“Times have changed … today men and women are equal,” Mao Zedong pronounced more than half a century ago. “Whatever men comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too.” Unless, of course, you mean running the country.
For not once since Mao’s communists took power in 1949 has a woman been appointed to China’s top political body, the politburo standing committee, let alone become the country’s top leader.
Few expect that to change on Wednesday when the Communist party’s great and good congregate in Beijing to celebrate the start of Xi Jinping’s second five-year term and conduct a highly scripted reshuffle of the party’s upper echelons.
“Taiwan has a female president. Even Hong Kong has a female chief executive. But I think the Communist party would have to collapse before you actually saw a woman leading China as a country,” said Leta Hong Fincher, the author of a forthcoming book called Betraying Big Brother: China’s Feminist Resistance.
“All the signs indicate that the Communist party does not want women to have power. It wants women to return to the home and take care of the families while men stay on the frontline and do the important work of the nation.”
Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese politics from the Brookings Institution, said it was not inconceivable that a woman could clinch one of the seven spots on the standing committee during this month’s transition. He gave Sun Chunlan, the 67-year-old head of the United Front Work Department, a secretive group charged with fortifying the party’s influence at home and abroad, a 5-10% chance of breaking that glass ceiling.
But there were similar hopes for Liu Yandong, the 71-year-old vice-premier, before the last party congress, in 2012, that came to nothing. “[The race] for the seats … is so tight – so competitive – that usually various forces will not let a woman leader enter,” Li admitted.
Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, predicted that the committee would remain a club for the boys: “I think it’s going to be a pretty conservative group that is comfortable with the more authoritarian and politically repressive state-directed tendencies of Xi.”
Chairman Mao famously proclaimed that women “hold up half the sky” and they did enjoy unquestionable advances after the 1949 revolution, as China’s leader fought to simultaneously liberate women and harness their economic potential.
But women continue to play a peripheral role in Chinese politics. There are currently just two female faces on the party’s expanded 25-member politburo; only 10 of the 205 full members of its central committee are women, down from 13 in 2012. According to Li’s research, not a single one of China’s 31 provincial governments is run by a woman. There are only two female governors.
“The absence of female voices in politics is a global phenomenon. But considering the communist regime flaunts the idea that ‘women hold up half the sky’, it hasn’t set the example it should have,” said Feng Yuan, a leading women’s rights campaigner.
Hong Fincher said an array of structural reasons helped explain why the pinnacle of Chinese politics was so overwhelmingly male: “There are far fewer women who are members of the Communist party; there is a huge gender gap in the mandated retirement age, so women are expected to retire up to 10 years before men; and there is rampant discrimination, actually throughout Chinese society but particularly in Chinese politics.”
But the dearth of female politicians also reflected a broader deterioration in women’s rights that has seen authorities crack down on China’s nascent feminist movement, and push propaganda campaigns to convince women to marry earlier and have more children.
Hong Fincher said a looming demographic crunch – which means that by 2050 more than a quarter of China’s population will be over 65 – had convinced Beijing that women were now needed more in the home than in the halls of power.
“Communist party leaders are extremely alarmed at the demographic trends in China so this is a big reason why they are pushing women into marrying and having babies,” said Hong Fincher. “They see women as just biological vessels to reproduce. Babies for the future of the nation.
“Women are better educated than ever before in Chinese history. So why isn’t the Communist party tapping into this incredible resource? I believe it’s because Communist party leaders fundamentally just see women’s roles as being wives and mothers.”
Despite the crackdown, the lack of female participation in Chinese politics has not gone unchallenged. In the lead-up to the 19th party congress, Guo Jianmei, a women’s rights advocate and lawyer, was among a group reported to be preparing to circulate a document urging China’s leaders to correct the gender imbalance of the country’s political scene.
But Guo Jianmei, whose legal aid centre was forced to close down last year amid a crackdown on civil society, declined to discuss the initiative this week citing the tense political atmosphere that has enveloped Beijing before the five-yearly event. “I’m very sorry. I was told yesterday that I couldn’t give interviews or take legal cases,” she said. “This period is too sensitive.”
Feng Yuan said there was an increasing clamour among Chinese women for change: “It is a pity that their voices have not yet been heard.”
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen
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