Women, Chairman Mao famously proclaimed, hold up half the sky. But not half the Politburo.
Chinese politics may be the ultimate old boys’ club. Of the 25 members of the Politburo, only two are women. Female membership on the larger Central Committee has actually fallen, from 7.6 percent in 1969 to 4.9 percent today. Just one of 31 provincial governors is a woman.
In other countries, female parliamentary representation has been rising; in China, it has been stuck around 22 percent since the 1970s — a share, it must be said, that exceeds that in Congress.
Most significant, since the Communist Party took power here in 1949, no woman has served on its ruling structure, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.
Meanwhile, the notion of a Hillary Clinton-like figure poised to lead the country — indeed, even to serve as its chief diplomat — seems remote. It was big news here that Peng Liyuan, a renowned folk singer and the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, took a public role after her husband took office in 2012, working on causes such as rural education and combating HIV/AIDS even as she made best-dressed lists. Leaders’ wives have remained resolutely behind the scenes — their names even blocked from search engines — since Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was accused of grasping for power and fomenting the Cultural Revolution.
“In just about every other category of the way one analyzes Chinese elite leadership — regional background or education or how much they’ve studied foreign languages or traveled abroad — there have been dramatic, fundamental shifts from the Mao era and even in the last 10 years,” said Scott Kennedy, director of Indiana University’s Research Center for Chinese Politics and Business. “The single area where there has not been a dramatic shift has been in the place of women in the leadership.”
Ask government officials and private citizens about this phenomenon and they respond with a mix of denial and disinterest: There is no problem, because the law guarantees equal rights; anyway, women aren’t terribly interested in political office.
Often, they point to the surge of female entrepreneurs building billion-dollar empires. According to the Shanghai-based Hurun Report, Chinese women account for 19 of 45 self-made female billionaires worldwide, including the three richest.
Yet those rosy figures obscure a less attractive private-sector reality.
A 2010 government report, the Third Survey on Chinese Women’s Social Status, found a widening income gap, with women’s earnings on average 67 percent that of men in cities, 56 percent in rural areas, down 10 and 23 percentage points, respectively, from 1990. According to a report by U.N. Women, “Women are concentrated in service-sector jobs, or work in rural areas for low pay.” The mandatory retirement age for women is 50 or 55, depending on the job, compared with 60 for men.
At higher levels, a 2012 study by McKinsey & Co. found that, although women constitute half of university graduates in China — an astonishing achievement, given the gender imbalance resulting from the one-child policy — they account for just 8 percent of corporate directors. This is slightly higher than the Asian average but scarcely half that of the United States. Bloomberg reported in 2011 that just one of 120 state-owned enterprises, a pillar of the Chinese economy, was run by a woman.
Much of the disparity, in politics and business, appears to be the product of old-fashioned sexism — a lingering and perhaps even deepening reflection of Confucian paternalism. In the government survey, 62 percent of men and 55 percent of women agreed with the statement that “the field for men is in public and the domain for women is within household” — increases of 7.7 and 4.4 percentage points compared with 2000.
Some experts see the situation improving — pointing in particular to the success of women in higher education and the reverberations of the one-child policy, as well-off fathers pass family businesses to only daughters.
“I’m quite optimistic about the future” when it comes to women entering leadership ranks, said Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution.
Leta Hong Fincher, whose new book, “Leftover Women,” describes government-fueled pressure on women to marry by 27 lest they lose out on the chance to wed, takes a more negative view. “The glass has gotten a lot emptier” for Chinese women, she told me.
Either way, one thing is clear: Mao was an optimist.