Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Chinese women fight to shake off 'leftover' label

By Kristie Lu Stout, CNN
updated 7:06 PM EDT, Wed August 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese women may feature on rich lists but many take second place to men
  • Young women are under pressure to marry lest be labeled "leftover women"
  • Marital property belongs to one person, typically the man of the household
  • Preference for boys continues due to China's one-child policy

Editor's note: This month's episode of "On China" with Kristie Lu Stout examines Chinese women's rights, roles and dreams.

Hong Kong (CNN) -- On the face of it, women in China seem to have cracked the code for success.

Seven of world's top 10 wealthiest self-made women are Chinese. Property tycoon Zhang Xin is richer than Oprah. And a girl-power chick flick called "Tiny Times" broke the mainland's opening-day box office record earlier this summer.

But don't let the headlines fool you. In China, as in many other corners of the world, women are under pressure, under-represented, and under threat.

A preference for boys under China's one-child policy continues to this day. Access to cheap ultrasound and and abortions has led to widespread selective abortion of female fetuses. According to the China Statistics Bureau, there are now 34 million more men than women in China.

Marital property rights in China
What is 'love' in China?
Who are China's 'leftover women?'

OPINION: China's biggest problem? Too many men

Marital property in China belongs to the one person who owns the home -- who is, more often than not, a man.

And there's not a single woman on the ruling Communist Party's seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

"So when it comes to women's issues, who will speak for women?" asks former legislator and committed feminist Wu Qing.

For CNN's "On China," I talked to Wu and two high-profile observers of women's issues in China -- Tsinghua University scholar Leta Hong Fincher and bestselling author Joy Chen -- on the state of gender inequality in China.

Wu squarely blames the government for not trying hard enough to shore up women's rights by implementing the constitution.

"Article 33 says every single citizen of the People's Republic of China should be treated equally," Wu points out. "And, according to Article 48 on women, women should enjoy equal rights in the economy, in politics, in everything."

"And yet, China is still rule of man, by man."

OPINION: What Chinese women want

Beijing is not only failing to represent the needs of women. It's putting its own interests ahead of China's increasingly educated and single female population.

According to Hong Fincher, there has been an active state media campaign to promote the term "leftover women," a derogatory term referring to spoiled food that's been used to shame China's urban educated women over the age of 27 who are still single. The term was defined by the All China's Women's Federation in 2007.

"After the Women's Federation defined this term, then the state media started aggressively pushing it," Hong Fincher tells me. "There's been a stream of reports insulting educated women in their late 20s who don't have a husband yet."

"It's insulting not just to single women," says Joy Chen. "It's insulting to all women and all men because it basically says you're legitimate to the extent that you're married."

"And the leftover label is everywhere in society," Chen adds. "Your plumber tells you to hurry and get married if you're a single woman with an apartment."

OPINION: Single Chinese women say 'I won't'

There's been a stream of reports insulting educated women in their late 20s who don't have a husband yet.
Leta Hong Fincher

Hong Fincher argues that the term is part of a government program to upgrade population quality: "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."

Despite all the social pressure and lack of government support, there are the outliers among Chinese women -- extreme examples of extraordinary success. So what pushed them to go so far?

"These women who are multi-millionaires have made it in spite of being in China, not because of it," says Hong Fincher. "I wish that those women would speak out more on behalf of women all across China."

Wu herself is an outlier among China's women. A former university professor and a member of the Haidian district's People's Congress for 27 years, she is a tireless activist.

And she is speaking out on behalf of China's women as a women's rights advocate and a founder of a school to empower rural women.

"We need to have a very clear goal in our lives, know what we want," Wu tells me.

"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."

To crack the code for success, don't say you're a woman first.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
updated 2:31 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
updated 12:14 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
updated 2:56 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
updated 4:36 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
updated 2:38 AM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
updated 4:12 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
updated 8:13 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT