Jiang Qing married the most powerful man in China, created revolutionary operas and was celebrated for bringing to life films by the country’s greatest directors. But she was also blamed for stoking the excesses of the Cultural Revolution as part of the “Gang of Four” who controlled the Communist party during the turmoil.
Fifty years later, no Chinese woman has managed to get any closer to power than Madame Mao, as she was better known after marrying Mao Zedong.
When China’s 101-year-old Communist party unveils the new members of the politburo standing committee, its most senior leadership group under President Xi Jinping on Sunday, it is expected to be another predominantly male affair. While a handful of women have climbed the party ranks, none ever made it to the seven-seat top committee.
The equal right of women to participate in politics is constitutionally enshrined in China, but very few have been appointed to powerful political positions. Just one, the retiring Covid tsar Sun Chunlan, has a seat on the 25-member politburo, despite the fact that women make up about 30 per cent of party members.
“[There is a] deep-seated male chauvinism, which is systemic in Chinese politics,” said Valarie Tan, an analyst on Chinese elite politics at Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.
“This has informed my not so optimistic view when it comes to the future of women leaders in the CCP.”
Jiang Qing, third wife of Mao Zedong, during the trial of the ‘Gang of Four’ in 1981 © AFP
Three women are considered to be in the running to take the place of vice-premier Sun. But some analysts said there was no guarantee that a female would be appointed this year. It was a convention rather than a rule, they said, to name a woman to the body.
“The recognition of women’s rights has been part of China’s social development . . . [but] you don’t have a lot of female representation in politics in China, which means that women’s rights have always been very difficult to really push through as a political agenda,” said Tan.
Fengming Lu, a specialist at the Australian National University, said that, apart from Chen Muhua, former governor of the People’s Bank of China, few senior women had been able to even advocate for females to gain greater political influence in recent years.
Xi has also been pushing the party further towards a more traditional view of the family and under his rule feminist and LGBTQI activists have been censored and prosecuted.
Minglu Chen, a lecturer at the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said another obstacle was that female politicians risked being judged as immoral if they mixed with men.
“Traditional gender stereotypes prevent women from building social networks they will rely on to get ahead . . . Women [fear] becoming a target of slander.”
Chen pointed to how Wu Yi, a former politburo member who was labelled the “Iron Lady of China”, faced questions, such as why she was single, that male politicians were never asked.
Vice-premier Sun Chunlan is the only woman with a seat on China’s politburo © Xinhua/Shutterstock
Women must also retire at 55 in China, narrowing their window for reaching the top of the party ranks.
The party introduced a quota system in 2001, mandating at least one woman be appointed to most levels of government and party groups. But analysts said the rule had failed to make a difference.
“So within a government department, or within the policy department, once they hit that quota for women, they stop,” Tan said.
The attitude is prevalent throughout the organisation. Zhong, who provided only her surname for anonymity, joined the party in 2005 when she was looking after her seven-year-old child.
Zhong said that the gender ratio of party members in the government unit where she worked was roughly 50-50 but most of the leadership positions were occupied by men.
“Women spend more time tending their families while spending less time advancing their careers. They naturally receive less rewards at work,” said Zhong. “After all, China is a male-dominated society, where women are always relatively weaker.”
Xi himself said that caring for and educating children was the responsibility of women during talks with the All-China Women’s Federation in 2013. “We need to give full play to women’s unique role in . . . fostering family traditions,” he added.
Traditional folklore does not help women’s cause, either. A Chinese idiom says that a woman in power is like “a hen heralding the dawn”, an omen for the overthrow of the natural order and disintegration of the state, according to Tan.
That the Chinese president does not have to answer to the country’s hundreds of millions of female citizens in direct and free elections further restricts female voices.
“The CCP is not held accountable, not held in check by inter-party competition or election, or the need to appeal to voters,” said the University of Sydney’s Chen.
“The Communist party has always been a patriarchal institution led by male political actors . . . There has never really been a consideration of women’s agency and needs.”
Additional reporting by Nian Lu in Beijing