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Women's political participation in China: in whose interests elections?

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This article takes up the issue of women's political participation in village committees in China. Of interest is the decline in and continuing low level of women's political participation in village governance structures in the reform period, and particularly following the widespread introduction of competitive village elections since 1988. The dominant explanation given for women's numerical under-representation in village committees, and in politics more generally, focuses on women's lack of self-confidence, which inhibits them from standing as candidates, and on the enduring drag of 'feudal' attitudes, which construct women as inferior to men, and therefore not capable of leadership. These two factors combined have in turn a material effect, as son-preference advantages boys in access to basic schooling, who thus, particularly in poorer rural areas, end up with higher levels of education, and greater opportunities in waged employment. The common solution adopted by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), China's largest women's organisation, lies in a two-pronged attack: first in the ideological realm, targeting men and women's sexist attitudes and concomitantly promoting a discourse of equality, and second, in the material realm by raising women's skills. It is argued here that this dominant text on women's under-representation in village committees masks a more complex conjuncture of variables that shape women's position in local politics. Social practices, economic structures, institutional norms and procedures, and political culture all prey on, revitalise and reproduce gendered notions of the appropriate place of women and men in political life.

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