(This piece was originally published on “China Dialogues,” the online platform of the London School of Economics https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/cff/2022/11/07/xis-yes-men-the-absence-of-women-at-the-20th-party-congress/)
- For the first time in decades, there will be not one single woman sitting on the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo. But it is no surprise to see the almost total absence of women from the rituals of the 20th Party Congress.
- The complete exclusion of women from China’s leading positions stems from a political system in which there has been little active encouragement to women at local levels to become politically active.
- Whilst a new generation of feminist and LGBTQI activists in China are contesting these practices, they are hampered by censorship and the re-assertion of a powerful ideology of hierarchical gender relations that celebrate China’s “national” Confucian traditions.
The 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opened on October 16th 2022, and ended a week later. As anticipated, one of its main achievements was to confirm President Xi Jinping in his third term, breaking with established practice of a two-term rule. Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era is now written into the new constitution, using a term that to date has only been used to refer to Mao Zedong Thought.
Xi Jinping’s three posts as General Secretary of the CCP, Chairperson of the CCP’s Central Military Commission and President of the People’s Republic of China, give him unprecedented controls of the party, military and state. His position is widely hailed as that of China’s paramount leader upholding national unity at a time of international turmoil and increasing domestic difficulties. One dimension of this has been the systematic crackdown on dissidents to prevent any disruption to the Congress proceedings.
While the choreography of the Congress was apparently and predictably seamless, audiences were surprised to watch as former President Hu Jintao was unceremoniously and apparently unwillingly led out of the closing ceremony. Hu’s former political allies, including former Premier Li Keqiang, were all replaced by Xi’s people.
Spectators of the rituals of China’s Party and National Congresses have long been accustomed to the spectacle of serried ranks of identically besuited men clapping in unison to the speeches of their leader. It was therefore no surprise to see the almost total absence of women from the rituals of this political stage. Aged seventy-two, Sun Chunlan, the only remaining woman on the twenty-five member Politburo—the decision-making body of the CCP—resigned from her position. Given her age she was expected to retire. Expectations were that Shen Yiqin, Secretary of Guizhou Provincial Party Committee would be appointed. However, this did not happen, meaning that the 20th Congress is confirmed for the next five years as the first time in decades that there has been not one single woman in the CCP’s Poliburo.
Figures for CCP membership in December 2021 indicate that of 96.71 million members, 28.43 (just over a third) were women. Following the decisions at the recent Party Congress, just eleven out of 205 members on the Central Committee are women.
The main images of women that emerged from the recent Congress were of young women, all dressed in identical tailored red skirt suits, large white hot water flasks in hand, moving in unison along the empty rows of delegates’ seats to fill up the teacups prior to the commencement of proceedings.
We all know that the presence of leading female politicians does not in itself signify advances for women. So, would the presence of a woman in a leading political position in China have any substantive meaning for Chinese women’s lives?
The question may be easier to answer if approached from a different angle. In China, the complete exclusion of women from leading positions, now presumably a matter of deliberate choice by Xi Jinping, stems from a political system, particularly in the past four decades, in which there has been little active encouragement to women at local levels to become politically active. On the contrary, evidence widely suggests considerable opposition from local to top levels of the political hierarchy to nominating women for political posts. One result is a dearth of female political participation at local levels. Without such participation at local levels, women are effectively prevented from rising to higher positions.
For his part, Xi Jinping presumably has little incentive to encourage women’s political participation. On the contrary, his revival of Confucian values as the moral standard of the nation has been accompanied by encouragement to women to put their energies into having more babies and upholding “traditional values.” Classes in how to become a “virtuous wife and good mother” are now available to girls and young women in largely private neo-Confucian academies across the country.
Savvy social media celebrities have chosen to put their energies into advising women on how to make the best of their lot. This is nowhere better illuminated than in the figure of Yang Bingyang, whose self-styled status as relationship guru under the name Ayawawa has brought her millions of online followers, interviews and considerable wealth. She taps into a conservative gender agenda that prioritises marriage as the foundation of women’s stable future, advising women that their best option for securing a stable marriage is to buy into money rather than looks. According to Wang Qianning, a Beijing based commentator on gender issues, “Yang symbolizes a retrenchment of traditional male-female power relations according to a strongly consumerist model.”
The absence of women from the Party’s recent Congress alongside the failure to reappoint a woman to the Politburo speaks more powerfully for the current leadership’s view of women than do its official statements about upholding women’s rights. This was inversely highlighted by the presence at the opening ceremony of the Congress of former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, the powerful official accused of sexual harassment by the tennis star Peng Shuai. He was never brought to account for Peng Shuai’s allegations. On the contrary, official statements denounced Peng’s allegations as “malicious rumour.” What more powerful symbolism could there be, then, of the Party’s top-level silencing of women than Zhang’s presence alongside the exclusion of women?
This leads us to recent clampdowns of feminist and LGBTQ+ activism. Arguably the best internationally known event was the arrest of the Feminist Five, a group of feminist activists who after several years of public activity, were arrested in March 2015 for challenging male privilege by staging street performance protests. Following widespread international and domestic protest, including accusations against the Chinese government for failing to provide adequate medical treatment for Wu Rongrong who was suffering from hepatitis B, the five were eventually released after thirty-seven days on April 13, 2015.
Activists have also brought complaints of sexual harassment against employers in a range of operations, including the precision electronics giant, Foxconn. Migrant workers and undocumented workers also raised their voices, and in 2017, the journalist Huang Xueqin went public with her denunciation of workplace harassment. After conducting a survey of mainland women journalists on the extent of sexual harassment, she started up an online platform to share relevant information, using the hashtag #WoYeShi (a direct translation of #MeToo). In 2019 her passport was confiscated after a trip abroad. Then, having been awarded a place to study in the UK’s University of Sussex, she and labour activist Wang Jianbing went missing on September 19th, 2021, accused of “inciting subversion of state power.” To date, the appeals of international human rights organisations and academics have gone unheeded and Huang Xueqin’s situation remains unclear.
None of this is to ignore the very real benefits that the marketisation of the economy has brought to millions of women’s lives. Xi’s zero-Covid policy has also achieved undeniable successes in keeping excess deaths low, in comparison with, for example, the US and the UK. However, this policy has also produced unintended consequences, some of which have particular relevance for women. The depressed economy and reduction in personal incomes has led to a significant decrease in the number of marriages. Despite official attempts to encourage women to have more children by relaxing the birth control policy, the numbers of births between November and December 2020 were down by 55% on levels five years earlier. As elsewhere, including here in the UK, lockdowns have added to women’s burdens of childcare and housework.
The CCP’s gender policies have had an uneven but persistent ride in China over the past long half century. While from one perspective, it is reasonable to situate the increasing gender inequalities since the early 1990s within the privatising impulse of the commercialised political economy, the conditions for its resurgence were grounded in understandings and practices of gender difference and gender relations that could not escape the hegemonic pull of earlier policies that prioritised women’s participation in social labour but overlooked their domestic role.
Policies of women’s liberation in the Mao years certainly did constitute a transformative experience for countless women, yet the ideologically and historically mediated constraints on including the domestic realm within the sphere of policy debate left relatively untouched certain basic assumptions. Backed by a notion of biological essentialism in defining gender difference, policies of gender equality forged a clear line between productive and reproductive issues, reducing the latter to a silenced area of women’s lives and experiences. They just got on with the task of birthing babies, nurturing children and taking on the emotional as well as physical labour of domestic care work.
Now, however, in a social and cultural environment that grants access to online connectivity and travel, a new generation of feminist and LGBTQI activists in China are contesting these practices and relations in ways that signify a qualitative departure from the feminisms of their forebears. Yet, the reach of their views is hampered by censorship and the re-assertion of a powerful ideology of gender relations that celebrate China’s “national” Confucian traditions. It remains for future analysis to assess the impact of their struggle against the deep embeddedness of male privilege as a system of institutionalised patriarchal power and subordination operative in all aspects of public, political and domestic life.
Harriet Evans is Professor Emerita of Chinese Cultural Studies (University of Westminster) and Visiting Professor of Anthropology (LSE). She has written extensively on the politics of gender and sexuality in China, and on visual culture of the Mao era. Her third monograph, Beijing from Below: Stories of Marginal Lives in the Capital’s Center was published by Duke University Press in 2020. Grassroots Values and Local Cultural Heritage in China, co-edited with Michael Rowlands, and based on a Leverhulme Trust funded research project was published in 2021 by Lexington Books. She is now working on a new multidisciplinary collective project on the legacies of Chinese migration to Latin America since the mid-nineteenth century.