WHERE DOES CHINA FIND ITS LEADERS?
The short answer to where the leadership comes from is:
And therein lies a lesson that can help explain their shortcomings and their strengths.
The Chinese Communist Party, Chinese birth and male are the three prerequisites for any person with “I want to be President” ambitions.
Since the founding of the modern Chinese Communist Party in 1949 China’s Presidents/General Secretaries have been:
2. Educated in elite schools, including in some cases foreign universities
3. Products of a male hierarchy in the Party and at home.
Imagine if you were born a Prince in a society where men are Kings and Emperors. Imagine the joy the birth of a Prince brings into the Chinese family. A male child. (Chinese history is full of Empresses and Queens, but none were remotely recent.)
Men and women in China are equal only in the Constitution. Men are born with promise and expectations. The expectation for women is marriage and a grandchild, preferably male, in to the one-child family. (The one-child policy is undergoing change.)
Until recently Chinese values did not include fraternizing, dating, much less sex in middle and high school. Study, and examinations dominate the life of all school-aged Chinese with an overlay of constant pressure from home where you likely live until you go to university.
Most Chinese have yet to travel outside their country. Many Chinese have not been beyond the Province they live in or a neighboring province or two. China’s Presidents, unless they were educated abroad during their university years, have rarely traveled outside the Middle Kingdom.
China’s Presidents in recent incarnations, 6 of the 7 since Mao, qualify as “Princelings”, the sons of Party officials, young men born to lead. They are all men. They grow up in a male society that until recently included arranged marriages (a practice that has not completely died).
A “traditional” Chinese man and woman are akin to the roles men and women played in the immediate post-world war II era in the USA when Father’s Knows Best was not only the title of a popular early television series, but also described the gender roles in many American households. Wives may rule the roost at home but father is the breadwinner and the highest-ranking member of the family. That description works for many Chinese households today.
Ask someone about the family of China’s leaders and the technically correct answer is: State Secret.
How many children does Hu Jintao (predecessor to Xi Jimping) have? Answer: State Secret.
(State Secret is the label the Chinese government puts on anything, fact or subject that it doesn’t want to discuss. “None of your business” is the message.)
You can end up in jail if you violate state secrets.
In recent years the rules have relaxed to the extent that we learn more about the families of China’s leaders.
Xi Jimping’s wife Peng Liyuan is a musician and prominent folk singer who performed on stage and TV before her husband became Party Secretary. She is a civilian member of the People’s Liberation Army and performed in an officer’s uniform commensurate with her rank. She has continued the recent practice of traveling with her husband on state visits, unheard of in decades past when there were not even photos of the China’s First Ladies during their husband’s tenure.
But China remains as male-dominated a society as there is today. The mores of this society are akin to the MAD MEN era of the USA in the late 1940s and 50s.
Chinese men dominate the executive suites and boardrooms of all SOEs (State Operated Enterprises), and most Chinese corporations in the private sector. There has never been a female member of the Chinese Politburo (although one woman was mentioned for the first time as a “potential candidate” in the most recent transition).
(The Politburo makes policy in China and has more power than The President and General Secretary of the Party.)
Once in a position of power Chinese men cement the values of their boy’s club. Xi Jimping’s attack on corruption and high living by Party officials has been broader and deeper than his predecessors. The luxury trade has suffered. High-end restaurants have suffered, and the mistress trade has suffered.
Sex and power are bedmates. Many Chinese men compete with each other over who has more mistresses. This competition is almost as important as golf. Trophy women have been on display at social and some official functions.
My lesson was learned half a dozen years ago when we held an awards gathering for young journalists who had won prizes for entrepreneurial environmental reporting. The appropriate Vice-Minister (male) in Beijing was invited and scheduled to attend. He sent regrets at the last minute (a common occurrence among officials who accept invitations they have no intention of keeping). Instead he sent a young woman in her 20s wearing the latest and most expensive fashions. What she lacked was a title or portfolio.
In the Xi Jimping era ostentatious behavior of this kind and showing off a lifestyle that is likely to raise suspicions of ill-gotten gains is too risky.
There are embryos of a women’s movement in China. Here too you have to reach back to the late 50s and 60s in the USA (even later in Europe) when women realized that the pace of change in their male dominated societies would not accelerate until they forced change. In the political sphere that meant some women had to fight their way into the political arena.
The challenge in China is greater despite the fact that the Constitution mandates equality. Mao in his era dictated equality. “Women hold up half the sky”. But that was a society without an economy where status and power was available only to those who were gifted by their superiors. There was no entrepreneurship. But the new China has given women opportunities previously unavailable.
China has been creating dollar billionaires faster than any other country. In one recent example, 40% of the newly minted billionaires were women. They were all entrepreneurs who had started their own businesses and managed them to success. The message was clear. There were rarely opportunities within established companies, whether state enterprises or private enterprises, for a women to rise to the top. The economic and the political world had a male lock.
Job postings in China often specify gender preferences. Young single women are assumed to be temporary employees who will leave when they find a husband because they will soon be pregnant.
These are all throwback values that were common in North America and Europe. While values have changed in the mature economies of the richer countries, Chinese Party leaders have likely not grown out of their background and rearing.
These issues that are not discussed in state media. Stories about gender are rarely based on what happens in the public sector.
How can a Chinese leader begin to understand the hopes and aspirations of modern career-minded women? He has never known a model beyond his mother, perhaps a sister destined for marriage and motherhood, and later his wife.
His wife comes into the picture with the same set of compartmentalized expectations. If she comes from an elite Party family she will have benefitted from an elite education including University and likely a grad school. The professions will be open to her. Business will be an available choice. But the chances of becoming a Party official are rare. What chance is there to change this male culture?
Deng Xiaoping came from a large traditional Chinese family. He had one older sister and three younger brothers.
Jiang Zemin is the middle child of a large Chinese family sandwich. One older brother and sister. One younger brother and sister.
Hu Jintao has two younger sisters.
Xi Jimping is the second youngest in a family of four. One younger brother, one older brother and two older sisters.
18 children. 7 women and 11 men. Some of the women went on to successful careers and families of their own, but the four who rose in the ranks of the Party were men. That was not an accident.
The other end of the social and economic scale is the example of a relatively poor (not quite lower middle class) family in a small city in Hebei Province. The ideal family, a first-born son and a daughter (before the one child policy was mandated). When the son completed mandatory education through 9th grade he went on to high school and university and became a schoolteacher. The daughter, equally bright if not brighter than her brother, had to leave school after 9th grade. No money for high school or beyond and no expectation that she was destined for anything other than an early marriage and motherhood. She remains single, makes more money than anyone in the family through entrepreneurship that is nevertheless limited by her lack of education and a revered Chinese degree that remains a key to advancement in the economy and the society.
The circumstances and choices in the political family and the poor family are not uniquely Chinese. The struggle that women have to be seen without a gender prism is universal. In China the male society is institutionalized within the Party system. The Party is the source of the one-child-policy, the nationalized education system, and the Five Year Plans that are the blueprints of the Chinese economy, and society.
The generations coming into the lower and middle levels of Party leadership are now, for the most part, only-children. This will likely produce one or more generations of male party leaders with an even narrower gender focus.
Any single child knows that she or he is spoiled. No fault of the parent. It’s a simple fact of life when you are the only child; you get what is available, whether it is a little or a lot. There is no competition. You never encounter sibling rivalry. And the attention lavished on a male child in China is greater because of the gender bias and the size of the families reaching back before the single child policy. The older generations are thinning, but there are still large Chinese families such as those of the recent General Secretaries of the Communist Party.
Family gatherings can be seen as pyramids with the eldest family members representing a broad bottom of multiple siblings, the aunts and uncles first, second, and third cousins. Finally there stands the single male child. And if that male child has had the benefit of education, all the more so if he is a Princeling, the male heir to a Party official; it is not hard to imagine both the expectations and reverence that are thrust on him.
Think about it and imagine that life.
Then imagine the life of the young modern urban Chinese career woman. She too is likely an only child. In the special relationship between mother and daughter she has likely learned the inner workings and secrets of the men at the top, including her father. Mothers and daughters have different conversations than fathers and daughters. Mothers pass on their wisdom and family secrets. Fathers rarely do.
The level of communication between men and women in China runs the gamut form 0 to perhaps 4 on a scale of ten (as the best). There are exceptions, but the norm is low. It is lower yet for a father with a daughter. A father, whether Princeling or pauper is the anointed child. If he had a sister she was subservient. His model is his mother. If his mother is a traditional Chinese mother, and most mothers in past generations are traditional, her son is the jewel in her life.
The roles in a Chinese family are cast. The face of the family is the man. Honor and respect go to grandfather as the elder, but the hopes and expectations are on the son. It is a weight as well as a position of privilege.
When former Ambassador Gary Locke came to China and carried his own baggage the social networks of China erupted. Women recognized the natural gesture of a man to whom the trappings of gender, office and privilege were not important. Ambassador Locke was not only putting on a show for the Chinese. He was being himself though he knew what the reaction would be. It was a calculated gesture but also a normal one for him and his family.
When Michelle Obama came to China with her daughters, minus the President, the symbolism was obvious to every modern Chinese woman, and that likely included China’s First Lady as hostess. Peng Liyuan does travel in China and appears in more public functions on her own than her predecessors did but she is not likely to make any international forays as China’s First Lady soon. She was at a disadvantage during Mrs. Obama’s visit because her only daughter was away studying at Harvard and remains an anonymous member of the First Family of China.
Hillary Clinton is known throughout China and is an ever-present reminder to every Chinese woman: “we have no one who is comparable.”
In recent years there has been only one woman atop a Chinese Ministry (Commerce). Wu Yi negotiated China’s entry into the WTO (World Trade Organization). She is middle-aged and single, a rarity in her generation, all the more so for someone who rose to be a Minister in the central government. The explanation often heard from men and women was not her skills and political acumen: “She must be a Lesbian.”
The Chinese economic miracle, an economy that grew at between 7 and 12 percent for more than 30 years is a unique accomplishment in human history. China has raised between 200 and 400 million of its citizens out of poverty.
The country that suffered 40+ million deaths from starvation within the last 75 years now feeds its citizens and exports food.
China has built 20,000+ miles of high-speed rail in less than a decade. The country produces and sells more cars than the United States.
The country is the world’s number one polluter while it spends more money than any other country to reverse the pollution created by an economy that has to produce 22 million jobs a year.
China’s modern history is a string of economic accomplishments that brought a nation out of a dark age. Men set the agenda. Women have had an influence on China’s development and policies indirectly at best.
The men who lead and have led China have been restricted by their upbringing and life experience, but they are neither stupid nor blind. The question becomes, when and how, or even whether they are willing to raise social issues of gender equality and willing to share political power with women to a higher level?