‘Women hold up half the sky’? Not in China’s ruling party

Beijing: In China, Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan is known as the “Iron Lady” because he led the fight against Covid-19 and strictly enforces President Xi Jinping’s “zero Covid” policy. She is also known for being the only woman in the Communist Party of China (CPC) 25-member Politburo, the second most powerful body in the CPC hierarchy.

So far, only eight women have been members of the CPC politburo since 1949, three of whom were the wives of the CPC’s founding members, including Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong. And since 1949, no woman has ever sat on the Standing Committee of the Politburo (PSC), China’s highest decision-making body.

According to leading Chinese scholar and director of the John L Thornton China Center at the American think tank Brookings Institution, Li Cheng, the representation of women in the leadership of the ruling party has always been inadequate. Only one member of the 11-member Executive Committee of the State Council (the Chinese cabinet) — made up of China’s prime minister, deputy prime ministers and state councilors — is a woman. That role is for Sun.

“There are 30 women among the 376 full and deputy members of the (current) Central Committee (7.9%). Only one woman is a member of the current 25-member Politburo (4%) and no woman has ever served on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the highest decision-making body in the country,” Li wrote recently in a commentary for China. . -US Focus website.

“At the sub-national level, among the 31 provincial administrative units of the PRC, there is only one woman who serves as party secretary and one as governor (3% for each position),” he added.


Sun, 72, will retire at the CPC’s ongoing 20th National Congress, where Xi will return as party leader for an unprecedented third time. While few know if another woman will succeed Sun, her impending retirement raises a question: Why is the number of women in China’s elite politics, despite so much talk of gender equality by the CPC, so sadly low?

“When Mao talked about women holding up half the sky, he was actually talking about his wife,” said Bo Zhiyue, founder and president of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute New Zealand.

According to Bo, who focuses on elite politics in China, the fact that the CPC came to power through struggle and women played a minor role on the battlefield could explain the gender bias.

“The men needed women and partners in the revolution, but in collaboration with them, not because of the independent nature of women,” Bo said, suggesting that while times have changed, little has changed in the patriarchal nature of Chinese society. .

The imbalance becomes especially stark when the country’s leadership is compared to its society.

“Chinese women are doing well in many ways. For example in business. Half of the world’s best self-made business women are Chinese. There they can just continue with their world, using their humor and talents; in the political world, whether a woman can do it or not depends not only on her talents or commitment, but also on others, her bosses, mostly men,” said London-based Zhang Lijia, who once worked in a rocket factory. worked in China before becoming an author who has written extensively on women’s issues.

That said, the private sector is not free from bias, according to Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch.

“Gender inequality has increased after the reform and opening in China — please add a line summarizing what this refers to// refers to Chinese economic reforms etc etc. In employment, as HRW has documented, job openings from the government and the private sector is often a requirement or preference for men, which affects both who applies and ultimately who gets hired,” she says.

Interestingly, the democratically governed Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, currently has a female president in Tsai Ing-wen, and Hong Kong, China’s special administrative region, was until recently headed by a female leader – Carrie Lam. .

Democracy gives women more opportunities in politics, Maya says.

“The higher you go in government, this gender inequality becomes more serious, and as a result, there are few women at the highest level. Political rights are often correlated with gender equality, with democracies and higher quality democracies generally seeing more gender equality,” she said.

“The reverse is also true: under authoritarianism, women have fewer rights. The fact that the Chinese top leadership has few women illustrates the increasing authoritarianism.”

The situation is unlikely to change anytime soon, especially at the ongoing national convention.

“The situation is unlikely to change this year,” Bo says, despite “almost 49% of the population” being women.

“Unless Zhongnanhai (the CPC leadership group) now prioritizes strong institutional mechanisms to address this issue, the inadequate representation of women leaders will continue to be a notable flaw of the new leadership formed this fall, and more broadly, in the Chinese party-state system in the coming years,” said Li van Brookings.

Earlier this year, Chunlan was included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2022. It hardly made any news at home.

“China’s Only Current Woman” [vice-premier] As a member of the Politburo, the party climbed ziggurat from working on a watch factory floor to lead the freewheeling coastal province of Fujian and later the port city of Tianjin,” Time magazine reported.

Maybe it’s time for Chinese politics to get more stories like this.

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