Women in China's Democratization
Women are largely shut out of high office the PRC, says Bruce Gilley
[In this article, Bruce Gilley, former a contributing editor of Far Eastern Economic Review, chides the PRC for its failure to open up more high-level political posts to women. ]
A common finding of scholars who study the opening of authoritarian regimes is the important role played by women. In Latin America, Southern Europe, and Southeast Asia, women played prominent, often leading, roles in the social movements that brought democratic change. That role was somewhat lessened in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union because the idea of female equality had been discredited by communism as just another empty slogan that masked coercive activities by the state. But today’s China looks a lot more like the liberalizing authoritarian states of Latin America, Southern Europe, and Southeast Asia of the 1970s and 1980s that the frozen post-totalitarian states of communist Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its little surprise then to see a growing number of women coming to prominence in the drive for political change.
At the recent annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, China’s mostly lifeless parliament, one female delegate from southeastern Zhejiang province caused a sensation by taking her job seriously. Zhou Xiaoguang came to the meeting with an armful of policy suggestions from her constituents and spoke out freely on her views of the meeting. Two delegates from other areas, Li Baoqun and Wu Qing, are perennial media favorites at the NPC meeting because of their dogged advocacy of the cause of the poor, both rural and urban.
Of course, these women inherit a rich legacy of female political activism in China -- seen vividly in the women who spurred Taiwan’s democratization, in the prodemocracy legislators of Hong Kong like Emily Lau and Christine Loh, and in the prominent women of the 1989 Tiananmen movement such as Chai Ling.
However, these women are the exceptions to the otherwise dismal record of the CCP in bringing women into higher office. In the present leadership, there are only five women in the 198-member Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), down from eight in the 1997 to 2002 committee, just one on the 24-member Politburo, and none on the nine-man Politburo standing committee. The lone female in the Politburo is the energetic and widely admired Wu Yi, who took over China’s health ministry during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis of 2003.
During the reform era a good many self-made women have risen in business and society through their own achievements. But women have remained largely shut out of high office. While the Party has regressed into an oligarchic old-boys club, women have found their voice in remonstrative institutions like the people’s congresses, the media, civil society, and village government.
The exact reasons why women come to prominence in democratization movements remains unclear. However scholars like Steven Fish of the University of California at Berkeley offer a sociological explanation: women are less comfortable in hierarchical and unequal relationships that define authoritarian regimes. They are also better consensus-builders and less prone to violence. This makes them both less tolerant of authoritarianism and better equipped to lead the movements that usher in change.
To be sure, women who become too active in politics face the risk of demotion. That’s what happened to another active female NPC delegate, Yao Xiurong. She was a model worker in a crane factory in central Henan province who was made an NPC delegate in 1993. But unlike most Party models, Yao took her job as a delegate seriously. From the moment she gained her position, Yao took an active role in monitoring governments in her province on everything from poverty alleviation, police misconduct, environmental protection, and official corruption. Just as she reached the height of her effectiveness, however, Yao was mysteriously stripped of her position in 2003. As she complained to the Southern Window magazine in China: “Why did I become a delegate when I knew nothing about politics, and now that I know about politics and am making some progress I lose it?”
The answer is obvious: women leaders like Yao threaten the chauvinistic authoritarian regime that continues to rule China. While the Party may find it easier to buy off males with economic rewards and national pride, females may be less ready to acquiesce. As their numbers grow, China’s emerging women activists are going to be less willing to bow to the Party’s fiat.