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Leta Hong Fincher on the Pursuit of Marital Property in China

by Suzanne Edwards

October 6, 2014


Author and researcher Leta Hong Fincher on the confounding phenomenon of women forfeiting their property wealth in China.

Leta Hong Fincher has been intimately connected with the Far East for nearly three decades, starting with her Harvard BA in East Asian Studies where she graduated Magna Cum Laude, then soon after launching her graduate work in the same field at Stanford University. Fincher took her academic knowledge of the region and wasted no time in launching a long and decorated career as an Asia correspondent. From producing for Radio Free Asia to becoming the Shanghai Correspondent and Beijing Correspondent for CNBC Asia and Voice of America respectively, Fincher has investigated some of Chinaʼs most pressing social issues, including the construction and impact of the Three Gorges Damn on its nearby population and the prospects for Chinaʼs one-child policy.

Most recently, as part of Fincherʼs doctoral work in Sociology at Tsinghua University, she analyzed state-sponsored media messaging around the concept of shengnu, or leftover women, and its correlation with the practice of women forfeiting their property wealth to husbands and male family members in China. The result was her now well-reviewed book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. Since the publishing of her book, Fincher has completed her PhD in Sociology at Tsinghua University, becoming the first American to do so.

Q. How do you feel your background as a journalist shaped the way you approached your research? 

Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

A. It was absolutely critical to the way I conducted my research. I had all these years of experience of doing reporting all by myself, alone. So I was extremely accustomed to just ferreting out information and investigating. My research was very qualitative, it wasnʼt a random sample, and I relied very heavily on individual interviews with ordinary people. I did an ethnographic study, thatʼs the strand of sociology where you really immerse yourself in a particular area and site and just observe whatʼs happening. This research is very empirical and field-based research, and it definitely overlaps with journalism, itʼs just much more in-depth. But then I was able to draw on theory that I learned [in] sociology to inform my observations.

Q. What new point do you feel your research is adding to the discussion of womenʼs roles in Chinese society?

A. Iʼm looking at Chinaʼs real estate boom, and the tremendous accumulation of wealth through the purchase of residential property… from the womanʼs perspective, which is one of tremendous inequality. The arguments that have been made that buying a home is a tremendous burden for the man, and the poor men have to come up with all this money, otherwise they wonʼt be able to find a bride. Itʼs true that there is this very strong norm out there that everybody believes in, that a man is supposed to own a home in order to attract a bride. But there are many, many ways in which that is a total myth and I just deconstruct it. Because parents in China believe that a man has to own a home in order to attract a bride, they end up just buying homes for their sons and they donʼt buy them for their daughters, because they expect the man—when their daughter marries—to provide her with a home. A lot of parents feel this way. But then there is another aspect I discovered that is entirely new, which is this whole campaign [concerning] shengnu, the leftover women, [which] feeds into this new economic inequality caused by the real estate boom. Because of the intense anxiety about getting married, there are quite a few parents with daughters who contribute money to purchasing a home. But, they donʼt insist on their daughterʼs name being added to the deed.

Itʼs really important to look at the real estate boom and the subsequent accumulation of wealth because itʼs unprecedented in history. Ever since the mid-2000s home prices have escalated exponentially, so now according to HSCC, residential property in China is worth over $30 trillion. Thatʼs a staggering accumulation of wealth in a very short period of time. But who is getting all that wealth?

Basically, the data, the large-scale quantitative data that exists, indicates that this wealth in the form of property is largely earned by men. And my own smaller-scale, non-random survey looking at why this happens, all the different mechanisms of why women leave their name off the property deed [and] how the women contribute to the purchases of property. A 2012 survey by Horizon Research found that over 70% of marital homes purchased in the top four cities—Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen—were financed by the woman or the womanʼs family. Yet only 30% of those home deeds included the womanʼs name. And thatʼs also consistent with a government survey, the third social survey on the status of women in 2010, [which found] that most properties are in menʼs names. I found many young women contribute their entire lifeʼs savings, and they take it and finance this marital home, even before theyʼre married. In many cases theyʼre simply giving the money to their boyfriend to buy a home which is only registered in the manʼs name. And itʼs really—I argue—intimately connected with marriage anxiety. Because why would so many very educated, extremely intelligent women who know a lot, why are they not looking out for their own economic interests? And one of the big reasons is theyʼre afraid that they wonʼt be able to find a husband if they rebel against this unequal financial arrangement.

Q. After launching your research, to what extent were you really surprised by what you found and to what extent were your expectations met?

A. The catalyst for my research direction was that China issued a new judicial interpretation of the marriage law in 2011. And this new judicial interpretation said that whoeverʼs name is not on the property deed doesnʼt get the marital property in the event of a divorce. I wanted to find out more about the effects of that new interpretation. I was extremely surprised when I found out how widespread this practice was of women transferring their assets over to their boyfriends to buy a home and then not registering their name on the deed. And not only that, parents are also putting pressure on their daughters to help their male relatives. If they have a brother, they want the daughter to help the brother buy the home. I found examples where only daughters [were] helping the male cousins buy a home, instead of investing in homes themselves. These patterns are very shocking to me, but a lot of people consider this to be just unremarkable. There is a growing minority of women who do own property in their own right, and I hope that in the future more and more women are going to recognize the importance of owning their own property.

Q. How does the media messaging targeted at women in China contribute to the mindset that is responsible for women forfeiting their property rights and ownership? 

A. As for the shengnu media campaign, [itʼs] a backlash against tremendous education going to Chinese women over the past decade or two. Women now are much better educated than ever before in history, and theyʼre outperforming men at the university level. But there are a series of measures that are being introduced by the government that hold back [the] success of women and promote men instead. For example there are gender-based quotas that favor the admission of men to certain university programs because the Ministry of Education said that it was in the national interest to have more men in certain fields than women. And as for marriage pressure, thereʼs this sex ratio imbalance, but the surplus men in the population tend to be rural and uneducated, and itʼs the educated urban women who are fitted by the government [to be] the high-quality people. Those are the women that the government wants to have children for the future of the country.

The State Council explicitly said this in 2007 in its population decision: “China has to upgrade population quality” The government in China now is much more concerned about marrying these women off than [they are about] having them succeed in the workforce. And the reason why they want the women to marry is so that they can have a child, or two, for the good of the nation, because these children are considered to be higher quality. The notion of quality, suzhi—part of it is genetic makeup, but part of it is education and upbringing. In fact, there used to be a draft law called the Eugenics Law [but] they renamed it the Maternal and Infant Health Law.

Q. Logically how does that figure? How on one hand can the government acknowledge that education is a primary factor in the determination of population quality while on the other hand simultaneously deterring them from pursuing said education? Q. Speaking to economic goals, certain global companies have recognized the importance of women owning more of the top decision-making process, and correspondingly the need to be proactive in creating more of a gender balance in the boardroom. To what extent do you see that kind of proactive mentality taking shape in Chinese firms of comparable size?

A. I think that itʼs just a very mixed bag of policies. I look at the policies theyʼre developing, and the leaders are not concerned about removing talented women from the workforce. They are very concerned about the future, the population in China and its ability to make China a strong, powerful, country. Itʼs part of their policy that China needs to produce higher quality people, and obviously that means through children. So theyʼre not concerned about losing educated, talented women from the workforce now, theyʼre more concerned about getting those educated, high-quality women to marry and have high-quality children who will help build the Chinese economy in the future. But there is a complete oxymoron there. Itʼs not going to make sense in the long term if labor force participation among women continues to decline, then that obviously is not going to help China compete globally either.

Q. Speaking to economic goals, certain global companies have recognized the importance of women owning more of the top decision-making process, and correspondingly the need to be proactive in creating more of a gender balance in the boardroom. To what extent do you see that kind of proactive mentality taking shape in Chinese firms of comparable size? 

A. Iʼve looked a little bit [at] women in companies—thereʼs not a lot of reliable data on that, and some of the data is fl at-out wrong. So just to give you an idea, Grant Thornton did a survey and they claimed that 51% of senior managers in China are women, and that survey is severely fl awed. Theyʼre not looking primarily at Chinese companies, and itʼs kind of a small sample. If weʼre looking at Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which are really the peak of the economy, women are dismally represented at the senior level. And the last study done several years ago showed that only one out of 120 centrally administered SOEs is led by a woman. But then in multinational companies that are led by foreigners, they tend to value the contribution of women more.

This is not the focus of my research, [but] I spoke to an analyst from McKinsey, and he tells me that they had so many extremely qualified women applying for the jobs at their company. Why were there so many more qualified women than men? He said the Chinese companies didn’t want to hire the women. There are other studies showing that thereʼs very rampant gender discrimination in hiring among Chinese companies. According to the UN Women, there are many, many more male college graduates who have a job lined up before they graduate, many more than women who are graduating from college. But women are outperforming men at the university level, so it doesn’t make sense that more men have jobs than women when they graduate, unless there is rampant gender discrimination.

Q. So in that case, would you say that the relationship between foreign enterprises and educated Chinese women will become increasingly important?

A. Just from my own peripheral observation, if I were to give career advice to young women graduating from college, or from a Masters degree program, or a PhD, I would strongly urge them to look at foreign companies. My hope certainly is that Chinese companies are going to value women, and there is just a really broad and deep epidemic of former gender discrimination. There are so many anecdotes Iʼve heard from women trying to get jobs, and then also from employers hiring at Chinese companies who are screening out women because theyʼre afraid that the woman is going to get married and have a child. Theyʼre routinely asking questions in job interviews—“Well, when are you getting married? What are your plans for having a child?” The assumption is that if a woman is getting married, then sheʼs going to want a child, and if she has a child sheʼs going to miss work. Thereʼs another issue which is Chinaʼs law mandating maternity leave for women. [Maternity] leave only applies to mothers, it doesnʼt apply to fathers. So employers look at that law, and the specifics of the law prevent a lot of employers from hiring women of childbearing age because they donʼt want to have to pay for the maternity leave.

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