Women in modern China — the odds are heaped against Peng Shuai

The role for women in Chinese politics has not moved on greatly from the Mao era. They are actors not in their own right, but only by association with men.
Jiang Qing or Madame Mao cultural revolution
Jiang Qing, known as Madame Mao in Western literature, enjoyed a position of indirect power as Chairman Mao's wife. She played a major role in the Cultural Revolution. Credit: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
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The documentary film-maker Adam Curtis’s BBC series Can’t Get You Out of My Head: an emotional history of the modern world broadcast earlier in 2021 contained as one of its key narratives the story of the rise and fall of Jiang Qing. Jiang was the fourth and final wife of Mao Zedong, leader of China from 1949 until his death in 1976. The documentary used footage of her in her prime, haranguing so-called enemies of the people during the Cultural Revolution. By this time, she had moved far beyond her origins as a young starlet in Shanghai in the 1930s. After years of enforced silence (one of the conditions forced on her by other members of the Communist Party elite when she married Mao), in the 1960s she came into her own. 

Official accounts of her later career to this day in China stress her vindictiveness, the ways in which from 1966 she endorsed savage campaigns against those she regarded as her enemies. Her personal venom poisoned the body politic of the time. In some films, she is seen almost screaming about the need to root out counter-revolutionaries in front of a huge hall of Red Guards. 

Jiang had no real power base, however.  Almost exactly a month after Mao died, she was arrested, and all positions stripped from her. A person who had been amongst the most feared in the country ended up being given a suspended death sentence in 1981, accused along with three others of being the core reasons for the late Mao-era chaos. She committed suicide with stockings she had managed to secrete away in her prison cell in 1991. 

Jiang Qing’s tale can be seen as being about many things – of pride before a fall, of the brutal machinations of Chinese elite politics, of revenge and then retribution – but it is also profoundly symptomatic of the role that women have played in modern Chinese politics and history. The footage of her in the BBC series in the end showed a woman slowly defeated and overwhelmed by a system where whatever authority she had was dependent solely on the man she happened to be married to. She seemed utterly aware of this. Unbowed and defiant, at her 1981 trial she yelled at the presiding judge that she was `Mao Zedong’s dog, and when he said bite, I bit.’ Her message was pretty clear. She was doing someone else’s bidding, not her own. 

The tennis player Peng Shuai is not a politician. There are significant differences between her links with Zhang Gaoli, a powerful Chinese politician, which came to light recently, and that of Jiang, not least the fact that she and Zhang were not married. But the claims she made via a social media post in China – that she had experienced sexual abuse at his hands – has raised again the question of what exactly the role of women is in contemporary Chinese power. 

Zhang was a standing committee politburo member from 2012 to 2017. As such he occupied the supreme summit of power in the country. Since 1949, not once has there been a female member of this group. Of the current full politburo of twenty-five members, in power since 2017, only Sun Chunlian is a woman. Similarly, of the governors of China’s thirty-one provinces and autonomous regions, only Shen Yiqin is female. This is not just an issue at elite level. Of the 90 million members of the Communist Party, three quarters are men. The brute fact is that the Communist Party is institutionally and culturally a male-dominated enclave. And that, by extension, means so is politics in China, because the Party is the only body through which one can have any political life in the country. 

Considering Peng’s account, and speculation about what may have led to her allegations, one can appreciate many familiar elements in her story. The suggestion is that she was in effect Zhang’s mistress, reportedly with his wife’s full connivance. The spectre of the imperial harem from dynastic times rears its head here, a long established and well researched aspect of pre-modern power structures. The greatest emperors in the Qing era, figures such as Kangxi and Qianlong in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sometimes had dozens of chosen concubines, with whom they had a complex range of offspring.

Ironically, for remote figures such as emperors, the harem was one of the few places through which influence could be found. Cultivating favoured lovers meant having at least some kind of indirect means of communicating with the ultimate power figure. This meant that concubines became, illicitly and subliminally, power players in their own right. 

Vicarious, indirect power was something Jiang Qing enjoyed almost two centuries later. To make the parallels in this area between these two ages even clearer, Mao in his later life apparently tired of her, and, according to the account by his personal doctor, Li Zhisui, assembled a private harem of almost imperial scale around him. Communists had promised equality and came to power passing a marriage law in 1950 that granted women equal rights with men to divorce. But old habits died hard. 

So little is clear about where Peng now is, or about what actually happened between her and Zhang. But the very fact that she has fallen silent and her story snuffed out in China means speculation has run riot. The brief trickle of information, according to some, was a ploy by the people around President Xi Jinping to discredit a group Zhang belongs to that is regarded as a potential threat. To others, it is simply the authorities continuing a ruthless series of clampdowns on anyone who makes unflattering claims against one of their own. There are even some who see it as a small sign that the #MeToo movement is starting to have traction in a country where previously it was unthinkable even to hint at sexual misbehaviour by someone who occupied such an elevated position. This is despite the fact that Peng’s fight back was so short-lived. 

Whatever interpretation might be accurate, and whether we will ever find out more, one thing remains clear. The role for women in Chinese politics has not moved on greatly from the time of Jiang Qing. They are actors not in their own right, but only by association with men. And it is the story of these men that are seen as taking precedence. Peng’s story is for sure a troubling one for an individual. But it is also troubling in showing that for a society that has changed so dynamically and dramatically in modern times, in this key respect, China hasn’t changed at all.

Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King​'s College London, and Associate Fellow of the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of over 20 books on modern China, the most recent of which is China: A History​ (Polity Press, Cambridge).

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