Maylin Meisenheimer is a research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The 19th Party Congress is almost here, bringing with it a slew of questions about China’s future, such as whether President Xi Jinping will break with past precedent and abstain from naming a successor—setting himself up for a third term, or whether the informal age barrier will be ignored and Wang Qishan will stay in office. Less discussed is the question of whether a woman will be named to China’s highest governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee. As of now, the answer appears to be almost certainly not. Although it was recently announced that the number of female delegates elected to attend the 19th Party Congress has risen—from 22.6 percent in 2012 to 24.1 percent—this is a negligible increase. Despite Chinese women’s progress in business and educational attainment, there has been almost no improvement in women’s participation in higher politics. Unlike other Asian nations and entities such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, which recently elected their first female president and chief executive, respectively, no woman has ever served on China’s Standing Committee, and only two women are currently on the second highest committee, the twenty-five member Politburo. What has held Chinese women back?
Like the United States, China has a pipeline problem. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the U.S. “political pipeline” and how women are not participating in local and state politics, therefore never entering the pipeline and leading to a dearth of women candidates in national elections. China has a similarly leaky pipeline. Although the Chinese political system is radically different from that of the United States, the same problem exists. China is a one-party system, with members of the Chinese Communist Party holding virtually all high-ranking positions from local to national government. Despite having a membership of over 89 million people, only one-fourth of CCP members are women. To be selected for a government position, one must first be a member of the CCP, so there are fewer women than men even eligible for these prominent posts. From these local roles, Chinese politicians generally work their way through the ranks of provincial party and government before being appointed to national seats. For example, Xi Jinping began his political career as a local party secretary in Hebei province. From there, he was promoted to higher positions in more affluent provinces like Fujian and Zhejiang before eventually becoming a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. Currently, there are no women serving as provincial or municipal party secretaries in any of China’s thirty-one provinces. Chinese officials are chosen by the more senior leaders, not elected like in the United States, so there is virtually no chance of receiving a national appointment without first holding a provincial government or party position.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that some national positions are not considered stepping stones for promotion. A recent article by Brookings scholar Cheng Li outlined the few female contenders up for promotions during the 19th Party Congress, but most of them are long shots. Of the women who have received more senior roles, the majority has been sidelined into positions that have not traditionally led to promotion. On the current 18th Central Committee, the governing body directly below the Politburo, only 10 of the 205 full members are female (4.9 percent). Additionally, current female members of the Central Committee hold more posts related to arts and culture than they do to the economy or defense, the seats that have traditionally led to promotion. The lack of female representation in the Central Committee is compounded by the lack of women in critical roles, further diminishing the likelihood of their appointment to senior positions.
Age discrimination is also an issue for prospective female political leaders. China’s national retirement age is currently sixty years old for men, fifty-five for female civil servants and state enterprise employees, and fifty for all other female workers. The difference in the national retirement age likely hinders women’s job prospects since they are expected to retire significantly earlier than men, precluding them from promotions. The retirement rule is a symptom of China’s conservative views on gender and society. Although Mao Zedong proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky,” China has not achieved greater levels of gender equality. The 2016 Global Gender Gap report ranked China 99 out of 144 countries due to inequalities in economic opportunities and other factors. Many Chinese still hold the view that women should retire early to care for grandchildren or the elderly, and for younger women, the shift to a two-child policy may increase pressure on them to stay at home and take care of children. A recent campaign by local governments highlighted the “virtue of women returning home,” and the state-run news agency, Xinhua, has cited studies saying that stay-at-home moms have a “positive effect on society.” Such efforts will only widen the political gender gap in China.
The lack of female politicians in China begins at the lowest level of political participation, CCP membership, and the effects of that disparity are felt all the way to the national level. Almost 70 percent of the Central Committee is likely to retire at this year’s 19th Party Congress, but it is unlikely that more female representatives will take their place. Without more women representatives at the local and provincial levels, the number of women in national seats will not increase. Although Chinese women have progressed in other areas, the country still has a ways to go before its political pipeline is fixed. Despite advancements in other areas, the political system has not allowed women to “hold up half the sky,” and without significant changes, China’s leaky pipeline may start a flood.