Holding Up Half the Sky? (Part 1)—The Evolution of Women’s Roles in the PLA
Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 15
This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the evolving roles of women in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Part 1 examines the historical trajectory of and context for the expansion of women’s roles in the PLA. Part 2 will examine the recruitment and organizational representation of the PLA’s female officers and enlisted personnel in further detail.
The significant expansion of the roles of the PLA’s female officers and enlisted personnel might seem surprising, against the backdrop of the stagnation, even deterioration in women’s status in Chinese politics and society. However, the juxtaposition of these trends reveals an unexamined aspect of the PLA’s limited progression towards fuller utilization of the available human resources, in response to the requirements of modern “informationized” warfare.
Although Mao once declared, “women hold up half the sky,” women have traditionally been and remain underrepresented in leadership positions in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Red Army and its successor, the PLA. Throughout the CCP’s history, not a single woman has been selected to serve on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision-making body, and there are currently only two women on the twenty-five-person Politburo.  In fact, more women served on the CCP’s Central Committee in Mao’s time than today.  Symbolically, women’s representation on the National People’s Congress, a consultative parliamentary body typically seen as a powerless “rubber stamp” for the CCP, increased to a historic high of 23.4 percent at the 12th NPC in 2013, which was characterized by official media as an indication of “female power” (女性力量) (Xinhua, March 8). In recent years, there has also been a resurgence of gender inequality in China. The All-China Women’s Federation, which is responsible for protecting “women’s rights and interests,” has promulgated media content that stigmatizes unmarried women over the age of twenty-seven as “leftover women” (剩女) in its efforts to advance the State Council’s official goal of “upgrading population quality” (素质).  In March 2015, five feminist activists were detained on charges of “picking quarrels and causing a disturbance,” because of their plans to pass out stickers highlighting issues of sexual harassment on public transportation, resulting in an international outcry for the release of the “feminist five.”
In contrast to these trends, there have been a number of firsts for women in the PLA within the past decade or so. Although thousands of women fought with the Red Army during the Chinese Civil War (1927–1949) and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), until relatively recently women in the modern PLA predominantly served in support and logistics roles. While there had been a small number of high-ranking women in the PLA since 1949, their advancement had remained relatively uncommon. Today, beyond traditional non-combat specialties, women in the PLA have taken on a variety of combat roles, including in all four of the PLA’s services—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force—and probably also the new Strategic Support Force. While a high proportion of women in the PLA continue to serve in all-female organizations, women now more frequently train alongside men and to the same standard. The overall number or percentage of women in the PLA does not seem to have increased appreciably, and limitations on their recruitment and representation remain prevalent. However, women’s accomplishments are frequently highlighted in official PLA media—perhaps an indication of the PLA’s efforts to keep pace with international trends and improve its image. These mentions often present a mixed message frequently characterize female officers and enlisted personnel as “beautiful scenery” in the barracks or on the battlefield. Certainly, women in the PLA continue to confront a glass ceiling. However, the PLA’s efforts to recruit a more educated officer and enlisted force have motivated the expansion of the opportunities open to female officers and enlisted personnel.
The Historical Trajectory of Women in the PLA:
Although thousands of women served in a variety of combat and non-combat roles in the Red Army, women were later channeled into primarily support roles and demobilized in large numbers. An estimated 3,000 women took part in the 1934–35 Long March (PLA Daily, March 15). Subsequently, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while women remained actively involved in the PLA, the majority was limited to a smaller subset of more “traditional,” non-combat roles and had limited opportunities for advancement, despite the Communists’ ideological commitment to egalitarianism. When the PLA began reducing its force of three million by 23.3 percent in 1953, a significant percentage of those demobilized were women, totaling an estimated 764,000 (25.3 percent).  In 1967, the PLA resumed the recruitment of women at a rate of approximately 7,500 per year (Renmin Haijun, September 13, 2003).
For the past several decades, women have constituted approximately 5 percent or less of the PLA, and there were only limited positions and opportunities open to female officers and enlisted personnel, until relatively recently (China Military Online, April 15, 2015).  Since women have never been conscripted into the PLA’s enlisted force, all women serving in the PLA have chosen to join the enlisted force or officer (cadre) corps of their own volition. The vast majority had typically served in support roles, such as administrative personnel, medical personnel, communications specialists, and political and propaganda workers, including the PLA’s performing arts troupes.
Starting in the mid-1990s, a variety of combat roles has gradually been opened to women.  In recent years, the opportunities available to women in the PLA have expanded significantly, and there have been a number of firsts for female officers and enlisted personnel, including deployments with peacekeeping forces, serving on the PLA Navy’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, flying combat aircraft for the Air Force, and joining the Army’s special forces. The recent accomplishments of women in the PLA have often received high-profile coverage in official Chinese media, while also highlighted in popular culture, such as a Chinese TV show, “Phoenix Nirvana” (特种兵之火凤凰) that was nearly banned for being “too sexy” (Youku; China Daily, January 11, 2014). The multiple combat and support roles—including academic, research, and military representative positions overseeing defense industry research academies and factories—that have become available to PLA women will be discussed in further detail in the next article in this series.
The PLA’s Female Flag Officers
The PLA has had over fifty female flag officers over the course of its history, based on available reporting. Of them, the vast majority have been major generals (少将, 1 star), only three are reported to have been promoted to lieutenant general (中将, 2 stars), and none has yet received the rank of general (上将, 3 stars). The trajectory of their promotions over time offers an interesting indicator of the advances of women in the PLA. When the PLA introduced its first rank system in 1955, Li Zhen (李贞), formerly a deputy in the PLA’s Military Procuratorate, was the only woman who achieved the rank of major general until ranks were abolished in 1965. When the PLA reintroduced ranks in 1988, five females received the rank of major general, three of whom had a medical specialty. Since then, at least 45 more women have received the rank of major general. Notably, Nie Li (聂力), who had a science and technology specialty, became the PLA’s first female lieutenant general in 1993. The PLA’s second female lieutenant general, Xu Lili (徐莉莉), an officer in the PLA Navy and former vice president of the Academy of Military Science, was promoted to that rank in 2010. In 2003, the first PLAAF female was promoted to major general as a Guangzhou Military Region Air Force deputy chief of staff (China Brief, June 22, 2012). In May 2016, Cheng Xiaojian (程晓健), who had previously served as the first female air division commander, was promoted to major general (Toutiao, May 13). Read more…