It is common for powerful Chinese men to have mistresses, which can make it difficult for women to curry favor or even cooperate with their male superiors without inviting suspicion.
One female deputy director of an agency told Feng that if she went to the office of her male boss to discuss work, he would typically stand at the door to talk to her. If they had to be in his office, he insisted on leaving the door open.
“This was to prevent rumors,” Feng said. “If you have to be that careful in day-to-day work, imagine how hard it would be to actually promote a female. People would talk, they would wonder about just how close the relationship was.”
Though China’s communists have done much to improve women’s lives by increasing their access to education, health care and jobs once reserved for men, they have failed to meaningfully increase women’s political participation.
Since the 1970s the number of women serving in China’s parliament has actually fallen, and less than a quarter of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) members are women. Also, women typically get shunted into positions considered “women’s work,” such as family planning or public relations.
In 2009, female cadres accounted for just 11 percent of leadership positions at the ministerial or provincial level, 13.7 percent at the local and departmental level, and 16.6 percent in county-level offices. That was only slightly better than figures for 2000, which were 8 percent, 10.8 and 15.1 percent.
In the early days of Chinese Communist rule, the wives of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), Lin Biao (林彪) and Zhou Enlai (周恩來) were all given positions on the politburo, but their tenures did little to pave the way for other women.
Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing (江青), led a series of purges that, after Mao’s death in 1976, resulted in her being sentenced to death for counterrevolutionary crimes. Though some see Jiang as a cautionary tale against the ruthlessness of power-hungry females, she claimed she was only following orders.
“I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite,” Jiang told the court.
Pre-communist history offers similarly scant inspiration for aspiring female politicians. Annals are rife with scheming concubines who helped unseat emperors by distracting them with carnal pleasures, a perception that Hong Kong University history professor Zhou Xun says still lingers.
“Historically, women were quite often seen as trouble, as linked to the downfall of dynasties,” Zhou said.
The last woman to rule China, the Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后), who died in 1908, is remembered as a leader who resisted reform and left China vulnerable to Japanese and western powers.
Today, the CCP’s intolerance for grassroots campaigning has left little room for the growth of a feminist movement that could bring women into the streets to demand equal pay for equal work or more female political participation.
One of the few independent Web forums dedicated to women’s issues, Feminst.cn, has been repeatedly shut down by authorities.
Liu is seen as a long shot for the standing committee, but there are a few other women competing for posts on the politburo, including corruption watchdog Ma Wen (馬文) and Fujian Party Secretary Sun Chunlan (孫春蘭) — only the second woman since 1949 to head a province as party secretary.