Chinese women fight to shake off 'leftover' label

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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

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.

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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."

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    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."

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    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.