Li Rong had checked all the boxes for entry into China’s governing class.
A Communist Party member and head of student government for her department at Beijing Normal University, she had an offer to join the staff at a local party propaganda department upon graduation in 1999. She said no, avoiding government service in a country where few women rise to the top.
“Women leaders are assigned to be in areas like health, and all the departments with real power over the economy will be run by men,” said Li, now 34 and studying for a doctorate in education at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. “I don’t see the possibility for a future.”
Li’s experience is the rule, not the exception. More than 40 years after Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky” and a week before the Communist Party celebrates its 90th anniversary, women are barely represented in the top echelons of China’s government and the biggest state-owned companies, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg.
“China is still a man’s world, despite the Communist government,” said Christina Cheung, a director of Hong Kong-based information technology and travel company South China Holdings Ltd. and a member of China’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “The tradition is that women should care more about the home.”
Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 only two women have been appointed governor of any of the country’s 31 provinces and four biggest municipalities; none serve now. By contrast, 32 women have been elected governors of the 50 U.S. states in that time.
Four Among 35
Song Xiuyan, who served as governor of Qinghai province until 2010, was transferred that year to a top post in a communist-led women’s group. She didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed.
Premier Wen Jiabao’s 35-member state council has four women, while six of 21 members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet are female, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In France, five of 15 full ministers are women.
The marginalization of half the talent pool matters because China relies on state-owned, “national champions” to help drive economic growth while preparing for a surge of retirees. The full potential of China’s women isn’t being tapped in those parts of the economy and government that are shaping the country’s future.
Wives or Widows
In the past 62 years five women have served as full members of the ruling Politburo; three of those were wives or widows of senior leaders. Only one woman is on the 25-member Politburo now: State Councilor Liu Yandong. One level down, women make up just over 6 percent of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, while they accounted for more than 10 percent four decades ago.
One notable exception to the female lack of progress is Wu Yi, who retired in 2008 as China’s vice premier in charge of international trade and financial services and served on the Politburo.
She was described by Nashville-based National Federation of Independent business president Jack Faris in 2005 as “stronger than a garlic milkshake” and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson called her a “force of nature.” She was ranked by Forbes as the world’s second most-powerful woman in 2007, behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Among China’s 120 centrally administered state-owned enterprises, a list that includes the parent companies of PetroChina Co. Ltd. and China Mobile Ltd., a woman holds the top position in one: Shanghai-based Potevio Co., a maker of telecommunications equipment that is headed by Xing Wei. Among top officers, women hold about 74 of 1,141 high management positions, according to a review of company records.
The position of women in government stands in contrast to their success in private business. Many of the world’s richest self-made women are Chinese, including Soho China Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Zhang Xin, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker whose $2.9 billion fortune from real-estate makes her the world’s 393rd-richest person according to Forbes. Zhang declined an interview and Potevio’s Xing didn’t respond to a request.
Cheung Yan, chairman and co-founder of recycler Nine Dragons Paper Holdings Ltd., ranked 782nd with $1.6 billion. Six of the world’s 19 self-made women billionaires as of last year were Chinese, including Zhang and Cheung, according to Forbes.
“In business, women advance mainly through their own abilities,” said Li Chunling, a scholar at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “In government, advancement depends on whether your boss likes you or not.”
South China’s Cheung and Li Chunling both say women are thwarted by a bureaucratic tradition that isn’t flexible enough to accommodate women who want to take time off to have a family. Women also don’t fit well into the life of liquor-fueled official banquets where professional relationships are forged, and those who play that game are often tapped to serve as glorified hostesses to visiting dignitaries, Li said.
It’s part of a broader pattern in the Chinese workforce. About 92 percent of China’s female graduate students say they are sexually discriminated against by employers during job applications, according to a study released by the All-China Women’s Federation last year.
Pan Jintang, a professor at Beijing’s People’s University who specializes in women’s employment and welfare, said the small number of female political leaders is a natural result of the economic overhauls inaugurated more than 30 years ago. Under Mao’s Communist regime, women were promoted in government and industry as “useless decoration,” he said.
“During the planned-economy era, the government used administrative schemes to artificially boost women’s social status,” Pan said. “That’s no help in genuinely boosting women’s status.”
China’s Communist Party should boost the role of women as a way to maintain its own legitimacy, said Susan Shirk, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. She was responsible for China at the State Department from 1997 to 2000.
“The CCP is so worried about shoring up popular support for party rule, wouldn’t you think they would try to appeal to women by promoting female leaders?” she asked. “Chinese politics remains an old boys’ club.”
The questions Li Rong confronted 12 years ago remain true for today’s graduates. Ma Haijing, 27, earned degrees in trade and international law from Beijing’s Tsinghua University, alma mater of President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping. She said the traditional Chinese belief that women should focus on child-rearing may hold them back from greatness in government.
“In America, women’s rights are pretty much ingrained,” Ma said. “In China, although the slogans of women’s rights are shouted, it isn’t a belief held in everyone’s hearts.”