Where are the women? China’s new leadership reveals equality is a low priority

Alice Wu says the lack of women in the Politburo Standing Committee – and the Politburo in general – shows that President Xi Jinping’s plan for Chinese greatness doesn’t include prioritising gender equality

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 October, 2017, 9:16am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 October, 2017, 6:25pm

The Education Bureau seems to have invited controversy by inviting Hong Kong secondary schools to stream a Basic Law seminar featuring a Beijing official next month.

But we should be tuning in more, and not only to things pertaining to Hong Kong. If we tuned in to the 19th party congress, we would notice that once again no women can be found in the new Politburo Standing Committee.

And regardless how “big” the story of President Xi Jinping’s political stature, elevated to the heights of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, is or how “glorious” the Chinese dream will be, the fact remains: men, not women, will usher China into this new era. If Mao’s proclamation that “women hold up half the sky” means anything at all, this Chinese dream is only half a dream.

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Article 48 of the People’s Republic of China’s constitution states: “Women in the People’s Republic of China enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life, political, economic, cultural and social, and family life. The state protects the rights and interests of women, applies the principle of equal pay for equal work for men and women alike and trains and selects cadres from among women.”

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But women aren’t equal with men in all spheres of life, especially the political sphere. The nation’s most powerful may congratulate themselves for having a 24.1 per cent women membership in its delegates, an increase from 23 per cent at the 18th congress. But does it reflect, as state-run media claimed, “the great efforts made by the party to give women members a bigger say”?

Those great efforts can be greater, especially since the wider 25-member Politburo has shrunk its room for women from two to one token female – Sun Chunlan, head of the party’s United Front Work Department, who, at 67, is close to retirement age.

The younger Li Bin, from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, was tipped to join Sun, but unfortunately that did not happen. The glass ceiling for women is real and just got thicker.

We understand that change happens slowly in a long-standing patriarchal society. But we have to recognise the factors that impede women’s political ambition. The requirement for women officials to retire up to 10 years earlier than men is a systemic impediment. It takes time to climb up to the top; cutting women’s time to reach it installs another layer of reinforced glass to that fortified ceiling.

A Guangzhou-based woman civil servant was reported to have said that most of her female colleagues “lack the political influence to become rising stars – unless we benefit from nepotism or trade sex for power”. This comment should wake state media from their delusion that Harvey Weinstein is a Western social product.

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In fact, China Daily’s attempt to gloat over the Weinstein scandal only puts its disregard for victims of sexual harassment on display. We all know sexual harassment is a problem that reaches beyond Hollywood, across cultures and borders.

In Hong Kong, we have a woman chief executive, plus women leading political parties and companies. But this is no time to be complacent. We currently have nine women deputies to the National People’s Congress (out of 36). We will know how that ratio will change after the NPC election for Hong Kong delegates scheduled for December.

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We have to work harder to inspire change beyond our borders. That begins by being engaged, even if we’re relegated to watching from the political periphery.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA