Think of modern China and you think of newly gilded men and women striding confidently into the future. But the reality, according to American academic and journalist Leta Hong Fisher, is that while economic gender gaps are (gradually) narrowing in most parts of the world, in China they are widening. In her new book, a rigorously researched investigation into the position of urban women in the country, she suggests that the rights of women have experienced a rollback since the Mao era.
Hong centres on shengnü, China’s 'leftover women'. According to a Xinhua survey, 90 percent of Chinese men believe women should marry before the age of 27. Those who do not, and instead pursue successful careers, are considered damaged goods. Hong examines property laws, which hold that all marital property passes to the leaseholder – in most cases a man. She talks to real women about how they feel, concluding that, 'Chinese women have largely missed out on what is arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real estate wealth in history,' valued at 27 trillion USD at the end of 2012.
Hong capably sifts through a panorama of data including interviews, Weibo posts and stats to give a scholarly analysis of how Chinese society is changing for both sexes. She examines rising divorce rates (now 33 percent in big cities) and sham marriages (nine out of ten gay Chinese often marry or maintain a heterosexual partner). She also makes you wonder: in a country with one of the highest sex ratio imbalances in the word – 118 boys to every 100 girls in 2012 – shouldn't people be more worried about the leftover men? Hong's book is a compelling piece of research that puts pay to the rosy assumption that gender equality goes hand-in-hand with economic prosperity.
By Charlotte Middlehurst