Xi’s All-Male Politburo Insulates the Patriarchy

Xi Jinping’s loyalist leadership reshuffle at the end of the 20th Party Congress has not only awarded him a norm-defying third term as General Secretary of the CCP, but also reserved the highest echelons of power exclusively for men. For the first time in 25 years, no women were appointed to the CCP’s Politburo. This outcome contributes to a longstanding trend of gender inequality in Chinese politics that sustains and reflects broader gender inequalities in Chinese society. Despite grassroots attempts to address these issues, the CCP, firmly in the control of Xi Jinping, remains determined to assert its power through the patriarchy.

“It is disappointing because whatever small space that was carved out for women to exercise their political power is now gone at the top level,” said Minglu Chen, lecturer at the University of Sydney. “[H]aving no woman at all now is a step backward.” On WeChat, censors took down posts highlighting this lack of gender representation. Shen Lu from The Wall Street Journal reported on the tally of women in the CCP’s top decision-making bodies after the 20th Party Congress:

On the newly-unveiled Politburo lineup, all 24 members are men. In the past two decades, there has always been at least one female full member on the Politburo. In a rare occurrence in 2012, two women were appointed to the 18th Politburo.

The new top party leadership panel marks the first time in 25 years women don’t make into the Politburo as either a full member or an alternate.

In the wider locus of political power, 11 women were elected on Saturday to the 20th Central Committee–made up of around 200 full members and roughly 170 alternates–which fills positions on the Politburo.

The 11 women account for 5.4% of the full Central Committee members, a slight increase from 4.9% on the last two Central Committees, during Mr. Xi Jinping’s first two terms. On the 17th Central Committee, women made up 6.4% of the full membership. [Source]

Other statistics paint a gloomy picture of women’s representation in Chinese politics. In the international sphere, a brief by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in May of this year found that “of the 31 Chinese nationals serving in top leadership positions in key international organizations, only 4 are women.” In the domestic sphere, a ChinaFile report from December 2020 stated that women make up 9.33 percent of CCP leadership at the county-level, 5.29 percent at the city-level, and 3.23 percent at the provincial level. In the World Economic Forum’s gender gap rankings, China now ranks 102nd out of 146 countries, sliding from 69th position in 2012 when Xi came to power. 

Before the new appointments were announced on Sunday, many observers predicted that at least one woman would replace Sun Chunlan, the only woman on the Politburo and the highest-ranking female CCP official. Sun was tasked with the unpopular job of carrying out China’s COVID response. Alexandra Stevenson from The New York Times described how women leaders have often been forced into thankless roles that leave little room for promotion but much room for public criticism

Officials typically climb Communist Party ranks by showing that they can bolster the economy in the cities and provinces they oversee. But women are rarely given those jobs, said Minglu Chen, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney who studies gender and politics in China.

Instead women in the party are often placed in roles overseeing what are considered softer areas like health care, education and culture. “That also limits their possibilities to be promoted,” Ms. Chen said.

[…] Ms. Sun has become the target of growing anger, much of it expressed online and quickly taken down by censors. These days, her arrival in a city has come to be seen as a bad omen.

On the internet, she has been derided as the “Lockdown Aunty” and the “Witch Sun.” [Source]

China’s patriarchal political structure limits women’s upward mobility […which] can create biases in the nomination and selection process for leading positions in the party/state,” said Pan Wang, senior lecturer in Chinese and Asian studies at the University of New South Wales. In a timely academic article published on Monday, Xinhui Jiang, Sarah Eaton, and Genia Kostka show how, on average, women mayors and party secretaries are forced to retire sooner than men, vertically and horizontally less mobile in their careers, and assigned more “feminine” positions with less opportunity for promotion. In the latest volume of The China Quarterly, Minglu Chen argued that a lack of institutionalized policies and processes and women’s ongoing disadvantages in education, political networks, and training contribute also to gender disparities among provincial leaders. Despite the introduction of a quota system by the CCP in 2001, mandating that at least one woman be appointed to most levels of government and party groups, the rule has not been strictly enforced. “Once the quota has been filled [in each department], we rarely see additional efforts made to promote more female cadres,” said Fengming Lu, a specialist at the Australian National University. 

Sébastian Seibt at AFP reported on other structural barriers to women’s participation in the CCP leadership:

For starters, the reasons for male domination in top political positions have not been questioned. The party’s executive positions are often reserved for “leaders who had held managerial roles at state-owned enterprises, ministries and regional governments, positions for which women were often bypassed”, noted Minglu Chen, from the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre, in the South China Morning Post.

Secondly, promotion within the CCP is “entirely based on factional ties rather than individual merits”, Bo Zhiyue, an expert in Chinese elite politics based in New Zealand, told the South China Morning Post. “This has created a very helpless situation because it’s a selection, not an election,” he added.

To rise to the top of the political ladder, aspirants need the right support, and women often have less direct access to those few party figures who can promote their protégés.

Xi is also no champion of women in politics. He embodies “the CCP’s very patriarchal approach to society”, argues Tan. The end of the one-child policy in 2021 was an opportunity for the Chinese president to insist on the importance of “traditional family values”. He has even initiated a campaign to exalt “the unique physical and mental traits [of women] for giving birth and caring for newborns”. In other words, the Chinese leader would rather see women at home than in the office. [Source]

Mimi Lau at the South China Morning Post described the difference between women’s representation in politics at the grassroots and elite levels

According to government statistics, party and central government organs employed more than 1.9 million female cadres in 2017, which was 1.6 per cent more than in 2015 and 26.5 per cent of the total.

In 2017, 52.4 per cent of the new civil service jobs in organs and institutions directly under the central government went to women, while 44 per cent of local government recruits were women. In 2018, female cadres held about 22 per cent of the positions in public sector institutions across the nation.

The data suggests a higher representation of women in grass-roots politics compared with the early years of reform and opening up in the 1980s. But the striking absence of women from elite politics points to a yawning gap between the decades-old party rhetoric about women holding up half the sky and the reality. [Source]

[There is a] deep-seated male chauvinism, which is systemic in Chinese politics,” said Valarie Tan, an analyst on Chinese elite politics at Mercator Institute for China Studies. In a signal of the endurance of the CCP’s patriarchy, Zhang Gaoli’s attendance at the 20th Party Congress marked his first public appearance since tennis star Peng Shuai accused him of rape in November of last year. His presence in the first row in front of the podium, almost certainly approved by top CCP figures, “shows his position within the party remains stable,” said Pan Wang, a lecturer in Chinese and Asian Studies at the University of New South Wales. Under the current leadership, authorities have continued to ignore violence against women and suppress #MeToo victims with censorship and victim-bashing. Jing Wei at Radio Free Asia described how women’s rights have worsened during Xi Jinping’s tenure:

A slew of high-ranking sexual assault and harassment allegations under the Chinese #MeToo campaign, the detention and prolonged incarceration of five feminist activists on International Women’s Day and high-profile incidents of violence against women, including the Tangshan restaurant attacks and the Jiangsu “chained woman” scandal, have brought the issue to the forefront of public opinion.

An ongoing crackdown on non-government groups and feminist activists including journalist and #MeToo researcher Sophia Huang has sent out a clear message that the CCP under Xi will brook no challenge to the absolute authority of a patriarchal state, however.

“China has always been a patriarchal society, and there has been no change,” U.S.-based feminist writer Xiang Li told RFA. “The current leadership of China is very clearly suppressing the feminist movement.” [Source]


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