Wall Street Journal title: Under Xi Jinping, Women in China Have Given Up Gains
WSJ subtitle: Women’s labor-force participation has fallen since Xi took power, and China has dropped 33 places in a global gender-gap report
By: Shen Lu
Date: 9 November 2022
“In China’s state-media narrative, the Communist Party can pride itself on “historic achievements” on women’s causes during Xi Jinping’s tenure. By other measures, women have lost ground under Mr. Xi.
Since 2012, when Mr. Xi took power, there has been a drop in women’s labor-force participation, a crackdown on feminists and a new focus on women’s role in the family. China has dropped 33 places to the lower third in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, to No. 102 in the 2022 ranking of more than 100 countries, down from No. 69 in 2012.
Perhaps the most high-profile setback came when the Communist Party last month unveiled top leaders for the next five years. For the first time in a quarter-century, there wasn’t a single woman on the Politburo—the two dozen most senior party officials in the country—either as a full member or as an alternate.
Over the party’s history, there have been only a handful of women on the Politburo and no woman on the Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of power. Still, Yan Long, a political sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said the complete absence of women in the party top echelon symbolizes the end of “a hopeful era.”
Prof. Long and others date the start of that era to 1995, when China hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women.
The conference brought women from around the world to Beijing, including Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, who declared that “women’s rights are human rights.”
For Chinese feminist Lü Pin, at the time a 23-year-old reporter for the state-run China Women’s News, the conference was life-changing. She was mesmerized by the soda fountains at the venue, at the time a novelty in China, as well as the lens the conference offered of looking at women’s issues in terms of inequality rather than just as matters separate from men’s issues.
The conference acted as a catalyst for the blossoming of civil society in China and decades of feminist activism. Ms. Lü later left her newspaper job and launched what became the online publication Feminist Voices.
The party appeared to be on board with promoting women’s causes as well. At the women’s conference, Jiang Zemin, China’s leader at the time, stated that gender equality was a fundamental national policy. In preparation for the conference, the party, along with the All-China Women’s Federation, put in place quotas to ensure at least one woman in local leadership. Later, the state-sponsored All-China Women’s Federation expanded and received more resources.
In 2002, Wu Yi, a former vice premier, was appointed as a full Politburo member. Until then, the only women serving as full members had all been wives of senior party leaders, including Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing.
At the 20th Party Congress in late October, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who had been the Politburo’s sole female member, stood out in her red blazer among a sea of men in black suits. Now Ms. Sun is retiring, giving way to an all-male top leadership.
Since 2015, there are also fewer female party chiefs in China’s municipalities, according to a paper by researchers from a Chinese university and two Berlin universities released just after the party congress. Among mayors, a less politically powerful status than the party chief, women’s representation has increased.
Note LO: see WSJ article for diagram on Women in Charge, Municipal leaders in China
Researchers say female officials in China tend to be assigned portfolios traditionally associated with women, such as education and health, as opposed to areas that often serve as a springboard for an official’s career, like economics and security.
“Most female cadres who made it to leadership positions followed a quite masculine career track,” said Xinhui Jiang, an assistant professor at Nanjing University and lead author of the paper.
Prof. Jiang and her co-authors found that female officials promoted to executive positions in Chinese cities tend to be younger and better educated than their male counterparts. They are also more likely to be members of ethnic minorities as the party combines multiple diversity quotas into a single appointment, the researchers found. The only woman among China’s 31 provincial party chiefs, Shen Yiqin, party chief of Guizhou, is a member of the Bai ethnic minority.
It isn’t a given that high female officials will promote women’s interests. For one thing, advocating for women’s interests doesn’t necessarily help the officials’ own chances for promotion, says Yunyun Zhou, a political sociologist at the University of Oslo who studies women cadres in China.
The party has a history of espousing women’s rights when doing so aligns with the economic priorities of the time. In the early years of Communist rule, Mao urged women to join the workforce to help build the nation. Female labor participation has steadily decreased since 1990, according to the World Bank, and dropped further under Mr. Xi, to 62% in 2021 from 64% in 2012.
The party now emphasizes the role of women in educating children and caring for the elderly. The change comes as birth and marriage rates fall, trends that may have dire economic consequences. The All-China Women’s Federation has pledged to follow the party’s lead and now promotes “family virtues.”
Neither the women’s federation nor the press office of the State Council, China’s cabinet, responded to requests for comment. State media, including the party’s flagship paper, have said that under Mr. Xi, China has made remarkable progress in improving economic and political opportunities, healthcare and access to education for women, similar metrics as those used by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.
In the years after the women’s conference, China’s nascent feminist movement grew. Young activists wore bloodstained wedding dresses to protest domestic violence, shaved their heads to challenge higher university admission bars for female students and occupied men’s bathrooms to push the government to provide more public toilet stalls for women.
In 2015, though, the momentum came to a halt with the detention of five feminist activists. Ms. Lü, who was in the U.S. attending a conference, decided to stay. She hasn’t returned to China since.
Two years later, China enacted a law to limit the influence of foreign nonprofits. Since then, several nongovernmental organizations advocating for women’s rights have collapsed. More than a dozen accounts used by women’s-rights activists and groups have been deleted from social-media platforms. In 2018, censors closed Feminist Voices.
Nearly three decades after the Fourth World Conference on Women, feminism is now vilified by many Chinese nationalists as a Western ideology.
“I once thought a feminist movement could change China,” Ms. Lü said. Now, she said, “nobody can advocate for Chinese women anymore.”
When the all-male Politburo was unveiled, it barely made a stir on Chinese social media. However, on Twitter, which is blocked in China but accessible to Chinese users via virtual private networks, or VPNs, some Chinese users took issue with the failure to include women.
“They don’t even bother to do it just for show,” a Twitter user commented in Chinese.”