Editor's note: This month's episode of "On China" examines women's rights, premiering on Wednesday, August 21 at 5:30 pm HKT. Click here for airtimes.
(CNN) -- This episode's guests include Joy Chen, author of "Do Not Marry Before 30"; Leta Hong Fincher, a scholar on Chinese women issues at Tsinghua University; and Wu Qing, a former People's Deputy to the Haidian People's Congress in Beijing.
Kristie: Leta Hong Fincher, Wu Qing and Joy Chen, welcome to On China.
Kristie: When Mao said women hold up half the sky, was that more than rhetoric, did he really want to emancipate women?
Wu: I don't think so, no, actually women make up half of the population right? And now women in China only make up 48.8% of the population. We lack 2.2% because normally in each country women should make up 51% because of different chromosomes. Women live longer. So you can see that a women's status is still low because boy babies are still favored. So in a way you know some people say Mao was just trying to use women because after 1949 women were encouraged to get into the labor force.
Kristie: But when we look at the gains Chinese women made during that period of time 50 years ago and we compare that to the situation now, do you feel that women's rights and gender equality has moved forward or taken a step back?
Joy: Well I think women should hold up half the sky now if you just look at their education gains. Business Week recently reported that business enrollment in the United States has risen because of women from China, so I think you can say that women from China are some of the best educated or the best educated group of people in the world. I think what we're seeing in Chinese society today though is as soon as they come back and try to put all of that education to use and use their potential, there's a huge amount of backlash that they face to jump back into the women's roles of thousands of years which is to be a wife and to be a mother which are the legitimate roles for women.
Kristie: One form of the backlash is the use of the term leftover women or xxx, what does it mean?
Leta: Well the term leftover women or xx was defined by the All China's Women's Federation in 2007. And it means an urban educated woman over the age of 27 who is still single and so after the women's federation defined this term then the state media started aggressively pushing it and basically there's been just a stream of reports insulting educated women in their late 20s who don't have a husband yet and the message is that they should all hurry up and get married, stop focusing on their careers, stop focusing on their educations and find a husband before time runs out and they get too old. So in my view actually women's rights have really been set back dramatically in the post Mao era.
Kristie: And the term leftover women I mean it's leftover as in spoiled food. It's very, very insulting isn't it?
Joy: I think it's insulting not just to single women, but it's insulting to all women and all men because it basically says you're legitimate to the extent you're married. It also says to all women that after the age of 25, 27 um you will no longer be beautiful. You will no longer be loved. You will no longer be valued as a human being. So hurry up, hurry up and get married before you're xx unmarriageable.
Kristie: Leta has pointed out that there's a state media campaign promoting leftover women. Why would state media promote this term and how are they doing it?
Leta: Well, when I looked into the origins of the term, I found that shortly before state media began promoting this term leftover women, the state council actually issued a very important population decision and it said that China faces a grave problem of the low quality of its population which means China will have a difficult time competing in the global marketplace. And so one of the strong priorities it set out was to upgrade overall population quality. And it enlisted a number of government agencies in this goal including the women's federation, the public security bureau, ministry of civil affairs, so across the board this was pronounced as a very important priority. We need to upgrade population quality which is called xx and that way we can raise higher quality, better educated children who will enable China to compete better in the global marketplace. And so my argument is that the leftover women term is part of this program to upgrade population equality. So what they want to do is promote match making to encourage or scare educated women into having a child because that fits the government's demographic goals.
Joy: The leftover label is everywhere in society. Your plumber tells you hurry and get married if you're a single woman with an apartment, your parents, everywhere in the media. I think there's a certain amount of carelessness that drives it. That since everybody's saying you just go ahead and report it or go ahead and continue saying it um but I think there's been a growing awareness especially in the last year that um this term is sexist and it's devaluing of all women. I think people have backed away from using it in government. I'm not sure that there's one policy that says we definitely have to use this and then another policy that says let's shift course.
Kristie: Now I need to bring in Wu Wing into this. Wu Qing you have been a tireless legislator, human rights activist, a witness to so much history in China - when you look at this trend of the campaigning of the use of the words leftover women, these various messages are being put out there for women in China, what do you make of it?
Wu: Number one I think it's not people friendly because we also have leftover men as well. Number two; it's discriminatory against women because I feel that most important thing is that we lack purpose in life. Marriage is only part of one's life. We need to have a very clear goal in our life, what you want. and then the criteria of getting a man and I think it's important for women to be confident in herself. I was lucky that when I was a little girl my mom told me that I'm a human being first before I'm a girl or a woman.
Kristie: I think if we talk about gender equality in China, I'd like to talk about the life cycle of a typical Chinese and when I say typical Chinese woman, we're going to focus on an urban Chinese woman. So that means we go back to the very beginning: birth. And that means we have to talk about the one child policy. Is it still the case even in the urban areas that the preference is for boys over girls still today?
Wu: I would say it depends. In bigger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, the municipalities a lot of men favor girl babies because there's a saying, "Having a daughter is like having a cotton padded coat for you in winter to keep you warm," but a lot of people still want boys. // But now actually I think the policy is changing. A couple from one child families could have a second child so the policy is changing. Because I think the most important thing is parenting is important. How do you bring up a child? I think it's important to bring up a global citizen who should know about his or her rights as well as responsibilities. Not being the center of a family or the center of one's self. It's not enough.
Kristie: There's that pressure to return to traditional roles after you get married, but I'm also reading that in urban areas a number of Chinese women's desire to marry is not quite much there any more is that true?
Leta: Absolutely, in fact I think this is one of the big reasons why the government came up with this leftover term is because as you rightly said women are better educated in China than ever before or in history. This is a tremendous accomplishment over the past two decade. So what happens when a woman becomes better educated? Of course she wants to delay marriage. Of course she wants to advance her career for a few years. She doesn't want to rush into marrying somebody and having a child immediately.
Joy: I think there's also this question about the word love // And I think that for a woman that was a role, for thousands of years marriage was the only source of security, stability, legitimacy. It's hard to even imagine what a woman's life would be like if she didn't get married. So I think there's also just this cultural lag, so I think that in our relationships there's never been a real emphasis on love, a romantic love and what that means. There's more of a focus on honor. Now, suddenly in the last ten years we talk about love all of the time. There are 22 dating shows until recently on TV. Everybody wants to fall in love and be in love forever and there's never been much discussion of what is a marriage and what does love mean you know? And what does it mean to love our own selves and what does it mean to love a man.
Kristie: So when you look at relationships and look at what young modern women want to find in a relationship is the emphasis more on financial success and stability then personal fulfillment or that's what the messages are telling them they should value.
Wu: I think the message is very clear. It's about money, wealth and power. And that's why I think it's a failure in education because// as I said marriage is only part of life. You have to be yourself and very often people have to know that love means responsibility. It's not just love for loves sake. What is love? It's responsibility. It's when two people come together they share their life they share a lot of interests. Or each has to have enough space for you know for themselves.
Kristie: I agree and when looking for a spouse of course there needs to be that passionate love, but also that responsibility, that mutual responsibility to live a fulfilling life with one another. I can't help but think that the recent research by horizon research group saying 3/4 of all women profiled in this study in coastal areas in China said that in choosing a husband they'd consider his ability to buy a home. Does that jive with what you've learned with what Chinese women want?
Leta: There are a lot of damaging myths out there about Chinese women and one of them is that Chinese women are so greedy all their looking for in a man is a man without a lot of money and a man that can bring a house to them so they can sit back and get rich for the rest of their lives without working. This is a completely myth. So what is happening is parents believe this myth, so parents tend to buy these incredibly valuable homes for their sons because they believe their son has to own a home in order to attract a bride. But what really happens is that over 70% of women actually contribute heavily to the marital home and yet only 30% of married women actually have their name included in the property deed. So basically these women are financing the home purchase, but their forfeiting ownership of the home. And so what's really happening is that women are being completely shut out of this dramatic accumulation of real-estate wealth and it actually is worth over 28 trillion US dollars as the end of last year. This is probably the creation of the biggest gender wealth gap ever in history and women are missing out on it. In 2011 the supreme court just unilaterally says oh, well whoever's name is on the deed gets to keep the home in the event of the divorce so all of those women have no legal claim to that home even though they haven't financed it and then that gets into another whole range of problems like domestic violence.
Kristie: That's right because when the name isn't on the deed they lose bargaining power in the relationship and you have many women stuck in very unhealthy relationships and because of this arrangement they don't want to get out
Leta: Or they want to get out, but it's really, really difficult
Kristie: Why is the government not doing anything to promote gender equality in China and what can it do?
Wu: You know I think our government has not been um trying hard enough to implement the constitution. Because the Chinese constitution article 33 says every single citizen of the People's Republic of China should be treated equally and the article 48 especially on women, women should enjoy equal rights in the economy, in politics, in everything and yet now China is still rule of man by man. That's why there's a lot of work to be done to popularize human rights especially girls and women should be treated equally.
Kristie: Women's rights are enshrined in China's constitution as you pointed out and the reason why it hasn't been implemented is it because of the lack of female representation at the top?
Wu: Now if you look at the standing committee members, the seven something, all men...so when it comes to women's issues who will speak for women?//Rights are given or granted. You have to stand up for it and to me I feel in China you have to fight for your rights in every step of the way or every inch of the way forward.
Joy: One thing we can't avoid looking at is the mandatory retirement age for women in this country of 55. that is so young and I think that that is something that is really pushing the upper generation to pressure people to get married and have kids because they have nothing to do but take care of their future grandchildren.
Kristie: Is there a mandatory retirement age for men as well?
Joy: There is, but it's a few years older you know 55 for women
Wu: Five to ten years older than women. For workers it's age 50 or 45 it depends on the work.
Joy: It depends on the work, depends on the different sections of the SOE you're working for
Kristie: And the rationale behind that is oh, it's time for you to be a grandmother, go home
Joy: I don't know what the rationale is
Leta: Partly it's that women have always been seen as surplus labor, that men have always been seen as the primary employees. So in the early years of the communist era, they pushed women into the work force because they needed them//Then in the 1990s when you had this massive restructuring of the state owned enterprises and millions and millions of workers were laid off, women were first to go. Women were fired in far greater numbers than men.
Kristie: You know what's incredible is that despite so much pressure from the government and lack of government support and social pressure and everything else that there are outliers, these extreme examples of incredible success for example seven out of ten of the world's most wealthy self-made billionaires come from China so how did they come to be? What pushed them to go so far?
Leta: These women who are multi-millionaires have made it in spite of being in China not because of it and I wish that those women would speak out more on behalf of women all across China, but by and large they tend not to say that because I personally believe they don't want to talk about how difficult it is for them.
Kristie: I'm very curious to hear from W your thoughts, 50 years ago you were 20 years old in your 20s, do you think it was a more, I don't want to be guilty of nostalgia, but do you think it was a better time to be a young woman then compared to now?
Wu: Worse, because I wasn't myself. That was in 1957, I was 20 years old. My dad was labeled a rightest. Because he came out and criticize the party. In fact, he had been encouraged to put forward suggestions or to criticize whatever the party had done wrong. He was encouraged and yet after he said something he was labeled a rightest and at that time my mom, someone told my mom to divorce my dad and my mom said how can I divorce him? We thought a like. And then I became an untouchable. So I went through all of that, went through all of the political movements you know that kind of thing. That's why I want to change and that's why I've been telling people that I'm a verb, I'm not a noun or an adjective
Kristie: Which verb are you?
Wu: I just want to take action to change. Change China from a country rule of man by man to become a country rule of law by law.
Kristie: What do you think are the prospects for gender equality in China? Are you optimistic or are you fearful?
Leta: Personally, from my own research I'm quite pessimistic of the status of women. That doesn't mean that I don't have hope. I am really heartened when I come across these young women who say I know it says kind of radical, but they say I don't want to get married. Marriage is a bad institution in China right now and I want to focus on myself and I want freedom and I want to do what I believe in. And I really hope that more and more women will have the faith and self confidence in themselves and perhaps there will be a genuine women's rights movement.
Kristie: Are you more optimistic?
Joy: Um well I think it will take a long time for women to reach equality, legal equality, but I think that women are starting to recognize who they are. And maybe starting with the women who feel economically secure starting to recognize themselves that it's important to first become miss right and to create their own lives then think about finding love. Love being the emphasis as opposed to some other institution to reply on. I'm optimistic that this is starting to happen in the big cities where women have achieved, educated women who have achieved a measure of economic success. Um and I am optimistic that these women are starting to talk with their friends and there's a conversation that's starting to happen.
Kristie: Final thought from you
Wu: I'm optimistic especially in the long term point of view because the world is changing. China is part of the global village. The world is changing and then women are learning in the hard way sometimes. They have to learn to protect themselves. It's often the government or sectors of the government or big corporations are violating their rights. They are learning. They are learning to protect their own rights and then that's why it's so important to change the content and methodology of education to offer them um legal training as well as gender training for both boys and girls to learn to respect each other as human beings as human rights should be the base of everything.