Whenever China and India are compared, it has been done so on parameters such as population, development, human rights, GDP etc. Unfortunately, gender is not a subject that is often talked about, especially in politics. As a feminist who is involved in politics, I have been espousing for greater representation of women in politics with much passion for years now. So, naturally, one of the subjects that I was extremely keen on learning upon my arrival in China was about the political representation of women in Chinese politics.
Considering the sharp contrast in the political cultures of both these countries, it was quite surprising for me to uncover a lot of similarities when it came to the treatment of women and other genders. The Chinese society is highly patriarchal and patrilineal, just like the Indian family system, which has been one of the primary reasons behind the under-representation of women in politics. Rooted in Confucian ideology, the traditional Chinese family treated their women as second-class citizens, thereby resulting in power structures that discouraged women from active participation just like the Manusmriti did in India.
According to data released by Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2017, China with 24.2% women in its National Congress was ranked 73 globally while India, with 11.8% of elected women parliamentarians, was ranked 148 out of 193. The figure becomes inversely proportional at the ministerial level, wherein India ranked 88 with 27% women ministers, ahead of China which was placed at 134 with just 10% women ministers.
This decrease in China’s ranking at the higher echelons of power is not an aberration. While India has had prominent women leaders including a Prime Minister, President, speaker, and various provincial heads; China has lagged far behind in giving women such positions of authority. Since the formation of the Communist Party of China almost a century ago, the proverbial glass ceiling in the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the top decision-making body, has not been broken yet. In the run-up to the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC), Congress held last year, there were widespread speculations about the induction of a woman, finally, in this 7-member all-boys club. Quite on the contrary, instead of making history, the number of women elected even in the 25-member Politburo, was reduced to just 1 from the earlier representation of 2 women in the 18th CPC Congress held half a decade ago. Further down the ladder, in the 204-member Central Committee, the representation of women was limited to 10 making it a mere 4.9 per cent. India also cuts a sorry figure with just around 12% women elected in the parliament and the state legislatures.
Globally, the woman question has been considered an imperative subject so as to pave the way to build structures that will help more women enter and sustain themselves in active politics. Many countries in the world have implemented affirmation action policies in order to increase participation of women in politics. There is available research which substantiates the better performance of women Parliamentarians/members of a legislative body than their male counterparts. Not just that, it has been established that women parliamentarians tend to emphasize social issues, such as child-care, equal pay, parental leave, and pensions; physical concerns, including reproductive rights, physical safety, and gender-based violence; and development, which includes human development, the alleviation of poverty, and delivery of services. Therefore, it has been established that greater participation of women in decision-making diversifies the process, which in turn enriches the institution and society.
Whereas India has been debating reservation for women for a long time now, a major contrast lies in the fact that the gender question hasn’t even arose in the minds of the general Chinese populace. Lately, though, there have been sporadic calls to reserve 30% of the CPC positions for women from proponents of gender empowerment. In this regard, the National Council issued a white paper in 2015 highlighting its plan to reserve 30% of village committees for women; while India embarked on this journey more than two decades ago with the 73rd and 74th Amendment. In 1993, India mandated the reservation of 33 per cent seats for women in the local governments and it has been considered a powerful strategy of affirmative action for providing the structural framework for women’s participation in political decision-making and developing new grass-root level leadership. It has successfully increased the number of women leaders at the local governments from a mere 3-4% to 42%.
Though the CPC’s plan to reserve seats looks like a positive stride towards gender parity, what needs to be kept in mind is the fact that the village committees are not formal government bodies as per China’s Constitution. So, in reality, it could be argued that the government has no desire to increase the representation of women in positions of real power. Similarly, a proposal to reserve 33% in the Indian state and national legislative bodies was pending in the Indian parliament for nearly twenty years. With the failure to get the support of the majority members of the House, it has failed to see the light of the day.
Though women in both countries are overcoming barriers in all walks of life and successfully causing cracks in the ubiquitous glass ceiling, politics remains a sphere where their presence has been curtailed due to patriarchal practices, unfavourable policies, and a lack of political will of the powers that be to empower them. In such a scenario, both the world’s most populous nations lose out on the existing potential of half of their populations and with it, the opportunity to have leaders stemming from a myriad of worldviews and experiences representing the various interests who could have enriched the society, furthermore.
Angellica Aribam is former National General Secretary of NSUI, currently pursuing her Masters In Public Policy from Peking University. She frequently writes on issues of race, gender, student welfare, and politics.
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