One hundred years after the secret founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aboard a Shanghai ship, China is a world radically different from the one the party wanted to abolish in 1921.
People are richer, have fewer children and more job opportunities than their ancestors could have ever imagined.
But in the midst of the disaster, one thing remains the same.
Men continue to dominate political power.
No women were present that day in Shanghai and women’s rights were not specifically mentioned, although they were widely aired as part of China’s “New Culture Movement” and the protests. May 4, 1919 which would have inspired the leaders of the CCP. .
At the most recent CCP National Congress in 2017 – the event is held every five years – Women were only 83 of 938 elite delegates, or less than 10 percent overall, according to China Data Lab, a University of California San Diego project.
Most of the women were found in the Provincial Standing Committee, becoming scarcer with every scale of power until they reached Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, the only woman among the 25-man Politburo men.
There is not a single woman in the party’s most elite inner circle, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.
No party for young people
The absence of women is partly a dynamic of party membership and how individuals grow. Today women make up only about a quarter of the members, and once inside they are often channeled into less competitive positions than their male counterparts.
In other words, they are losing from the beginning.
“There is perhaps a pro-male prejudice only in recruiting party members to begin with and there is a pro-male prejudice to put men or women in important positions,” said Victor Shih, associate professor at the school of politics. UCSD.
“Police, Internet censorship, the army are very important and tend to be male-dominated specialties. Women are typically put into education, United Front work (propaganda), social policies. You can reach a fairly high level in these types of specializations, but it doesn’t look so much of a quick way to the top, ”he said.
Growth among ranks requires that party members reach certain stages in order to be eligible for elite positions. Most of China’s top leaders have served as governors or party secretaries of a province or major city, but there are only a handful of women in those positions and as a result, there are few female candidates seen. as eligible for senior roles.
When they are ready for an elite-level position, many of the women are already retiring – set at just 55 years old for women in China.
“It’s not like the United States, where 45-year-old Barack Obama or JFK can run for office,” said Richard McGregor, author of The Party: The Secret World of Communist Rulers China. “You get up through the ranks in a very structured way and you retire in a very structured way. It’s very rare to become a member of the Politburo before you turn 55, so that means that even with this blatant record of women’s promotion, it’s very difficult to correct. ”
While 10 percent of leadership positions at the provincial, municipal and county levels are supposed to be set aside for women, quotas are rarely met because of a deep preference for men, says Valarie Tan, an analyst at Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies in Germany.
Beyond institutional hurdles, Tan says women are often faced with undeclared cultural prejudices and a state-backed push for traditional gender norms that have picked up pace under the leadership of President Xi Jinping while China do drop in birth rate.
“Gender stereotypes and traditional historical norms are still very much alive today.” I will say even more under Xi Jinping, the expectation is that women will eventually get married, have to take care of children, grow old and take care of grandchildren, ”Tan said.
Party members make up 37.5 percent of the committees at the country and district level, but that number falls into leadership positions, according to ChinaFile, the online magazine of the Center for US-China Relations. in the Asian Society.
Women occupy only 9.33 per cent of posts at the county level as head of government or party secretary, falling to 5.29 per cent in cities and 3.23 per cent at the local level. provincial.
“As a woman, you don’t just have the resources to do other things away from home,” Tan said. “On the demand side, those in power do not want women to get higher political leadership because that would threaten the status quo and patriarchy.”
Same in name
Despite the party’s “revolutionary” rhetoric, which historically includes stories of model workers, feminism has always been subordinated to the organization’s political and economic ambitions, explains Linda Jaivin, author of The Shortest History of China.
“From the beginning, the party promoted the idea that women are strong and should be given certain rights so that they can, like men, be part of the communist project,” Jaivin said.
Indeed, one of the quotes most often attributed to the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, President Mao Zedong – “Women hold half the sky” – was not an inspired appeal for women’s rights, but activated by a collective farm that in 1953 increased its productivity threefold after giving women the same “work points” as men.
While Chinese women have been given a “nominal egalitarianism” since the beginning of the Mao era, below the surface older practices including gender-based violence and later the preference for male children under the policy of one child persist. China now has 34.9 million more men than women, according to its latest census report.
While China turned to market reforms in the 1980s and opened up its economy, practices that were thought to have been widely wiped out include cohabitation, or “lover culture,” and prostitution is rampant.
Today, discussions about feminism and sexual harassment are being censored online while the party has also made divorce more difficult – with a new “cooling off period” mandatory even in cases of domestic violence. Other problems, such as unequal pay, persist.
Jaivin said this is because the men of the party are not willing to give up power and are pursuing policies to maintain the status quo.
“The CCP is happy to talk about strong and successful women who contribute to the nation and the party and the state media can profile female delegates at the national people’s convention, but few women hold serious power. and no one has served on the first governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and you can’t talk about the structural issues that prevent women that some of the truly serious feminists in China would want to talk about, ”Jaivin said. “Basically, it’s about patriarchal power holders who don’t want to share power.”
Even so, the problems facing women in China are far from unusual in East Asia. Arch-nemesis Japan has been called “democracy without women,” while men are increasingly more numerous than women in politics in South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, although all three had female heads.
In the social sphere, too, gender bias persists throughout the region, said Lynette Ong, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Asian Institute at the University of Toronto. To some extent, urban Chinese women are still better than their neighbors in South Korea and Japan where women remain under pressure to quit their jobs after having children, taking them out of their careers and any potential entry into them. politics.
“I will say that everything is related – while women do not enjoy the same status as men in China, they are better than at the beginning of the founding of the PRC. And, compared to the status of women in other Confucian societies, such as Japan, South Korea, women in China, especially those in large cities, argue for better status, especially because they have been “liberated” by President Mao. ” , said Ong.
Free or not, Chinese women still have a long way to go before they take half of the political sky.