Why there are so few women in Chinese politics

Society & Culture

A hundred years after the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, women continue to play a peripheral role in Chinese politics.

china congress
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other Chinese officials applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 5, 2021. Image from Reuters.

In July 1921, when a dozen Chinese revolutionaries secretly founded the CCP in a small brick house in Shanghai’s French Concession, no women were present at the history-making event.

In the following 100 years, China has undergone an economic and social transformation on a scale and at a speed unlike anything witnessed in recorded history. But amid its upheaval, one thing remains stubbornly unchanged: Men continue to dominate the country’s political arena disproportionately.

Today, in light of the Party’s centenary, Al Jazeera takes a look at the current state of women’s representation in Chinese politics. The findings are pretty grim:

  • Of the nearly 92 million members of the CCP, just under 28 million are women — that’s less than 30%. 
  • Among all the delegates to the 13th National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, and members of the 13th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country’s “top political advisory body,” only about a fifth are women.
  • Not once since the Party took power in 1949 has a woman been appointed to China’s top political body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, let alone become the country’s top leader.
  • Vice Premier Sūn Chūnlán 孙春兰, 71, is the only woman on the Politburo, a 25-person panel that reports to the Standing Committee.

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In local governments, this gender gap isn’t any narrower. According to Valarie Tan, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany:

  • While 10% of provincial, municipal, and county-level leadership positions are supposed to be reserved for women, quotas are rarely met due to a deep-seated preference for men. 
  • Women occupy a mere 9.33% of county-level posts as head of government or party secretary, falling to 5.29% in cities and 3.23% at the provincial level.

There are a whole array of structural and cultural reasons that explain the dearth of female politicians in China. Some factors highlighted by Al Jazeera are:

  • It takes time for women to climb the provincial ladder before being considered for elite positions. But by the time they reach the national level, many of the women are already reaching retirement — set at just 55 years old for female party cadres, civil servants, and employees of state enterprises in China, five years before their male counterparts. 
  • Victor Shih, an associate professor at UCSD’s school of public policy, told Al Jazeera that “there is probably a pro-male bias in just recruiting Party members to begin with and there’s a pro-male bias in putting men or women in important positions.” 
  • Shih added that female politicians in China were typically put in areas like education, United Front (propaganda) work, and social policies, which were less of “a fast track to the top” compared with male-dominated specializations like policing, internet censorship, and the military. 
  • Beyond institutional hurdles, traditional gender norms in Chinese society, which expects women to play their allotted role in the home, are still holding them back. Under the leadership of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, the Chinese government has ramped up the pressure even more as the country faces a declining birth rate.
  • “As a woman, you just don’t have the resources to do other things outside of home,” Tan said. “On the demand side, those in power just don’t want women to get higher political leadership because that would threaten the status quo and the patriarchy.”

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