When President Xi Jinping introduced his Politburo Standing Committee at the 20th Communist party congress in Beijing, one thing stood out. Of the seven, none were women. Furthermore, of the 24-member Politburo itself, for the first time in 25 years none were women. The Standing Committee is the small group that essentially runs the country. While the Standing Committee has always been men only, the Politburo has commonly had women members. Xi has now lowered the glass ceiling a level.

As with so many things, communism failed to deliver equality for women. We might have expected better. After all, it was Mao Zedong who uttered the immortal words, “Women hold up half the sky.” Furthermore, in 1995 general secretary Jiang Zemin made gender equality official state policy. And Xi himself has said that “women are creators of human civilization and drivers of social progress” and had promised to strive for gender equality. He has not done much striving—his actions have betrayed his words.

Hsiu-hua Shen, professor of Sociology at Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University, observed, “Chinese women have been excluded from the centre of political power at both local and central levels,” and went on to add that the party, formed during civil war in a highly patriarchal society, has been based on “masculine violence.”

President Xi distrusts any civil organizing, making it difficult for women to fight for their rights. Such activity is a direct challenge to the state and therefore borders on subversion. And indeed there have been crackdowns on feminists, including arrests of women protesting against issues that don’t even challenge the political system, such as sexual harassment. China’s MeToo movement has made little progress. Government censors routinely target #MeToo comments on social media.

Last year tennis star Peng Shuai publicly accused a former vice-premier of sexual assault. Shortly after making her accusations on social media, she went missing. She appeared again weeks later to say her post was misunderstood and she has since kept a very low profile. The vice-premier continues to strut upon the political stage.

Aggravating the situation is a falling birthrate which is tipping China’s fast-ageing population into decline, increasing pressure on women to have more children. Activists fear this may lead to restrictions on women’s access to abortion and contraception, further inhibiting their political action and opportunities.

Several neighbouring countries do much better by their women. Chinese women may, for instance, look with envy at Taiwan which not only has women cabinet members but is led by a woman, President Tsai Ing-wen. Of course, Taiwan is a constant reminder to the Chinese of just how much better a society China could be.

Xi is a very macho guy. As he tightens his control over the country, hope for a less patriarchal China will erode. As with so much communist party rhetoric, “Women Hold up Half the Sky” is more slogan than promise.

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