A glance at history suggests it is easier for a Chinese woman to orbit Earth than to land a spot on the highest rung of Chinese politics.
In June, a 33-year-old air force major marked a major feminist milestone by becoming the first Chinese woman to travel in space. With a once-a-decade leadership transition set to start on Nov. 8, many are now waiting to see if another ambitious Chinese female, State Councilor Liu Yandong (劉延東), can win one of the nine spots at the apex of Chinese power.
Liu is a smiley 67-year-old with a degree in chemical engineering and a penchant for pearls and red lipstick. Her portfolios include education, sports and cultural affairs. Experts say she is well-connected and state media paints her as a diligent civil servant with a human touch.
In May, she donned scrubs and stroked the forehead of a hospitalized teacher who lost her legs pushing two students away from an oncoming bus.
“You are so young, so beautiful,” state media quoted Liu as telling the teacher, Zhang Lili. “From now on, you can call me big sister.”
Leadership transitions only happen once a decade in China. This year, Liu is the only female with an outside chance of landing a position at the top, and if she does, she will have made history. However, rocketing into space seems simple compared to busting into the boys’ club of Chinese politics.
“It’s relatively easy to have a Chinese female astronaut because that’s only about winning glory for China and not about actually divvying up political power,” said Feng Yuan (馮媛), a Beijing-based women’s rights advocate.
There are quotas meant to boost participation of women in the political process, but they are not strictly enforced.
Since the founding of Communist China in 1949, no woman has ever served on the Politburo Standing Committee, the topmost leadership clique where major policy is set. Only two women have served as provincial party secretaries, powerful positions seen as stepping stones to national leadership posts.
Chinese former vice premier Wu Yi (吳儀 ) — known as the “Iron Lady” for her tough negotiating skills and ranked by Forbes as the second most powerful woman in the world in 2007 — failed to advance past the politburo, the group of about 25 from which standing committee members are recruited.
Willy Lam (林和立), a historian at Chinese University of Hong Kong, says the climb to power typically begins with a local leadership post that gets parlayed into jobs overseeing increasingly large constituencies until, ideally, one is running a province or a big city.
Those are the people who end up running China from the leafy, high-walled Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing.
However, to get those positions can be hard for a woman, for sometimes maddening reasons.
“To become a mayor of a big city or a governor of a province you have to be sort of one of the boys, you have to drink a lot and maybe womanize a bit and also be reasonably corrupt,” Lam said. “There’s no lack of corrupt women in China, but this to-be-one-of-the-boys phenomenon, I think, is holding some promising female cadres back.”
Feng, the Beijing rights advocate, has run training workshops on women’s rights around China. She says aspiring female politicians complain to her about the “drinking culture” in Chinese politics, but many say sexual politics also holds them back.