By Kerry Brown, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Kerry Brown is director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney. The views expressed are his own.
The downfall of Gu Kailai, wife of former Chongqing Communist party chief Bo Xilai, is as everyone now knows, the precursor to her husband’s. In modern Chinese politics, the fall of great men is usually intimately linked to the women behind them. Mao Zedong, in official historiography in the contemporary People’s Republic, was doing fine till the rise of his wife Jiang Qing during the Cultural Revolution. She and the radical leaders around her, the story now goes, misled and misdirected him to making the immense mistakes of that era. Party Secretary of Shanghai in the mid 2000s, Chen Liangyu was covertly accused once he had been felled of having illicit links to many young women, running his own bordello. The same goes for former mayor of Beijing Chen Xitong almost a decade before, whose ruination was accompanied by similar tales of concupiscence.
But for all the lurid fun of recounting these tales of appetites run amok, there is a structural issue that Gu and her previous female protagonists in high level Chinese political affairs makes clear. From the day of its foundation until now, the Chinese Communist Party has been a club run and directed overwhelmingly by men. It has shaped a man’s world, where the Maoist adage that women held up half the sky has, at best, mostly been rhetoric.
This is not to say the Communists have not presided over dramatic improvements in the lot of women in China – but then, when one thinks of how women were treated before 1949, it would have been hard to have done worse. From chattels in a largely feudal society, women today have legal and some kinds of social equality. But as of 2012, of the 82 million members of the CCP, only a fifth are women. As one gazes up the tall tree of power in China, women’s faces become fewer. The brutal fact is that, since the day it won the Civil War in 1949, the Communist Party has never once had a female in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The current full Politburo only has one woman. The Central Committee of over 204 full members has just 13 women. In central government, there is only one female minister (Ma Wen, Minister for Supervision). In provincial leadership, the sole woman party secretary from the 33 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government is Sun Chunlan in Fujian. There have only been two female governors since 1949.
This record is even more lamentable when put beside the extraordinary success of Chinese women in business. According to government mouthpiece The People’s Daily, in 2011 there were 29 million private sector business women in the country, a quarter of the overall total. In the Forbes 2012 list of the world’s richest women, Chinese dominated, with Wu Yajun in top position, Zhang Xin in fourth spot, Chan Laiwa in sixth, and Lei Jufang in 11th place. Apart from Lei, whose business is in pharmaceuticals, the others all made their fortunes in real estate.
Asking why Chinese politics does not have more female representation is only uncovering just how profoundly conservative and risk averse the current political elite are. In fact, it is clear that women do have a major role, but almost always behind the scenes. Current president and party boss Hu Jintao’s wife, who is two years older than he and who he met while a student at Qinghua University, has been rumored to have significant influence over her husband – as has the wife of Premier Wen Jiabao. On former President Jiang Zemin’s trips abroad in the 1990s, diplomats warned that he was extremely solicitous of how his wife was treated and that the surest way to spark off his volatile temper was to belittle her. As individuals, Chinese elite leaders evidently listen to and value the advice and support of their spouses. It’s just that the oddly macho world they live in gives no public space for recognition of this.
That Gu Kailai’s case has been so central to the felling of her husband is only the most recent indication that the political role of women in China is important, but still consigned to the back rooms. The primary official narrative of this sad tale is that Gu was a mentally fragile woman who simply imploded and whose actions impacted on her husband so that they precipitated his own fall. Whether when Bo himself is dealt with in formal disciplinary proceedings (and that might happen very soon, or take several years) Gu’s case will be directly referred to is not clear at the moment – but it has certainly set the mood music. The implication in China is still that you are judged by the company you keep, and a prime line of attack for the male dominated political elite is through their families, and in particular their wives. In this area at least, women have a clearly defined role.
All this suggests the Communist Party needs to undergo a revolution in terms of its membership. It seems extraordinary that almost half the population can be so poorly represented in an organization that declares that it speaks on behalf of the whole of society. The current role of women in most CCP elite meetings is to translate, make the tea, or hold the red ribbons cut in half by older, besuited men at the ceremonies beloved of modern officials. That the most prominent female in China at the moment is a woman who has been proved guilty of homicide involving a foreigner is a sad indictment of how far the Party has to go on gender issues.
So while Gu Kailai’s case has been tried and her sentence delivered, that on the Party itself and its current inability to move into the modern world and involve many more women is still ongoing. And while female participation in politics is something that everyone is working on across the world, China in this respect is amongst the most backward and so has most to do.
In modern China, it is true that women hold up half the sky – but as the Gu case shows, they do so often behind a subtle veil, in an environment dominated by men in which they figure as peripheral players – except when they become immensely rich in the private sector, or, as Gu proved, when they supposedly bring their husbands down through their own misbehavior.