When Xi Jinping warned against “pleasure seeking” in a stern message to the Communist Party congress last week, the audience included few women and some notable absentees — officials ousted by graft scandals involving illicit affairs.
The scene was a reminder that China’s leadership remains a man’s world, where women have been excluded from the highest echelons of power and men have abused their positions in sex-for-favours scandals.
Women represent only a quarter of the 2,300 delegates attending the week-long congress held just twice a decade, highlighting the yawning gender gap in the world’s most populous nation.
Since the Communists took power in 1949, under Mao Zedong who famously declared that “women hold up half the sky”, no woman has ever risen to the top ruling council.
Delegates at the congress will choose members of the party’s Central Committee, where women account for just 4.9 percent of the 205-strong membership — down from 6.4 percent in 2012.
The committee then has the task of selecting the 25-person executive Politburo, which currently has only two women, and its elite standing committee — which boasts seven ageing men.
When the new Politburo Standing Committee lineup is unveiled on Tuesday or Wednesday, no woman is expected to break the glass ceiling and join them.
Guo Jianmei, a leading lawyer and women’s rights advocate, had prepared a letter to the party congress criticising China’s lack of attention to women’s participation in politics.
“The letter describes this situation but there is no way to submit it, because no party representative is willing to help us,” Guo told AFP.
“China has generally not given any thought on how to promote women’s leadership status.”
Gender equality is enshrined in the constitution but analysts say traditional social structures have kept women from gaining more space in politics, pressuring them to prioritise family roles over their careers.
The official All China Women’s Federation coined the derogatory term “leftover women” in 2007 to describe unmarried professionals after the government announced a campaign to improve population “quality” by encouraging educated women to have babies.
A party congress delegate from Shanghai said she did not see a problem.
“China has already achieved equality between the sexes. The government supports women’s aspirations,” she told AFP, declining to give her name.
While women have been left out of top jobs, Xi’s anti-corruption drive has revealed a large number of cases involving men committing adultery, which is against party rules.
“All thinking and behaviour in the vein of pleasure seeking, inaction and sloth, and problem avoidance are unacceptable,” he intoned last week, reminding party members to lead by example.
The most prominent figure netted so far in the graft campaign is 74-year-old former security tsar Zhou Yongkang, who was accused of committing adultery with a number of women “in power-for-sex and money-for-sex trades”.
And last month rising political star Sun Zhengcai from the Chongqing megalopolis was expelled for “serious violations of party discipline” including allegations that he took bribes and “exchanged money for sex”, state media said.
Activists jailed, silenced
The litany of alleged crimes in corruption cases can sometimes be cover for factional score-settling. But official data shows that men in power hand ample ammunition to their critics.
A 2013 study from Renmin University in Beijing found that 95 percent of corrupt officials had extramarital affairs, and at least 60 percent had kept a mistress, which typically involves providing an apartment and an allowance.
“It’s definitely still prevalent,” said Beijing-based writer Zhang Lijia, who conducted research on China’s sex industry for her novel, “Lotus”.
“The traditional practice of men showing their social standing with numerous concubines has returned in the form of mistress culture.”
In recent years, authorities have jailed and intimidated outspoken critics on women’s issues.
Ye Haiyan, one of China’s most prominent feminist activists, gained fame for her brazen protests against a string of child sexual abuse cases.
But she said she does not dare to even write blog posts about women’s rights issues now.
“They get deleted right away, and authorities have pressured multiple landlords to evict me,” she said. “The harassment only stopped after I moved in with my husband.”