Absence of women in China's new leadership elite a 'step backwards' for political diversity

For the first time in 20 years, no women have been selected for the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, an omission experts say is “a step backwards” for gender diversity, and one that may further dampen female participation in Chinese politics.

The new line-up of top party leadership that was unveiled on Sunday at the conclusion of the week-long 20th party congress was an all-man band. Further, both the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee and the 24-seat Politburo were filled exclusively with men of Han ethnicity.

Of the newly released Central Committee, women took up 11 of the 205 seats. In 2017, there were 10 women in the 204-member 19th Central Committee.

While women have always been dramatically under-represented in Chinese politics, the latest arrangement has put an end to an informal practice in place since the 16th party congress in 2002 when at least one woman would be selected to serve in the Politburo and as vice-premier.

No woman has ever held a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee in the history of the 101-year-old party.

Minglu Chen, who researches gender and politics at the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre, said she was disappointed to see a Politburo without women.

“It is disappointing because whatever small space that was carved out for women to exercise their political power is now gone at the top level,” Chen said.

“But I’m not surprised because this has been a masculine patriarchal institution and it hasn’t changed.”

Chen said it had not been ideal to have just one woman in the Politburo to begin with but “having no woman at all now is a step backward”.

Only six women have ever been selected as members of the Politburo and three of those were the wives of revolutionary leaders.


Women were long absent in Chinese elite politics until Wu Yi was selected for the Politburo in 2002 as a full member before becoming a vice-premier the following year.

She was given a tough job and was widely seen as China’s highest-profile female politician. She played a leading role in negotiations for China to join the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and headed the national battle against severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars.

Wu’s seat in the Politburo was filled by Liu Yandong for two consecutive terms from 2007 to 2017.

Sun Chunlan joined in 2012 and became the sixth woman to sit on the Politburo. Her term also marked the first time two women served on the body at the same time. Sun has been China’s field commander in the battle against Covid-19 and she is set to retire as vice-premier in March.

The all-male Politburo line-up was announced despite there being hopeful females standing by in senior positions.

Guizhou party secretary Shen Yiqin, aged 62 and an ethnic Bai, is one of the highest-ranking female cadres and was widely seen as the front runner to replace Sun.

The other candidate was 65-year-old Shen Yueyue, head of the All-China Women’s Federation, and a former deputy head of the Central Organisation Department, which oversees the party’s personnel matters.

Shen Yiqin was tipped as having the edge because she was the only female among 31 party bosses in charge of China’s provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions.

While Shen Yiqin might be criticised for lacking experience outside Guizhou, she is not short of friends in high places. She has worked with several senior officials in the province, including top legislator Li Zhanshu, Politburo member and Chongqing party chief Chen Miner and State Councillor Zhao Kezhi.


Fengming Lu, who teaches Chinese politics at the Australian National University, said that while a Politburo without women could hurt China’s international image, gender balance might not be a priority in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s political agenda.

“He is probably more concerned with building a team of reliable men in the Politburo to execute his policies,” Lu said.

Lu added that Shen Yiqin was left out of the Politburo probably because she had inadequate administrative experience, having only been a party secretary for two years, and because the scope of her career had largely been limited to Guizhou.

“If she is transferred to another province then it suggests she might be groomed for possible vice-premiership,” Lu said.

In Chinese politics, female cadres are required to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and gender stigmas. They are often marginalised, lack exposure to critical administrative portfolios such as finance and economic development and are pushed to oversee portfolios such as health, education and culture instead.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.


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