The Iron Lady of China
Unlike in many Asian countries, where women have succeeded in assuming top official posts including the presidency and premiership, in China they have remained largely shut out of high office. As mentioned in Andrew Nathan’s book, China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files, women are classified with ethnic minorities, intellectuals, and youth as groups for whom quotas have been established for lower-level positions.
This, of course, contradicts the progressive ideology of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) and its policy of ensuring gender equality. The situation, on the other hand, is surprising, given the considerable educational and vocational progress achieved by Chinese women in every field.
It is true China was the first Asian country to allow the participation of women in politics. In 1911, legislation was passed by the Kwangtung Provincial Assembly, granting them the right to vote and be elected to political office. And it is true that in global terms China ranks relatively high on the scale with regard to female participation in politics. Women currently form 21 per cent of all deputies in the National People’s Congress, 5 per cent higher than the global average.
But it is also true that during five decades of communist rule, they were denied the opportunity to emerge as top decision-makers in the ruling bodies. In other words, they have generally been left to serve as deputies to men in such posts as deputy provincial party secretary, deputy minister, and deputy provincial governor. In a very few cases, where they assumed ministerial posts, they were given less prestigious portfolios such as education, health, and family planning.
This, according to research paper conducted by Jude Howell from the University of East Anglia, is a result of China’s state-derived feminism which has paradoxically both advanced and constrained the position of women in politics.
This is why until recently the world had not heard of influential Chinese female politicians. Perhaps the only exception was Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao’s second wife and key player in the notorious Gang of Four, who was one of two women to become the first ever female members of the CPC’s Politburo. The other was Deng Ying Chao, wife of the country’s first Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. These two cases, as well as several others, also indicate that family relations with senior political figures have always been crucial to achieve prominence in the party and government.
The appointment in 2003 of Ms. Wu Yi (65) as vice-premier was, therefore, a significant development and an unprecedented move by the male-dominant CPC. The decision was even viewed by some as a prelude to put her at the top echelons of power in the near future, but her age led others to rule this out.
Wu Yi, born in 1938 into an intellectual family, in fact, enjoys all the necessary qualifications needed to become China’s first female leader. She has been a member of the CPC since 1962, the year she graduated from the Beijing Petroleum Institute with a degree in oil refinery engineering. Between 1962 and 1988, she assumed different prominent posts at several oil refineries and at the Yanshan Petrochemical Corporation. Her other experiences came from working as vice-mayor of Beijing (1988-1991) and as vice-minister of foreign economic relations and trade (1991-1993). In addition, she had served for five years as alternative member of the Politburo and as state councilor before she became in 2002 a full member of the Politburo.
However, it was her appointment in 1993 as minister of foreign trade and economic cooperation that gave her a genuine opportunity to prove her distinguished capabilities, after which she came to be referred to as China’s Iron Lady. She impressed her masters, as well as her foreign counterparts and observers with her careful handling of the friction with the United States over agreements on copyright protection, trade, and investment, and with her tough style of negotiations with the Americans and Europeans for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. She also impressed her party’s leaders when she deftly helped hammer out five trade agreements with Russia in 1999.
During the 2003 SARS crisis, Wu Yi replaced Zhang Wenkang, who had been fired over the cover-up, as health minister. She fared well in this position too, impressing many including Time magazine which dubbed her the “goddess of transparency”.
Because of her excellent background, toughness, intelligence, and dedication to work - all of which made her a rising star and influential figure in the CPC – she was named the second most powerful women in the world by Forbes magazine for both 2004 and 2005, behind only US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
*Academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs