Next week, the United Nations (UN) will host the 60th session of its Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 60). In the past a few years, an increasing and surprisingly concerted political will to favoring and mainstreaming women’s empowerment in international development has gained momentum. With the unanimous support among member states, gender perspectives dominate all aspects of the UN system, from strategic planning and policy implementation to performance evaluation. Meanwhile, the chance is high that the General Assembly will elect the UN’s first female Secretary General at the end of this year. A female Secretary General would potentially leverage even more media and public attention on gender issues.
China has a 20-year history of engaging on women’s issues. After all, the UN’s flagship gender equality document, the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, adopted by 189 countries in 1995, bears the name of the Chinese capital. But recently, China has made an unusual move and increasingly leveraged its foreign policy resources, such as funding, political commitments and high-level events with the UN, on this relative minor issue on the global agenda.
Last September, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a high-profile visit to the UN Headquarter in New York. Aside from the $2 billion donation made during the UN Sustainable Development Summit, Xi further announced another donation of $10 million to UN Women, the overarching intergovernmental entity devoted to gender equality and the empowerment of women. The fund will finance 100 projects on girls’ education and provide training for 130,000 women from developing countries. Early this year, Ambassador Liu Jieyi, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, further stressed that women’s empowerment is crucial to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Liu confirmed that China has integrated gender-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into its national development strategies. China also listed women empowerment as a key policy issue for its G20 presidency later this year. China has also proposed and funded a UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education.
Why is China so active in working for the empowerment of women? Traditional Chinese social values discourage women’s participation in politics, particularly as relates to external affairs. However, that trend is likely to change soon in the foreseeable future, for three main reasons.
First, China is increasingly transforming itself from a “game player” to a “game maker” when it comes to shaping regional and international institutions, norms, standards, and concepts. Taking leading role on gender equality and women’s empowerment can increase the visibility of China’s leadership and benefits Xi’s ambitious foreign policy agenda. Rather than competing with existing great powers, China will have more policy space and bargaining power as a “rule maker” when designing institutional structures for emerging global policy issues. Beijing has chosen the issues of gender equality and women’s empowerment to strengthen its leading role in the UN system. For example, China has called for all UN member states to follow its lead and integrate SDGs into their national strategies and plans, thus enhancing China’s influences on the sustainable development models of developing countries.
In the past decade, China has shifted from receiving financial and technical assistance to contributing large donations to other developing countries. More importantly, Beijing has made it clear that China wants to take a leading role in the decision-making process of global governance. Beijing expects to create more media buzz and new platforms and coalitions to favor China’s foreign policy.
Additionally, the 1995 Beijing Declaration, passed by unanimous consensus, was one of the first international agreements named after China’s capital. Thus it’s in China’s advantage to keep the issue relevant — the repetition of the “Beijing Declaration” in media headlines could potentially reiterate China’s commitments and contributions to existing multilateral platforms. If one compares China’s two white papers on gender issues, in 2015 China added a new chapter on strengthening international cooperation on women’s empowerment with the UN system. Similarly, China also actively promoted bilateral and regional cooperation on women’s empowerment at multilateral platforms, such as the G20 and APEC.
Second, mainstreaming gender issues at high-level diplomatic platforms could create more publicity opportunities for China’s first lady, Professor Peng Liyuan, advancing both her policy concerns and personal aspirations. As the UNESCO special envoy for women’s education, Peng impressed the audience with a speech in perfect English to promote pubic awareness and generate actions, on the same day as her husband announced China’s generous donation to UN Women.
While her husband attended the Paris Climate Change Conference, the first lady co-hosted an event on women’s education with the UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova — a promising candidate to be the first female UN secretary general. Peng frequently appears in other public events and high-level conferences as the World Health Organization’s goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDs. She often expresses special concerns over women and girls.
During her state visits, Peng has attracted huge media attention and thus plays an important role in China’s public diplomacy. As South China Morning Post put it, “As Xi pursues hardline policies at home and abroad, the soft images of his glamorous wife helps moderate the hard edges by presenting a kinder, gentler face to the world. Her fashion sense and natural dignity represent the attractive and human side of modern China.”
The first lady plays an integral role in Xi’s diplomacy. As a couple, the combination of a gentle Peng and a strongman Xi are designed to soften and humanize China’s global image as well as Xi’s assertive foreign policy.
Third, China’s interest in gender issues reflects a shifting domestic trend. The past decade has witnessed an unprecedented increase of the total amount of young women to be educated and concerned about China’s relations with the outside world. This tendency could potentially change the leadership style and public image of China’s future leaders.
The educational backgrounds and profiles of Chinese political leaders often have direct impacts on their political views and leadership styles. An increasing number of women are now working in the Chinese government at both the central and local levels. According to China’s 2015 White Paper, female officers accounted for 47.8 percent of the total number of newly-recruited civil servants working for the Party’s Central Committee and its affiliations, a more than 10 percent increase compared to ten years ago.
The increasing number of female politicians and diplomats may change the stereotype image of Chinese officials to a more approachable and personal style. Fu Ying, Chairwoman of National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, is an example. Fu is China’s first female spokesperson for the “two sessions,” the all-important annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. She previously served as China’s ambassador to the UK, Australia, and the Philippines, respectively. Another example is Ambassador Yang Yanyi, head of the Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the European Union. Both ladies are impressive speakers who take a more personal approach when addressing the audiences.
In 2015, the number of Chinese female diplomats reached 1,695, or 30.7 percent of the total. That number is expected to rise significantly in the next two decades, as more female students graduate with majors in international relations, public policy, communications, and other related fields. Over time, more women will take senior positions within the government and potentially the foreign affairs-related departments.
Women’s empowerment may not replace climate change as the next top priority on the global agenda. But behind the emergence of politicized gender issues, reshuffled coalitions of political and economic interests among major powers are underway. China will undoubtedly be an active leader for designing international governance focused on women’s empowerment. At the upcoming CSW 60 and this fall’s G20 summit, China is likely to leverage even more resources on gender-related issues, and a series of high-level diplomatic events will be hosted for its charming first lady.
For policy analysts, its is never too early to analyze the gender trends of China’s future leadership, who were born in the 1980s and 1990s. Understanding these trend will offer chances to influence and shape the views of future Chinese political and business leaders. And an increasing number of them will be young and promising Chinese ladies who are more curious about making a change in the world than ever.
Zhibo Qiu is a consultant at the United Nations Headquarter in New York. Previously, she worked for both public and private sector as policy analyst and campaign officer in Beijing. Her research focuses on China’s domestic politics, foreign policy and overseas investment. She holds master’s degrees from the University of Cambridge and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. The article only represents the author’s personal opinions.