Leta Hong Fincher is an expert when it comes to the complicated area of women's rights in China. The author of the groundbreaking book Leftover Women (2014) shone a light on the huge social pressure faced by young women to marry young and have children. Her argument throughout the book that women are becoming less – not more – equal in many areas of modern Chinese life is convincing, determined and passionate, fuelled by an underlying anger about social inequality.
Now, the New York-based academic – who is fluent in Mandarin and the first American to receive a PhD from Tsinghua University in Beijing – is preparing to publish her much-anticipated new book Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, which takes an in-depth look at China's growing feminist movement, and the inspirational women leading the charge.
Leftover Women was a convincing argument that China is undergoing a reversal in women's rights – since its publication in 2014 would you say things have been getting better or worse?
Well… both! What has gotten a lot better is that among these urban educated women that I wrote about for Leftover Women, their own consciousness overall of their low status in society has really increased. At the time I was doing research for the book, I was really demoralised by the very low awareness of so many women of just how unequal they were. The fact was so many of them just said: 'Well, you know, that's just the way it is, there's nothing I can do about it.' They were very passive and it got very depressing at times.
But, several years later things really have changed. Obviously there are still a lot of women who are very passive and don't see a need to stand up for their rights, but what really strikes me is that these urban, educated women are in general becoming more aware of their rights, and that relates to my next book, Betraying Big Brother.
'Things are moving backwards in terms of women's political representation, but where they are progressing is on the ground.'
Is 'feminist' still seen as a loaded term in China?
In addition to writing about the feminist movement in China in my new book, I also write about a broader feminist awakening. Even though most women are still very reluctant to use the term 'feminist' to describe themselves, if you put that word to the side, I feel there's been an appreciable change in attitude in recent years. I would say most women in China still do not want to claim the label of 'feminist', but you have more and more women who are claiming the label, and a growing awareness among women of their rights as women.
First, the crackdown on feminist activism means the government itself has made feminism a politically sensitive term. Aside from that, I think a reluctance over the term is very natural – look around the world, the term 'feminist' is not something that most girls are educated to believe really applies to them. It's not unique to China.
Would more women in public positions help?
There are of course some female millionaires, billionaires and successful entrepreneurs. But there just aren't enough of them, and to be honest, they're not really creating a better working environment for ordinary women. In the government, female political representation is actually getting worse – and it was already really bad. Look at the last Party Congress, the number of women in the Politburo is minuscule – there used to be two and now there's only one. Fewer than 5 percent of the Central Committee are women.
So, I don't see women's political representation improving at all, and it certainly isn't going to improve for another five years. Things are moving backwards in terms of women's political representation, but where they are progressing is on the ground, where ordinary women, especially educated, savvy urban women, are becoming more aware of their rights.
But the fact is there are overwhelming forces pushing on these women to get married and have children, and those forces are extremely strong.
Image: courtesy Verso 2018
Can you give us any more advance hints about your new book?
'The new book is coming out [on September 25]. A lot of it is very narrative, telling the story of the Feminist Five, and I also write about a lot of other key figures in China's feminist movement; where they came from, what happened to them.
I also talk about how what is happening today in China with feminism and women's rights, and relate that back to China's revolutionary history. There is a long historical tradition of feminism and the struggle for women's rights in China, with the Communist Revolution and the Republican Revolution before that too.
Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening (Verso 2018) will be available from September 25 at bookdespository.com for 166RMB.
By Helen Roxburgh