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China’s female representation problem is getting worse

Iin the 1980s Chen Muhua is one of the few female leaders at the national level in China and has served as vice premier and other positions. Later, as president of the All-China Women’s Federation, a Communist Party-led body, she expressed dissatisfaction with the number of women in government and promised reforms that would bring new opportunities. They haven’t. Thus, in a report to the party congress on October 16, President Xi Jinping echoed Chen’s pledge to select and train female cadres.

He hasn’t. When the party’s new leadership was unveiled on October 22 and 23, only a handful of women were on the list. No one is expected to be a member of the Politburo’s seven-member standing committee, which has never had a female member. But for the first time in 25 years, there isn’t a single woman in the Politburo (it has 24 members). The institution usually has only one woman, a tokenist convention. In the larger Central Committee, there are 33 women (out of 376 full and alternate members). Five years ago there were 30 (see chart).

Women make up nearly one-third of the Communist Party membership. But they are also underrepresented in provincial and county bodies. Compared with other countries, China is far behind. According to the “Global Gender Gap Report” released by the World Economic Forum this year, the number of female representatives in China’s parliament has dropped from 57th ten years ago to 80th. China dropped from 86th to 139th for women in ministerial positions. On a broad measure of women’s political empowerment, China slipped from 58th to 120th.

According to Victor Shih of the University of California, San Diego, the explanation is simple: sexism. “Gender equality is one of the least important issues of the Chinese government,” he said. Men are promoted through a network of male patronage – just look at Xi Jinping’s new team. At the same time, women’s rights activists were persecuted. China is a conservative country where women are generally expected to put family before career. Even when they achieve top jobs in government, they are often shunted into fields such as health care or education where they cannot rise to the top. So the lack of representation on the Politburo did not surprise women. Still, many were outraged. “It’s out of step with modern times,” said a person in Beijing. “But I don’t see how it’s going to change.”

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