Ep. 4: How "Leftover Women" may reshape China's future

China Books

Jan 2 2024 • 47 mins

A funny thing happened at the height of China's economic boom, as more and more Chinese women were getting college degrees, good jobs, and promising careers. The government launched a propaganda campaign, urging women to get married young, before they became "yellowed pearls".  Leta Hong-Fincher captured that phenomenon in her book Leftover Women (2014).

A decade later, with a new updated edition of Leftover Women just out, Leta joins the China Books podcast to talk about why China's Communist Party leaders are still so focused on micro-managing the personal lives of women.

President Xi Jinping himself made an explicit appeal at China's National Women's Congress in November 2023, calling on China's women to stay home and have babies. The draconian one-child policy, enforced from 1979 to 2016, had led to a plummeting birthrate, a contracting workforce and an aging population. Now the government is urging women to marry early and have three children.

But many of China's women -- about one in five now have college degrees -- seem none  too keen on giving up on dreams to have a career, and perhaps more independence than they would in a marriage. China's fertility rate continues to plummet, and is now about half the replacement rate. The number of marriage licenses granted per year in China has dropped for nine straight years, and is now half of what it was a decade ago.  Faced with inequality of opportunity and of protection under the law when it comes to marriage, property rights, and domestic abuse, women in China are engaged demographic revolution voting with their feet, with potentially profound implications for China's economic and political future.

Leta Hong Fincher is the author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2023, 10th Anniversary Edition) and Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (2018). She is the first American to receive a Ph.D. from Tsinghua University's Department of Sociology in Beijing and is currently a Research Associate at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University.


The China Books podcast is hosted and produced by Mary Kay Magistad, a former award-winning China correspondent for NPR and PRI/BBC's The World, now a senior fellow at Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. This podcast is a companion of the China Books Review, which offers incisive essays, interviews, and reviews on all things China books-related. Co-publishers are Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, headed by Orville Schell, and The Wire China, co-founded by David Barboza, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times China correspondent. The Review's editor is Alec Ash, who can be reached at editor@chinabooksreview.com.