Where are all the women in China’s political system?

Author: Jude Howell, LSE

In September 2014 the Inter-Parliamentary Union released its latest figures on the number of women in national parliaments. Rwanda topped the league with women accounting for 63.8 per cent of parliamentarians in the lower house (or its equivalent). China, however, ranked 62nd out of 189 countries, with women accounting for 23.4 per cent of representatives to the National People’s Congress (NPC) — China’s nearest equivalent to a parliament. Given that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long espoused the idea of equality between men and women and has a well-established, dedicated institution for protecting women’s rights and interests — the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) — it is curious that the figures are so unimpressive.

These figures reflect a more general pattern of underrepresentation of women at all levels of the political system. Only two women sit in the current 25-member Politburo and no woman has ever sat in the powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Currently there is only one female provincial governor (Li Bin, governor of Anhui) and only one party secretary of a province or city (Sun Chunlan, currently party secretary of Tianjin city, and previously of Fujian province). In fact, Sun is one of only two women who have ever served as the party secretary of a province. Only 21 per cent of all party members are female and only 23 per cent of all national-level civil servants are women. Further down the system, little more than 1 per cent of village committee chairs are women.

How can this be? Especially given the CCP’s apparent long-standing commitment to gender equality, its large organisational machine for promoting women’s rights and interests, its practical efforts to tackle sexist attitudes and promote equality and, not least, Chinese women’s high economic participation — which hovers around 70 per cent for women between 18–64 years. Unravelling this puzzle reveals a complex array of interweaving causal factors, some of which prevail in other countries and some of which are particular to China’s political system and culture.

First and most fundamental are processes of gender socialisation. Despite ideological campaigns during the Maoist decades to change people’s thinking around gender roles, entrenched gendered attitudes remain amongst both men and women. Women are often described as ‘lacking self-confidence’ or ‘lacking quality’ (suzhi di), or seeing their role traditionally as ‘inside the home’ rather than ‘outside the home’. Such views are also often internalised by cadres in the ACWF and mirrored in the numerous campaigns to enhance women’s self-esteem and ‘improve their quality’. But this focus on the individual woman’s ‘quality’ is problematic — not just because it casts the spotlight on the individual woman as the problem and the solution but more importantly because it masks other issues such as institutional and political factors that shape the way men and women enter formal politics.

China’s political culture is male-dominated. Not only is there male bias in the nomination and selection processes for leading positions in the party/state at all levels, but the career trajectories of men and women are often quite different. Both domestic responsibilities as well as a lower retirement age for women hinder the opportunities of promotion for women. Though the NPC in March 2007 stated that women should account for no less than 22 per cent of all NPC members, such targets have turned out to have a limiting effect, creating an artificial barrier to participation after the 22 per cent target has been reached. Surviving in a male-dominated political system also means playing the cultural games that are laid down by men, such as smoking and drinking heavily. Women are thus caught in a dilemma — if they drink along with men, their reputation might be sullied; but if they do not drink along with the men, then it appears that they are not part of the group, and may forfeit influence and connections.

Apart from these political cultural factors, ‘state-derived feminism’ — which is the theory, ideology, strategy and practice of the ACWF — is also limited in what it can achieve. The analysis of female oppression remains stuck in an unrevised Marxist-Engelsian-Maoist analysis that is no longer able to grasp the gendered effects of an increasingly globalised and marketised economy and society. In addition, the ACWF forms part of the CCP’s institutional machine. Constraints on its autonomy translate into constraints on its room to manoeuvre and its ability to take a more challenging approach to gender inequalities. Though more independent women’s groups have proliferated across China since the Fourth World Summit of Women was held in Beijing in 1995, a restrictive regulatory framework for civil society still limits their effectiveness.

But it is not all doom and gloom. At least China has an institutional infrastructure of expanded laws and regulations advancing gender equality and a dedicated national machinery in the form of the ACWF. This cannot be dismissed too lightly. There is also a new wave of activism amongst China’s young generation of women, which is taking radical action around practical issues like the shortage of female toilets and the discriminatory practices in university entrance processes. All is not lost; but more could be done.

Jude Howell is a Professor at the Department of International Development, London School of Economics.

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