Why the Chinese government is out to suppress the careers of educated women

They don’t need anyone to put a ring on it.
They don’t need anyone to put a ring on it.
Image: Aping Vision / STS
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Are Chinese women getting a raw deal these days? Here’s some evidence of “yes.”

First we have the aggressive affirmative action for boys in college entrance exams, as the Los Angeles Times reported. Anecdotally, universities in China are admitting boys with dramatically lower scores on the college entrance exam than girls whom they reject (note that the exam is pretty much the only criterion that Chinese universities use to assess candidates). And “the difference is sometimes really significant,” as the director of the Women’s Legal Research and Service Center told the LA Times.

To get a sense of why the government is doing this, one needs only look at the other recent gender inequality headline-grabber out of China: the enduring “leftover women” phenomenon.

Even though there are enough single men in China to populate the whole state of Texas, Chinese men still won’t marry highly educated women, reported the BBC a few days ago; they prefer to marry down. But the problem of urban, educated women seeing their nuptial prospects shrivel after hitting the age of 27 is not going away.

And the way they’re talked about, their man-snaring desperation has hit extraordinary levels. But it’s the Chinese media that have been responsible for most of that talking. ”Ever since 2007, the state media have aggressively disseminated this term [leftover women] in surveys, and news reports, and columns, and cartoons and pictures, basically stigmatizing educated women over the age of 27 or 30 who are still single,” Leta Hong-Fincher, a Beijing-based academic, told the BBC. Here’s a graphic on this population catastrophe:

Image for article titled Why the Chinese government is out to suppress the careers of educated women

But why would the Chinese media (which are, of course, strongly influenced by the Chinese government) want to stigmatize these women?

Probably in an attempt to counter a more urgent problem, the “bare branches”—the tens of millions of Chinese men who make too little to attract a wife. This phenomenon was best captured in the dating shows “If You Are the One,” when one contestant coolly declared that she “rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle.” The instant popularity of that sentiment prompted the government to take over the show, replacing talk of luxury cars and dream houses with worthy tributes to family and country. But the remark captures the fact that as single professional women in China’s big cities become more prosperous, they feel less and less pressure to get hitched.

Which is why, as Hong-Fincher lays out here, the State Council’s fingerprints are all over the “leftover women” hype. Letting more girls into college would mean more of them end up higher up on the ladder than men, creating more “bare branches.” China can’t risk that. And with its bare branches problem only getting worse, the Chinese government will curb the independence of its most capable women even more.