China's Glass Ceiling: Women Still Excluded from High-Level Politics

Despite ample progress, the country's feminist movement still has a long way to go.


China's Vice Premier Liu Yandong (Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr)

After her anti-child molestation campaign, feminist Ye Haiyan, also known as Liumang Yan, or "Hooligan Sparrow," has been detained by the Chinese police. Officials say the arrest and detainment was because Ye intentionally injured three women in a fight and insist the case has nothing to do with her protest, an explanation that Ye's supporters did not buy at all. While they argue that Ye's activism played a role in her detention, her gender may have also been a factor in her mistreatment.

Before her anti-child molestation campaign, Ye was already well-known for her radical activism on behalf of sex workers, spending a day as a prostitute in 2012 so as to better understand the issues faced by "ten-yuan" sex workers. She was also among four women who appeared nude in a photograph, entitled "One Tiger, Eight Breasts," with outspoken artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

In Ye's case, much as her campaign has succeeded in attracting followers, Ye herself has once again been drawn into controversy and even suffered verbal abuse. After her most recent campaign, Weibo user @不知道说什么好小姐 called her a "shameless hen," a play on the word for "prostitute" in Chinese, while user @雷母ABC123 remarked, "Ye Haiyan pretends to be innocent and that she has been persecuted. A bunch of shysters flock to embrace her like flies swarming to filth."

Leftist (i.e. conservative) opinion leader Sima Nan, male, escalated the incident to a fight between different ideologies, commenting on his verified Weibo account that during the incident, so-called public intellectuals "boldly took advantage of the woman who once was naked with Ai Weiwei to play dirty in the name of Children's Day and to propagate hatred of one's country." Ye's detractors have called her use of her body "dirty" and "shameless" rather than brave.

In contrast, Ye herself has called for focus on the issues. In one of her last tweets before her detention, she wrote: "Please, everyone, don't be misled by the shameless talk online. Putting an end to sexual abuse at schools is the main point; that's what the government, media, and society should care about, not whether or not Ye Haiyan is seeking attention."

"Women hold up half the sky"
It has become almost cliché to say that in China, there are parallel realities for citizens' political lives; there is a real story, and then an official version. Yet the issue is even more evident with regards to women's participation in politics at the grassroots level. While the pressures and obstacles for women come partly from authorities, they also have a deeper and more enduring cause: culture.

A woman who takes part in a political demonstration, plays a high-profile role in a civil movement, or participates in government in China is apt to face inconvenient truths. Within the political system, she must submit to one-party rule; on a cultural level, she must move within a long-standing patriarchal society.

There have been some improvements in women's political participation since the establishment of the People's Republic of China. In 1949, China implemented one of its most basic laws, which states that "women shall enjoy equal rights with men in political, economic, cultural, educational and social life."

During the 1950s, Chairman Mao's famous quote, "Women hold up half the sky," further promoted women's social status. A few years later, China had its first female Vice Premier, Wu Guixian, who held the position for one year during the Cultural Revolution. Nowadays, one can see female faces on television, in governmental bodies, and among the leadership in the Chinese Communist Party. To date, China has had six female Party Central Committee members, two female party secretaries at the provincial level, four provincial governors, and four female Vice Premiers , the latest being Liu Yandong, 67, who is responsible for the science, education, culture and sports sectors. At more grassroots levels, Chinese women now account for almost half of the members in urban neighborhood committees, a unique form of self-governance among city dwellers in China.

Open skies or glass ceiling?

But parallel to the narrative of Chinese women's rising status exists another narrative: the rise of traditional patriarchal stereotyping of women, and a gendered division of labor, responsibilities, economic structures, institutional norms, and procedures. There is inadequate state intervention in a variety of sectors; women are on average less educated than men, and political culture and male-centered social practices have made it difficult for Chinese women to break through the glass ceiling.

The fact is, as much as Chinese women are gradually gaining political rights, they are playing only peripheral roles, whereas men continue to dominate the top levels of leadership in the Chinese government. The Politburo Standing Committee, the highest body of the Party, has not had a female member since its establishment.

Despite Liu Yandong's success, she and her colleague Sun Chunlan are the only two females out of twenty-five members of the 18th Politburo of the Party. Coincidentally, the proportion of women in the Party's Central Committee has fallen over the years -- down to just 4.9 percent of the most recent Party Congress.

Not only is gender inequality still a severe problem in China, but women in rural areas are even worse off than women in urban areas. Scholars have found that women's participation in rural governance remains seriously limited. Sexist attitudes that "women are of low quality" (di su zhi) are still prevalent in the Chinese countryside. Representation of women in local government bodies remains low, and women villagers' political aspirations and sense of empowerment are similarly limited; those who make their way into government bodies or villager's committees are often assigned marginal portfolios.

While half a century has passed since Chairman Mao's remark, women's proverbial "half of the sky" has not become substantially brighter. History has shown Chinese women that the patriarchal culture into which they are born will not fade away by itself, and that political empowerment will come only with struggle. Perhaps this is why quite a few Chinese feminists and women's rights organizations have now extended their fights into the cyber community, just as Ye Haiyan has. There, though verbal abuse and sexist attitudes still exist, their voices can be heard by millions.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.