Chinese State Councilor Liu Yandong attends the opening ceremony for the… (Alexander F. Yuan/AP )
BEIJING — Mao Zedong was arguably the father of Chinese feminism, with his famous observation that “women hold up half the sky.” But when Mao’s Communist Party heirs take to the stage next week to unveil their new leadership lineup, there aren’t likely to be many females — if any — among the country’s new rulers.
Only one woman, State Councilor Liu Yandong, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, which effectively runs the country. But her chances appear to be slim, particularly amid suggestions that the Standing Committee could be cut from its current nine members to seven.
Besides Liu, the only woman on the 25-member Politburo, the list of women in top positions in China’s Communist Party hierarchy is remarkably short.
China has 22 provinces, five autonomous regions and four centrally controlled municipalities, but only one — Anhui province in the east — is run by a female governor, Li Bin, who was appointed in February. And there is only one female Communist provincial chief, Sun Chunlan, the party secretary in Fujian province, on the east coast.
In the past 30 years, the Chinese Communist Party has appointed only four women as provincial governors. And Sun is only the second female Party provincial chief in the 63-year history of Chinese Communist rule.
Since China’s top party ranks, the Politburo and the more important Standing Committee, are most often filled by officials who have served as provincial chiefs and governors, the future for women here does not look bright. The latest statistics from the party’s Organization Department show that, at the minister level or above, 11 percent of officials are female.
“If we talk about power-sharing, they don’t want women holding up half the sky — or even one-third of the sky,” said Feng Yuan, a women’s rights activist.
“Generally speaking, I think more women want to be involved more than the positions they already have,” Feng said. “On the other hand, many women don’t want to adjust themselves to the current political culture — the boys’ club, the drinking culture.”
China’s women, in their minuscule numbers in the top party jobs, fare better in one respect than ethnic minorities. Han Chinese make up more than 90 percent of the population of 1.3 billion people, and the country’s 55 other minority groups have no chance of getting one of their own anywhere near the Standing Committee.
China’s five ethnic-minority autonomous regions do have minorities in the governor’s positions, and the party has been trying to recruit more minorities into the provincial governments in Xinjiang and Tibet as a way to ease tensions. But the minorities are Communist stalwarts who have undergone intense scrutiny and are largely there to help the party maintain its grip. Also, the more important party secretary jobs typically stay in Han Chinese hands.
Progress in the private sector
Women have had more success advancing in the private sector. Although women still languish in the Communist Party’s lower ranks — more likely to be serving tea in local or provincial offices than leading the meetings — many have climbed to the top in the businesses world.
According to a Chinese entrepreneurs’ association, about 30 percent of entrepreneurs are women. Six of the top 14 women on the Forbes list of self-made female billionaires are from China. Not far from where the Communist rulers will soon reveal their new, likely all-male team, one of those women on Forbes list, Zhang Xin, the chief executive of Beijing’s largest real estate development firm, on Saturday unveiled her new project, a massive retail and office complex called Galaxy Soho.
“People look at China and they see the powerful women in the business world. You have CEOs of state-owned enterprises, advertising companies, lawyers, but you see a clear lag in government,” said Hung Huang, a prominent female publisher of a fashion magazine. “You just don’t see women in top political positions. I have friends who were in government positions who dropped out eventually because it’s an old boys’ club. They’re not comfortable there. There’s no policies to support them.”
An abysmal record
The question is, why does a party that is officially committed to gender equality have such an abysmal record at promoting women within its ranks?
Under Communist rule, educational opportunities for women have opened, particularly at universities. Forced marriages were banned. The one-child policy has helped erase the age-old idea that girls are not as valuable as boys. Birth control is readily available to women who want it.