BEIJING — A glance at history suggests it is easier for a Chinese woman to orbit Earth than to land a spot on the highest rung of Chinese politics.
In June, a 33-year-old air force major marked a major feminist milestone by becoming the first Chinese woman to travel in space.
With a once-a-decade leadership transition set to kick off Nov. 8, many now are waiting to see if another ambitious Chinese woman, State Councilor Liu Yandong, can win one of the nine spots at the apex of Chinese power.
Ms. Liu is a smiley 67-year-old with a degree in chemical engineering and a penchant for pearls and red lipstick. Her portfolios include education, sports and cultural affairs.
Experts say she is well-connected, and state media paints her as a diligent civil servant with a human touch. In May, she donned scrubs and stroked the forehead of a hospitalized teacher who lost her legs pushing two students away from an oncoming bus.
“You are so young, so beautiful,” state media quoted Ms. Liu as telling the teacher, Zhang Lili. “From now on, you can call me big sister.”
Leadership transitions only happen once a decade in China. This year, Ms. Liu is the only woman with an outside chance of landing a position at the top, and if she does, she will have made history.
But rocketing into space seems simple compared with busting into the boys’ club of Chinese politics.
“It’s relatively easy to have a Chinese female astronaut, because that’s only about winning glory for China and not about actually divvying up political power,” said Feng Yuan, a Beijing-based women’s rights advocate.
‘One of the boys’
There are quotas meant to boost participation of women in the political process, but they are not strictly enforced.
Since the founding of Communist China in 1949, no woman has ever served on the Politburo Standing Committee, the foremost leadership clique, where major policy is set.
Only two women have served as provincial party secretaries, powerful positions seen as steppingstones to national leadership posts.
Former Vice Prime Minister Wu Yi, known as the “Iron Lady” for her tough negotiating skills and ranked by Forbes as the second most powerful woman in the world in 2007, failed to advance past the Politburo, the group of about 25 from which Standing Committee members are recruited.
Willy Lam, a historian at Chinese University of Hong Kong, says the climb to power typically begins with a local leadership post that gets parlayed into jobs overseeing increasingly large constituencies until, ideally, one is running a province or a big city.