Women Still a Rare Sight in China's Male-Dominated Political Life

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Chinese candidates waiting to sit for National Entrance Examination for Postgraduate (NEEP) at a university in Beijing, Jan.5, 2013.
Chinese candidates waiting to sit for National Entrance Examination for Postgraduate (NEEP) at a university in Beijing, Jan.5, 2013.

As the ruling Chinese Communist Party held a plenary meeting of its powerful Central Committee this week, feminists hit out at the low proportion of women in the corridors of power.

Just 33 Central Committee members out of 350 are women, while only two women sit on the 25-member Politburo. And no woman has ever taken up one of seven seats on the all-powerful Politburo standing committee.

The country ranked 99th out of 144 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report for 2016, and 74th in the political power section.

The current ratio of male to female members of the country's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) is 76 to 24, rising to 88 to 12 at ministerial level, the report found.

Guangdong-based women's rights activist Xiao Meili said the country has gone backwards since the Communist Party founded the People's Republic in 1949.

"At the time of the founding of the People's Republic of China, women's participation in politics was better than it is now, and there were still a number of feminists in the party," Xiao said.

"Now there are basically just a handful, and they are pretty marginalized, and don't have much opportunity to make an impact."

"This is one of the key factors behind China's appalling level of [female] participation in political power," she said.

Anhui provincial governor Li Bin is the only woman to head a provincial government. Only one woman has ever done so before her.

And Tianjin party secretary Sun Chunlan is the only woman in charge of a city.

Just 23 percent of national-level civil servants are women, and fewer than one percent of village committees are chaired by a woman.

Figures don't match

According to a recent article by Jude Howell of the London School of Economics, the figures don't match the relatively high level of economic participation enjoyed by Chinese women.

"Despite ideological campaigns during the Maoist decades to change people’s thinking around gender roles, entrenched gendered attitudes remain amongst both men and women," Howell wrote in an article for the East Asia Forum website earlier this month.

"Women are often described as ‘lacking self-confidence’ or ‘lacking quality,’" she said.

Yang Jianli, who heads the Washington-based nongovernmental organization Citizen Power, agreed, saying that China is basically still very much a male-dominated society.

"There have been advocates of equal rights throughout the modern period, from the 1911 revolution right through to the communist revolution [of 1949] ... but people still take discrimination against women for granted," Yang said.

"This is a very serious problem."

Rituals of power

According to Howell, many of the rituals of power and connection in China's political system are male-oriented.

"Surviving in a male-dominated political system ... means playing the cultural games that are laid down by men, such as smoking and drinking heavily," she wrote.

"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."

Meanwhile, overt gender discrimination is rife in job advertisements and recruitment literature produced by companies and government agencies alike, feminists said.

"Employment discrimination is very common in China, but basically nobody wants to take this issue to court," Xiao said. "There have only been four such lawsuits, and all of them have been brought with great difficulty."

"In the most recent example, the court awarded the plaintiff 2,000 yuan [U.S.$300], so she appealed, and only then did they order the company to apologize," she said.

"It's still very hard for women to fight to uphold their rights."

Promoted in theory

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has promoted gender equality, at least in theory, since it came to power in 1949.

But women's and rights campaigners say the reality is very different on the ground and that discrimination still presents major obstacles to equality.

Last year, the authorities detained feminists Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan,and Wu Rongrong, holding them for five weeks on public order charges after they planned a public transport awareness campaign to combat sexual harassment.

The five women, whose detention prompted an international outcry, are still not allowed to leave their hometowns without police approval, and still have the charges hanging over them although their lawyers say they broke no law.

The Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing set out a challenging program of improvements to the rights and opportunities offered to women and girls around the world, as well as requiring governments to report back to the United Nations on progress in key areas.

The Beijing Declaration produced by the conference included a pledge to "ensure equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all women and girls."

Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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