As the world celebrates the International Women’s Day today, China is in the middle of its annual session of parliament at the Great Hall of the People in the capital Beijing.
The 12-day session covers a range of legislative business that takes place at the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
One of the more interesting scenes witness at the ongoing sessions are the colourful outfits and headgear worn by female party deputies, as parliament members are called, particularly those who belong to ethnic minority communities such as the Tibetans and the Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang region.
Although a sign of diversity, critics do not hail the spectacle as proof of women having significant influence in government. In fact, the nine-member politburo standing committee of the Communist Party, which effectively runs the country, does not have a single woman on board.
“In an ironic way, this only makes it clear that the NPC and CPPCC are pieces of theatre, put on for public display and not really political events,” Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, tells The National. “They are more about propaganda, both in conveying clear government messages and in giving an image of unity and diversity.”
A question often asked is why Chinese women have done exceptionally well in the world of business yet remain woefully under-represented in spheres such as politics. Many politicians’ and senior officials’ daughters and granddaughters have preferred to enter business instead of taking the easy path of following in the footsteps of their guardians. This may seem surprising but it makes sense to a lot of women in that position, analysts say.
“It proved much easier and more convenient for them to accumulate wealth in the private economic sector,” says Matthias Stepan, at Berlin’s Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics). “It also can be considered as strategy to avoid ending up as a target for any potential [negative] political campaigns similar to ones they saw in their youth,” he adds.
After achieving success in business, some of these scions of politicians turned businesswomen do take seats in the NPC and the CPPCC. Successful recruits include Li Xiaolin, the daughter of the former premier Li Peng. In July last year the state council’s state-owned assets supervision and administration commission announced Ms Li had been appointed as the vice-president and a member of the Communist Party group at China Datang Corporation, one of the largest power generation firms on the mainland. That came after industry observers were surprised at news that Ms Li would not be on the management team of the newly formed State Power Investment Group – a merger between State Nuclear Power Technology and China Power Investment, where she was once a vice-president.
A lot of business in China is done through “guanxi”, the Chinese term for networking. Analysts say in this, businesswomen compete well with their male counterparts.
“I don’t think successful businesswomen lose out in this respect. They usually prove their success in business first and then use it to build political connections,” says Rupert Hoogewerf, the head of the Hurun Institute, a Shanghai wealth research firm.
He points out that the NPC has five self-made Chinese businesswomen in senior positions while the CPPCC has 10.
But the era of relying on guanxi alone may be nearing an end. “China is becoming a competitive place. Networks are not enough. There needs to be skill, hard work and dedication,” Mr Brown says.
Ren Run, an associate professor of organisational management at the Peking University’s Guanghua School of Business, says most politicians start off in their careers as government officials before they find their way upwards. This can prove a hurdle for women wishing to enter politics.
“Women are discouraged during the selection process for government employment, although there is no rule restricting their entry. This is how they get fewer opportunities to enter politics,” she said.
Mr Brown says the Chinese political system “operates like a huge club” and its members, mostly males, are not keen on the entry of women.
Still, China has come a long way since the days when Communism and business did not mix. China’s ruling Communist Party legitimised the entry of private business owners and “bourgeois elements” into the party in 2003, some 44 years after it came to power in 1949.
It will probably not be long before the Chinese parliament opens its doors wider to ambitious women.
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