Women and Political Participation in China

9 May

Mao Zedong has sometimes been said to be the father or Chinese feminism, with his famous saying that “women hold up half the sky”. However, ever since the Communist Party took power in China 1949 not a single woman has sat as one of the seven members in the Politburo Standing Committee; the highest and most powerful decision-making body. And the new leadership lineup as of this year is not looking much more positive. Still no woman was chosen to sit as one of the seven in the Politburo Standing Committee when the new incarnation was announced last November, and only one woman, State Councilor Liu Yandong, was even mentioned as a possible candidate beforehand. The number of female members of the wider Politburo is also remarkably low, only 2 out of 25. The number of female Communist Party members is around 23%. (MacLeod, USA Today)

Women do however make up 23.4% of the Party’s circa 3000 hand-picked deputies which means that the 22% guideline quota of women, set in 2007, has been met for the first time. Nonetheless, progress for female political participation in China has been slow, marked by the fact that this at first seemingly positive figure is only slightly better than the ratio achieved in the mid-1970s. And while the proportion of female national legislature representatives is quite high compared to many other countries, the less sanguine fact remains that whenever women do reach leadership positions, they tend to be the deputies of men, for example deputy governors, deputy mayors, deputy division heads and deputy party secretaries (Howell, 2002, p.43-44).

Out of China’s 22 provinces, five autonomous regions and four centrally controlled municipalities, only Anhui, a province in the east, is run by a female governor. When Feng Yuan, a women’s rights activist spoke to the Washington Post, she said that in regards to power-sharing, the Chinese men don’t want women to hold up half the sky, or even one third of it. She also said that “Generally speaking, I think more women want to be involved more than the positions they already have, on the other hand, many women don’t want to adjust themselves to the current political culture — the boys’ club, the drinking culture.”

Where many Chinese women have succeeded in a wide range of areas from business to sports, as well as sending their second female astronaut into space this summer, they are still lagging far behind politically. At least in the political sphere, women are discriminated against, and prejudice against the small number of female politicians and officials is widespread in China (MacLeod, USA Today).

“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.” (Richburg, Washington Post).

 Since Liberation in 1949, women’s numerical representation has gone both up and down. At times when the public role of women was emphasized in the rhetoric of the Party, and women were encouraged into leadership positions, it was because the Party needed to mobilize women in order to raise economic output, for reasons of socio-economic transformation, or for political ends. At such times the female representation in politics would increase. However, when the political campaign cooled down, or when adjustments were required in the labour force due to higher demand, the Party’s encouragement for women to enter politics would gradually wane. Conservative gender ideologies played a role in justifying this. (Howell, 2002, p. 44)

Before the reform, a quota system had been in place to guarantee a certain number of office-holders were women, but as China moved toward a market economy these would be replaced with competitive elections. When women were put against men in the elections, they were most often defeated because of their perceived inexperience in areas outside ‘traditional women’s work’. One survey looked at by Rosen (1995, p.317) outlines the factors of why twenty female candidate had lost elections in the counties and municipal suburbs in the Liaoning province. Traditional prejudice against women and the “poor quality” of some of them had been two of the factors explaining the defeats. Most female cadres are engaged with the work of the Party or mass organizations, or at a higher level with “softer” jobs such as education, public health, family planning and culture, and less so with material production, such as industry and agriculture. In the latter areas of jobs, the actual results will be easier to see, whereas in the “softer” jobs achievements are harder to quantify, and thus many women suffered defeats because voters were not sure that they had strong enough decision- and policy-making abilities. (Rosen, 1995, p.317)

As it seems, China is still a heavily patriarchal society, and many of the male leaders consider female representation in politics to be of little importance, and gender imbalance not a problem, as long as the men can make decisions that benefit the women. It will require a lot more before women’s participation in Chinese politics equal the men’s.


Rosen, Stanley. (1995) Women and Political Participation in China. Pacific Affairs, Vol. 68 (3), p. 315-341

Howell, Jude. (2002) Women’s Political Participation in China: Struggling to Hold up Half the Sky. Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 55, p. 43-56

MacLeod, Calum. (2013) China’s women struggle to breach male-heavy politics. USA Today. 11 March. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/03/11/china-women-politics/1972109/

Richburg, Keith. (2012) In Communist China, women officially equal but lagging far behind politically. The Washington Post. 2 November. [Online link:] http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-11-02/world/35506901_1_female-governor-minorities-women-in-top-positions

Davin, Delia. (1996) Chinese women: media concerns and the politics of reform In: Afshar, Haleh. (1996) Women and Politics in the Third World. London: Routledge, Print.

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