Chinese Communists Avoid Women While Men Hoard All Power

Jiang Qing married China’s most powerful man, created revolutionary operas, and was celebrated for bringing films from the country’s greatest directors to life. But she was also blamed for fueling the excesses of the Cultural Revolution as part of the “Gang of Four” that controlled the communist party during the turmoil.

Fifty years later, no Chinese woman has come closer to power than Madame Mao, as she was better known after marrying Mao Zedong.

When China’s 101-year-old Communist Party announces the new members of the standing committee of the Politburo, the top leadership group under President Xi Jinping, on Sunday, it is expected to return to a predominantly male affair. While a handful of women have climbed the party ranks, none have ever made it to the top seven-seat committee.

Women’s equal right to participate in politics is constitutionally enshrined in China, but few have been appointed to powerful political positions. Only one, the outgoing Covid Tsar Sun Chunlan, has a seat in the 25-member politburo, despite about 30 percent of party members being women.

“[There is a] deep-rooted male chauvinism, which is systemic in Chinese politics,” said Valarie Tan, an analyst on elite Chinese politics at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

“This informed my not-so-optimistic view of the future of women leaders in the CCP.”

Jiang Qing, third wife of Mao Zedong, at the trial of the ‘Gang of Four’ in 1981 © AFP

Three women are said to be in the running to take the place of Deputy Prime Minister Sun. But some analysts said there was no guarantee that a woman would be hired this year. It was a convention rather than a rule, they said, to name a woman after the body.

“Recognition of women’s rights has been part of China’s social development. . .[but]you don’t have a lot of female representation in politics in China, which means it’s always been very difficult to really push women’s rights as a political agenda,” Tan said.

Fengming Lu, a specialist at the Australian National University, said that, other than Chen Muhua, former governor of the People’s Bank of China, few senior women in recent years could have even advocated for women to gain more political influence.

Xi has also pushed the party further towards a more traditional view of the family, and under his rule, feminist and LGBTQI activists have been censored and persecuted.

Minglu Chen, a lecturer at the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney, said another obstacle was that female politicians risked being judged immoral if they mixed with men.

“Traditional gender stereotypes keep women from building social networks they will rely on to get ahead. . . Women [fear] become a target of slander.”

Chen pointed out how Wu Yi, a former politburo member labeled as the “Iron Lady of China,” was faced with questions such as why she was single, and that male politicians were never asked.

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Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan is the only woman to hold a seat in China’s politburo © Xinhua/Shutterstock

Women in China are also required to retire at age 55, making them less likely to reach the top of party ranks.

The party introduced a quota system in 2001, appointing at least one woman to most levels of government and party groups. But analysts said the rule had made no difference.

“So within a government department, or within the policy department, they stop once they hit that quota for women,” Tan said.

The attitude is present throughout the organization. Zhong, who only gave her last name for anonymity, joined the party in 2005 while caring for her seven-year-old child.

Zhong said the gender ratio of party members in the government unit where she worked was about 50-50, but most leadership positions were held by men.

“Women spend more time taking care of their families, while less time developing their careers. Of course, they get fewer rewards at work,” Zhong says. “After all, China is a male-dominated society, where women are always relatively weaker.”

Xi himself said that caring for and educating children was the responsibility of women during talks with the All-China Women’s Federation in 2013. “We must recognize the unique role of women in . . . nurturing family traditions,” he added.

Traditional folklore doesn’t help the cause of women either. A Chinese idiom says that a woman in power is like “a chicken announcing the dawn,” an omen for the overthrow of the natural order and the disintegration of the state, Tan said.

The fact that the Chinese president is not accountable to the country’s hundreds of millions of female citizens in direct and free elections further limits women’s voices.

“The CCP is not held accountable, not restrained by interparty competition or elections, or the need to appeal to voters,” said Chen of the University of Sydney.

“The communist party has always been a patriarchal institution, led by male political actors . . . Women’s agency and needs have never really been thought through.”

Additional reporting by Nian Lu in Beijing


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