No woman is to be found in the new Politburo. Because this is a break with the informal practice for the past 20 years of having at least one woman on the Politburo and serving as a vice-premier, it is worth reflecting on the experience. Three have served during that time.
The first, Wu Yi, led the fight against Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and played a leading negotiating role in China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. The second, Liu Yandong, is more associated with culture and social development.
The latest, Sun Chunlan, has been a high-profile field commander in the Covid campaign. Their track records vindicated the reservation of a place representing half the people, notwithstanding other criteria such as one measure or another of merit.
State news agency Xinhua says top leaders this time were selected through interviews and screening by inspection teams sent by President Xi Jinping. Loyalty to Xi topped criteria, followed by ability to bypass Western sanctions with hi-tech breakthroughs. Past experience at local and ministerial level is a key factor.
Political correctness did not weigh heavily, if at all. Nonetheless the new all-male line-up is widely seen as a step backwards. Moreover, only 11 women are to be found on the 205-member Central Committee, of whom nearly all hold university degrees. That distinction need not rule out women.
They are, after all, found in increasing numbers in various fields of science and technology, and now outnumber men in higher education institutions. Gone are the days when lack of education need disadvantage women with political aspirations, along with a consequential lack of experience.
In respect of experience, Shen Yiqin, 62, the highest-ranking female cadre, may be a case in point. The Guizhou party secretary was front-runner to succeed Sun Chunlan. But since she was only appointed in 2020, her experience at that level is not yet comparable with that of Wu, Liu and Sun. A transfer to another province would enhance her credentials and might signal she was being groomed.
That said, it remains disappointing not to see a female Politburo member and vice-premier for the first time since 2002. China can benefit from a more diverse voice. A tiny handful of women have established a formidable track record in testing roles. Hopefully, the latest setback is a temporary exception. There has long since been any justification for denying women more opportunity to contribute at the highest level.
Amid geopolitical tensions one of China’s biggest challenges is to project the right image, exemplified by the projection of power tempered by the cultivation of soft power. Wu Yi set a good example in the WTO negotiations, tempering a tough position with charm, a style seen as a factor in the success of the talks.