Skip to main content

Woman could break Chinese political glass ceiling

By Madison Park, CNN
November 12, 2012 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
In a moment between two influential female leaders, Hilary Clinton and Liu Yandong shake hands in a meeting in May 2010.
In a moment between two influential female leaders, Hilary Clinton and Liu Yandong shake hands in a meeting in May 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • No woman has been tapped to the 9-member standing committee to govern China
  • Liu Yandong is a possible contender for the exclusive standing committee.
  • Some are skeptical of the overall progress for Chinese women in power

Hong Kong (CNN) -- A record number of American women will hold U.S. Senate seats after Tuesday's election. In China, there is speculation over whether a woman will also make history by ascending to its top political core.

No woman has ever held a post in the elite nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo that governs China. Thousands of senior Chinese officials gathered in Beijing this week and at the end of the conference next week, a new set of leaders will be unveiled.

Some observers consider Liu Yandong a possible contender for the exclusive ruling committee. Liu is the lone female member of the Politburo, a 24-member body atop the Chinese Communist Party. If promoted to the standing committee, Liu would make a crack in the political glass ceiling.

Even with the historic prospect of a woman joining the most powerful Chinese political entity, some are skeptical of the overall progress for Chinese women in power.

Hear the voices of China's workers
'Leading Women' with drive for success
Chen as a defender of women's rights
Economist: Excited about China's future

"I think women's participation in politics in China remains largely symbolic due to complicated social, cultural, and political factors," said Xi Chen, assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Liu is the daughter of Liu Ruilong, the former vice minister of agriculture. She is also said to have strong family ties with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin as well as President Hu Jintao. She is part of the "princeling class," the sons or daughters of revolutionary veterans who now number among the nation's elite.

"If Liu Yandong is appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee, it would be a milestone for female political representation in China and an indication that the Chinese government is ready to place a woman in a position of genuine power," said Leta Hong Fincher, doctoral candidate at Tsinghua University, who examines gender issues in China. "But that move alone would not necessarily lead to an improvement in the overall status of women."

If chosen for the committee, Liu will most likely take the position of the "propaganda tsar," according to Hoover Institution, which is based at Stanford University. The group described Liu as "liberal minded."

Chinese data show that women lag in political representation. Only 2.2% of working women were in charge of the state offices, party organizations and other enterprises or institutions, according to the Third Survey on Chinese Women's Social Status, a national survey released last year.

During the presentation of these survey results, officials from the All-China Women's Federation, a women's advancement organization affiliated with the government, was asked why the Chinese leadership lacked women.

Song Xiuyan, the vice-chairman of the federation said the Communist Party of China and the government places "great importance to empower women's issues, which our Constitution has clearly put forward the basic principle of 'gender equality.'"

The Women's Studies Institute of China, which is sponsored by the All-China Women's Federation, declined multiple requests for comment.

"The relatively small number of female politicians in China is a topic criticized by Western media," reported Xinhua, the state-run news agency in March.

The news agency stated: "However, the ratio of female national lawmakers stands at 22%, compared with only 17% in the United States."

Girl power in China
Dating shows give Chinese women power
Woman at the heart of 'China's Google'
Who is Xi Jinping?

China ranks 63rd in the world by percentage of women serving in a legislative house, compared with U.S. at 80th, according to July data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of parliaments.

That ranking may be out-of-date after the U.S. elections this week. Female candidates made huge gains and stand to occupy a record 20 seats out of the 100 in the U.S. Senate.

Women in China have made important strides in recent years. Chinese women receive an average of 8.8 years of education compared with 2.7 years in 2000, according to the national survey.

And studies find that women are outperforming men in universities, said Fincher of Tsinghua University.

But their education does not translate to economic and political power.

"You see that in the workplace, there's a lot of systemic gender discrimination in the workplace, there's discrimination in hiring and promotion," Fincher said. "There has also been a lot of evidence that the gender income gap has widened, especially in the very recent years."

Statistically, women's average annual income was 67.3 % of men's in urban areas and 56% in rural areas -- which reflected a decrease compared with the wage gap in 1990, according to the 2010 national survey.

There are exceptions as some women have achieved the pinnacle of financial success. In the Huron Report's list of the world's top female billionaires, 18 out of 28 came from China.

"Of course China is the most populous country in the world," Fincher said. "Of course you're going to have individual women who are incredibly successful. That doesn't say anything about the status of the vast majority of women."

For Chinese workers, gender-targeted job ads stipulate the age, height and desired physical attributes of female applicants, according to studies on the topic.

And the recent survey results suggest that more people believe that Chinese women should focus on family, rather than getting involved in public life or careers.

In the national survey, 62% of men and 55% of women agreed with this statement: "Men should mainly focus on career and women should be family oriented."

The number of people who agreed with that statement increased by 7.7% and 4.4% for men and women, respectively, in the past 12 years compared with their views in 2000 -- signaling "a resurgence of traditional beliefs about gender roles," Fincher said.

Gender issues are sensitive in China, especially in a country dogged by a history of preference for males and sex-selective abortion that has resulted in a lopsided population. Male births outpaced female births 118 to 110, according to Xinhua.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0414 GMT (1214 HKT)
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 0437 GMT (1237 HKT)
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 0638 GMT (1438 HKT)
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 0812 GMT (1612 HKT)
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 0013 GMT (0813 HKT)
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0654 GMT (1454 HKT)
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT