27 October 2016
Whether Sun Chunlan will be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee will show how open China is to women leaders. Photo: Tencent
Whether Sun Chunlan will be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee will show how open China is to women leaders. Photo: Tencent

In a world of women leaders, China is way behind the times

In America, Hillary Clinton is calling for the shattering of the highest and hardest glass ceiling of them all by electing a woman president of the United States.

In Britain, Theresa May was catapulted into the prime ministership to manage the thankless job of extricating the country from the European Union.

Meanwhile, standing in the wings is another woman, Nicola Sturgeon, who will decide whether to extricate Scotland from the United Kingdom once Brexit is achieved.

Everywhere one looks, it seems, there is a woman in charge.

Angela Merkel, of course, has been Germany’s chancellor for 12 years.

In Asia, a woman, Tsai Ing-wen, just became president in Taiwan. In South Korea, there is another woman president, Park Geun-hye.

China is not happy with some of these women. It is putting pressure on the Taiwan leader to be more like her male predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, and to accept a “one China” concept.

China is also unhappy about Park’s decision to deploy the THAAD air defense system to defend against North Korean missiles. China considers the system a threat to its own security.

While China hasn’t said anything publicly about the American election, it is known to oppose Clinton, who unveiled the “pivot to Asia” policy which China believes to be aimed at its containment when she was secretary of state.

The new British prime minister, too, seems to be less well disposed toward China than her predecessor.

She has delayed final approval for the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant, to be partly financed by China.

The “golden era” of British-China relations launched last year was brief indeed.

While the rest of the world now considers women leaders normal, this is not so in China, where there are no women at the highest level of power — the Communist party’s Politburo Standing Committee.

All seven of its members, headed by President and General Secretary Xi Jinping, are men.

The previous Politburo Standing Committee, chosen in 2007, had nine members, all men of course.

In 2012, when its term came to an end, aside from Xi and Li Keqiang, the remaining seven had to step down because of age.

In theory, then, there were seven seats to fill from among politburo members of the right age.

There were several people of the right age and experience, including Liu Yandong, then a 67-year-old state councilor and the highest ranking female politician in the country.

Two other talked-about candidates were Wang Yang, then Guangdong party secretary, and Li Yuanchao, then head of the party’s Organization Department.

Both were relatively young — young enough, in fact, to serve more than one five-year term on the Politburo Standing Committee.

This may have been the reason why they were excluded.

As currently constituted, the seven-man Standing Committee only has two members — President Xi and Premier Li — young enough to serve a second term.

All the other members have to step down in 2017. The presence of younger members may, in theory, pose a challenge to Xi.

Liu the woman leader would not have been such a threat since she would be 72 in 2017.

However, moving her up would have resulted in an even number of Standing Committee members — something that has traditionally been avoided.

Logically, promoting Wang and Li would have done the trick.

It would have kept the Standing Committee at nine members and ensured that there were two people besides Xi and Li who could serve a second term.

But this was clearly not what Xi wanted.

And Liu, the lady politician, provided a convenient excuse.

If Wang and Li had been promoted, Liu would have been the only one kept out, and it would have looked bad to exclude the sole female while promoting all the men.

So, Xi could well have argued, it is better for the sake of appearance to slim down the Standing Committee to seven members for the time being.

After all, Wang and Li were young enough to serve the next time around.

So, in 2017, Liu at 72 will have to retire.

But now, for the first time, there is a second woman in the politburo, Sun Chunlan, who is five years younger than Liu.

Will she, like Liu, be bypassed? We will know soon enough.

Chairman Mao Zedong said that women hold up half the sky but when it comes to real power, it seems, the picture is different.

Only Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, ever came close to having genuine power — and that was only because of her relationship with a man.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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