By Adrienne Mong/NBC News File
Spot the women in China's last Communist Party Congress.
BEIJING—China’s lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress (NPC), opened its annual session last weekend to great fanfare. Watching the delegates pile in and out of the Great Hall of the People, we couldn’t help wondering: How is it that in a country of 1.3 billion, with nearly 3,000 NPC delegates, there are no women of national political prominence?
After all, Tuesday is International Women's Day, and China has a long history of strong women leaders. To name but a few: Empress Dowager Cixi, Empress Dowager Longyu, and of course two of the three Song sisters — Song Qingling (Madame Sun Yat-sen) and Song Meiling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek).
But the last time the leadership included a female official of note was Wu Yi, whom some Americans might remember as a formidable negotiator representing Chinese trade and economic interests until she retired as Vice Premier in 2008. Before Wu, the most recent government figure was the uber contemporary dragon-lady, Jiang Qing aka Madame Mao, who played an instrumental role in steering the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
So where are the Wu Yis or (gulp) Jiang Qings of today?
Women in numbers
An initial glance at some facts and figures appears to underscore significant progress in gender equality—at least in the government sphere.
Women today in China account for 40 percent of government officials, compared to below 33 percent in 1995—which incidentally was the when the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing.
At least 21.3 percent of NPC delegates in 2008 were women (the latest available data, according to the All China Women’s Federation). In 1954, that figure was just 12 percent.
Impressive. But consider that the female proportion of NPC delegates has not significantly changed since the early 1970s, its been stuck around 21 percent since then.
Women are even less well represented in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), making up fewer than 18 percent of the NPC’s main advisory body.
The Communist Party fares about the same as the NPC itself. Nearly 17 million of its members are women (as of the end of 2009), making up just 21.7 percent of overall Party membership.
In the top ranks?
Numbers for senior government positions seem less remarkable:
Adrienne Mong/NBC News File
Women supposedly hold up half the sky in China, but not inside the Great Hall of the People.
In China’s cabinet, the State Council, only three ministers out of the 28 ministries and commissions are women.
In China’s 656 cities, 670 mayors and vice-mayors are women.
Just 230 ministerial and vice-ministerial or provincial-level leaders are women, comprising roughly 10 percent of the overall total.
And the highest ranking woman in Chinese government today?
First State Councilor Liu Yandong, who is also the only female in the 25-person Politburo. Liu’s official bio lists her past experience, but it’s unclear what exactly the Jiangsu native and Tsinghua University graduate does today in her role.
For most Chinese, at least the ones who’ve even heard of her, the only impression they have is, “She’s a woman, right?”
For some indication of just how the Communist Party regards the issue of women in public office, take a look at the online version of one of its newspapers. The People's Daily has, um, an interesting if somewhat retrograde take on the matter. One of the main photos on its cover shows a female reporter outside the meeting with the photo caption "Attractive female at NPC, CPPCC sessions."
With additional research from Emily Ni.