China’s women officially equal but lag in politics

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 in November 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 Council member 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 just 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, China’s Communists have 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, only 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 China’s 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.

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 females 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 Hong 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.”

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 were not as valuable as boys. Birth control is readily available to women who want it.

The advances have been huge compared to the pre-Communist era, when Chinese women were generally subjugated to men, marriages were arranged between families, some women were forced to become concubines, females could not inherit land and a woman’s sole job was to produce male heirs. The Communists also were able to stamp out the age-old practice of binding women’s feet.

But the progress still weighs against some deeply entrenched traditions and a paternalistic, male-dominated culture.

Advertisements seeking employees can list “attractive” as a qualification. Chinese cities are replete with karaoke bars filled with young “hostesses.” During the Euro 2012 soccer championships this year, a Guangdong television station decided to attract viewers by having young women wearing barely there bikinis read the weather for European cities during the matches.

And then there is the ubiquitous mistress culture.

Communist Party officials exposed for corruption are routinely found to have had multiple mistresses. Liu Zhijun, the railway minister sacked in February 2011 for allegedly embezzling more than $150 million while building China’s high-speed rail network, was said in the local media to have kept 18 mistresses. When deposed Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai was expelled from the Communist Party in September, among his alleged misdeeds was “improper relationships with a number of women.”

“This is an organic component of the paternalistic, male-dominated culture,” Feng said. “Owning several mistresses” is, she said, for many officials “evidence that he is a strong man.”

Women are also still fighting the negative stereotype — hardened by Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing of the Gang of Four, and reinforced through a daily diet of television period dramas — that women can be ruthless and conniving concubines who have used their beauty and wiles to attract men and end up causing the destruction of ancient dynasties.

There are other impediments to women’s advancement in China. One of the most prevalent is the disparity in the retirement age.

For most professional jobs, including the civil service, the normal retirement age is 60 for men but 55 for women. The difference has many practical effects, such as reducing the size of a woman’s pension, which is calculated by the number of years worked. More important, women have fewer hopes of advancing past their mid-to-late 40s, because employers know they will have to retire soon.

Women say part of the problem is that China’s predominantly male political leadership doesn’t recognize that the imbalance is a problem. Instead, many of the country’s leaders hold the view that it doesn’t matter how many women are in the top ranks, as long as men make decisions that benefit women.

But women say that’s not necessarily what’s happening. They say women’s voices need to be heard on issues large and small, such as the design of city subways and buses — where the handrails are too high for the average Chinese woman — and the manufacture of agriculture equipment, which is still made to the specifications of men, although women, with typically smaller frames, are now doing most of the farm work.

Hong Huang said the Party should also view the inclusion of more women as an issue of its own survival.

“Don’t you think it would help preserve the system if you had a Communist Party that was gentler, sweeter?” she said.

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