Continuity and change: women's representation in reform-era Chinese politics

Downie, Edmund

This essay uses a mix of secondary literature, primary sources, and quantitative analysis
to offer a comprehensive account of the ebbs and flows in women’s representation in Chinese
politics during the reform (post-1978) era. The literature to date offers two conflicting
accounts of women’s representation during this era. Some scholars present the period
as a time of consistent decline; others present gains in representation levels from the
1990s onwards. This essay reconciles these two narratives for a unified account. It does so
by updating Jude Howell’s concept of “state feminism” in reform-era China to show how
state interests and civil society demands together determined women's participation levels
during this period. The concept of "state feminism" treats women's representation in
Chinese politics from 1949 to today as a reflection of state needs. Such a statecentric view
has fueled many of the "declinist" depictions of female representation in the reform era.
This essay affirms state feminism's dominant role in suppressing women's representation
through the mid-1990s. But it also shows how the state, by promoting economic development
and closing gender gaps in educational attainment, has had a moderately positive
impact on women's representation over the past two decades. During the same period,
civil society pressures have also emerged as a significant factor behind rising representation
levels. For this reason, accounts of women’s representation in Chinese politics today
must incorporate both state and non-state actors in their analyses as substantive influences.

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Also Published In

The Journal of Politics and Society

More About This Work

Academic Units
Helvidius Group
Helvidius Group of Columbia University
Published Here
November 1, 2014