‘Leftover Women’ in Xi’s New China

Chinese President Xi Jinpong
Image credit: Alan Santos/PR

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) founded in July 1921 is celebrating centenary year of its foundation in 2021. Much has been talked and touted about Chinese ascendance on economic terrain. Its relentless growth in the distribution of power capabilities and aspirations to become regional hegemon in Asian hemisphere is orbiting in the debates of strategic thinking. However, while meandering into Chinese domestic affairs, pernicious fault lines of gender discrimination become discernible. President Xi Jinping while commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women on Oct. 01, 2020 stated that China is committed to eliminating violence and discrimination against women. On the contrary by invoking the word ‘Shengnü’ into its official papers Chinese government is legitimizing and perpetuating gender based discrimination. 

In China, “剩女” (Shengnü), which translates into English as Leftover women, refers to women aged above 26 years and do not intend to marry early or beget children. These women are more career-conscious, educated, and financially independent. They prefer career over marriage. Despite being successful and progressive, they are stereotyped and denigrated. The term ‘leftover women’ reveals the Chinese society’s patriarchal mindset, which dates to Han times (202 BCE – 220 CE) when Confucianism and the centralized administrative structure of the state shaped the Chinese family system and fixated the position of women in it. During Han dynasty, there was a greater emphasis on cultivating virtues in women. This shows imposition of value system on women rather than their choice. In the Confucian culture family served as the “foundation of society” and any departure from this foundation would destabilize the essentiality of Chinese society (Sun et al, 2016).

The accounts in ‘The Biographies of Exemplary Women’ narrates China’s  past stories of women valorizing the sacrifices they were forced in choosing between their husbands and fathers, providing advisory role to their husbands, or undertaking heroic deeds. In a recent article by (Dar et al., 2021) argues that what is missing in Shengnü is the ‘agency of being themselves’ due to the imposed consciousness and popular perception manufactured by the Chinese government. Any feminist voice is portrayed as radical and extreme.

Dragon Depreciating Dignity

Driven by the rationale that Chinese “high quality” workforce is contracting and unable to meet the demands of global market. In 2007, Chinese government added the term shengnü to their official lexicon, popularized to subordinate educated women and subvert them from workforce into matrimony and eventually into motherhood. The data from  the year 2000 reveals that 27% of rural men aged above 40 years were bachelors (Lee, 2013) .With the steep fall in both marriage and birth rates and its cascading impact to China’s economy, the government is resorting to intimidation of women. The intended objective is to make them believe that procrastination leads to bleak prospects of marriage. Xi Jingping’s Government is taking the onus upon themselves to marry them off in order to procreate children. Introducing Three-Child Policy by Xi’s government is also a move in that direction. This is designed to balance sex ratio for the next two decades. 

Beijing’s One-Child Policy was in place from the year 1980 to 2016. It was adopted to curb population growth. Traditional preference for having sons was very much visible during the one-child policy. This had negative fallouts as male child was preferred over girl child leading to sex-selective abortions in China. Many leading scholars suggested that the rise to the one-child policy is due to factors such as practice of female infanticide in the early years, concealment in reporting of births, abandonment of girl child at birth and sex-selective abortion (Cai and Feng, 2021). 

The causality responsible to such social malaise can be attributed to the patriarchal beliefs internalized and repetitively performed in Chinese society. In 2017, 55% of job advertisements in Ministry of Public Security specified the “men only.” As per the 2021 Statistics, the sex-ratio in China is 105.302 men to every 100 women. There are 30 million more men than women. CCP views this as harmful and posing threat to the national stability. This imbalance in the sex ratio can be held as contributing factor unleashing violence against women, who exercise rejection of potential partners.

Owing to the Chinese controversial “One Child Policy,” aimed at curbing the burgeoning population, China has a skewed sex ratio and a meager birth rate. This indicates that China benefits from a young workforce, enabling it to become a global economic power (China secured rank 2 in UNIDO’s Competitive Industrial Performance Index 2020), may now see a greater number of retirees and a lesser workforce. As China pledged to reform itself, Chinese women were encouraged to join the work force. In 2017 Chinese women contributed a total of 41% in the GDP. The state-run media and society valorized those women who want to marry and have children. The repetition of advertisements in public spaces, electronic and print media, etc. led to the internalization of propaganda of lie. Studies by All China Women’s Federation shows that, around 87% female graduates have experienced some kind of gender discrimination while hunting for jobs. According to IPU-Women Map highlighting women in politics (2020), only 24.9% i.e., out of 2975 seats in the Legislation, only 742 are held by female politicians, with Sun Chunlan being the only woman member of the Politburo, a significant government body that has 25 members. As women form a minor political representation, the outcome can be seen in biased policies against women. 

From contracting their political representation to instituting the derogatory word ‘Shengnü’ into its official discourses, the government is further pushing them into private realm and sequestering their public spaces. To reclaim their political and social space, it becomes imperative to question the status quo of leftover women. Therefore, in order to meander their assertion in political realm, they need to galvanize support both domestic as well as through global engagement.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

 Zahoor Ahmad Dar (zahoorjnu@gmail.com) is a commissioning Editor in E-International Relations. He has completed Master’s in International Relations from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His articles have featured in South Asia Journal, The Geopolitics, E-International Relations , Modern Diplomacy, The Sage, Countercurrents , Mainstream Weekly, Financial Express ,Café Dissensus  and South Asia Monitor.

Raja Babu (raja41_llb@jnu.ac.in) is a postgraduate student at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Chinese language from School of Language Literature and Cultural Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has a keen interest in Asian cultures, societies, and political dynamics, his long-standing interest lies in the understanding of East Asia in particular. His article has also featured in South Asia Journal.