The role of women in the CCP: just so much ‘beautiful scenery’?

The 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) concluded today, but the photo above comes from a plucky photo essay at China People’s Daily, entitled ‘Beautiful Scenery,’ and depicts 14 photos of women delighting at various moments during the Congress.

As stated in the slideshow: ‘beautiful ritual girls, female reporters and delegates to the Party congress become beautiful scenery during the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.’

Hat tip goes to Kathleen McLaughin, who’s been keeping a daily diary of the Congress for Foreign Policy, and who argues that gender disparity in China is perhaps getting worse, not better:

While 521 women serve as delegates in this party congress — 23 percent of the total, up from 18 percent a decade ago and higher than the 20 percent that women make up in the U.S. Senate — the members of China’s ceremonial electorate have far less influence over the process than their U.S. counterparts.

Gender discrimination often seems to be getting worse in China: Although a large percentage of Chinese women are employed (70 percent, compared with 25 percent in India), urban Chinese women earn about 67 percent of what men make, according to a 2010 survey from the All-China Women’s Federation. This summer, women in Guangzhou shaved their heads in protest of growing discriminatory policies around the country that require girls to score higher than boys on college entrance exams.

The Party hasn’t historically been incredibly welcoming to women, and in its history, it has yet to elevate a single woman to the Politburo Standing Committee, the chief governing body of the Party (and, accordingly, the Chinese government).  The members of the Politburo Standing Committee are likely to be announced by the end of this week.

One woman with an outside chance of being named to the Politburo Standing Committee is Liu Yandong (刘延东), who’s been a member of the Politburo (the only woman currently serving on the Politburo) since 2007 and who has served as a state councilor since 2008.  Liu (pictured immediately above) is a ‘princeling,’ as her father is Liu Ruilong, a former vice minister of agriculture, and she’s been close to outgoing Chinese leader Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) for three decades — notably, they worked together with the Party’s youth league in the 1980s.    

Cheng Li, director of research and a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center, whose profiles of upcoming Chinese leaders are invaluable, writes the following about Liu:

She is often seen as liberal minded, and may call for the greater political participation of other parties, interest groups, and NGOs in China’s political process. In recent years, Liu has advocated for the promotion of China’s cultural exchanges overseas.

That she’s seen as closer to Hu than to Jiang Zemin (江泽民), and that she’s seen as a liberal reformer, not more conservative on political participation is why she’ll likely be passed over, however, not because she’s a woman.

The most powerful woman in modern Chinese history, by far, is Jiang Qing, the last wife of Mao Zedong, who was a member of the infamous ‘Gang of Four’ that achieved power in 1966 and initiated the Cultural Revolution.  As a full Politburo member starting in 1969, Jiang became one of China’s most powerful leaders — male or female — throughout the Cultural Revolution era, and Jiang in particular took a keen role in ‘reforming’ the Chinese arts, including Beijing’s opera, and she persecuted those believed to be enemies of the Party.

Jiang was an opponent of premier Zhou Enlai and ultimately became an opponent of economic liberal Deng Xioaping.  Upon Mao’s death in 1976, Jiang’s power diminished as Deng consolidated his reformist government.  As a member of the Gang of Four, she was tried in 1980 for the crimes of the Cultural Revolution and sentenced to death after remaining unrepentant, arguing that she was merely carrying out Mao’s orders.  Although the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, she was released on medical grounds in 1991 and allegedly hanged herself in a hospital just two days shy of the 25th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution.

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