Women's Political Participation in China

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

© U.S. Department of State / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The founding father of the People's Republic, Mao Zedong, famously proclaimed that "women hold up half the sky," so why, four decades after his death, are there still so few high-level female politicians in China?

The level of female political participation can be explained by the economic reform and open-door policy introduced in China in 1978. These reforms greatly facilitated women's engagement in free market competition. Since 1982, various government reforms have also focused on female empowerment and power-sharing in different government departments and organizations, providing women with special protection and benefits. State organizations, civil organizations, businesses, and institutions must insist on the principle of gender equality. These reforms have had a positive impact on women's political participation.

Despite China's emphasis on increasing female political participation and representation, the international ranking of women deputies in the People's Congress has gone from 12th place in 1994 to 42nd in 2005. This does not necessarily mean that women's political participation has declined, nor does it mean that the percentage of female representatives in the NPCC has decreased, but it does suggest that improvement lags behind many other countries. The gap between women's participation in the different political power structures in China and other countries has widened rather than narrowed in recent years. Numerous studies and books suggest that the political participation of Chinese women is far from being as high as in many other countries.

Nonetheless, many women have left their imprint on the Chinese political scene. They have participated in conflicts many have been forgotten. Cai Chang (蔡畅) was the first woman to have been part of the Chinese Communist Party. After the foundation of the People's Republic of China, the National Federation of Chinese Women appointed her as president for several years. Cai Chang has served on the Central Committee of the CCP and was also a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, then Vice-Chair of the Standing Committee. She was a symbol of the feminist movement along with Xiang Jingyu (向警), whose actions and demands led to the establishment of a new social policy. Cai Cheng, especially through her political involvement, was able to defend the rights of female citizens within the Communist Party. Cai Cheng and Xiang Jingyu have permitted a certain evolution of the status of women within the Chinese political sphere. These powerful female figures have managed to shake up the political etiquette that has ruled China in the past. Under their leadership between 1911 and 1928, women's associations appeared for the first time all around China.

Song Mei Ling (宋美龄) and Song Qing Ling (宋庆龄) both had tremendous careers in the 20th century. Their contributions to the Republican and Communist Party are irrefutable. They have greatly increased the role of women in the Chinese political sphere. Indeed, these two political figures have firstly allowed the unity of the country and secondly the establishment of better Sino-American relations. In fact, Time magazine included Jiang Qing (江青), Mao's wife and leader of the "Gang of Four" during the Cultural Revolution, as one of the 25 most powerful women of the past century.

Chinese women are individually perceived as politically influential in the world. In fact, the gap between women's participation in different political power structures in China and other countries has widened in recent decades despite China's faster economic growth compared to most other countries today.

Liu Yandong (刘延东), a well-known politician in China, recently served as Vice Premier of the People's Republic of China. She is China's highest ranking female political figure and also has a seat in the Politburo. Wu Yi (吴仪) is another of China's most famous female political leaders. At the time of China's biggest health crisis, when there was an outbreak of SARS, Wu Yi served as Minister of Health. Primarily known as China's Iron Lady, she was also one of the most difficult negotiators in international politics.

Li Bin (李斌) is the chairman of the National Commission on Health and Family Planning. A prominent female political figure, she was also the first chair of the new National Commission on Health and Family Planning. Fu Ying (傅莹) is currently Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress. Ying was at her highest political level as ambassador to the United Kingdom and was also a competent Deputy Foreign Minister. She was the first, and only, woman from an ethnic minority to serve in this position.

In China, more than 5,800 women's non-governmental organizations constantly convey women's views and problems to various levels of government, as well as proactively proposing solutions. They are thus an important force for the protection of women's rights and interests. The National Women's Federation of China is the most important. Bringing together women's delegates from different backgrounds and ethnic groups, it is therefore very broadly representative. Its tight network of operations includes grassroots organizations even in urban neighborhoods and rural villages. The fundamental objective of the Federation is to represent and protect the interests of women; it strives to promote equality between men and women and to raise the social status of women. It’s remarkable and effective work has earned it the high appreciation of society and the trust of women. Many women's organizations, whether national, regional, or sectoral, such as the Women Employees' Union, the Society of Women Scientists and Technicians, as well as associations of women entrepreneurs, engineers, journalists, judges, lawyers, writers, calligraphers, etc. have joined the National Federation of Women of China as collective members. Federations at various levels enjoy the support and encouragement of the government, as their efforts to unite women in participating in social development and to protect their rights and interests are in line with the government's objective. It should be noted that the eight democratic parties have also created commissions for women's affairs, which have already done useful work in protecting women's rights and interests.

Chinese women are developing strong exchanges with women's organizations and personalities from women's movements around the world. Currently, the All-China Women's Federation (中华全国妇女联合) has established friendly relations with some 480 governmental and non-governmental women's and children's organizations from 130 countries and territorial units of the world. In recent years, China has received a total of more than 10,000 female visitors from all over the world, including ministers, parliamentarians, industrialists, experts, scholars, leaders, and workers of women's and children's organizations. In 15 years, China has sent a total of 280 women's delegations abroad. Chinese women have friends all over the world.

Source: Statista

According to the two graphs above, the place of women in the Chinese political sphere has changed significantly. The growth of female executives and high-ranking officials will not stop, they will acquire more seats and more power in the Chinese political sphere. However, there are very few women in the decision-making ranks. Many Chinese citizens believe that women should dedicate themselves to their families rather than to their careers. It is undeniable that China is still a male-dominated society. This seems to indicate that, in general, the population tends to believe that women are not naturally political or public actors, which means that traditional ideology on the role of women is an obstacle to the improvement and promotion of gender equality, particularly with regard to the political participation of women. In addition, the recent national survey of 2017, indicates that one of the obstacles to female participation in the political, socio-cultural, and economic mainstream is their overload of household chores, not the inability to participate. A large majority (83.5%-88.6%) of respondents believe that "the ability of women is no worse than men's" and that "men should take responsibility for the awareness of their domestic responsibilities".

To conclude we may say that, The reforms as well as the programs that have been launched should lead to full parity and equality on the Chinese political scene within the next few years.

Najoua Chetioui is a Master's student in Management and International Business, specialized in exchanges with Asia, at le Havre Normandie University. Moreover, she is passionate about Chinese culture and language. You can find her on LinkedIn here.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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