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The Lack of Female Political Representation in China Could Have Consequences for the CCP

Parth Sharma | China Fellow

Image credit: Trading China via Flickr.

Despite proclamations by Mao that "women hold up half the sky," this sentiment has not translated to an equal share of political power for women in China. Chinese politics has always been a landscape in which women were severely underrepresented. Female political representation has only worsened against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and Xi Jinping's push to re-affirm traditional gender roles. As China falls behind in the promotion of gender equality, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) missteps could create social disharmony among aggrieved Chinese women over a lack of improvement in opportunities and rights. Including women in the party’s substantive political apparatuses will aid the CCP in achieving its aims.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, China ranks 78th in the world for the political empowerment of women. The majority of the CCP's leaders and more than 70 per cent of its members are men. Women make up 9 per cent of leadership positions at the county level, 5 per cent at the city level, and 3 per cent at the provincial level. The 20th Chinese Communist Party National Congress in 2022 marked the first occasion since 1997 that none of the Politburo positions were occupied by a woman. Only eight women have ever sat on the Politburo, the decision-making body of the 24 most influential lawmakers, and no woman has ever sat on the highest political body in China, the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee.

Female political participation has been empirically linked to promoting better outcomes for women. Legislative bodies with a higher share of women representatives are more likely to pass and implement laws that advance gender equality. The intersectional inclusion of women in political processes increases the likelihood of gendered issues being addressed, as they may draw upon their own lived experiences to advocate for and guide reform.

The National People’s Congress (NPC) is the only political institution at the national level in China to have implemented a gender quota requiring that the number of female delegates ‘should not be lower’ than the previous term. Although this quota has allowed the NPC to triumphantly proclaim that a record number of women serve as delegates each term, such progress remains painstakingly slow. From 2003 to 2023, the number of female NPC delegates has only risen by 6.3 per cent. At this rate, it would take approximately 70 years for female legislators to be proportionally representative of the female Chinese population. Their inability to substantially increase the political representation of women has seen China slide down the rankings on gender inequality. China has gone from 63rd in the Global Gender Inequality Index in 2006 to 107th in 2023. The Party bureaucracy has not prioritised the concerns and perspectives of women.

Even the Party’s lip-service to gender equality has been done away with. In his opening address at the National Women's Congress in October 2023, Xi Jinping's Deputy Ding Xuexiang did not mention the most common phrase typically uttered at the quinquennial session - "equality between men and women is a fundamental national policy of the Chinese government”. This was a breakaway from the tradition set by Jiang Zemin in 1995. In the closing speech, Xi Jinping asserted that it was the role of party officials to influence views on "love and marriage, fertility and family" while making no mention of women at work, foregoing another convention. Both comments follow after an amendment to the Women’s Rights and Interests Law which states that “women should respect and obey national laws, respect social morals, professional ethics and family values.” Xi’s rhetoric will only deepen gender inequality as women become pressured to forego their careers due to the government's priority of increasing birth rates to counter the rapidly aging population created by the one-child policy.

An inability to progress the social and economic rights of women in China could exacerbate the discontent felt by sections of the female population. The CCP’s political legitimacy comes from the economic growth that China has gone through since the 1970s, resulting in living standards being raised. However, with the gender gap narrowing in the rest of the world, Chinese women may come to question the right of the CCP to govern if progress on gender equality continues to lag behind.

Notably, the #MeToo movement in China has faced state repression due to the movement openly calling into question the state's ability to protect women and with implicating senior officials in this misconduct. The movement has been censored online, social media accounts have been shut down, activists have been accused as tools of foreign interference and victims of sexual assault have been detained and even arrested. The male-centric party has actively sought to hide evidence of abuse against women to protect its own, as seen recently when Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli – a former Vice Premier of the State Council and Politburo Standing Committee member – of sexual harassment. 

The relative exclusion of women from Chinese politics has played a significant hand in adverse outcomes for the progression of women's rights in China. China has fallen behind the rest of the world in promoting gender equality and the male-dominated CCP appears disinterested in halting the decline. China's current policy trajectory will only worsen the gender gap by amplifying traditional gender norms that have historically been used to marginalise women – ultimately damaging the legitimacy of the party.

Parth Sharma is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. He is studying a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne and is a Melbourne Graduate Scholarship award holder from the 2022 intake.

Throughout his studies, Parth has extensively examined China’s internal domestic context and foreign policy. He is currently interning at the Australia India Institute and will be heading to Jakarta at the end of the year to take part in the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program.


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