Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the new lineup
of the Politburo Standing Committee as seven older men.
Female members of the party are sometimes seen as
The communist party prides itself on a history of
acknowledging and including women, but in practice they are
woefully underrepresented in the government.
China has a strong number of female entreprenuers, but
they have been empowered by China’s embrace of market
capitalism rather than the Communist party.
BEIJING (Reuters) – Every time China’s ruling Communist Party
convenes a major gathering, like the congress that just ended in
Beijing, the list of delegates is hand-crafted in part to burnish
the party’s image as “representative of the masses” – including
giving some prominence to those in more menial jobs and ethnic
Yet one group is chronically under-represented among the
political elite: women.
The founding father of communist China, Mao Zedong, may have once
said that women “hold up half the sky” but when the
twice-a-decade party congress selected a new batch of top leaders
this week, females weren’t holding up much at all.
No women made it onto the elite Politburo Standing Committee, the
group of seven men at the pinnacle of the party. None ever have.
In the new Politburo, only one of its 25 members is a woman —
Sun Chunlan, head of the party body charged with outreach to
non-Communists. It is her second term and she is likely to retire
in five years. On the previous Politburo, there were two women,
Sun and Vice Premier Liu Yandong – who is past retirement age and
has stepped down from the Politburo.
One rung down, just 4.9 percent of the new Central Committee, a
mere 10 of the body’s 204 members, are women. That number was
unchanged from the outgoing Central Committee, which presided for
five years, but lower than in 2007-2012 when there were 13.
The State Council Information Office, which doubles as the
party’s propaganda department, did not respond to faxed questions
for comment on why there are so few women in senior party
By way of comparison, five members of U.S. President Donald
Trump’s 24-member cabinet are women, and about 20 percent of the
U.S. Congress are female. In Japan, two out of 20 members of the
cabinet are women as are about 10 percent of the lower house
lawmakers newly elected on Sunday. Reuters
Astronauts and housekeepers
At the Chinese party congress itself, the overall numbers were
stronger: about a quarter of its 2,287 delegates were women –
roughly commensurate with the proportion in the roughly 90
But with most senior leadership posts in the hands of men,
activist Xiong Jing, an NGO project manager who edits a feminist
social media site, said many of the women delegates to the party
congress were there merely as “decoration”.
“This problem is a cliché,” she said. “With the political system
as it is now, I think even if more women were involved, whether
as party congress delegates or in government, they may be very
limited in what they can do.”
The party takes the appearance of representativeness seriously
when it comes to some groups.
At party congresses and annual sessions of parliament, there are
delegates from China’s 56 different ethnic groups, every branch
of the military and police, private businesses, the state sector
and, of course, the government.
The party congress this year featured delegates who were
astronauts, athletes, actors, judges, farmers and more. There was
even a delegate representing housekeepers, who showed up in her
apron and maid’s cap.
“Party of the people”
For women in general in China, political empowerment is lacking.
China ranked 74th in political empowerment of women out of 144
countries in the World Economic Forum’s global Gender Gap Report
last year. In 2006, it was no. 52 out of 115.
Leta Hong Fincher, a New York-based sociologist and author of the
forthcoming book “Betraying Big Brother: The Rise of China’s
Feminist Resistance”, says women in China are losing ground amid
a resurgence of traditional gender norms.
“It’s my impression that the Communist Party is fundamentally not
interested in having women at the senior levels at all,” she
In China’s pre-reform command economy under Mao, women were
drafted into the workforce and recruited into nation-building.
The most powerful woman since the communist takeover in 1949 was
Mao’s third wife, Jiang Qing. She and members of her “Gang of
Four” were arrested after Mao’s death in 1976 and blamed for the
excesses of the chaotic Cultural Revolution.
More recently, Hong Fincher says, the party has been spooked by
China’s demographic challenges – an aging population, shrinking
labour force and falling birth rates – and has aggressively
promoted the idea that women should be getting married and having
To be sure, in Chinese business there are some prominent female
chief executives, such as Zhang Xin at real estate developer Soho
China and Zhou Qunfei, the billionaire founder of Lens
And the party and government pay lip service to gender equality.
The state constitution guarantees women the same rights as men.
“The government … wants to appear to be taking gender equality
seriously, when in reality it is not. It is actually in full
retreat with regard to gender equality,” Hong Fincher said.
The election process for party congress delegates is tightly
controlled, with candidates vetted for their loyalty to the party
But congress delegate Tang Jialing, who is a crew member on a
deep-sea research submersible, suggested that the lack of women
reflected the will of the people.
“We are the party of the people. It’s the people who voted in
more men than women. It’s the people’s choice,” she said.