The Chinese Communist Party Congress—the twice-a-decade centerpiece of the People’s Republic’s political calendar—featured plenty of women. Wearing white gloves and skirts they stood demurely on the sides of the meeting halls, ushered the delegates to their seats, and poured the tea while the men debated China’s future. The seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, unveiled a day after this year’s meeting ended on Tuesday, features only men, just as it always has. Only one woman serves in the 25-member Politburo. (Traditionally, most of the women who have served in that elite body have been the wives of Chinese leaders.)
In statements that should concern Chinese women, Party Secretary Xi Jinping often speaks about China regaining its past glory—a reactionary sentiment comparable to Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again. In an Oct. 18 speech at the Party Congress, Xi exhorted China to “strive with endless energy towards national rejuvenation.” “Before modern times,” Xi said in an important 2014 speech to a cultural body, “we were always one of the world’s most powerful countries.” As with Trump’s MAGA statements, these nostalgic sentiments overlook the detailed reality—in this case, what life was like for women in this glorious past: at times little more than slaves to their husbands, with bound feet, barred from any important role in the political process.
One of the golden ages Xi often alludes to is the Song Dynasty, a period from 960 AD to 1279, in which Chinese invented the compass and movable type printing. During that period, female infanticide was “extremely prevalent,” the Chinese academic Esther Yao wrote, “being greatly influenced by the philosophy of Neo-Confucianism, which denied women basic human rights, including the rights to live.” It wasn’t only the Song dynasty. “The social system in China has enslaved women and forced them into submission for many thousands of years,” the radical Chinese intellectual He-Yin Zhen wrote in a 1907 essay on women’s liberation.
The status of women undoubtedly improved since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, but even today women remain mostly absent from the top levels of Chinese society. For example Alibaba, China’s largest tech company, only has one woman on its board; Tencent and Baidu, No. 2 and No. 3 respectively, have none.
Since Xi took power in 2012, the idea that a women’s place is in the home has grown even more popular. Chinese state media often discusses, in encouraging terms, the idea that women should return to their duties as mothers. In July 2017, for example, rumors spread that the popular Hong Kong actress Irene Wan was facing marital difficulties, in part because of her desires to continue working. This serves as a “warning to others,” the state-run news platform China.com cautioned in an article, “that women should return home to assist their husband and raise their children.” And while the October 2015 liberalization of the One Child Policy allowed hundreds of millions of Chinese families the opportunity to legally have a second child, it also led to calls for women to focus on child-rearing at the expense of their careers and autonomy. A February 2016 article about that policy in China’s state news agency Xinhua quoted the Chinese sociologist Ma Meiying explaining that women returning to their homes is a trend worth supporting. “This doesn’t just benefit child-rearing, it also is beneficial to family stability and social development,” she said. Indeed, Chinese women’s participation in the labor force has fallen almost every year over the last two decades, from 73.5 percent in 1990 to 63.3 percent in 2016.
Chinese laws also hinder women’s ability to excel. While the official retirement age for most male cadres is 60, for female civil servants, party cadres, and employees of state enterprises it is 55. (For some other classes of female workers, it is 50.)
Especially in politics, there is a lack of strong career-oriented role models for Chinese females. Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan, arguably China’s most powerful woman, quit her flourishing singing career to support her husband. “Fashion-obsessed and charmingly feminine, by giving up her career for her hero-husband she has provided a subservient wifely model for all of China’s women,” according to an analysis published in a journal from the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. “Men should learn from Daddy Xi, and women should learn from Mommy Peng,” according to a popular Chinese propaganda song.
Not that there aren’t powerful women in Chinese history. Consider 7th century Wu Zetian, China’s only female empress; the dowager Empress Cixi, China’s de facto ruler during the turn of the 20th century; and Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing, who helped run the country during the anarchic 1966–1976 Cultural Revolution. But today, these examples often surface as cautionary tales of what happens when women are allowed to govern. Some in China blamed the spectacular 2012 downfall of top party official Bo Xilai on his wife, Gu Kailai. “Sadly, ‘dragon ladies’ are an all-too-familiar trope in Chinese history,” the historian Paul French wrote in a 2012 essay on Gu. “A successful man achieves power, wealth, and the love of many before being brought low by an excessive ambition encouraged by his wife, a beautiful woman obsessed with money and power.”
Xi has paid lip service to gender equality. And since 2014, Xi has been praising the Ming dynasty Neo-Confucian thinker Wang Yangming. One could interpret Xi’s support for Wang as support for women’s rights. Wang, the academic Daria Berg writes in her book Women and the Literary World in Early Modern China, 1580–1700, “was the first thinker to endow women with the potential for sagehood in the Confucian world order.”
And yet, the organization he and his predecessors have tasked to advocate for gender equality, the All-China Women’s Federation, has long been little more than a mouthpiece for the Party with more symbolism than substance. While some of the articles on the website refer to issues like “mobilizing ‘she power,’ ” many slavishly cover Xi’s latest pronouncements. The top article on the website in mid-October had nothing to do with women’s rights, but rather with keeping party discipline after the purge of an important male official. Mobilizing “she power,” indeed.