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China’s top leadership excludes women for the first time in two decades

Is Xi Jinping’s new all-male Politburo backing away from the communist party’s commitment to advancing women?

The new members of the Standing Committee of China's Politburo in Beijing last month. (Wu Hao/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Last month’s Chinese Communist Party Congress, as expected, cemented Xi Jinping’s leadership for another five years and elevated Xi loyalists to key positions. But for the first time in 25 years, the new Politburo — the 24 party leaders who will guide China’s governance for the next five years — excludes women.

What does this signal about gender equality in China? The Communist Party has never had the strongest record on appointing women to powerful positions. Past Politburos, for instance, typically included one or two women.

My research explores China’s significant gender gap in political representation and participation, compared with several neighboring countries. Although women accounted for 30 percent of the 2,300 or so party elites at October’s Party Congress — an increase from 21 percent in 2009 — it is important to remember that China’s Congress is not democratically elected and delegates do not represent constituents the way that democracies usually do.

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Taiwan and South Korea have already elected female presidents — while few women in China even get to lead locally. The Communist Party has implemented gender quotas for county-level people’s congresses, but China has never implemented these types of requirements strictly. Taiwan, in contrast, has had far more success with its reserved-seats system, and women now make up 40 percent of the legislature. And when women take on political roles in China, they are assigned more “feminine posts” that focus on issues like education and health. These are generally low-prestige roles, commanding few resources and little political power.

Where does Xi stand on gender equality?

In an October 2020 address celebrating the 25th anniversary of the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, Xi noted that “women are creators of human civilization and drivers of social progress” and promised to improve women’s status by striving for gender equality and ensuring that women’s rights are protected.

However, China’s #MeToo movement in recent years, along with incidents of gender-based violence, suggests that hopes and goals for the enhancement of women’s status in China have a long way to go. But gender activism makes Beijing nervous because it serves as a direct challenge to the state — prompting some analysts to worry that the status of women in China may decline under Xi’s leadership.

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What is the status of the feminist movement in China?

The gender gaps in China’s government demonstrate broader patriarchal issues in society, which are also regulated and facilitated by the government. In the past few years, China witnessed a feminist awakening, starting with the Feminist Five. This group planned to protest sexual harassment on public transportation. Arrested on the eve of International Women’s Day in 2015, the women were later imprisoned for 37 days. The #FreetheFive hashtag inundated China’s social media, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton spoke out on behalf of the activists. Since then, China has only toughened controls over the feminist movement.

Government censors have targeted #MeToo comments on Chinese social media platforms. What started off as movement to raise awareness about sexual harassment on campus quickly boosted public attention on other gender-based violence and unequal power relations in Chinese society, including large corporations and the Chinese government.

Women wrote about mistresses that Chinese government officials kept, in violation of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. In 2021, globally ranked tennis player Peng Shuai said she had been sexually assaulted by a retired Chinese official named Zhang Gaoli, then disappeared from public view. Although there was no proof that it was a forced disappearance, her emails and interviews with Chinese state media weeks later — and her denials about the sexual assault accusation — elicited an international response over her safety and freedom.

In August, officials arrested 28 people in relation to an attack of a group of women outside a Hebei restaurant. As the story went viral, the Chinese government cracked down on reporting about the assault.

Framing gender-based violence as “incidents” has been the official response — but this approach may be risky for the Chinese government. Downplaying violence against women challenges Beijing’s ability to maintain a harmonious society and poses a threat to its authoritarian regime. Many feminist activists have either disappeared or been under surveillance. Others face criminal accusations for their intention to gather a crowd and disturb public order.

What’s the future of gender progress in China?

Women’s movements are important for enhancing gender equality as they lead to gender-egalitarian attitudes among young people. Like #MeToo movements elsewhere, China’s seemed to open the door for women looking to support women’s rights, as well as campaign for labor rights, safe working conditions and other issues. Under Xi’s rule, many of these campaigns face pressure by authorities to shut down.

Harsh punishments of feminist activists and censorship of #MeToo, along with gender-based violence, have prompted use of emoji, homophones, similar characters and puns — and other digital activism designed to escape the attention of government censors.

But a future without feminism among China’s younger generations would look very grim. The birthrate continues to decline, despite the official rollback of China’s one-child policy and government incentives to encourage citizens to have children.

China’s Gen Z struggles to find affordable housing, for example, and to find a work-life balance and other support to help young families raise children. Although the government has promised to reduce school fees and improve maternity leave policies, the structural resources aren’t in place to encourage families to have children.

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China’s “zero covid” lockdowns, in particular, have prompted young Chinese to rethink their life plans — and question government control over citizens’ lives. And the “lying flat” movement, with the younger generation rejecting high-pressure work cultures, brings further challenges for China’s leaders.

Under Xi’s leadership, it has become increasingly difficult for China’s younger generation to see a clear future, one where their voices could be heard. The lack of representation of women in the new Politburo conveys a message that Xi appears less serious about advancing women’s status than past claims.

With the tight control Xi has maintained over China, there’s little indication that barriers to gender equality will erode. Phrases like “Liberating Women” and “Women Hold up Half the Sky” have long been part of the Communist Party’s promises — but these have remained only slogans and will continue to be so under Xi’s leadership.

Shan-Jan Sarah Liu (@DrSarahLiu) is an associate professor in politics and international relations at the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.

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