities.”

Abrahams then quotes from an article that is almost comically offensive:

“Just days after International Women’s Day in March 2011, for example, Xinhua News—the state news agency—ran a column entitled, ‘Do Leftover Women Really Deserve Our Sympathy?

‘Pretty girls don’t need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family,’ it said. ‘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.’”

Such articles, together with societal and familial pressure mean that some women are throwing themselves into the arms of the next rogue that comes along to escape this fate. Abrahams describes two tragic tales:

“Twenty-six-year-old Chen Su, an economics graduate working at a marketing firm in Beijing, describes her boyfriend as ‘selfish and insensitive.’ She avoids seeing him more than once a week because, she says, ‘the conversation is mediocre.’ He’s jealous. They fight a lot. But he has proposed to her and she is inclined to accept. ‘I am almost a leftover woman…I don’t have enough courage to break it off.’

Similar stories abound. Zhang Jie, a 25-year-old engineering graduate who works for a multinational consulting company in Shanghai, married a colleague 11 years older than her who proposed one day at work. They had never been on a date and, six months after marrying, were still not living together. But ‘Zhang and her parents agreed that if she did not jump at the chance to get married now, she might become a leftover woman,’”

Abrahams notes that this is in many ways a regression in Chinese sex-equality from the days of Chairman Mao. Then “gender equality was held up as an ideal for the country to work towards—Mao believed that including women in the workforce would help increase China’s productivity.” Although it is arguable how much equality in practice was actually achieved, at least the goal of equality was put forward as an aspiration.

Moreover, due to the institution of the abominable one-child policy, there is an overabundance of men: there are 20million more men than women under the age of 30 in China.

“So, in theory, it is men who should be worrying about being “leftover,” rather than women.

But deeply-entrenched attitudes towards gender and skewed media coverage means that this has not played out, says Fincher [Leta Hong Fincher, author of a new book on the issue—Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China]. Instead, the country seems to have taken a significant step back, with the female employment rate dropping dramatically in cities and the pay gap widening.”

You can read Abrahams’ article in full by following the link provided above. She highlights many other economic, legal and social issues facing women and contributing to the “leftover women” phenomenon. She concludes thusly:

“Economic, social and political gender inequality is a global problem. Intense pressure on women to marry, along with employment and wage gaps, exist in most countries around the world. The worrying trend in China is that earlier advances are being reversed—the gaps are widening—and there has been little attempt by the government to rectify the situation or to provide legal protection for women’s rights…”

What I find fascinating about this piece is that she has described the terrible inequality facing women in China and has completely ignored the elephant in the room. The elephant which forces women to abort their babies. The elephant which forces women to have longterm contraceptives implanted. The elephant of village officials keeping close watch on women’s menstrual cycles. The elephant which decrees how many children a woman can bear. The elephant which results in girls being selected to be aborted. The elephant which means that there is now millions of Chinese girls and women “missing”. (Abrahams mentions this result – the overabundance of young men without mentioning why this is the case or the cause of it: abortion and the one child policy).  Quite frankly, when one takes notice of this elephant, is it any surprise that the rest of the Chinese political and societal landscape is less than accommodating for women in the twenty-first century? There can be no sexual equality in China while the one child policy exists. It would be heartening if western commentators, particularly women such as Abrahams, mentioned that more often.