Holding Up Half the Sky?

Politics Becoming a Man's World in Modern China

March 24, 2005


BEIJING -- Women in China "hold up half the sky," the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong, was fond of saying. But these days the fairer sex is not holding up much of anything.

Women account for just 1 percent of the mayors in China and only one of the 29 ministers in the State Council, China's cabinet. When Song Xiuyan was named governor of Qinghai province, just north of Tibet, in January, she became only the third woman to head a province in 56 years of Communist Party rule.

The Communist Party has achieved some remarkable advances for women, such as slashing female infanticide and female illiteracy and banning arranged marriages and the painful tradition of foot-binding. Mao and the early revolutionaries also encouraged women to enter politics, providing training and setting quotas.

But as the planned economy gave way to capitalism, politics has increasingly become a man's world. After decades of improvement, women's participation in politics is dropping in all levels of government, from village committees to the Communist Party's Central Committee.

In the last Party Congress, in 2002, the percentage of women in the 198-member Central Committee dropped to 2.5 percent, an all-time low in the party's history, from a high of 10 percent in 1973.

One of many reasons cited for the decline is that government has become more decentralized and the party less intrusive as the economy has opened up. The competitive pressures of the new market economy have brought out biases that had been suppressed in the collective era.

Ironically, the very organization that exists to help women -- the All-China Women's Federation -- doesn't serve them well in the country's new era, analysts said.

Established in 1949 as the Communist Party was coming to power, the Women's Federation has branches throughout China and at all levels of government.

But as an organization with Marxist roots, its approach to empowering women is to improve their capabilities as modes of production. Thus, many of its local branches are focused on job training and workplace issues for workers, neglecting entrepreneurs, the college-educated and women trying to climb up the rungs of power.

"Often at the local level they will be training women to work as domestic servants," said Nick Young, editor of China Development Brief and an expert on social development in China. "That's a bit weird."

Many of its top officials see their primary task as supporting Communist Party rule. That means blocking the development of any independent women's movement.

"The Women's Federation is very hostile to women organizing independently," Young said.

Women in top positions are often promoted into leadership posts at the Women's Federation itself, simply because they're women.

"Just because you're a woman doesn't mean you understand what problems women face in politics," said Sarah Cook, the governance program officer at the Ford Foundation's China office and an expert on gender issues in China.

Cook said the organization is having internal debates on how to modernize and whether it should embrace the term "gender," which is seen by some as a more radical, Western concept. The prevailing attitude eschews "gender" for "women," a subtle difference, but one that allows the federation to avoid analyzing the role of men and society at large in promoting gender equality.

Young said officials of the Women's Federation often describe their role as improving the "quality" of women.

"The implication is that the quality of women is low and needs to be raised," he said. "That's bizarre for a women's organization."

Many Eastern European countries, too, saw women's participation in politics drop following the transition to a market economy. However, some of those decreases have now been reversed, according to Unifem statistics.

In China, women are often expected to fill roles as officials responsible for areas such as education, health and science -- all areas which require spending money, not generating it.

Since they are rarely given responsibility for economic development, and since promotion often depends on showing a record of economic growth, women are at a disadvantage. And women are required to retire at age 55, while men get an additional five years.

At the village level, female officials are usually assigned family planning roles that entail making sure women are not pregnant when they're not supposed to be and fining them if they are.

"It's not a very popular job," said Young. "Who wants to get stuck with that? It tends to be another nasty job that women have to do, so who wants to be empowered politically?"

As a result, the share of women in village-level politics has dropped from 5 percent in the early 1990s to less than 1 percent now.

Alcohol is another factor working against women. It is over successive rounds of shots, accompanied by a lavish banquet, that camaraderie is built and deals are made. But women have to walk a thin line -- drinking, but not drinking too much.

"If a man drinks a lot, he's viewed as being able to hold his liquor," said Ding Juan, a scholar at the Women's Studies Institute under the Women's Federation. "If a woman drinks a lot, she's viewed as a wino."

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