Incessant Chinese propaganda has been boasting gender equality in China’s government for years, but the harsh truth is that the promises of equality for female civil servants have never translated to real power. The higher the rank, the fewer women. The story managed to marry an original data set with probing interviews, as well as Chinese government policy papers to produce a truly compelling investigation into why women are effectively shut out of government in China
No reporter had done a comprehensive report on this issue before. After the story was published, scholars and investigative journalists alike raved about our original and important findings:
Several political scientists and gender studies scholars have asked us to share our database. And they also said they would assign our investigativeanalysis to their students. I believe scholars who hope to study the gap between what the Chinese Communist Party promises on gender equality and the reality will benefit from our investigation. And hopefully, China’s governments and the Party will improve the situation for female officials in the future as a result of my reporting and its influence overseas.
Although ChinaFile is banned in China, the story has made its way into China, sparkling discussion of women and politics Chinese social media. I hope this article will inspire young women to challenge gender norms as they advance their careers, whether they are in politics or not.
Aportion of the research for “Pretty Lady Cadres” draws on a dataset that ChinaFile constructed, consisting of biographical information about the top Party and state leaders at the provincial, municipal, and county levels of China’s government. Each administrative level has both a Chinese Communist Party Secretary and a head of government (a governor, a mayor, or their equivalent, depending on the level and the specific province or region). In the administrative hierarchy, there are multiple municipalities under each province, and multiple counties under each municipality.
This information was hosted in fairly complete form on a government website maintained by the Party’s flagship newspaper, The People’s Daily, until sometime in 2018 when the site was overhauled, eliminating information about county-level leaders. Thus, to construct our dataset, ChinaFile relied on the Internet Archive, a non-profit that archives select webpages over time.
By scraping the Internet Archive’s records, we were able to obtain information about the top government and Party leaders at the county, municipal, and provincial levels. Though we were unable to reconstruct the entire database, our dataset includes nearly 4,300 county or county-equivalent localities throughout China.
What was the hardest part of this project?
1. Of the roughly 9,900 leaders listed in our dataset, about 2,900 did not include gender information. For these entries, we turned to the existing program “ngender,” which uses historical name data to make guesses about the gender of a person based on their name. The program also gives a “confidence rate” for each of its guesses. Running ngender against leader data for which we already had gender information, we determined that the program guessed correctly in nearly 93 percent of cases, and tended to make more accurate guesses for names we knew to be associated with men. The average confidence rate for correctly-guessed female entries was 85 percent. We then ran ngender against those entries for which we did not have gender information, manually checking any guesses which had a confidence rate below 85 percent. It took a months to finish the manual checking of hundreds of government officials’ gender.
2. As the Chinese government continues to clamp down on freedom of speech, citizens in China are increasingly afraid to talk to foreign media. It took me months to find and establish relationships with Chinese government employees who were willing to speak to me. Fearing repercussions for giving unauthorized interviews, all government employees interviewed for this story, agreed to speak on the condition that only her surname be used. In order to ensure their safety, I had to be extremely careful in handling their personal information and make sure their identities would not be exposed at any point in the writing and editing process.
What can others learn from this project?
At a time when China expels an increasing number of international journalists, denies visas to scholars and silences its people, it’s harder for analysts and journalists outside of China to understand the country and its cultural, social and political issues. Going forward, using publicly available data and Chinese-language information that lives on Chinese social media and government websites is one of the few means left for the rest of the world to make sense of the country of 1.4 billion people.
As for the project itself, other journalists can use our data as authorative figures to illustrate the lack of gender equality in Chinese politics. They can learn the gender dynamics in China’s officialdom and within the Party as well as the general situation of Chinese working professionals. They can also conclude that the gap between what the Chinese Communist Party promises about gender equality and the reality by citing our article is wide. I linked all of my sources in my article, so that journalists interested in the topic can access the exact government policy papers, guidelines, laws and regulations from the original government/Party websites. We also created an interactive map showing the number of women in the top two positions at the provincial, municipal, and county levels of governance, which will give fellow journalists a good sense of regions and places that do relatively well or bad in terms of promoting women to leadership. We didn’t really look into the geographic differences when it comes to women in top leadership positions, but I think this will be a great follow-up project to work on if other journalists are interested.