The 1960’s are calling Xi Jinping, on a rotary phone, urging the strongest Chinese leader since Mao Zedong to extricate his views on gender equality from the “Mad Men” era.
It was Mao who observed in 1968 that “women hold up half the sky.” But in the Xi era that began in 2012, the female half of China’s 1.4 billion people don’t hold up much of anything in the halls of power. Not a single woman sits on the Communist Party’s 24-person Politburo decision-making body.
Even Japan’s current Cabinet lineup includes five women out of 19 members. And Japan, remember, trails the Maldives, Côte d’Ivoire and Kuwait in terms of gender equality. Tokyo is even behind Saudi Arabia in female representation in parliament.
Yet Xi’s call for women to take responsibility for establishing a “new trend of family” to put China on a better demographic path and, by extension, a more vibrant economic trajectory misses the point.
As the Chinese leader put it on October 30: “It’s necessary to guide women to play their unique role in carrying forward the traditional virtues of the Chinese nation and establishing good family customs.” He added that “we must actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing.”
Sadly, Xi didn’t mention creating a new culture of gender parity. What he did do was sound like he was acting in an episode of the popular American period drama “Mad Men” and its sepia-toned take on patriarchal dynamics.
Xi isn’t talking about policies to increase gender equality, which economists agree is a necessary ingredient to building a more innovative and productive economy. Nor did Ding Xuexiang, a key Xi deputy, include the standard phrasing that greater equality is a pillar of the Chinese growth model during his Oct. 30 address to lawmakers.
In the two weeks since then, Xi’s party has had ample opportunity to dispel concerns among pro-woman groups that Asia’s biggest economy is undergoing a worrying regression. And here, it’s hard not to fear China is pivoting further in Japan’s direction in downplaying the potential of fully half its population.
Xi’s idea is, essentially, for women to stay home to get pregnant or care for the old for the good of the motherland. It immediately made me think of Hakuo Yanagisawa’s “Kinsley gaffe” in 2007.
The reference here to when a politician reveals too much truth—saying the “quiet part” out loud. And, wow, did Yanagisawa, then Japan’s health minister, step in it when he described women as “baby-making machines” in a speech about the nation’s declining birthrate.
That retrograde spectacle 16 years ago makes for an intriguing bookend. Yanagisawa’s gaffe hurt the popularity of the government at the time, led by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. That will happen when one of your ministers insults half of Japan’s 126 million people and you refuse to fire him.
When Abe returned for a second stint as premier in 2012, he did so in full feminist mode. Well, at least rhetorically, saying the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s new mission was to make women “shine.”
Yet, Abe’s “womenomics” plan was more hot air than policy. By the time he resigned in late 2020, Tokyo’s ranking in World Economic Forum’s gender equality index had worsened 19 places to 120th from 101st on his watch. Today, Japan is 125th, denting Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s standing as change agent.
Since 2020, the LDP appears to have learned little. In 2021, Yoshiro Mori was forced to resign as head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee for sexist remarks. Mori, a former prime minister himself, complained that letting female board directors talk made meetings “take a lot of time.” He became a global social media meme—and joke.
Yet the Japanese politician Xi seems to be riffing off most is Taro Aso, who was prime minister from 2008 and 2009 and deputy prime minister from 2012 to 2021.
At a February 2019 hearing on demographic challenges, Aso said: “The are lots of weird people who say the elderly are at fault, but that’s incorrect. Rather, those who aren’t giving birth to children are the problem.”
Xi is a bit more careful with his words in blaming women for not cranking out more babies. But he still sounds like a male protagonist in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” More time putting his finger on the reasons why the population is shrinking—and less pointing it—might drive Xi toward the policies needed to put China on a better demographic trajectory.
First, Xi must remember that it seems like just yesterday that the one-child policy resigned China to its current birthrate dilemma. Since 2016, when the policy ended, has Team Xi built new social safety nets to give families confidence to grow? Not so much. Has it acted boldly and creatively to tackle the rising costs of childcare and education? Nope. Big public subsidies to incentivize procreation? Hardly.
What about creating a corporate culture zeitgeist around working mothers being able to have a rewarding career, too? And why not elevate more women to top national leadership positions? When you ask womenomics experts like Kathy Matsui, cofounder of MPower Partners, what’s missing in Japan, they say it’s enough female role models to inspire true disruption.
If the 1960s really could call Xi, the “Mad Men” era would tell him that clear top-down policy moves are needed to catalyze the baby-boom he seeks. That means less talking and shaming and more, well, doing.