One hundred years after the secretive founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on board a Shanghai boat, China is a radically different world from the one the party wanted to overturn in 1921.
People are richer, have fewer children and more job opportunities than their ancestors could probably ever have imagined.
But amid the upheaval, 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, even though they were very much in the air as part of China’s “New Culture Movement” and the May 4 protests of 1919 that would prove an inspiration to the CCP’s leaders.
At the most recent National Congress of the CCP in 2017 – the event is held every five years – women made up just 83 of 938 elite delegates, or fewer than 10 percent overall, according to China Data Lab, a project of the University of California San Diego.
Most of the women were found in the Provincial Standing Committee, becoming more scarce with each rung of power until reaching Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, the only woman among the men of the 25-person Politburo.
There is not a single woman in the party’s most elite inner circle, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.
No party for the young
The absence of women is partly a dynamic of the party’s membership and how individuals move up the ranks. Women today make up only about a quarter of members, and once inside they are often channelled into less-competitive positions than their male counterparts.
In other words, they are losing out from the very beginning.
“There is probably a pro-male bias in just recruiting party members to begin with and there’s a pro-male bias in putting men or women in important positions,” said Victor Shih, an associate professor at UCSD’s school of public policy.
“Policing, internet censorship, the military are very important and tend to be male-dominated specialisations. Women are typically put in education, United Front (propaganda) work, social policies. You can get to a pretty high level in those kinds of specialisations but you don’t see as much of a fast track to the top,” he said.
Rising through the ranks requires party members to achieve certain milestones to be eligible for elite positions. Most of China’s top leaders have served as governor or party secretary 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 the senior roles.
By the time they are ready for an elite level position, many of the women are already reaching retirement – set at just 55 years old for women in China.
“It’s not like the US, where 45-year old Barack Obama or JFK can run for office,” said Richard McGregor, the author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers. “You rise through the ranks in a very structured fashion and you retire in a very structured fashion. It’s very rare to become a member of the Politburo before you’re 55, so that means that even with this egregious record of promoting women, it’s very hard to correct.”
While 10 percent of provincial, municipal and county-level leadership positions are supposed to be set aside for women, quotas are rarely met due to a deep-seated preference for men, says Valarie Tan, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany.
Beyond institutional hurdles, Tan says women often face unspoken cultural biases and a state-backed push for traditional gender norms that have gathered pace under the leadership of President Xi Jinping as China faces a declining birth rate.
“The gender stereotypes or the historical traditional norms are still there today very much. I would say even more so under Xi Jinping, the expectation is that women eventually have to get married, they have to take care of the children, grow old and take care of grandchildren,” Tan said.
Party members make up 37.5 percent of village and neighbourhood-level committees but that number falls in leadership positions, according to ChinaFile, the online magazine of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society.
Women occupy just 9.33 percent of county-level posts as head of government or party secretary, falling to 5.29 percent in cities and 3.23 percent at the provincial level.
“As a woman, you just don’t have the resources to do other things outside of home,” Tan said. “On the demand side, those in power just don’t want women to get higher political leadership because that would threaten the status quo and the patriarchy.”
Equal in name
Despite the party’s “revolutionary” rhetoric, which has historically included tales of model female workers, feminism has always been subordinate to the organisation’s political and economic ambitions, explains Linda Jaivin, author of The Shortest History of China.
“From the start, the party was promoting the idea that women are strong and must be given certain rights so that they can, like men, be part of the communist project,” Jaivin said.
Indeed, one of the quotes most frequently attributed to founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong – “Women hold up half the sky” – was not an inspired call for women’s rights but triggered by a collective farm that in 1953 increased its productivity threefold after giving women the same “work points” as men.
While Chinese women were given a “nominal egalitarianism” from the beginning of the Mao era, beneath the surface older practices including gender-based violence and later the preference for male children under the one-child policy persisted. China today has 34.9 million more men than women, according to its latest census report.
As China pivoted towards market reforms in the 1980s and opened its economy, practices that were thought to have been largely wiped out including concubinage, or “mistress culture”, and prostitution returned.
Today, discussions about feminism and sexual harassment are censored online while the party has also made it more difficult to divorce – with a new mandatory “cooling-off period” even in cases of domestic violence. Other problems, like unequal pay, persist as well.
Jaivin said this is because men in the party are unwilling to cede power and therefore pursue policies to maintain the status quo.
“The CCP are happy to talk about strong, successful women who are contributing to the nation and the party and state media may profile female delegates to the national people’s convention, but few women hold serious power and none have served on the top ruling body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and you cannot talk about the structural issues holding women back that some of the really serious feminists in China would like to talk about,” Jaivin said. “Basically, it comes down to patriarchal power holders not wanting to share the power.”
Even so, the problems faced by women in China are far from unusual in East Asia. Arch-nemesis Japan has been called a “democracy without women,” while men still outnumber women in politics in South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, even though all three have had female leaders.
In the social sphere, as well, gender bias persists across the region, said Lynette Ong, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science and Asian Institute. By some measures urban Chinese women are still better off than their neighbours in South Korea and Japan where women remain under pressure to give up work after having children, cutting them off from their careers and any potential entry into politics.
“I would say it’s all relative – while women do not enjoy equal status as men in China, they are better off than at the beginning of the PRC’s founding. And, in comparison with women’s status in other Confucian societies, such as Japan, South Korea, women in China, especially those in the big cities, arguably enjoy better status, largely because they were ‘liberated’ by Chairman Mao,” Ong said.
Liberated, or not, Chinese women still have a long way to go before they are holding up half the political sky.