by Aoife Cantrill
Leta Hong Fincher is one of the leading authors writing in English about contemporary Chinese feminism. With a background in journalism, she has over the past five years written extensively on activism, dissent and the challenges to gender equality that are unique to China. We speak over the phone in late January, just as petitions against sexual harassment are starting to circulate around university campuses in China and the hashtags #MeToo and #MeToo在中国 (translated as ‘Me Too in China’) appear on Chinese social media. Hong Fincher has worked closely with some of the women at the forefront of this growing movement, many of whom she interviewed for her forthcoming book Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (September 2018).
In 2010, after moving back to Beijing to complete her PhD, Hong Fincher found herself noticing a strange phenomenon. ‘Every street corner near where we lived was always full of real estate agents in the morning and afternoon,’ she recalls, ‘holding up these signs for new apartment buildings. There was just a total craze for real estate.’
Inspired by a sociology class she was taking at the time, Hong Fincher decided to carry out an ethnographic study of real estate agents in Beijing. She soon made startling discoveries about the gender dynamics underpinning the city’s housing market. ‘I started talking to these real estate agents on the street corner, and then I went to several of the nearby agencies to observe their work. I have always been drawn to stories of women and gender, so I very quickly noticed this trend of buying homes before marriage. Though it is considered the “norm” that the man will buy the apartment, what I slowly uncovered was that actually women were heavily financing the purchase of these homes. But they weren’t registering their names on the property deeds.’
The property deeds revelation was the starting point for a research project that would include numerous interviews in Beijing, Shanghai and the Chinese social networking site Weibo, as Hong Fincher tried to understand why women were making the decision to anonymously give up their wealth in this way. Her findings form the backbone of her first book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014). ‘One of the things that really baffled me at first,’ she explains ‘was why on earth would women want to hand over their life savings to some man and not have their name appear on the most important investment of their entire lives? Why would they do that?’
The answer was a single word: ‘shengnu’ in Chinese – ‘leftover women’. Broadly speaking, the term refers to women over the age of 27 who are still single, though there is some elasticity to the word’s meaning. Hong Fincher has written about it being applied to women as young as 25. ‘I heard the term “shengnu” because it started coming up in the interviews when I was asking these young women why were they in such a rush to hand over all this money to get married and buy a home. Then I realised that there was this intense pressure on young women to marry, and that led to a new line of questioning about what the term “leftover women” means.’
The whole concept of ‘leftover women’, as Hong Fincher explains in her book, is intimately wrapped up in the story of the one child policy, an initiative rolled out by the Chinese government in the early 1980s. Aiming to prevent overpopulation, the policy encouraged couples to have only one child, threatening those in breach of the law with hefty fines. The policy was relaxed in 2015, morphing into the ‘two-child policy’, as population planners became concerned that there weren’t enough babies being born to support the ageing Chinese population. Though the policy may have ended, its complex consequences are still being felt, and are directly related to the ‘leftover’ label.
For Hong Fincher, the one child policy was about more than just population quantity – it was also about population quality. She stresses the idea that the Chinese government was looking to control the makeup of the population, by preventing uneducated individuals, often living in rural areas, from reproducing in great numbers. ‘There is this concept among population planners in China that people have inherently good quality [sic.], and so there’s a very strong eugenics component to population planning policy. It wasn’t just trying to control the number of births, it was also trying to upgrade the overall population quality.’ In Leftover Women Hong Fincher argues that this emphasis on quality was behind a government propaganda campaign from 2007, which targeted young women living in urban centres. The campaign encouraged them to get married in order to improve the quality of the population, ‘basically for the good of the nation,’ as Hong Fincher puts it. ‘I believe the government is strongly pushing back against the natural demographic trend of educated women wanting to delay marriage to pursue their education or their careers.’
Alongside this growing number of women who want to hold off starting a family until their late 20s, there exist a disproportionate number of young men who are keen to marry but who seem unable to find potential brides. As the one-child policy was rolled out during the 1980s and 1990s a preference for sons over daughters led to widespread female infanticide and sex selective abortion. Today there are more young men than women within the population, and the government sees this as a significant problem. ‘Part of the problem is all of these “excess” men,’ Hong Fincher continues, ‘who can’t find a bride, and the threat that they pose to social stability.’ She goes on to explain how this problem is being countered through a series of matchmaking fairs organised by the Communist Youth League. ‘The matchmaking effort is intensifying, and it is being very strongly pushed by the Communist Youth League, which is a new thing.’ After briefly speculating about how the problem might play out in the future, Hong Fincher concludes that ‘the number of births in 2017 actually fell in spite of the introduction of the two-child policy, so this is going to be an area where there is a lot of tension and conflict in the future.’
From there, our conversation turns to more recent events in China and to Hong Fincher’s second book, coming out later this year. Our starting point is a group of five women: Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong and Wang Man. In March 2015 this group of activists, known in Western media as the ‘Feminist Five’, were arrested on account of their plans to raise awareness about sexual assault by handing out stickers in Beijing on International Women’s Day. Hong Fincher personally knew Li Maizi, having interviewed her for the final chapter of Leftover Women. ‘When I heard about the arrest of these five activists I was really alarmed, as were a lot of people around the world. I mean I personally knew her [Li Maizi]. When the government released them because of the global outcry it was pretty incredible. I went and interviewed all of them, and then I was pulled into telling the stories not just of these five women but quite a few other women who are very active in this emerging feminist movement in China. And that’s what my second book is about.’
The second book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. On 1 January this year, a Chinese woman currently living in America named Luo Xixi published the following to Weibo: ‘I want to report Beihang Professor and Scholar Chen Xiaowu’s sexual harassment of female students.’ Headed with a large red and white cover image declaring ‘ME TOO,’ the post goes on to detail Luo Xixi’s reaction to the growth of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement in October of last year. The professor accused has since been fired, and the post has inspired many other women to come forward under the hashtag #MeToo在中国. Many of the posts under this hashtag have since been deleted due to censorship.
Despite this, Hong Fincher remains hopeful and positive about the movement. ‘It’s really incredible, just how many obstacles and systematic barriers there are to a #MeToo movement spreading in China, and yet it is beginning to spread. If you look at how the latest iteration of #MeToo took off in America, it was because of in-depth investigative reporting from The New York Times and The New Yorker about Harvey Weinstein, and that was really the spark that led to the viral spread of #MeToo. There is no press freedom in China. You don’t have media outlets who are aggressively covering the issue of sexual harassment or rape unlike countries with freedom of the press. As the legal system is also basically completely unreliable, victims have very little recourse if they come out.’
Yet young women keep organising petitions on university campuses, and posting about their experience and support for the movement on social media. Though the original #MeToo hashtag is now blocked, users have recently started using ‘#米兔’, a play on words literally meaning ‘rice rabbit’ but pronounced in Chinese as ‘mi tu’, phonetically mimicking the English phrase. The movement against sexual harassment has grown to such an extent both on and offline that Chinese state media has begun to recognise its existence. ‘It has been pushed to do this reporting,’ Hong Fincher comments, ‘by university students, largely female, who have started their own petitions at dozens of universities. At least 57 university campuses (and now it may be more) have started a petition inspired by #MeToo, demanding that new mechanisms be set up to deal with sexual harassment on campuses. Right now we are in the middle of the Lunar New Year break, but what is happening is really extraordinary, and it will be very interesting to see what happens next.’
The Feminist Five and #MeToo are the latest contributions to the contemporary women’s rights movement in China, a movement with a long history stretching all the way back to late 19th century. When I ask Hong Fincher about the Chinese women writers who inspire her, she points back to this earlier period, talking of women living in the early 20th century, many of whom were students not unlike today’s activists. ‘I actually taught gender and Modern Chinese literature and culture whilst in Hong Kong. One of the pieces I taught was a short novel by Xiao Hong called “The Field of Life and Death”. I highly recommend that. There are some other historical writings that [have] been translated into English that are really fascinating. There is a revolutionary called He Yin Zhen, who was an anarchist and feminist who wrote very briefly around 1905 and 1907. There’s a really good book edited by Dorothy Ko, Lydia He Liu and Rebecca E Karl called “The Birth of Chinese Feminism” that translates some of her powerful essays on feminism in China.’
He Yin Zhen and Xiao Hong both wrote during politically tumultuous times in China, contributing to what Hong Fincher terms a ‘real feminist revolutionary history’. They, and other women like them, can be seen as emblems of the role played by women’s rights activists in bringing about political change. Today’s activists, in Hong Fincher’s mind, are the successors to this history. ‘What’s happening today is not just happening from a blank slate,’ she concludes. ‘I believe there’s the potential for another revolutionary movement in China, and we’re seeing that play out right now. We’re in the middle of it, and we have no idea what the outcome will be.’
AOIFE [ˈiːfə/] CANTRILL reads Chinese Studies at St Catherine’s. She spends 98.8% of her time teaching people how to pronounce her name.
Art by George Wilson