Women try to hold up half the political sky

Updated: 2013-03-08 07:06

By Tang Yue, Zhu Zhe, Zhao Shengnan and He Wei (China Daily)

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 Women try to hold up half the political sky

1. Chen Jiwa, chair of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference of Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. 2. Huang Liman, vice-chair of the NPC's Overseas Chinese Affairs Committee. 3. Wang Lixia, deputy governor of Shaanxi province. 4. Qiao Chuanxiu, CPPCC chair for Zhejiang province. 5. Li Bin, governor of Anhui province. 6. Yin Yicui, chair of the Standing Committee of the Shanghai Municipal People's Congress. 7. Zhang Xuan, chair of the Standing Committee of the Chongqing Municipal People's Congress. Photos by Wu Zhiyi, Zou Hong, Feng Yongbin, Zhu Xingxin and Xu Jingxing / China Daily

Women try to hold up half the political sky

Despite inroads, females still have a journey to complete, report Tang Yue, Zhu Zhe, Zhao Shengnan and He Wei in Beijing.

When Fu Ying took questions from the media at the opening session of the 12th National People's Congress on Monday, the first spokeswoman in the history of China's top legislative body stole the limelight with her intellectual demeanor and elegance.

By stepping onto the stage, Fu highlighted the growing presence of women in the country's political life, but China still has a long way to go until gender parity is realized in the elite political sphere that is traditionally a male preserve, according to female delegates and experts.

"You can see a growing number of female officials and legislators in China," said Wang Lixia, deputy governor of Shaanxi province and a deputy to the NPC.

Wang was the exception that proved the rule when she joined a group of male deputies for a discussion during the NPC.

Wang, who holds a doctorate in economics, took up her post in the resource-rich northwestern province in January, joining a mere handful of women at ministerial level in China. "We women cherish opportunities such as these and are making great efforts to perform our duties and win respect from society," she said.

This year, the NPC, the most important annual event in China's political calendar, has 699 female delegates, accounting for 23 percent of the total 2,987. The number of female participants has risen by 62 from the group elected for a five-year term in 2008, while the number of delegates remains unchanged.

However, the number of female deputies is still far below the 30 percent mark proposed for legislatures worldwide by the United Nations at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.

In the world rankings of the proportion of women in legislative bodies, China slipped 13 places, from 42nd in 2005 to 56th in 2009.

However, the country had already moved to address the imbalance. In 2008, a regulation was introduced stating that the proportion of females in the legislature must be higher than 22 percent.

Rong Weiyi, a researcher with the Women's Studies Institute of China, said men and women are equal in China, legally speaking, but to achieve that nominal equality in everyday life, a greater number of women need to participate in politics.

"The example of one woman could be overlooked, but how about 10 women, 20, or even more? What if half of the members of the national legislature were female, and they all appealed for women's rights? Their voice could not be ignored," said Rong.

"That's why we first need a considerable number of women to participate in politics."

In addition to the rising number of female delegates, another positive note is that the presence of female officials is more tangible nowadays. Women are no longer simply playing a walk-on role for the sake of political correctness, said Yin Yicui, newly elected chairwoman of the Standing Committee of the Shanghai Municipal People's Congress.

"Ensuring representation used to be compulsory, or a 'must-do', so governments tended to set quotas by increasing the number of women on governing bodies such as Party committees, local legislatures and government agencies," said Yin, who is also a delegate to this year's NPC.

But the situation has changed from an artificial arrangement and is now closer to a level playing field, she noted.

"Now you see people competing, irrespective of gender, and it's become commonplace to have two or more female politicians in the same office," she said.

Greater equality of educational opportunities has provided a crucial avenue by which female participation in Chinese politics and government has been greatly strengthened.

Education can empower women and break stereotypical assumptions that they should stay away from politics and its traditional notions of masculinity, and stick to their private sphere, which is closely associated with the family, said Yin.

Song Yuying, a deputy to the ongoing Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top advisory body, was cautiously optimistic.

"The political status of women in China has risen in recent decades and we have been given a lot of opportunities, otherwise we wouldn't be here," she said.

"But, have all the problems been solved? No, not really. At the local government level, it's like 'mission accomplished' when there is one female cadre. But why not two or three, as long as they are qualified?"

Glass ceiling

In 2008, 21 percent of Party members and 23 percent of the nation's civil servants were women in 2008, according to a report by the Women's Studies Institute of China.

At the time, female officials occupied 10.6 percent of positions at provincial level and higher, a slight increase from the 10.3 percent recorded in 2005. However, the proportion of women serving on village committees had risen more markedly, to 21.7 percent compared with 15.5 percent in 2005.

But there is a glass ceiling; women rarely become Party or State leaders.

All seven members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, the Party's highest decision-making body, are male.

Of the 25 Politburo members, only two are women; Liu Yandong, 67, a State Councilor since 2008, and Sun Chunlan, 62, recently named Party Secretary of Tianjin Municipality.

Sun is also the only second female provincial-level Party secretary since 1949, while Li Bin, governor of Anhui province, is the only fourth woman to be appointed a provincial governor.

"If you compare the women's liberation movement in China with the progress in other countries historically, the pace of progress is not slow" said Zhen Xiaoying, former vice-president of the Central Institute of Socialism.

"You may find it surprising, but women in Switzerland didn't have the right to vote until 1971."

However, she admitted that most female officials only ever rise to the positions of deputies and very few are appointed to top leadership roles.

Better educational opportunities and greater equality socially and in the workplace have empowered an increasing number of women and allowed them to excel in many fields, including the world of commerce.

"But gaining entry to the political elite is more complicated," Zhen added.

Scrapping the stereotype

In the 1990s, during her time as a professor at the Central Party School, Zhen, an expert on Party building, interviewed more than 100 female officials to study their career paths.

Many respondents said they found it difficult to network with other officials, because social taboos prevented them from drinking with their male counterparts, meaning they lagged behind on the political ladder as a result.

"But the issue will become less important as democracy keeps growing and the electoral system improves," she said. "It is more about the ability to govern and winning trust from the people, rather than women flattering the bosses."

Rong said women also need to engage further in areas that are traditional male bastions, such as economics and military affairs.

At present, most of China's female leaders work in industries still generally regarded as being suitable for women, such as education and nursing.

"There has been a stereotype that women are narrow-minded and sensitive, that they don't understand politics and are not capable of being in charge," said Rong. "But we have a lot of female officials who are just as competent as their male peers. And they are often more thoughtful and benevolent.

"It is not as though women don't want to be involved in politics, or are less competent than men, they just need a fair crack of the whip," she said. "They can be leaders if given the chance."

Female politicians at the NPC have adopted a more realistic attitude. "We often pin our hopes (for equality) on men or complain about prejudice. If women want to earn dignity and respect from society and be successful at work, we need to depend on ourselves," said Wang, vice-governor of Shaanxi.

"We must be strong, confident and capable of surviving in political society. Complaints don't work."

Peng Yining and Wu Jiao contributed to this story.

Contact the writers at tangyue@chinadaily.com.cn

Women try to hold up half the political sky

Women try to hold up half the political sky

Women try to hold up half the political sky

(China Daily 03/08/2013 page7)