The 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party: Where Are the Women?

Sun Chunlan, the only woman in the CPC Political Bureau, is to leave her post at the 20th Communist Party Congress, which begins on Sunday. And there is no guarantee that another woman will be named in her place. One illustration among many others of the underrepresentation of women in the governing bodies, which can have very real consequences for Chinese society.

Sun Chunlan is a special case in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) galaxy: she is the only woman in the Politburo, the powerful executive body of the Beijing regime. But not for long. Sun Chunlan is leaving her post on the occasion of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which begins on Sunday, October 16, because at the age of 72 she has exceeded the retirement age set at 68. The nerve center of Chinese power could therefore be entirely male , further exacerbating a recurring problem of underrepresentation of women in the Chinese regime’s authorities.

Since 2017, Sun Chunlan has embodied for the CCP the image of a party that is not afraid to promote women to positions of responsibility. Dubbed the CCP’s “Iron Lady,” Sun Chunlan holds the prestigious title of Vice Premier. They are only four out of the 25 members of the Politburo who have this title.

The exception that proves the rule

Above all, Xi Jinping has made Sun Chunlan the face of China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. She is the one who enforced the “zero-Covid” policy throughout the country for two years. Proof that she has the Chinese president’s full confidence in handling one of the most serious health crises Beijing has had to face since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

But managing the controversial “zero-Covid” policy is not a gift. For some observers, Xi Jinping has indeed found in Sun Chunlan an easy scapegoat if his handling of Covid-19 becomes too controversial. And as often elsewhere, health issues are also traditionally entrusted to women. One of Sun Chunlan’s predecessors in the Politburo, Wu Yi, had already had to deal with the Sars epidemic in 2003.

Nevertheless, Sun Chunlan’s departure will leave a void. There are candidates for the coveted Politburo, starting with Shen Yiqin, the only woman who is general secretary of the party in an entire province, Guizhou, in southern China. In addition, she is from the Bai ethnic group, a minority, which means that for power she “checks several good boxes at the same time to fill the quotas”, notes the China Project website.

But “nothing obligates the CCP to replace Sun Chunlan with another woman,” emphasizes Valarie Tan, sinologist at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics) in Berlin. The absence of women in the next Politburo, which will be unveiled at the 20th Congress, would not be surprising since Sun Chunlan represents the exception that proves the rule.

In theory, Communist China claims to be one of the most egalitarian regimes in the world. Didn’t Mao Zedong declare in 1969 that “women support half the sky”? “Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the CCP has emphasized equality between women and men as one of the characteristics to distinguish the communist state from the ‘old China,'” emphasizes Cheng Li, a specialist in Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a study on the place of women in politics in China.

A very patriarchal communist party

But the reality is quite different for a country with 703 million women, or 48.7% of the total population. Since 1949, there have been only six women in the CCP Politburo, and three of them were the wives of the founding fathers of Communist China. Of the more than 300 members of the Central Committee – whose role is to elect the members of the Political Bureau and ratify their decisions – there are barely 30 women. In summary, only “8% of the positions of responsibility in the party have been entrusted to women”, notes Valarie Tan.

This underrepresentation is not due to a lack of interest among Chinese women in a political career. Yes, between January 2020 and June 2021, almost half of the new party members were female members.

The 20th Congress could have been the inauguration of the women’s cause, as it will be the occasion for a major renewal of the upper echelons of the CCP. But the chances of significantly feminizing this meeting in a suit and tie are slim.

Firstly, because the reasons for this male dominance at the forefront of power have not been questioned. In fact, party leadership positions are often reserved for personalities who “have had responsibilities in large public enterprises or in regional governments. Functions that women are often not considered for”, Minglu Chen, a sinologist at the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney, explains to South China Morning Post.

Then, promotion within the CCP was “a matter of faction much more than personal merit,” Bo Zhiyue, a specialist in the Chinese political elite, assured the South China Morning Post. Climbing to the top of the political ladder requires the right support, and women often have less direct access to the few party figures – such as the former general secretaries of Hu Jintao’s party, Jiang Zemin – who can pressure their protégés.

Xi Jinping is also not the champion of the female cause in politics. He embodies “the CCP’s very patriarchal approach to society,” argues Merics expert Valarie Tan. The end of the one-child policy in 2021 was an opportunity for Xi Jinping to insist on the importance of “traditional family values”. He even launched a campaign to exalt “the unique physical and mental traits [aux femmes] to bring into the world and take care of newborn babies”. In other words, the Chinese leader prefers to see women at home than in the office (political or not).

A cause of China’s demographic crisis

This lack of women in governing bodies has significant economic and social consequences, assures Valarie Tan. “One of the root causes of the current demographic crisis in China is this underrepresentation of women in important positions,” she argues. “The problems of almost half of the population are not or very little represented in the CCP”, adds this expert.

Thus, the incentive to have children essentially involves “money distributed to families without taking into account the deeper reasons why Chinese women do not want to have more children”, sums up Valarie Tan.

For her, the authorities are not tough enough with domestic violence and violence against women in general. The impunity that some powerful men involved in sexual abuse scandals appear to enjoy – such as former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, accused of raping tennis player Peng Shuai – reinforces “this climate that does not make people want women to have children .” says Valarie Tan.

The party experts who have defined priorities in recent years to encourage the Chinese to have more children “could have benefited from women’s advice in deciding what to do”, notes the China Project website. Too bad there are (almost) none.

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