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Though some see Jiang as a cautionary tale against the ruthlessness of power-hungry females, she claimed she was only following orders. “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite,” Jiang told the court.

Pre-communist history offers similarly scant inspiration.

Annals are rife with scheming concubines who helped unseat emperors by distracting them with carnal pleasures, a perception that Hong Kong University history professor Zhou Xun says still lingers.

“Historically, women were quite often seen as trouble, as linked to the downfall of dynasties,” Ms. Zhou said.

The last woman to rule China, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who died in 1908, is remembered as a leader who resisted reform and left China vulnerable to Japanese and Western powers.

Today, the Communist Party’s intolerance for grass-roots campaigning has left little room for the growth of a feminist movement that could bring women into the streets to demand equal pay for equal work or more political participation by women.

One of the few independent Web forums dedicated to women’s issues, Feminist.cn, has been shut down repeatedly by authorities.

Ms. Liu is seen as a long shot for the Standing Committee, but there are a few other women competing for posts on the Politburo, including anti-corruption watchdog Ma Wen and Fujian Party Secretary Sun Chunlan — only the second woman since 1949 to head a province as party secretary.