The systemic underrepresentation of women in China’s elite politics has been further entrenched in the 20th Party Congress. What factors contributed to this outcome and does this trend persist across China's Party and governance structures?

Breaking away from custom of over two decades, the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) saw no Chinese women promoted to the Politburo. It was widely expected that Vice Premier Sun Chunlan would be replaced by a woman candidate; instead, only men have been promoted to top leadership positions. The systemic underrepresentation of women in China’s elite politics has been further entrenched in the 20th Party Congress.

20th Party Congress: No women in sight

The absence of women from China’s top leadership seems inconsistent with the Party’s general thrust towards promoting female participation in politics — the 20th Party Congress saw 619 women delegates (27%) out of 2,296 delegates, an increase from the previous Congress which had about 24.1% female representation. Nevertheless, out of the 376 members of the 20th Central Committee (CC) of the CPC, there are only 33 (8.77%) women in total; and only eleven women (5.36%) are full members in the CC. Furthermore, out of those eleven, none have been able to break into the upper echelons of Chinese politics. 

The last time there was no woman on the Politburo was in 1997, at the 15th Party Congress. In the entire CPC history, only six women have ever been members of the Politburo, out of which three were the wives of top CPC leaders — Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong; Deng Yingchao, wife of Zhou Enlai and Ye Qun, wife of Lin Biao. The other three women in the Politburo were former Vice Premiers of the People’s Republic of China, namely – Wu Yi, Liu Yandong and “Iron Lady” Sun Chunlan. 

Although there were few women candidates to begin with, there were frontrunners that were anticipated to replace Sun Chunlan in the 20th Party Congress. First in line were Chen Yiqin, Party Secretary of Guizhou and Shen Yueyue, Chair of the All-China Women’s Federation. Despite the fact that Shen Yueyue is more senior, her connection with Communist Youth League of China (CYLC) may have worked against her considering removal of other CYLC leaders from top leadership at the 20th Congress.  On the other hand, Shen Yiqin belongs to an ethnic Bai minority; the only female provincial party chief, and has worked with CPC top leaders like Li Zhanshu and Chen Min’er, making her a more likely candidate to be promoted. However, although they have retained their CC membership; with none of these women securing a Politburo position, the limited scope of female participation in Chinese elite politics has only been further underscored. 

Men continue to dominate positions of political power despite gender equality being touted by the CPC. Women, on the other hand, are never considered for executive positions at state-owned enterprises, governments or ministries due to the institutional, social and cultural biases against them. These positions are set aside for men to fill, directly affecting policy-making and decision-making at all levels. In China, women are both unseen and unheard; this is emphasised by former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli’s first public appearance since Peng Shuai’s accusations of being sexually harassed by him. Walking in behind Xi at the Great Hall of the People, the impunity that powerful men enjoy is evident; Shuai’s comments have done little damage to Zhang’s standing as a Party elder. 

Women Leaders in Xi’s Third Term 

On October 16, Xi Jinping delivered his work report to 20th Party Congress, in which he emphasised that the Party was “committed to the fundamental national policy of gender equality”. However, this statement has not been supplemented by any actionable objectives or policies. Furthermore, out of the eleven women, who are full members of the 20th CC of the CPC, none seem to have earned the favour of Xi enough to be promoted to the Politburo. By making sure that he is surrounded by loyalists and centralising control of the party-state, Xi has sidelined women politicians even further. This political hardening has been supplemented by decreasing the representation of women at all levels of political leadership. For instance, the percentage of female members on the Central Committee decreased from 8.8% in 2012 to 7.9% in 2017. Women have little say in the legislation and implementation of policies directly affecting them. The lack of women in the black box of Chinese elite politics has paved the way for the implementation of paternalistic policies in order to combat declining birth rates, such as the three-child policy and the recent law enforcing a ‘cooling off’ period for couples after deciding to divorce. This sets a bad precedent for policies directed at women in the next five years of Xi’s term; this tendency of adopting policies with traditional patriarchal undertones will plausibly increase. 

Increasingly, Xi’s proclivity towards Confucian ideals and values has been intermeshed with the Party’s objectives and policies, especially when it comes to women. By amplifying traditional roles of women, factional loyalty and patronage, Xi and by extension the Party, have fallen back on their claims of promoting meritocracy. In a speech, Xi called on Chinese women to be “good wives and mothers” and to carry forward the “traditional family virtues of the Chinese nation”. 

In Xi’s “new era”, it appears that women do not hold up half the sky yet and they are not holding their breath either. Looking at the current changes, it is highly unlikely that women’s status in Chinese politics will change significantly in the next five years. The ‘glass ceiling’ on women’s participation in Chinese politics will persist given that Xi’s ideological hardening and power consolidation will continue to be detrimental to women’s participation in politics. Only time will tell how the under-representation of women in China’s top leadership will affect not only Xi’s unprecedented third term but also the overall status of women in China. 


Ahana Roy is Research Associate and Chief Operations Officer at Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). She is a postgraduate in Political Science with International Relations from Jadavpur University. Her areas of interest include non-traditional security studies with a focus on gender and sexuality studies, society, and culture in China specifically and East Asia broadly. She can be reached on Twitter @ahanaworks and her email

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