Sky's the limit, but not for China's women
BEIJING - Women hold up half the sky, Mao Zedong famously said, but when it comes to holding a top post in China, they still have a long way to go.
Just a few months ago, news reports attributed to political insiders raised hopes that the Chinese Communist Party's powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) would no longer be a men's-only elite club.
State councillor Liu Yandong, 67, who is in charge of areas like health, culture and education, was fancied to become the first woman to join the PSC.
But her name no longer figured on most leaked lists of China's next top leaders.
"I'm a bit disappointed," says political analyst Jean-Pierre Cabestan of the Hong Kong Baptist University, who heard that Ms Liu did not make the final cut.
She is currently the only woman in the 25-member Politburo, the next highest decision-making body after the PSC, and is only the fifth to have made it into the group.
She entered the Politburo when then Vice-Premier Wu Yi retired at the last party congress in 2007.
The first three women were the wives of top Chinese leaders: Jiang Qing, Ye Qun and Deng Yingchao, whose husbands were Mao Zedong, Lin Biao and Zhou Enlai respectively.
Professor Cabestan reckons that one possible reason for Ms Liu's exclusion is that the elite PSC is likely to go from nine to seven members, raising the stakes further.
Ms Liu, a former head of the United Work Department, which oversees Hong Kong and Taiwan affairs, does not have the clout that her Politburo predecessor wielded.
Ms Wu helped negotiate China's entry into the World Trade Organisation. She was also named several times by Forbes as the world's second- or third-most influential woman.
Professor Joseph Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong says of Ms Liu: "I think she lost out in the keen competition, probably for a lack of outstanding achievements and strong backing from faction leaders."
Other senior women officials, such as Fujian party leader Sun Chunlan and deputy organisation chief Shen Yueyue, are not regarded as candidates for the top council in this round.
Women are also under-represented in the Chinese legislature.
In 2010, only about 21 per cent of around 3,000 members of the National People's Congress were women, with China ranked behind 54 other countries in terms of female representation in Parliament.
Gender equality in China has generally regressed from the Maoist period, says Beijing Normal University lecturer Zheng Xinrong, who studies gender issues.
The 1970s were a high point for women's rights in the country, supported by laws and state policies, she recalls.
"It was also the best period for women in politics. But society was also less complicated then."
State and official ideology at the time actively promoted equality of the sexes, with Mao proclaiming that women hold up half the sky.
Since China began to embrace capitalism in the late 1970s, measures to promote gender equality have been sacrificed in the name of greater profits. For instance, companies tend not to give female employees time off for child care, unlike in the past.
Traditional beliefs that women should stay at home while men go out to work have persisted despite efforts to change them in Mao's time, Professor Zheng notes.
"Some people think: Have women in politics? But they should be vases, or they belong in the family," she says.
Tellingly, male officials in villages surveyed said that being young and looking good were requirements for female leaders.
Officialdom in China is largely a men's world, say observers.
Says Prof Zheng: "What (women) see is that (they) have to stay out very late, drink and leave one's family behind to travel for work at the drop of a hat."
There has been some progress, with more women snagging provincial-level leadership posts, but few deny that women's participation in politics lags behind their overall contributions.
As Prof Cabestan puts it: "The women hold up half the sky -just that it's the second half of heaven."
This article was first published on Nov 3, 2012 in The Straits Times.
SUN CHUNLAN, 62
The Fujian party boss is the only female provincial chief and is widely seen as having done a good job amid warmer relations with neighbouring Taiwan.
Most of her career was spent in the trade unions.
She took over as Dalian party chief from Mr Bo Xilai in 2001. Mr Li Keqiang, who is China's next premier, was her boss when she became No. 2 in Liaoning province.
SHEN YUEYUE, 55
Ms Shen is ranked second in the Chinese Communist Party's organisation department, overseeing personnel appointments.
Known to be close to Mr Hu Jintao, she is a possible replacement for her boss Li Yuanchao as organisation chief. The post usually means a place in the Politburo.
LIU YANDONG, 67
The state councillor is the highest-ranked woman in the Chinese Communist Party and is known to be close to Mr Hu and also acceptable to Mr Jiang Zemin.
Her father, a former vice-minister, is a close friend and neighbour of the Jiang family. She has known Mr Hu for three decades from their days at the elite Tsinghua University.
I think she lost out in the keen competition, probably for a lack of outstanding achievements and strong backing from faction leaders.
- Professor Joseph Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong, on Ms Liu Yandong not making the elite Politburo Standing Committee