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China’s prettiest myth of ‘half the sky’

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

China experts all over the world are puzzling over who will sit alongside party leader Xi Jinping in the country’s new inner leadership in three weeks. Known, but of little help to their predictions, are the names of the 2,296 delegates. They will gather in Beijing on October 16 for the 20th Party Congress and elect a new Central Committee (CC), just like they did five years ago. About two-thirds of the previous 370 full members and candidates will be new members of the CC. But it is only the lowest level in the three-tier party power pyramid. The CC is to appoint the top 25 officials for the Politburo from its ranks, the next highest platform of power. Only then will the names of seven of its members, including Xi, who will ascend to the Politburo Standing Committee, be revealed. As members of the inner leadership, they operate the actual levers of the CP rule. Presumably, not a single woman will be among them.

Xi is already paying homage to himself as the helmsman of the patriarch’s club. He has secured this position by amending the party statute and constitution. Only two things are certain: The higher the party’s power is concentrated, the less transparent its moves become, and fewer women are on board.

‘Women hold up half the sky.’ The world-famous Mao slogan became China’s prettiest myth. But it is fake news.

China is moving further and further away from its former claim to be a country whose women hold up half the sky. And Mao Zedong never said the world-famous one-liner attributed to him. Authenticated is a joke the Great Chairman made in the summer of 1964 when he was swimming through Beijing’s Miyun Reservoir and was outpaced by female athletes doing the crawl. The People’s Daily wrote on May 27, 1965, what Mao shouted after them: “Times have changed, and today men and women are equal. Whatever men comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too.”

Women as labor force without political power

China’s prettiest myth of the “half the sky” became one of the most quoted Mao words during the Cultural Revolution and the scene slogan of the Protests of 1968 generations and women’s initiatives. Beijing social scientists systematically searched through all of Mao’s writings and speeches after his death. “They found no such quote,” Beijing women’s advocate Guo Jianmei once told me. Nor in the red Mao Bible, as the 370-page book of “The Words of the Chairman” is called, which Chinese in the city and countryside memorized during the Cultural Revolution and inspired millions of idealists in Europe. Over six pages, Mao wrote about women. He saw them as fellow fighters for his revolution and as workers for China’s rise. He demanded that they be freed from feudal oppression and inhumane dependencies, and given equal pay for equal work and equal education. But Mao never wanted their participation in his power.

The phrase “half the sky” became a cult word in its own right. Books such as French women’s activist Claudie Broyelle’s, Die Hälfte des Himmels. Frauenemanzipation und Kindererziehung in China” (“Half the sky. Women’s Emancipation and Childrearing in China”) carried it to Europe and the United States in many languages and dozens of editions. Broyelle had written it after a study trip of only two weeks through 1971 China. Later, when she worked in China with her husband, she distanced herself from her naivety in the book “Zweite Rückkehr aus China” (“Second Return from China”), published in 1Ohne In 1980, the couple radically drew a line under their earlier infatuation in “Mao ohne Maske” (“Mao Without a Mask”). In the French edition, it was titled “Apocalypse Mao.”

The end of an illusion: Frenchwoman Claudie Broyelle’s report on a trip to China in 1971, entitled ‘Die Hälfte des Himmels,’ became a cult book in the ’68 generation Europe. After working in Beijing for two years, she soberly recanted her earlier naiveté in the book ‘Zweite Rückkehr aus China.’ In 1980, she finally settled the score in ‘Mao ohne Maske’. The title of the first French edition was ‘Apocalypse Mao’.

When it comes to participating in political power, no Chinese woman has yet managed to swim past the party gangs. Under Xi’s rule, the gender gap widened. The Leninist-organized Communist Party does not accept career changers. Under Xi, suppression of civil society NGOs and emancipatory actions has once again intensified, just like on the offshoots of the MeToo movement. Such topics pop up only as virtual protest tweets in private chat rooms.

Laws for more equality remain good intentions

The reason it is so difficult for Chinese women to rise politically is not their fault, “but because of the system,” Lawyer Guo told me in 2017, even though equality at all “levels of life, political, economic, cultural, social and family is enshrined in Article 48 of the Basic Law as a constitutional requirement.” But there is a lack of implementation regulations and implementation via binding quotas for women. So even the best laws remain “sleeping beauties.”

Among 1.4 billion Chinese, there are 689 million Chinese women. Women make up 48.7 percent of the population. Only 30 women, or 7.9 percent among the 376 full members and candidates, sit on the party’s Central Committee, newly elected in 2017, writes internationally renowned China expert Cheng Li in a special study on women’s participation in China’s politics ahead of the 20th Party Congress. Among China’s 31 provincial party leaders, he says, there is only one woman, 62-year-old Guizhou CP Leader Chen Yiqin. She is considered the only possible candidate to join the 25-member men’s Politburo club. For ten years, Sun Chunlan, now 72 years old, has held the sole female position. The situation in the government is not better, writes Cheng Li: There is one woman among China’s eleven state councilors, and all 26 ministers are men.

Although the party’s organizing bureau argued for the election of delegates to the 20th Party Congress to include more women than their proportion in the party, only 619 women were elected among the 2296 delegates, a share of 27 percent. In the world’s largest Communist Party, with 96 million members, 29.4 percent are women comrades.

On the lower end of equality

The Davos World Economic Forum (WWF) also notes growing inequalities in its annual Global Gender Gap Report. In the report, China only ranked 100th out of 144 countries surveyed in terms of general equality, after the last party congress in 2017, five years ago. In the new 2022 report, it ranks even lower, at 102 of 146 countries surveyed. In political empowerment, China’s women are almost at the very bottom, at 120.

The All-China Women’s Federation evaded critical questions about substantial political participation. Its “Fourth 2020 Survey” of the Social Status of Women in China, jointly collected with the Bureau of Statistics, praised progress under the Xi era – deliberately cautious and long-winded – stating the “female ‘half of sky power’ is finding wider expression in economic and social development.” (女性在经济社会发展中 “半边天 “力量进一步彰显).

Beijing women’s rights advocate Guo Jianmei and other researchers found that Mao never actually mentioned “half the sky.”

But it refers primarily to women’s involvement in grassroots organizations, in the lowest levels of so-called “democratic administration” (基层民主管理), and to the “important role of women in the family, in supporting the elderly and raising children.” The report highlights more economic independence for women as progress. Today, “18.8 percent of married women own real estate in their name, and 39.9 percent own it jointly with their husband.”

Number of female billionaires from China increases

“When it comes to economic power, China’s women have long been among the world’s best,” Rupert Hoogewerf, editor of the annual “Hurun Billionaires Lists,” once told me. In 2017, under the title “China’s Richest Women,” he counted 49 Chinese women among his 78 so-called “self-made women” identified worldwide, each with a fortune of at least $1 billion. In late March 2022, Hoogewerf published his latest list. Despite the impact of the Covid pandemic, the number of Chinese billionaires in the People’s Republic rose to 78 women among a total of 124 billionaires worldwide.

China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) created the necessary conditions. Chinese female entrepreneurs were able to develop their own “business platforms.” In addition, the end of the traditional family role due to the one-child policy encouraged business careers, Hoogewerf said. Lawyer Guo agreed: Lack of participation in power does not contradict this. “When economic processes are no longer planned from the top but determined by market demand, women will find a level playing field to develop their talents.”

Preview of the 20th Party Congress: Personnel sheet of China’s inner leadership after its re-election at the 19th Party Congress in 2017. Among the 32 chosen with Xi at the top, the only woman in the second row (third from right) is Politburo member Sun Chunlan. She is easily recognizable because she is not wearing a tie.

However, party leader Xi is in the process of changing the earlier reform model in favor of a more state economy. How far he will go will show the staffing choices of his new leadership after the CP Congress. Because outsiders can only speculate about this, a think tank run by the respected US Paulson Foundation has come up with an election game. It has nominated the 42 most promising candidates for Xi’s new inner leadership. Only two are women, 72-year-old Sun Chunlan, who should have stepped down for reasons of age, and, as a potential newcomer, 62-year-old Guizhou Party leader Shen Yiqin. The foundation calls the guessing game “Fantasy Football for China Nerds”. However, it lacks the imagination to envision even more women as candidates for the ascent to China’s political sky.


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