China heading backwards on women’s rights


The last woman to run China was the Dowager Empress Cixi more than a century ago.

On current trends, it could be another 100 years before a woman takes charge again. A country that officially promotes equality between the sexes is a men-only bastion at the very top. No woman has ever climbed as high as the Politburo Standing Committee, which has seven members led by President Xi Jinping.

The wider politburo isn’t much more inclusive. Since 1949 it has welcomed only a handful of women, most of them wives of top leaders. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was a member. So was Zhou Enlai’s spouse.

This dismal record will almost certainly go unchallenged during the party’s next reshuffle in a few weeks. As with so much in the political arena under Xi, China is heading backward on women’s rights. He has compounded an unabashed sexism in senior party appointments with a broad assault on civil society, including feminist groups.

At the same time, Xi is reviving Confucian values to try to anchor the party’s legitimacy in classical tradition. The glass ceiling in politics is now reinforced by a rigidly paternalistic philosophy.

Earlier this year, social-media sites lit up in protest after an expert on traditional culture, Ding Xuan, urged chastity for female students in a university lecture. (Ding also advises that “virtuous” women shouldn’t eat and walk at the same time, or cross their arms while talking.) “What? The Qing dynasty is over,” one indignant social-media user commented.

Feminist leaders are dismayed. Writing in the Paper, a state-owned news website, the activist Wang Xiaoneng bemoans a conservative backlash against feminists by men who portray them as “objects with claws, a hateful face, bias against men and psychological distortions”.

Others think the problem is deeply entrenched attitudes in the party, which the sociologist Li Yinhe argues are widespread around the world. “Among women politicians, the ones with a strong feminist inclination can hardly be selected; only those who don’t make men feel threatened can,” she wrote in a commentary after the last US presidential election.

But would more women in the politburo, or even a female president, really make a difference?

The evidence around Asia is mixed. Although the region has produced more female presidents, prime ministers and opposition leaders than any other in the modern era — Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye are a few examples — they’ve done little to advance a pro-woman agenda more generally. Most are widows or daughters of assassinated political figures drafted in by male-dominated parties anxious to cash in on their name recognition and public sympathy.

The first democratically elected female Chinese leader, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, breaks that mould. A lawyer, she worked her way up the political ladder. Even so, she is up against the legacy of Confucian thinking on the island. Former vice-president Annette Lu, a pioneer feminist, sought to marry traditional Chinese conceptions of an ideal woman — soft, domestic and chaste — with modern realities. She once described the “new woman” as an educated professional who “holds a spatula with her left hand and a pen in her right hand”.

Andrea Fleschenberg, the author of Women and Politics in Asia, says women have been “roaring tigresses” in getting elected but “timid kittens” when it comes to filling the lower ranks of government with other women.

Ahead of China’s 19th party congress next month, when most positions on the Politburo Standing Committee will turn over — Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang will stay on — the prospects for change are dim. Women have never made up more than 10 per cent of the party’s Central Committee, from whose ranks the politburo is drawn, writes Cheng Li, an expert on elite Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution.

Only two women serve on the current 25-member politburo. At least one is set to retire. And, notes Li, the most important pipeline for female replacements is empty; no woman serves as a party secretary of a province or province-level city.

Outside of the party structure, the National People’s Congress — China’s legislative body — does a better job: 23 per cent of its members are women, which is the global average for parliaments, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union; the figure for the US congress is 19 per cent.

At least in theory, hopes for gender equality were higher in the revolutionary era: “Women hold up half the sky,” Mao declared. The party still counts freeing Chinese women from the bondage of arranged marriages and bringing them into the workforce as some of its most notable accomplishments.

As Xi turns back the clock, the state-sponsored All-China Women’s Federation is taking note. It piled in with criticism of Ding’s lecture and an article in one of its official publications urged more gender-equality education, arguing that “monsters and demons can only live in places where the sun doesn’t shine”.

The Wall Street Journal


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