Analysts say discrimination against women remains widespread in China
Expressing support for feminism can be controversial in China
The biggest event in China’s political calendar just concluded in Beijing, and the lack of women at the top echelons of power was palpable.
This week, Chinese President Xi Jinping presented his new leadership team to the world on stage in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Just who would be on the Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee was a matter of fierce debate, but on one thing everyone was certain: there would be no women.
The People’s Republic of China has never had a female president, nor have any women served on the Standing Committee, where all key decisions about running the country are made, since the party came to power in 1949.
China's Party Congress
The next rung down – the 25-member Politburo – previously had only two female members. It now only has one.
China’s lack of female leadership is made all the more stark by the contrast with Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which are run by women.
Carrie Lam took office as first female leader in Hong Kong, a former British territory now part of China, in July. In Taiwan, a self-governing island China views as a breakaway province, Tsai Ing-wen was elected as its first female president in early 2016. Other countries in the region – South Korea, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore – have also all had women leaders.
The founding father of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong, famously proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky,” so why, four decades after his death, are there still so few high-level female politicians in China?
Although China’s constitution enshrines gender equality, discrimination remains widespread, according to analysts.
Current retirement policy requires female public servants stop working up to 10 years earlier than men. For government employees, including those at state-owned enterprises, the mandatory retirement age for men is 60, while women retire at 50 or 55.
Some experts argue this age-gap perpetuates perceptions women are physically unable to work as long as men and discourages employers from hiring women for long-term positions.
It also leads to less opportunities for women seeking advancement in Chinese politics, where cadres only reach the height of power as they near their 60s.
“The government has no intention of doing anything substantive to improve female political representation,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of the upcoming book “Betraying Big Brother: China’s Feminist Resistance.”
“It’s just doing the talk to appear more responsible as it wants to be viewed as a more prominent global leader.”
Many women – like real estate maven Zhang Xin and tech entrepreneur Hu Weiwei – are succeeding in business and academia, but female politicians remain a rare breed. Time magazine included Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and leader of the “Gang of Four” during the Cultural Revolution, as one of the 25 most powerful women of the past century, but she only reached the Politburo.
The country’s two most senior female politicians today are vice premier Liu Yandong, a scion of a political dynasty – her father was a close ally of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin – and Sun Chunlan, a somewhat obscure Politburo member.
In this week’s leadership reshuffle, Liu retired from the Politburo, leaving Sun as the only female member.
Another notable female politician is Fu Ying. While she is not a member of the Politburo, she’s only the second woman to ever hold the position of vice foreign minister.
“Chairman Mao’s words are poetic; they’re not real policies,” said Cheng Li, a China expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“Mao wanted to encourage women, but not let them go too far.”
Although a 1982 revision to the party constitution calls for it to “pay great attention to cultivating and selecting women cadres,” Li said the rules have had limited impact as they don’t define a percentage.