Originally published in Yahoo News on May 26, 2014

I lived in China for seven years between 2002 and 2009. My first impressions of the capital city, Beijing, were a mosaic of images and scents: dazzling sheaths of glass and chrome that reared up into the sky; the whiff of jasmine rising from steaming cups of tea; old men in Mao jackets taking caged songbirds for evening walks; armies of cranes trundling demolished neighborhoods like mechanical executioners.

The jumble of experiences, both sensory and intellectual, that China presented as it hurtled into the 21st century, were difficult to unpick for someone who was new to the country, militating against easy pronouncements. As an Indian I found it particularly hard to arrive at the black and white portraits of the country that many Westerners painted, instead finding myself immersed in the shades of gray that only those familiar with diverse, poor, geographically mammoth and demographically epic nations can perceive.

But there was one conclusion that appeared to need little qualification: Chinese women were an empowered lot. They seemed to lay claim to public spaces in a way that was impossible in Delhi. They didn’t walk hunched up avoiding eye contact with strangers. They rode bicycles and wore hot pants. Sometimes they loitered aimlessly, laughing up at the sun. They were loud and sassy.

At zebra crossings people were herded across the road by women traffic cops. I was handed change on crowded buses by women conductors, and taken sightseeing in taxis driven by women. The neighbourhood committee of the area I lived in was staffed by formidable matrons, sporting Chairman Mao coiffures, who could turn errant residents into stone with a glance. At the airport, men were frisked, with businesslike indifference, by female security guards.

In the years I spent traveling to, and reporting from, remote villages across China I felt safe and free of judgment as I checked into hotel rooms and boarded trains. I was asked what I did for a profession, and also about how much I earned. But it was only the odd Indian I encountered who seemed to have an ontological objection to my existence in the country.

“What are you doing here?” I was repeatedly asked. “Um, as I already told you in my email,” I remember explaining patiently to an Indian trader with large China-based operations, “I am a journalist. I write for a newspaper and that is why I want to interview you about your experience doing business in China.” “But, why are you really here,” he’d replied promptly. And so it went until the real anxiety that underlay this line of interrogation came to the fore.

“Where is your Mr? And your papa?” That a young woman could be in China pursuing a career in much the same manner as he was, was so outside of this gentleman’s experience that until I’d established a male relative to whom I was anchored, he’d clung to his “But what are you doing here?” question with terrier tenacity. When I’d finally given in and revealed that my husband worked in Beijing too, the trader’s coiled muscles had visibly relaxed. He’d smiled benignly and switched to Hindi, “To aisai kaho na, beti! (So say that no!)”

The gap between India and China on gender issues was brought home in a myriad of unexpected ways. I was once accompanying a delegation of businessmen from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) on a familiarization trip of China, who found themselves at a loss upon discovering that a large number of the officials and entrepreneurs they had meetings fixed with were women. Emergency requests to headquarters in New Delhi had to be sent for gender-neutral supplements to the ties they had brought with them as gifts.

My impressions of China’s gender empowerment were backed up by the data. At the time, the country had an impressively high rate of female labour force participation of around 67 percent, compared to 36 percent for India. Only some 13 percent of women in China were illiterate (with female youth literacy rates at close to 100 percent) compared to well over 50 percent in India (where female youth literacy was only at 68 percent). The data has changed in the intervening years: for the 2008-2012 period female youth literacy in India is at 74.4 percent. The corresponding figure for China is however 99.6 percent. Similarly, for the 2008-2012 period adult literacy rates for women as a percentage of men is only 67.6 percent in India compared to 95.1 percent in China.

The systematic denial of education to women is one of the most insidious atrocities that a society can commit against its own people. Perpetuated over generations, it robs those discriminated against of a belief in their own worth as human beings. Historically, China had hardly been a poster child for gender equality.

Foot binding, the process by which female children had their feet broken and bound to produce tiny feet considered beautiful to men, was only the most visible sign of deep-seated, socially-sanctioned misogyny. The long strides that Chinese women had walked from the days of foot binding certainly set them apart from women in India, yet both countries were deeply patriarchal in timbre. Male preference was strong in both cultures since girl children were seen as belonging to their future husbands, and therefore useless for perpetuating family lines.

The modern challenging of gender norms in China owed much to the country’s Communist revolution and was part of the rupture with the past that Mao Zedong had aimed to create. Mao famously declared that “women hold up half the sky”, and under his regime women were given the right to divorce and to own land. Foot binding was stamped out and the practice of bride sales and concubinage made illegal. For the first time, people were educated into a formal belief regarding gender equality.

It’s debatable how much the lives of women actually improved under the authoritarian, arguably megalomaniacal, State project that Mao oversaw. The communist party’s boosting of female labour force participation was a utilitarian endeavour aimed at increasing national productivity rather than expanding women’s choices. Women often had to labour in factories or fields, unable to take care of small children who were placed in state-sponsored nurseries. Their foray into the pubic sphere was, moreover, not matched by an expansion of the male role in the private sphere, and they remained largely in charge of all the housework.

The tangible evidence of gender empowerment I saw on Chinese streets was also refuted by the country’s grotesquely askew sex ratio. In China, traditional male preference was compounded by the State’s one child policy, which confined much of the population to a single offspring, leading to a spike in sex-selective abortions. At 117-119 boys for every 100 girls, China’s sex ratio was worse than India’s record of 108-110 boys to every 100 girls.

Over the years I lived in China there were other signs of an emergence, or re-emergence, of sexist values. Desirable physical attributes in women, including minimum height and maximum weight, were an open requirement for many jobs ranging from airline attendants to Olympic Games hostesses. Prostitution, which had been largely wiped out under the communists, was thriving, as any visit to one of Beijing’s dodgier massage parlours was testament to. In a nation where, for decades, even make-up had been condemned as bourgeois and beauty pageants banned as “spiritual pollution”, cosmetic surgery was now booming. Several banks had begun to offer loans to women seeking a new face, so that they could pay for their nips and tucks in easy, monthly instalments.

China’s vaunted female labour force participation was also declining. According to national census data the number of urban women participating in the labour force in 2010 was down to 60.8 percent from 77.4 percent in 1990. But the figures for the female workforce in urban India (already low) were also dropping fast. Many studies have shown that as the income of families increases, it allows women the choice to stay at home. Perhaps China was merely enjoying the result of greater prosperity, which opened up options for women that they had not had under the privations of communism.

The signs I observed that indicated some dismantling of the communist regime-led and enforced gender norms appeared to be relatively mild symptoms that most globally-oriented, consumerist societies, displayed. They seemed, in other words, to be the collateral damage of the economic liberalization that Beijing had embraced over the last three decades.

That the market-oriented policies China was in the process of adopting had created new forms of inequality was egregiously obvious, underscored by an ever increasing Gini coefficient (China’s Gini coefficient peaked at 0.491 in 2008), and given tangible manifestation in the juxtaposition of the glittering city skylines and the black-toothed, sunken-eyed migrant workers on whose backs these were built. Much attention, including mine, was focused on the new and deepening disparities of geography (urban vs. rural areas, coastal vs. interior provinces) and class (workers and peasants vs. the new elite of entrepreneurs and businessmen). What escaped sustained scrutiny was the more insidious, but equally damaging, gendered nature of these imbalances.

Leta Hong Fincher, an American journalist-turned-academic’s new book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, is a corrective. Fincher demonstrates how women have been shut out of what is “possibly the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history”, worth more than $30 trillion in 2013.

As the communist regime liberalized land ownership in the 1990s it set off a property boom which has seen house prices in urban China soar to become some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Much of the wealth accumulation in the country over the past decade and a half owes its origins to the real estate market. But Fincher demonstrates how patriarchal notions underlying property and inheritance have resulted in an exclusion of women from this real estate party.

It is almost impossible for young people to pay for apartments out of earned salaries. Parents therefore contribute substantially to down payments and mortgages for their children. Crucially, Fincher shows, parents overwhelmingly choose to help only male offspring, given the widely accepted notion that a young man needs a property in his name in order to attract a suitable wife. As a norm, daughters are not aided by parents in acquiring homes since it is assumed they will marry a man with a house to his name. Fincher documents numerous instances of women spending their own savings in helping a male cousin to buy property in order to enhance his chances in the marriage market, foregoing their own shot at property ownership.

Amongst the hundreds of women Fincher interviews and surveys, she finds that a vast majority agrees to register marital property solely in the name of their husbands. They do so for a variety of reasons. Some think it is part of the natural order of things. Others cannot deal with the bureaucratic hassles involved in registering a property in two names. Banks in China, for example, do not permit joint bank accounts, so that combined mortgage payments are difficult to make. Still others are deeply unhappy at having only their spouses’ names on the property deed, but prefer not to pick a fight over this issue, worried about the detrimental effect it will have on their marital relationship.

This, despite the fact that women often contribute to down payments and mortgage instalments on apartments out of their salaries. Even if they do not directly pay for mortgages it is common for women’s salaries to be the chief source for groceries and other living expenses. Yet, while the value of property increases exponentially, salaries remain more-or-less constant. Despite participating in the labour force in myriad capacities, women therefore do not become wealthy in the manner of their husbands.

This fact is exacerbated by changes in the law, which Fincher describes as reflecting the broader shifts away from women’s empowerment that economic liberalization has resulted in. A new 2011 interpretation by the Supreme Court of China’s Marriage Law rules that marital property should not be shared equally in the event of a divorce, but each side should keep what is in his, or her, own name. But, given that a vast majority of such property (Fincher estimates this at 70 percent) is solely registered in the husband’s name, women suffer serious and disproportionate financial consequences due to divorce.

The other main contention of Fincher’s thesis has to do with explaining why so many women agree, willingly or reluctantly, to this writing of themselves out of official property deeds. She attributes this phenomenon in large part to a State-led campaign aimed at persuading women to marry early, lest they become “leftover women”. She traces this campaign to a 2007 Xinhua news agency article titled, “Eight Simple Moves to Escape the Leftover Woman Trap” according to which Chinese women were becoming too picky in their choice of husbands, choosing to focus on the “three highs”: high education, professional status and income, rather than on finding a spouse.

In the following years a sustained propaganda campaign, led by State-directed media and women’s organizations, have attempted to pressurize women into early marriage. Fincher links this move to governmental concerns about the potentially destabilizing influence on society from legions of frustrated, unmarried men, that would result from women delaying marriage in a country with an unbalanced sex ratio. She further sees a convergence between the aims of the State and the drivers of the real estate boom, who together promote the dual myths of the idea that a man must have a house before he can marry, and that a woman over the age of 27 is in danger of becoming a “leftover” spinster.

Reading her book, I was put in mind of the Sunday marriage marts in Beijing that I had attended, and written about, when I lived there. These were vast gatherings of senior citizens in the Chinese capital’s public parks, where parents and grandparents could be found clutching pieces of paper advertising their children as prospective spouses.

“Boy – 28 yrs, has own apartment in Fuxing district, no mortgage, Communist Party member,” boasted one scrap of paper offered up by a bespectacled father in central Beijing’s Zhongshan park. A forlorn looking mother who sat a few meters away from him held up a sheet that stated, “Girl, 35 yrs, 1.6 meters tall, PHD, University teacher.” The mother admitted to me that she’d held scant hope her daughter would be able to find a suitable match at the age of 35. “This is what comes of having such high standards and studying so much,” she had mournfully told me.

There is undoubtedly pressure on women to find husbands while they are still relatively young, in China today. But this is hardly a China-specific phenomenon. Women around the world worry about loneliness and consequently make compromises in their choice of partners. They feel pressure to do so from their parents, peers, Hollywood movies, romantic novels, and biology.

The role that the State plays in promoting the narrative of “leftover women” in China is more unique. However, Fincher is unable to establish how much prevalent attitudes related to gender and marriage are the result of this government propaganda campaign, and how much they merely reflect age-old beliefs that were submerged, but never stamped out, by communism. Some of her speculation about the active collusion between State and real estate interests smacks of conspiracy theories rather than sober research.

Nonetheless, her analysis of the implications of the gendered nature of the real estate market is damning. While Chinese women remain amongst the most empowered in the region on many parameters, including labour force participation, literacy and maternal health, Fincher’s book adds another criterion of inequality in property ownership at a time of enormous real-estate accumulation and related wealth generation. In doing so, she demonstrates how discrimination against women can be subtle, almost invisible, yet devastating in its outcomes. Gender in China is the perfect example of the smoke and mirrors that confound even long-time observers of the country.