Party Looks Beyond China's 'Miss Fix-It'
As Politburo's Only Woman Retires, Officials Urge Improved 'Democracy'

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 21, 2007

BEIJING -- Vice Premier Wu Yi, the only woman in China's 24-member Politburo, is known in the West as China's Miss Fix-It, a steely and capable problem solver often assigned to tackle high-profile issues such as food safety, contentious trade talks and the SARS health crisis.

But as the 68-year-old prepares to retire this year, it remains unclear whether Communist Party officials -- voting this week by secret ballot -- will elevate any other women into the senior leadership.

The party long ago declared equality between men and women, but the country is still deeply patriarchal. A male-dominated party center calls the shots, promoting women mostly to positions that lack influence, or assigning them to traditional fields such as health or education.

Women, who are not represented on the all-powerful nine-member Standing Committee, make up less than 8 percent of the significantly lower-ranking Central Committee. Even in the current crop of party chiefs and governors in each province, only one, Qinghai governor Song Xiuyan, is a woman.

Historically, women in Chinese politics are not regarded as particularly trustworthy. The ruthlessly ambitious Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao Zedong, took most of the blame for the disastrous Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s.

But officials trying to demonstrate the party's relevance now talk frequently about improving "democracy" within it. It's a shift that has been forced in part by changes in Chinese society, as an economic boom has allowed many people to get rich without necessarily rising through the party ranks.

Among the 2,213 delegates who have descended on the Great Hall of the People for the party congress, about 20 percent are women, an increase of 2 percent from the last congress, in 2002. (In the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, women hold about 16 percent of the seats.) For many female party leaders, that's progress, even as they admit that there is still bias against them.

"I think that at grass-roots level, more and more women have joined the party," said Zuo Chengqin, party secretary of a cotton production company in Jiangsu province who was attending her first congress and snapping photos in front of the Great Hall last week.

"Based on what I see in our local area, I think more women are taking important roles inside the party," Zuo said. "We have women who help govern Nantong city, and also women in the local standing committee, though none are yet in the number one position."

Inside the Great Hall, Liang Yiping, 60, sat near the party chief of Fujian province as he presided over a delegation that is among those with the highest number of female representatives.

Liang is chairwoman of the Fujian Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a government advisory body. She worked her way up from a technician's job in an electricity factory to mayor of Fujian province's Zhangzhou city, later becoming the influential party secretary of Fujian's Inspection and Disciplinary Committee.

"More women are being chosen to the policy decision level, like me. It's not just for show to have more women in the party, because if you are just a vase, you will lose in a competitive election," she said.

Like many female delegates, Liang and Zuo look up to Wu, who never married and who has remained above the gossip and fray that surrounds other high-profile leaders.

"Wu Yi is my idol," Zuo said. "She always plays a central role in international discussions and she's coolly in control. She really makes us women feel proud."

Among the women who analysts believe might be promoted into the Politburo is Liu Yandong, 61, head of the party's United Front department, which helps keep non-party organizations in line with party ideology. Perhaps more important, she is a former president of the Communist Youth League, the power base for President Hu Jintao.

Liu, a native of Jiangsu province who joined the party when she was 19, seems to have kept her head down as she rose through the ranks, first receiving a degree in chemical engineering, then working in a chemical plant before moving on to other party positions.

One of the biggest challenges for many Chinese women in politics is managing career and family in a society that is sometimes still more traditional than the West, despite rapid modernization here.

"A woman not only has to shoulder social responsibility but also family responsibility," said Song, the Qinghai governor, speaking during a break from a speech at the congress.

"We have to work as hard as we can on our jobs, while being responsible for maintaining the harmonious relationship inside our families, so that we are better supported by our families to participate in politics," Song said.

Russell Leigh Moses, a political analyst based in Beijing who is writing a book on the changing nature of power in China, said a female politician here has to be "three times as tough as her male counterparts in order to be politically effective."

Promotions usually are granted as a result of a directive from above to elevate more women in the party.

"And a woman is more likely to be elevated, it appears, if she enjoys good family connections first, as opposed to political contacts," Moses said. "Good contacts with politicians usually means, unfortunately, being a mistress -- as unfair as that moniker is."

Wu's reputation as a role model who cared about grass-roots causes was recognized at many levels of society, including by AIDS activist Gao Yaojie, an outspoken critic of the government. She met Wu for two hours in December 2003.

Gao, now 80, recalled a car belonging to the Henan provincial government arriving in Zhengzhou to take her to a hotel once used as a villa by Mao. Wu was inside the hotel, and her secretary barred other officials from the room. Wu told Gao that they had been trying to reach her for more than two hours.

"Wu asked me, 'What were you doing at home? How come no one answered?' I told her my phone is tapped. She didn't push the matter further, " Gao said.

"Her attitude was very sincere. She said to me, 'Tell me what you know about the situation. We don't have any Henan people here, so you can talk freely. Whatever you say, I'd like to hear,' " Gao recalled.

"I didn't tell her that I was under a lot of pressure or I was persecuted by some Henan officials. I told her two things: There are a lot of poor AIDS orphans whose parents were dead and they had no one to rely on," Gao said. "And I told her that it's because of the local people selling blood that made AIDS spread so fast."

Gao informed the vice premier that the village she had been taken to see that morning, Wenlou, was a showcase spruced up by local officials who ignored many other villages where the AIDS problem was much worse. "She admitted that she didn't know about the real situation here in Henan; she told me if I ever have any difficulties, to please go and see her. Her secretary gave me a phone number and an address," Gao said.

But Gao, who is closely watched by officials, said she lost contact with Wu.

"Whether she's a man or a woman doesn't matter; she's curious about what's going on in the country," Gao said. "But she is blocked from getting real information. Her power is limited, and she can't do whatever she thinks is good for the country."

Staff researchers Li Jie and Jin Ling contributed to this report.

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