The missing women in China's leadership

The Chinese Communist Party has a history of mostly excluding women at top leadership positions including the all-powerful Politburo. This discrimination has not changed under President Xi Jinping.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his trusted lieutenants - a long line of only men.


The new Chinese Politburo moved away from tradition once again with the reduction in the total number of members from twenty five to twenty four in the political body. The one seat removed from the Politburo belonged to Sun Chunlan, the Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China. As the State Council Vice Premier retires from her position, the Politburo also closes the doors on the appointment of female leaders in the body. This particular move is significant also because for the first time in about twenty five years, there is not a single female position holder in the Politburo. Some might argue that this is a regressive move on the part of the Chinese leadership but in reality this regression is a part of a structural problem that limits the representation of women in political offices.


Over the past two decades, the Politburo had at least one seat occupied by a woman. Over these years only six women have found the space to the decision making body, starting with the appointment of Wu Yi, the Iron Lady of China as the full- member of the Politburo in 2002. This changed in 2022 with the appointment of the new Politburo after the National Party Congress. This step in itself diminishes the space for gender inclusivity within the Chinese political decision making infrastructure. However, it is important to understand that throughout history, the participation of women in Chinese political offices has been marginal.


Women leaders across time


The appointment of Wu Yi in the Politburo marked a major development that led to the space for female participation in the higher decision making bodies. The Iron Lady of China eventually went on to become the Vice Premier and hence the most famous female politician in the country. Her leadership acquired great momentum even before her appointment in the Politburo as she spearheaded China’s bid towards inclusion in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Wu Yi also played a greater role in the struggle against the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS. The next major leadership figure was Liu Yangdong who was appointed in the Politburo for two consecutive terms. A former communist youth leader, she got promoted through the ranks of the mainly male dominated party.


The next major figure to have been a part of the Politburo was Sun Chunlan, the incumbent State Council Vice Premier. It was under her tenure that China grappled and dealt with the global pandemic and her inspection tours across the country remained consistent throughout the challenges imposed by the various Covid variants. Now, with the retirement of Sun Chunlan, the Politburo is only dominated by men and that too primarily the ones who are close allies of President Xi Jinping. Thai frames an accurate picture of the sociopolitical polarisation of the core decision making body.


Ever since women have started becoming present in the political structure of China, only six women have been able to penetrate into the Politburo and out of those three were wives of the senior party members. This points towards the gravity of the problem regarding gendered representation and the various factors at play that create a structure that is not very conducive to gender equality in political decision making.

A structural problem


It could be that the strong female leaders over the past are just a part of the exception rather than the norm. The Chinese political structure makes it difficult for women to break through the glass ceilings and gender barriers to claim their place in top leadership positions. Now, the absence of even a single woman in the Politburo is a prime example of the limited space that women have in political participation. It is a curious point to notice that even if the Party leadership claims to champion gender equality and parity in participation, the significant absence of women in the top leadership positions suggests otherwise.


Taking our focus away from the Politburo for a while, let us bring the attention to the Central Committee. This Central Committee is responsible for the appointment of members to the Politburo. In the new portfolio allocation, there were about eleven women elected to become part of the 20th Central Committee which includes a total of two hundred members. A very thin percentage of the women leaders within the Central Committee also points towards a tokenistic representation of women in the higher decision making bodies.


Speaking of higher decision making bodies, the Politburo Standing Committee forms a body within the Politburo that consolidates all the executive and legislative powers of the structure. No woman, in the history of the contemporary Chinese political system has found a space in the Politburo Standing Committee. Since the very beginning, this committee of seven all powerful members has remained typically dominated by men. One could argue that after a point these statistics cannot be justified by the lack of capable women but can only be a testament to the lack of accessibility to these bodies for women leaders.


It is not that women are completely absent from the political structure but they majorly occupy ground level administrative roles. Women have increased their political representation in Chinese politics over the years, as their numbers have grown considerably but this has not translated into higher order leadership roles. It was in 1995 that China began to roll out a Gender quota which would ensure the appointment of female cadres in various levels of administration. However there has been a lack of proper research into the implementation and hence no credible data has been generated due to the low sample size as we go higher up the leadership ladder. Within the party ranks however, women have majorly occupied the portfolios regarding healthcare, education or local level administration but not the higher level leadership roles in portfolios of defence, security, economic cooperation, information technology, trade, finance and public administration.


The possible impact


As China now moves towards the era of a completely male dominated political decision making infrastructure, it would not be an understatement to suggest that this can have an impact on China’s international image. It is true that China had a conservative political structure but removing the space for the appointment of female leaders in the Politburo further adds to this image.


China has been working towards creating an image of itself as the custodian of economic and technological growth and development. This particular step towards a negative gender balance would be considered very regressive in this regard as well. In another aspect, by appointing the trusted allies within the Politburo, Xi Jinping has also possibly suggested that he finds no loyalists within the female leadership in the party. Apart from this, on the home ground, there could be a resulting decrease in the gender inclusive policies in China as female leadership remains absent.




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