As China Prepares for New Top Leaders, Women Are Still Shut Out

Not one woman has sat on the Communist party's highest body, despite China's constitutional commitments to gender equality

Liu Yandong, 71, is one of two women in the Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo.
Liu Yandong, 71, is one of two women in the Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo. Paul Hackett/Reuters

 China’s Communist Party leaders will gather this fall for a closely-watched congress to decide who will take the party into its eighth decade of power. Yet for all the speculation about who will emerge at the top of the ruling party, one result seems certain: Few, if any, will be women.

Not once since the Communists came to power in 1949 has a woman sat on the party’s highest body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee now led by President Xi Jinping. The 25-member Politburo has just two women, though that is the highest number since the Cultural Revolution, when the wives of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong and of Lin Biao, his designated successor, were given seats in 1969.

Despite China’s constitutional commitments to gender equality, discrimination remains widespread, academics and feminists say, summed up by the saying that a woman with power is like “a hen crowing at dawn” — an augur of the collapse of the family and state.

Mandatory early retirement for women doesn’t help. Women must retire up to 10 years earlier than men, on the assumption that they are the primaary caregivers for grandchildren and elderly relatives. That removes them from contention just as their careers begin to peak.

So as Beijing’s sultry summer deepens, Guo Jianmei and a group of fellow lawyers and feminists are rushing to complete a document urging the Communist Party to promote more women to leadership positions. They hope to distribute the document to party leaders to stimulate discussion before the congress, Ms. Guo, 57, said in an interview.

She declined to provide details, saying the issue was sensitive because it touched on party power. “It’s unusual for members of civil society to raise an issue with the party like this,” said Ms. Guo, a longtime women’s rights advocate at the Qianqian Law Firm in Beijing.

Twice in the past, she and others have appealed to the National People’s Congress, China’s Parliament, but this is their first approach to the supremely powerful party.

Theirs might be a quixotic venture, but they are pressing ahead anyway. “At least it’s doing something,” Ms. Guo said, sighing.

The party has long publicly championed women’s rights. At the United Nations in New York in 2015, Mr. Xi announced a $10 million donation to U.N. Women, the United Nations office working for gender equality.

Yet political power in China remains overwhelmingly male. Mr. Xi, 64, who was appointed party general secretary in 2012, is expected to serve a second five-year term.

Guo Jianmei, a lawyer and women’s rights advocate.
Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

“It would take a miracle for a woman to become head of the People’s Republic of China in the foreseeable future,” Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a recent essay.

In fact, the percentage of women among full members of the party’s Central Committee has declined in recent years, from 6.4 percent in 2012 before the last party congress to 4.9 percent today.

The figures signal that China is out of step with global trends. According to U.N. Women, more than twice as many women lead a country today than about a decade ago, though the number is still low at 17.

It is also out of step with its Chinese-speaking neighbors.

Taiwan, the self-ruled island that China claims as its territory, elected its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, last year. In Hong Kong, the former British colony that rejoined China 20 years ago but retains its own political system, the first female chief executive, Carrie Lam, was sworn in this month.

“If the party wants to survive, to move forward, they should be more inclusive,” Mr. Li said in an interview, expressing optimism that this would happen eventually, noting that the party acted to broaden its base under former President Jiang Zemin, who drew in businesspeople in the 1990s.

Still, the likelihood of a woman being appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee at this year’s congress is low, he said.

“The chance is probably only 5 percent,” said Mr. Li, naming as the long-odds candidate Sun Chunlan, 67, one of the two female Politburo members and the head of the party’s United Front Work Department.

The official retirement age for most male party cadres is 60, though that is often ignored at the top, where men may serve until at least 67, by unofficial agreement. The retirement age for female party cadres, civil servants and employees of state enterprises is 55. Other female workers retire at 50.

The second female Politburo member, Liu Yandong, also an exception at 71, is expected to retire this fall, Mr. Li said.

“I would be shocked if a woman were named to the Standing Committee,” Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China,” wrote in an email.

“I believe the government has no intention of doing anything substantive to improve its dismal record on women’s political representation,” Ms. Fincher said. “Instead, China is merely giving lip service to gender equality in order to appear more responsible as it vies for a more prominent global leadership role.”

The seven members of the Communist Party’s top leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee, with President Xi Jinping at the center, in Beijing in 2016. The Standing Committee has never included a woman.
Li Xueren/Xinhua, via Associated Press

Others are more sanguine.

“Top leaders are aware of the issue of female political participation,” said Niu Tianxiu, a professor at Nanjing Normal University’s School of Public Administration.

About three in 10 midlevel cadres are female, dropping to two in 10 higher up the chain, Ms. Niu said, citing figures from a 2013 book by Song Xiuyan, the party secretary of the state-run All-China Women’s Federation.

Asked to comment on women’s political participation in China, the federation said in a faxed statement that the party attached “great importance” to women’s work and that, “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core,” it had put more emphasis on women’s and children’s issues.

“The environment for feminist discourse and policy have improved somewhat,” Ms. Niu said. “And especially at the middle and lower level, if local leaders have progressive attitudes toward gender and can get the support of the families involved, exceptionally able women can partake in a fair competition.”

Yet she did not expect the situation to change much, with so few women in the pipeline for promotion.

“I don’t think we’ll see a clear increase in women at the top after the 19th Party Congress,” she said. “There’s scarce talent coming up in terms of high-level female cadres.”

Serving as the party secretary or governor of a province is practically a prerequisite for a top job, but only two out of 62 such positions are currently held by women.

In addition, Ms. Niu said, the “two-child policy” that replaced China’s longstanding “one-child policy” last year is increasing pressure on women to stay home. With more of their middle years consumed by child-rearing, women are less likely to reach senior positions before age-related cutoffs kick in.

The road to power, controlled by the Communist Party, is more difficult for women on an even more fundamental level, statistics suggest. Only 25.1 percent of China’s 88 million party members are female, according to the latest figures, from 2015.

This year’s party congress is expected to undergo the largest change in top-level leaders since 1969, with about 70 percent of the Central Committee due to turn over, Mr. Li said.

So, in theory, Ms. Guo’s appeal to appoint more women is well timed. Still, she is tempering her expectations.

“At this meeting they want to choose leaders,” she said. “All we can do is advocate and raise something that hopefully they will talk about.”