At a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, on the western edge of Tiananmen Square, Xi, now seen as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, marched across a stage with members of the party’s highest body, the Politburo Standing Committee.
Enter Xi Jinping. Li Keqiang. Li Zhanshu. Wang Yang. Wang Huning. Zhao Leji. Han Zheng — dudes, to the last.
Of the 25 members of the Politburo, the second-highest body, there is now one woman, down from two. The party’s 204-person Central Committee is once again graced by 10 women.
Mao famously quipped that “women hold up half the sky.” More like 4.9 percent.
Should we be surprised by this? Yes and no.
China, according to its own constitution, is committed to women’s rights. The country prides itself on being a leader on poverty alleviation, health and education.
While Chinese women are, on average, wealthier, more educated and healthier than they were before, experts say they are losing ground relative to men, with, for example, a widening wage gap.
Gains in political participation have not translated to top leadership roles. In the decades since the Communists swept to power in 1949, no woman has been named to the party’s highest body. From 2012 to 2017 the Politburo had two women — the highest since the wives of two leaders were given spots in 1969.
Xiong Jing, executive director of Feminist Voices, an NGO in Beijing, said this year’s numbers were “outrageous,” but “not surprising.”
“It has long been a problem that the representation of women in the politics is low and, unlike in other fields, we are not seeing signs of improvement,” she said.
Xiong said that more female delegates would not necessarily bring gender equality, but a mostly male leadership is highly unlikely to make it a priority. “This is indeed a problem,” she said.
Heading into his second five-year term, Xi’s record on women is decidedly mixed.
In 2015, five Chinese feminists were detained while planning a peaceful act of protest to mark International Women’s Day. Months later, Xi delivered a keynote speech at the U.N. Women’s conference in New York, vowing to “reaffirm our commitment to gender equality and women’s development.”
Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said there are ways for the government to do that. “The first thing the Chinese government can do is to pass a comprehensive anti-discrimination in employment law, which should include a comprehensive definition of discrimination,” she said.
They must also “develop and promote new policies that give companies incentives to hire more women.”
If Xi plans to tackle women’s rights over the next five years, he did not really say so.
In his three hour and 20 minute speech, the status of women warranted only a couple of cursory mentions. One section briefly mentioned the need to protect women and children. In a section on party discipline, he touched on the need to “cultivate and select female cadres.” But he did not mention why their representation in top jobs is down five years into his tenure.
And that’s the thing. China is far from alone when it comes to rule by men to the exclusion of women. But if Xi is the all-powerful leader he claims to be, and he actually wanted to include women, women would be there. Looking at the numbers, it is safe to assume he does not.
Amber Ziye Wang and Luna Lin reported from Beijing.