Global media reporting on China’s 20th Party Congress has paid much attention to the new all-male politburo. Just a few years ago, nüxing ruchang (女性入常), or having women members in the standing committee — China’s most powerful group of leaders — was a topic that both Chinese and international media took an interest in. Today, that goal has become even more unreachable because, for the first time in 20 years, there is no woman in the Politburo, let alone the standing committee. Having no women in the Politburo means that China is not only going against the global trend but also against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s history.
China’s global ranking in women’s political representation dropped significantly over the past quarter century because, while most countries improved, China remained roughly the same.
Stasis in women's political representation in China and Japan
The global trend of increasing women’s political representation began in the 1990s, especially after the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Globally the popular indicator for women’s political representation in a country is the proportion of women in its national parliament. This indicator is widely used for global comparison. The United Nations Gender Inequality Index and the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index both include this indicator.
According to the Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU)’s data, as of October 2022, China ranked 96th among the 190 countries with 25% of women in the National People’s Congress (NPC). The earliest available ranking data from the IPU was for January 1997. At that time, with 21% of women in the NPC, China ranked 16th. Since the 1970s, the proportion of women in China’s NPC never dropped below 20%, but it never reached above 25% either. China’s global ranking in women’s political representation dropped significantly over the past quarter century because, while most countries improved, China remained roughly the same.
Without quota laws, women’s political representation can hardly increase in a patriarchal society. It does not matter whether the regime type is democratic or authoritarian.
The global increase in women’s political representation is generally attributed to the adoption of gender quotas. More than 100 countries have adopted gender quotas in elections for their national legislatures or representative bodies. China has always had quota policies, but it never had quota laws. Quota enforcement, therefore, is problematic and inconsistent. Without quota laws, women’s political representation can hardly increase in a patriarchal society. It does not matter whether the regime type is democratic or authoritarian. Japan is a good example.
As the earliest democracy in Asia, ever since Japanese women gained suffrage rights seven decades ago, the proportion of women in Japan’s lower house never exceeded 11.5%. Why? No quota laws. In 2018, the Japanese parliament enacted the Law for Promoting Gender Parity in Politics. That law is not a quota law because it only encourages political parties to select an equal number of men and women candidates for election. There is no requirement for parity, no specified quota, and no enforcement mechanism. In the Japanese upper house election in 2019, the first election after the law was enacted, Japan’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party had less than 15% women candidates.
The case of Taiwan
In contrast to China and Japan, Taiwan has emerged as Asia’s leader in women’s political representation. Taiwan implemented gender quotas in elections early and comprehensively, and quota reforms in the 1990s had a direct and accumulative effect on women’s political representation. As of September 2022, with 42.5% of women in Taiwan’s national legislature, Taiwan would have ranked 20th in the world, the same as Switzerland, if the Taiwanese data were included in the IPU’s dataset.
Though elections under the KMT’s authoritarian rule before 1987 were not fair, the constitutional stipulation of women’s reserved seats was consistently implemented in all elections.
Taiwan’s quota adoption could be traced back to the efforts of women leaders in the first half of the 20th century in China. Though the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the CCP struggled against each other, having gender quotas for women in politics was the consensus among women leaders of both parties.
Early republican China held elections without consideration for social representation. The idea that social identities such as gender should be considered and women’s representation in politics should be ensured was inspired by socialist ideologies. In the mid-1920s, women leaders from the CCP and the KMT cooperated in advocating that women need their own representatives. Later, when the two sides were at war, each made progress in ensuring women’s political participation and representation.
On the KMT side, women leaders’ efforts culminated in the 1946-enacted Republic of China Constitution. Article 134 of that constitution stipulated that seats should be reserved for women in all elections. When the KMT was defeated by the CCP in 1949 and moved the national government of the Republic of China to Taiwan, the Constitution of the Republic of China continued to exist in Taiwan.
Though elections under the KMT’s authoritarian rule before 1987 were not fair, the constitutional stipulation of women’s reserved seats was consistently implemented in all elections. Democratisation brought about quota reforms, increasing the number of reserved seats, and eventually resulted in Taiwan’s current leadership status in Asian women’s political representation.
As long as there is no challenge to the legitimacy of President Xi Jinping’s leadership regarding the party or government’s lack of promotion of women’s political representation, China is likely to slip further down on the global ranking of women in parliament.
When there’s less incentive to care
The CCP cared about women’s political representation in its early days. During the revolution, the CCP not only mobilised women, but the party also empowered women with quasi-quota policies to ensure women’s political representation.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, having a proportion of women representatives and recruiting women leaders has always been a CCP policy. The essence of the policy did not change much over time, since social representation is essential to the idea of socialism, but women faced a clear glass ceiling because breaking the ceiling requires power which few women had. And now, it is clear that the ceiling can be lowered.
Nobody knows precisely why China’s new Politburo does not have women, but research findings about quota adoption in authoritarian countries could shed some light. It has been shown that authoritarian leaders adopt gender quotas or enact quota laws to enhance regime legitimacy or to fend off internal competition or external pressure. As long as there is no challenge to the legitimacy of President Xi Jinping’s leadership regarding the party or government’s lack of promotion of women’s political representation, China is likely to slip further down on the global ranking of women in parliament.
China in the 1970s was ahead of many countries in promoting women’s political representation, but now it has lagged behind because it did not move forward while other countries did. If the proportion of women in the NPC does not increase, in China’s political system it is hard to expect an increase in women in the Politburo or the presence of women in the standing committee.
Chinese women might not need to hold half of the sky, but they should fill half of the seats in the party...
The CCP likes to say that women could hold half of the sky. Chinese women might not need to hold half of the sky, but they should fill half of the seats in the party or the people’s congress, in the politburo, and in the standing committee.
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