How “all-male rulers” influence gender inequality: PRC political scene and the three-child Policy
Although much progress has been made globally on gender equality, the issue continues to permeate many aspects of contemporary societies. Of all the different fields that make up a society according to the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), the social sphere in which gender inequality is most pronounced is the political one. Verba (2003) argued that one of the cardinal principles of political systems should be to ensure fair preferences and interests representation so that the policies formulated can encompass all its citizens’ demands, regardless of their gender. What happens if, however, the majority of policymakers in a governing state - be it a democracy, an absolute state, or a socialist state - are male? Are women's political preferences considered the same way as those of men?
The assemblies and parliaments of the various states are asymmetrical in their composition in favor of males. This finding is crucial, especially when coupled with the correlation between gender and political preferences. Equal participation of males and females in politics is essential, not only to guarantee good governance but also to strengthen the rights of women as a population section. Indeed, this leads to the expectation that the policies formulated are also somewhat more likely to represent the interests of the male population, being the one most represented.
This article analyzes how the Chinese government and its composition, with an overwhelming numerical majority in favor of male individuals, can influence gender equality. In particular, the case study focuses on the recent “Three-Child Policy” (三孩政策 sān hái zhèngcè), which was approved at the end of last May by the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party (widely known as the Politburo). The research question is: How does the “Three-Child policy”, having been formulated by a political system composed mainly of men, reinforce and contribute to the perpetuation of patriarchy in Chinese society?
Gender stereotypes mainly perpetuate the gender imbalance favoring men in the political domain. Historically, leadership positions have always been occupied by men, propagating the idea that specific 'masculine characteristics' are necessary in order to be a good leader. Dingler et al. (2019) have demonstrated mainly how the gender of elected representation exerts a particular influence on legislative preferences, which is why more significant equity in representation is needed. A gender balance in political representation is a necessary condition for fair representation. As it has been shown repeatedly throughout history, the preferences of the most marginalized groups of the population are “less well represented by elected officials and through enacted policy” (Dingler et al., 2019), and very often, representative bodies are skewed towards the preferences of men, who are the numerically largest group within representative bodies. Women represent a disadvantaged group. Above all, it is important to stress why women represent crucial numerical resources. The share of women in politics is crucial, as their preferences are more focused on issues such as reproductive rights, childcare, equal access to work (Dingler et al., 2019), i.e., all those issues that traditionally concern the rights and protections of the female population. Aside from issues concerning rights that are appropriately related to gender, gender imbalance translates into a poor representation of women's rights and preferences.
We now proceed to narrow the field of analysis, focusing on the situation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in terms of political empowerment - defined by the World Economic Forum as “the category that examines the gap between men and women at the highest levels of political decision-making, captured through the ratio of women to men in ministerial level positions and the ratio of women to men in parliamentary position”.
It is essential to have a numerical dimension of the gender gap in policy representation. It should be stressed that the gender gap in this sub-index is the largest of the four monitored at a global level, a sign that women are still very disadvantaged globally (the 2006 GGGR highlights how women have only 15% of the political empowerment conferred on men, and in 2021 the closed gender gap in this sector will be only 22%). In the global ranking, China has seen its position decline from 52nd to 118th place; however, there have been improvements: the index, which in 2006 was 0.11, now stands at 0.12. The number of Chinese women sitting in the People's Assembly has increased from a score of 0.25 in 2006 to 0.33 now (although the score is higher than the global average, the ranking in question has decreased, moving China from 37th to 76th). The number of women in ministerial positions has deteriorated significantly, from a score of 0.07 in 2006 to a score of 0.03, while the global average stands at 0.25. However, the level of female political participation in China is higher at the local level than in the central bodies in Beijing. Moreover, the government is trying to promote and implement measures to increase women's participation in politics, which is still low.
The Chinese political landscape remains manly-dominated. Women remain under-represented: although the number of female members within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is increasing. According to the ACWF, women make up 37.5% of the approximately 4 million total members of the Party's neighborhood and village committees. The elite positions held by women are minimal: only one woman, Sun Chunlan, holds a position among the 25 members of the Politburo. Furthermore, women make up only a quarter of the National People's Congress members. Therefore, it is crucial to have an overall picture of the women’s presence in PRC government bodies. The numerical women’s presence in parliament influences the degree to which policies that are close to women's preferences are promoted and approved, as they are participating in policy-making progress by advancing demands that are instrumental in promoting gender equality (Dingler et al., 2019).
This serves to better frame the current family planning policy approved last May by the CCP, allowing couples to have three children. The policy was approved as a result of some elements that emerged with the conduct of the Seventh National (decennial) Population Census: according to the data, the Chinese population, although having maintained a moderate growth rate in recent years, was nevertheless characterized by a decline in the birth rate and a consequent trend towards an aging population. Since the trend has long-term implications for Beijing's future - from a shrinking workforce to lower productivity - the CCP has decided to remedy the downward trend by acting on women's reproductive rights (Tan, 2021).
According to Tan (2021), the problem with the formulation of this new family planning policy is linked to its patriarchal character: women's reproductive rights are seen as “tools of the state”, therefore implying a nationalization of women's bodies, which are seen as less important than economic growth. According to the analyst, although with the founding of the PRC in 1949, Máo Zédōng (毛泽东) promoted gender equality, proclaiming that “women enjoy equal rights with men in political, economic, cultural, education and social life”, this did not translate into women occupying high positions in the political sphere - or an equal representation of the “other half of the sky”.
Ending more than three decades of the One-Child Policy, the CCP is reinforcing traditional family values (Tan, 2021). After the publication of the 2020 Census, there seems to be a return to the confinement of women within the home and a valorization of women's particular roles as mother and wife(贤妻良母 xián qīliáng mǔ), an ideology that culminated in the formulation of the "Three-Child Policy" (Tan, 2021).
The new policy was received very lukewarmly by the (female) population: in addition to pointing out that the emotional burden and responsibility of raising a child falls almost exclusively on women, they complain about the high costs and lack of incentives (Yeung and Gan, 2021). The proposal fails to recognize the real reasons behind the decline in fertility: “People are held back not by the two-child limit, but by the incredibly high cost of raising children in today's China [...]. The challenges are so multifaceted that it requires carefully coordinated actions in multiple policy areas to rebuild people's confidence in the future. It is simply not wise to expect citizens to respond to policy changes so robotically”.
A final element to consider that helps to understand better the numerical disproportion of women in the Chinese political landscape is culture. Lane and Malami (1999) explain how women are more likely to gain political power - and consequently more opportunities to influence the outcome of laws - in countries with more liberal attitudes and more egalitarian cultures. In China, some outdated cultural norms and strong patriarchal imprints tend to continue to emphasize the role of women as solely responsible for raising children and caring for the home. Historically, Chinese culture is shaped by Confucian values, reflected in a patriarchal tradition that plays a significant role in distributing power and opportunities within the country. The Confucian tradition still influences people's perception and behavior towards the role of women at various levels of society. In order to achieve a society based on gender equality, China must begin to scale back the salience covered by the deeply ingrained gender stereotype that links inequality between men and women to traditional culture.
Xi Jinping has stated that the Party leads on everything and stands as a guarantor of promoting gender equality. However, this may be at odds with the recent approval of the three-child policy - which clearly relegates women's role to motherhood and encloses them once again in the household. However, in conclusion, some fundamental elements must be considered. It is undeniable that the PRC, in the 70 years since its foundation, has achieved impressive results in promoting greater gender equality. On the other hand, there is no denying China's conservative turn on gender roles, especially since Xi Jinping (习近平) took power in 2012. The Three Sons Policy aims to remedy the rapid aging of the population and make the PRC more productive and competitive in the years to come. Population growth is directly proportional to economic growth, which explains the Party's intervention in what appears to be a “private” matter. The legitimacy of the CCP is primarily linked to developments in the economic sphere, so it is easy to see how the impact of the number of births goes far beyond the family sphere. In short, according to Meacci (2022), the perpetuation of gender stereotypes and the firm retention of the male population's majority share of power serves a dual purpose: on the one hand, it ensures social stability and continuity in the Party’s power structure; on the other, it guarantees Beijing's ability to realize the “Chinese dream” (中国梦), where the concepts of nation and family play a fundamental role.
However, I argue that the government should pay more attention to the impact of this new family planning on Chinese women – and currently, it does not seem to have addressed the discriminatory impact of its child policy on women in the workplace. The state should provide more resources to women, guaranteeing them the possibility to maintain a professional career while having children, dismantling the revived traditional patriarchy that sees a gendered division of labor and increased pressure on women. The eventual success of the third-child policy is contingent on Beijing’s ability to devise a broader strategy, which can be done by ensuring greater involvement and participation of women in the political debate. Increasing women’s participation and political representation would not only steer the discussion toward issues significant to women but would also improve the quality of policymaking.
 European Institute for Gender Equality, “Gender Equality in Political Decision-making”, May 17, 2017, available at: https://eige.europa.eu/publications/gender-equality-political-decision-making.  Ivi.  Sarah C. Dingler, Corinna Kroeber & Jessica Fortin-Rittberger, “Do parliaments underrepresent women’s policy preferences? Exploring gender equality in policy congruence in 21 European democracies”, Journal of European Public Policy, 26:2, 2019, p. 303. DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2017.1423104.  World Economic Forum, "The Global Gender Gap Report 2021", 5, last accessed June 11, 2021, available at: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2021.pdf.  Ibid. 93.  Shen Lu, "Pretty Lady Cadres", China File, December 21, 2020, available at: https://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/features/pretty-lady-cadres-china  Nis Gruenberg, "Who is the CCP? China's Communist Party in Infographics", MERICS, March 16, 2021, available at: https://merics.org/de/kurzanalyse/who-ccp-chinas-communist-party-infographics.  Valarie Tan, "Women Hold up Half the Sky, but Men Rule the Party", MERICS, June 03, 2021, available at: https://merics.org/en/short-analysis/women-hold-half-sky-men-rule-party.  David Stanway, Stella Qiu and Kevin Yao, 'Reactions to China's New Three-Child Policy', REUTERS, May 31, 2021, available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/china/reactions-chinas-new-three-child-policy-2021-05-31/.  Ludovica Meacci, “China’s Conservative Turn on Gender Roles”, ISPI, January 31, 2022, available at: https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/chinas-conservative-turn-gender-roles-32970.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Jessie Yeung and Nectar Gan, "Chinese Women Were Already Discriminated in the Workplace. A Three-Child Policy Might Make Things Worse", CNN Business, June 07, 2021, available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/06/05/business/china-three-child-policy-discrimination-intl-hnk-dst/index.html. According to the two authors, women continue to be discriminated against by companies, culminating in discriminatory hiring requirements, firing employees who get pregnant or discouraging them from having babies.  Ibid.  Lane and Malami, “Gender Inequality in Political Representation: A Worldwide Comparative Analysis”, 260.
David Stanway, Stella Qiu and Kevin Yao, “Reactions to China's New Three-Child Policy”, REUTERS, May 31, 2021, available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/china/reactions-chinas-new-three-child-policy-2021-05-31/.
European Institute for Gender Equality, “Gender Equality in Political Decision-making”, May 17, 2017, available at: https://eige.europa.eu/publications/gender-equality-political-decision-making.
Jessie Yeung and Nectar Gan, “Chinese Women Were Already Discriminated in the Workplace. A Three-Child Policy Might Make Things Worse”, CNN Business, June 07, 2021, available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/06/05/business/china-three-child-policy-discrimination-intl-hnk-dst/index.html.
Kenworthy Lane and Melissa Malami, “Gender Inequality in Political Representation: A Worldwide Comparative Analysis”, Social Forces 78: 1 (1999), doi:10.2307/3005796.
Ludovica Meacci, “China’s Conservative Turn on Gender Roles”, ISPI, January 31, 2022, available at: https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/chinas-conservative-turn-gender-roles-32970.
Nis Gruenberg, “Who is the CCP? China's Communist Party in Infographics”, MERICS, March 16, 2021, available at: https://merics.org/de/kurzanalyse/who-ccp-chinas-communist-party-infographics.