The barriers inhibiting women’s participation in formal politics in China continues despite decades of CCP-led training programs, quotas and special Party structures like the All China Women’s Federation. The persistent low numbers of women in national-level political bodies suggests that the problem is as much ‘cultural’ as it is ‘structural’. The well-documented discomfort the presence of ‘women in power’ produces in western democracies is often manifest in hostile or belittling media reports. In China media discourse about political leaders is more ‘restrained’, so the marginalisation occurs primarily through trivialising women’s political authority by presenting them as the ‘aesthetic sex’—in a cultural frame where power is antithetical to beauty. I draw on recent media commentary to show that women politicians are often explained as being useful for ‘softening’ China’s international image or ‘decorating and enlivening’ the otherwise austere domestic political landscape through their beauty, style and grace. Media presentation of these idealised aesthetic attributes as intrinsic to femininity and specific to women undermines programs aimed at expanding numbers of women in formal politics. Widespread social unease about women’s public exercise of power is mollified by the replaying of reassuring notions that ‘she’s just there for decoration’.
Louise Edwards is Scientia Professor of Chinese history at UNSW, Sydney. Her recent publications include Citizens of Beauty: Drawing Democratic Dreams in Republican China (Washington University Press, 2020) and ‘Victims, Apologies, and the Chinese in Australia,’ Journal of Chinese Overseas vol. 15 (2019).