Women and politics in East Asia

Author: Katharine H.S. Moon, Wellesley College

This is supposed to be the Asian century, with East Asian countries leading the way. The world admires many East Asian countries for their miraculous economic growth, democracy-building and cultural innovation. But can East Asia also provide a model for developing women’s rights and political power? East Asia has no coherent pattern to boast or export.

East Asians are known for creating wealth nationally and personally but this does not necessarily produce women’s political empowerment or participation. One of the poorest countries in the world, Rwanda, sits atop the very wealthy Nordic states, the United States and newly rich Asia with the highest female representation in national politics worldwide.

In East Asia, the Philippines boasts the highest representation of women in political institutions. Nearly 30 per cent of the Philippines’ lower house is occupied by women, and women form a quarter of the upper house. In local politics, women also fare well, with 17 out of 80 provinces having voted for female governors in 2013. Since 2010, women have also made up 40–45 per cent of the highest civil service positions.

Of all East Asian societies, the Philippines is the most advanced in integrating women’s rights and development through legal codes and administrative practices. For example, the Local Government Code of 1991 deepened democratisation by decentralising power and by requiring all local and provincial governments to include women, and other underrepresented groups, in governance.

Japan, the wealthiest country in the region, falls far behind, with women holding only 11.5 per cent of nationally elected offices as of April 2016 and a mere 3 per cent of the senior-level positions in central government ministries and agencies as of early 2014. Yet in the last two national elections (2013 and 2014), women made up about 53 per cent of the voters.

This is puzzling, given that Japan is the most developed democracy in East Asia in addition to offering a relatively high quality of life. No doubt Japanese government institutions and cultural norms in political life are unfriendly, if not hostile, to women. But that goes for many other East Asian societies that have nonetheless produced significant numbers of female political leaders in government and civil society. Marriage and children have also become less and less popular, but Japanese women who chose work or careers have tended to avoid politics. Neither Japan nor the Philippines has a quota for female representation in national politics, but Japan ranks lower than the Philippines, China and North Korea.

South Korea does have an electoral quota system, which requires political parties to include at least 30 per cent of female candidates in their district nominations and 50 per cent of appointed proportional representatives. South Korea’s National Assembly election of April 2016 yielded 49 female members, or 17 per cent of available elected seats — a record high.

Since 1996 a similar 30 per cent quota has existed for civil service positions. As the number of women in civil service positions grew, the government also set a 30 per cent quota for men in 2003 to combat fears that men were getting ‘left behind’. Despite this, only 4.5 per cent of high-level government positions are occupied by women, although this number should grow as women in entry-level positions climb the ranks. As The New York Times reported in 2010, ‘47 per cent of those who passed the state examination that selects midlevel officials to be groomed for senior posts in agencies other than the Foreign Ministry were women. In 1992 it was 3.2 per cent’.

South Korean women have also made the most gains in the diplomatic corps. In the 2010s about 60 per cent of those who passed the entrance exam were women. This is a stunning leap from just 1.1 per cent in the 1980s, 7.7 per cent in the 1990s and 47 per cent in the 2000s. In 2008, ‘the passing rate of women outstripped that of men by two to one’. Merit-based entry requirements are regarded as fairer in democratic South Korea than they were during the country’s period of military authoritarianism. This might help explain why in Thailand the number of female parliamentarians dropped after the military coup of 2014, from 16 per cent to 6.1 per cent.

China defies conventional logic. Despite decades of communist indoctrination and legal changes that reversed thousands of years of sanctioned male privilege, contemporary China is rolling back women’s rights and political participation. Women form small minorities at all levels of the political system: 21 per cent of the Chinese Communist Party and 23 per cent of national civil service jobs. About 1 per cent of village committee chairs, which most directly relate to people’s everyday lives, are women. A woman has never been selected for the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the top governing body. Since 2013 two women have occupied seats in the 25-member Politburo, the first time since the early 1970s.

Women’s property rights are also less secure now, when more women have money, than they were in the 1950s. In 2011, China’s Supreme People’s Court interpreted the revolutionary 1950 Marriage Law and its amendments, which granted numerous freedoms and rights including common marital property, in favour of men. Now, marital property essentially belongs to the person whose name is on the property deed.

As Leta Hong Fincher reports, in the top real estate markets of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, ‘only 30 per cent of marital home deeds include the woman’s name, even though over 70 per cent of women contribute to the marital home purchase’. Given that real estate is a major source of new wealth for Chinese, women are in a losing game.

Despite admirable progress, there is a long way to go yet. While East Asia, with China at the centre, may be on the rise, it still lags behind in terms of women’s rights and political representation.

Dr Katharine H.S. Moon is Professor of political science at Wellesley College, and SK-Korea Foundation Chair of Korea Studies and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Gender and Sexuality’.

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20 June 2016 1:18 am

Thanks for an informative summary of the circumstances regarding women’s rights and representation in these various countries. I have two comments.

First, Japan’s lack of progress can be attributed to the ‘cultural norms’ alluded to by the author. Even with PM Abe’s call for ‘womenomics’its powerful patriarchal norms keep it from making any substantial changes in that regard. Abe has not increased the number of women in his Cabinet, for example. Neither has he done anything about changing the hiring and promotional practices of the ministries in his government. So his womenomics is largely all talk and no action.

Second, perhaps S Korea’s quota system is worth considering in other countries? It appears as if it has made a lot of progress over the course of the last 25-30 years with such a system in place. Is its current female President a beneficiary of these practices? I wonder, however, how much opposition from men it has encountered in the ROK.