Chinese politics – still a man’s world
August 27th, 2012
05:31 PM ET

Chinese politics – still a man’s world

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.

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Topics: China • Women

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. OpenedSpy

    .. Kerry Bro @.Chinese study•!•SPY center...

    How about if China opened Schools in various Countries to study about them-means, to spy their daily activities?
    America has varies Schools about many Countries:
    African study; knowing inside-out about Africa and manipulating and causing wars betweens Africans,
    Chinese study; knowing inside-out about China-breaking their secrets and causing wars between them,
    Arab study;...........
    Asia study;........What are all these for????
    Spy, Spy, Spy, Spy.....

    August 27, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Reply
    • Hugo Chavez

      Communists are evil, coward animals and they are misogynists. Mao killed his own wife, Ho Chi Minh also killed his mistress and Lenin killed millions of Russians. Communist ideology is not from China it is and imported idea from a foreign country used to control Chinese people; make them kill their own people and glorify the homicidal ideology called communist. The same idea is used in dog fights where people train the pit bulls to fight one another for entertainment. Chinese people are smart people, they have thousands of years of technological advancements in the past, yet they are cursed with the communist disease. It is time for the Chinese people to take control and overthrow the evil communist empire. May the Chinese people be free and prosper.

      August 28, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Reply
  2. OpenedSpy

    As written above, on the 6th paragraph -line 8, '..
    BO himself in dealt with formal disciplinary..'.

    Ouch! U.S's BO, never been in disciplinary when he gave-out secret to win election. The GOP accused him, but nothing happened.

    The Chinese BO vs U.S BO.

    August 27, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • M Houston

      Were you born with an incoherent mind or did you practice to get that way?
      Do you have any idea what it is that you are trying to say??

      August 28, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  3. papafoote

    When was this NOT the TRUTH, in the any area of our Earth Planet?

    When we always try to be "BALANCED" – "WE" will step forward into a better future for everyone!

    -The Old Goat-

    August 27, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Reply
  4. Muhammad Vaseer

    its men's world and you know it, make sure china is not Afghanistan and they will not welcome your "democracy".

    August 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      I wouldn't be surprised if the next American president is a tranny.

      August 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
      • M Houston

        Maersk, you have got to be the ONE thing that ALL Chinese should admit to being ashamed of.
        You bring disgrace upon China, your parents and yourself.

        August 28, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  5. Why

    Why are the only comments written on here in unintelligible English? Cant you Chinese write properly?

    August 27, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Reply
    • LOL

      OK, 您好吗?吃饱了没?

      August 28, 2012 at 7:29 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    How well women do in China's politics depends on her birthright or whom she marries to. The likes of Condoleezza Rice or Margaret Thatcher (both of humble origin) are rare in China. In history China doesn't have the likes of Queens Elizabeth I & II, Victoria of Great Britain, Isabella I of Spain or Chrisitna of Sweden, as only males could ascend the throne. There had been empress dowagers, like Ci'an and Cixi. The latter ruled China for 47 years, from 1861 to her death in 1908.
    China's next president is expected to be Xi Jinping. His only daughter is currently studying at Harvard. Perhaps she might change the system, would she want to reach the top of China's politics.

    August 28, 2012 at 7:17 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      please read: how well A WOMAN DOES in China's politics.....

      August 28, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
      • Maersk

        I much rather see you bending over on four limps with the "Mormon's Moron, Ronny" behind you than reading how well a woman does in the Chinese politics.

        August 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • LOL

      “China's next president is expected to be Xi Jinping. His only daughter is currently studying at Harvard. Perhaps she might change the system, would she want to reach the top of China's politics”
      China is has been changing at her own space, any faster change is a sure formula for disorder and disaster.
      China is doing it the right way; China leaders understand the prerequisites of “human right “and “democracy” are educating China vast illiterate “farmers” and reinforcing social morality to her people. In short, China does not wish to be just another India or Indonesia: fake democracy.

      August 28, 2012 at 8:09 am | Reply
      • LOL

        People of lower class in India and Indonesia will totally understand what I am saying; their so call “human right “and “democracy” only benefic the small upper class people.

        August 28, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Burning Ignorance

      What are you talking about?! No Queen Elizabeth and the other women you mentioned. Have you never heard of empress Wu, and various other female emperesses that were stand in for their too young sons, historically wise, study more Chinese history please.
      And China is more equal in the workforce, there's an The Economist article about it, search it up.
      Politically wise... when isn't it a men's world? Look at all of the GOP's policies in the states regarding women...scary!

      August 28, 2012 at 11:04 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Burning Ignorance! You missed the point, these women became empresses by marriage. They were not daughters of emperors who ascended the throne through succession, as only males could do so. Empress Wu and Cixi etc were empress dowagers, widows of emperors, whose sons were too young to reign. Queen Elizabeth I was daughter to King Henry VIII. Queen Elizabeth II became Queen in 1952, when her father King George VI died.

        August 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  7. Maersk

    American politics=Bull Zhit Artists. The only problem is that those American bull zhit artists are not artistic enough otherwise I would give them a bull zhit artist award myself.

    August 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  8. YoungNiceGuy

    Dear God, the Chinese posters are in full force today. I've never seen so much paid nationalism in my entire life.

    August 28, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      You must be the most famous Chinese dish named "SomeYoungGuy" to your uncle. Are you telling me that you didn't get paid and you zucked your uncle's limply kwok for free? If that's the case, would you mind zucking my kwok too? I will give mouthful so that indeed you will be full of it.

      August 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Reply
  9. krm1007 ©™

    China is the next and the only hope left for this world. The existing paradigm has failed. Poverty, schisms, conflicts, democratic demise is prevalent and the world is a divided place. We need change. Change from status quo. Change from the UN system. Change from current superpower imbalance and ineffectiveness.In this context, everything else becomes redundant and irrelevant. Whether China is masculine or feminine or whose daughter is in Harvard or Penn State etc. is of minimal importance. What is of importance is the fact that China has come a long way in the past 15 years. The system works: the economic model is proven, the political system clicks, social structure is progressive though not perfect. Let us give them a chance and see what they can do for us. Let us celebrate their arrival and give them kudos for what they have achieved so far. Most importantly, let's hope and pray they continue to bless us with their vision and passion. In God We Trust.

    August 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  10. Kim hyun

    I don't believe she kill the man .i susption the killer is other man .

    August 30, 2012 at 6:46 am | Reply
    • Henry

      There is no proof of her guilt.

      August 31, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  11. Sean

    A woman will do what she has to do for her children and family.

    August 30, 2012 at 10:49 am | Reply
  12. Free Tranny Tube

    Wow, incredible blog layout! How lengthy have you been running a blog for? you make running a blog look easy. The whole glance of your web site is great, let alone the content!

    September 1, 2012 at 6:57 am | Reply
  13. Kodi

    Whats funny is that many people are quick to bad mouth America and democracy knowing that they would jump at the chance for a green card to the USA. If you are a dreamer, a genius, or a person with the drive to contribute then America welcomes you.

    The single worst thing that can happen to this world is for China to become a super power in its current political and cultural situation. Have any of you ever dealt with people from the middle kingdom? Ever worked for them? If not then you should consider yourself lucky. If you have not been in China or have experience with Chinese people as a foreigner then you should not make assumptions about it. Even reasonable people in with aspirations to succeed acknowledge how backward the country is and how hopeless the situation is under the current situation.

    You think the Jews were given a bad wrap hahaha you haven't seen anything yet! In order not to be accused of antisemitism allow me to explain. Jewish have a cultural thing about keeping contacts with their own and it is within that system that people conduct successful business, however very rarely can any "outsider" get involved, be trusted, or even make a deal without being cheated. Now take a look at China...... Its like doing business with Jewish people as an outsider except its 500 times worse. I used to be interested in China, I studied China, I learned the language, done business enough, and interacted with enough people to get a clear picture of what this country is about. You DO NOT want to see a powerful China or else you will see the world change for the worse. I hope China can get better and change this view, but it does not seem possible in the near future considering the world view Chinese people have as a whole. Seriously, do you want a person that keeps a window or a door open while the air conditioner is in use to have any sort of leadership role in the world? Do you want a maybe that means yes, no, or maybe when you ask a question? Do you want to hear all the nicest things to your face during a deal or friendship while scheming is going on behind your back? No thanks........... As far as I am concerned we should spy spy spy as much as possible in order to keep China off balance, we should round up all the Chinese officials who flee to the USA with their stolen fortunes and shoot them in the head. We should bar Chinese children of politicians from our top universities and stop issuing visas to Chinese unless they are extraordinarily talented and plan on becoming American citizens, rich by legitimate means and plan on becoming American citizens, or legitimately funded investors who can pass a litmus test of sorts and plan on becoming American citizens. The world is not in danger of being corrupted by the Chinese, it is in danger of being infected by a worldview, a culture of trickery and deception, and a largely ethnocentric Han domination. I agree that Whites have a history of racism, but we are largely policing ourselves as well. China has been ethnocentric for 500 years........ take a look at the history. Do you see 5000 years of history or 1 year of history repeated 5000 times?

    September 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply

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