For me, the most interesting story to come out of this week’s 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China isn’t the seven bland men who claimed the reins of power for the next ten years. It's the women, the lack of women, and the portrayal of women at this highly staged political event. (If you don’t know what the National Congress is, you can read my primer here.)
The quinquennial National Congress is a gathering of all the Communist Party delegates across China. This year’s was extra special because, in addition to listening to mind-numbing speeches, they got to rubber stamp a new group of leaders.
The Congress is a massive sausage fest, but women do play a big part, according to state-run outlets.
Over the weekend a link from People’s Daily, a party paper, gained a lot of attention (at least in the foreign media) for a slideshow in which they attempted to highlight the women present at the Congress. Here’s how they framed it: “Beautiful ritual girls, female reporters, and delegates to the Party Congress become beautiful scenery during the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.”
Forget binders full of women, bring me some binders full of beautiful scenery.
The slideshow also features other “ritual girls” in bright pink uniforms mugging for the camera and female Party delegates dressed in colorful outfits or bright ethnic clothing, as if to draw the eye away from the crowd of male delegates in charcoal suits.
But as we all know, women are so much more than ritualistic tea refillers and peppy party cheerleaders—they can also be mothers. Is there a way for state media to cynically exploit that role? Time for another slideshow:
The caption to this gem goes, “Luo Wei, a deputy to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, reads Congress material while taking care of her five-month-old daughter at a hotel in Beijing.”
Another delegate from Sichuan took her baby to the Congress as well. She got a slideshow too. Stories of working mothers are common throughout the world, and these pioneering women making their way up the party ranks should be commended. But the numbers tell a decidely less promising story.
Of the 2,268 delegates to this year’s Congress, 512 were women, which my calculator tells me is 22.6 percent. But women are far rarer in the higher echelons of Party power. Only 10 out of the 205 members in the latest Central Committee are women. The number of women in the newly inducted 25-member Politburo has doubled, to two. But no woman has ever been appointed to the highest tier of the Communist Party: the Politburo Standing Committee. The new Standing Committee unveiled Thursday is made up of seven dudes.
Percentages aside, the most bizarre development during the Congress revolves around a foreign female reporter named Andrea Yu (pictured above), who was called on an unprecedented four times to ask questions during Congress press conferences. One China Daily correspondent proclaimed, “Her case is just one example of the growing confidence among Party officials in facing up to the outside world, or to be more specific, in answering sharp questions.”
Hey that’s great, except that this “journalist” actually works for a company called Global CAMG Media Group, which is majority-owned by Beijing and has close ties to China Radio International, a—you guessed it!—state-owned radio station.
In the most cringe-worthy interview since Bob Costas and Jerry Sandusky, Yu, under withering questioning from ABC’s Stephen McDonnell, admits to not being much of a journalist, and that she keeps getting called on because officials know she’s going to pitch softballs.
Here are some choice exchanges:
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: Is it a little disingenuous for you to be up here I suppose with the appearance of being an independent international journalist when really you’re working for a Chinese company?
ANDREA YU: Yes, that’s a good question. It is interesting, and a lot of people have asked me about that. The fact is, I chose to be employed by them, and I’m representing their company.
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: But is it real journalism, what you’re doing?
ANDREA YU: Um, I’ve only just started. I’m very new to this, so I’m learning as I go.
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: So you’re not quite sure if it is?
ANDREA YU: Ah, no, I would call it – I wouldn’t call it hard news, I wouldn’t call it that, OK, I’m not going to be kidding myself there, but I’m very glad for the opportunity that I’ve had to come here and learn what I have.
Okay, so Andrea Yu is as much of a real journalist as April O’Neil, but props to her for giving honest answers when clearly it’s against her own self-interest.
By the end of the interview, it dawns on Yu, who has only been with CAMG for about a month, that maybe, just maybe, she’s being used:
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: But what do you think about it though? Do you feel that you’re being used?
ANDREA YU: Well, it’s been a bit difficult because there are layers. When I first entered my company, there’s only a certain amount of understanding I have about its connections to the government. I didn’t know it had any, for example.
So I find out more and more as time goes on. It’s quite difficult as a foreigner, when you first, at least for me in the last month, to know exactly because you get told things not all at the beginning, so that side of it is challenging.
Stories like this hurt the integrity of not only the state-owned media, but the Party at large. A friend who is an actual female reporter (she didn’t get to ask a question at the Congress) said in an email, “Shame on journalism, shame on the media control of China.”
But there's another twist: Andrea Yu might not even be her real name.
Intrepid muckrakers quickly discovered that a “babe”—because that’s how mature men refer to women—named “Andrea Hodgkinson,” who looks suspiciously like Andrea Yu, graced this week’s cover of Oriental BQ magazine, which is part of the same media conglomerate as CAMG. (The pictured tweet has since been deleted.)
It makes for a good story: Beautiful foreign correspondent boldly questions increasingly open Party. So what if it’s not true? The chick is hot.
In the end, all the anecdotes and slideshows in the world are just circumstantial evidence. No one really knows how the leaders of the Communist Party view women and their role in the country.
Mao once posited that women hold up half the sky, but in China that figure has always seemed a little inflated. I’m not saying the Party is anti-women. (Judging from how many mistresses their officials have, it would seem just the opposite.) But one fact can’t be ignored: the higher up you go, the less women there are.
So why hasn’t the sky fallen? Because the modern Communist Party knows something that Mao didn’t: that the sky will stay right where it is without women, so long as you replace the half they’re holding with a sturdy glass ceiling.