BEIJING – A glance at history suggests it's 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 female, State Councilor Liu Yandong, can win one of the nine spots at the apex of Chinese power.
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 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, Liu is the only female 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 to 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.
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 topmost leadership clique where major policy is set. Only two women have served as provincial party secretaries, powerful positions seen as stepping stones to national leadership posts.
Former Vice Premier 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.
Those are the people who end up running China from the leafy, high-walled Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing.
But to get those positions can be hard for a woman, for sometimes maddening reasons.
"To become a mayor of a big city or a governor of a province you have to be sort of one of the boys, you have to drink a lot and maybe womanize a bit and also be reasonably corrupt," Lam said. "There's no lack of corrupt women in China, but this to-be-one-of-the-boys phenomenon, I think, is holding some promising female cadres back."
Feng, the Beijing rights advocate, has run training workshops on women's rights around China. She says aspiring female politicians complain to her about the "drinking culture" in Chinese politics but many say sexual politics also holds them back.
It is common for powerful Chinese men to have mistresses, which can make it difficult for women to curry favor or even cooperate with their male superiors without inviting suspicion.
One female deputy director of an agency told Feng that if she went to the office of her male boss to discuss work, he typically would stand at the door to talk to her. If they had to be in his office, he insisted on leaving the door open.
"This was to prevent rumors," Feng said. "If you have to be that careful in day to day work, imagine how hard it would be to actually promote a female. People would talk, they would wonder about just how close the relationship was."
Though China's communists have done much to improve women's lives by increasing their access to education, health care and jobs once reserved for men, they have failed to meaningfully increase women's political participation.
Since the 1970's the number of women serving in China's parliament has actually fallen, and less than a quarter of the Communist Party's members are women. Also, women typically get shunted into positions considered 'women's work,' such as family planning or public relations.
In 2009, female cadres accounted for just 11 percent of leadership positions at the ministerial or provincial level, 13.7 percent at the local and departmental level, and 16.6 percent in county-level offices. That was only slightly better than figures for 2000, which were 8 percent, 10.8 and 15.1 percent.
In the early days of Communist rule, the wives of Mao Zedong, Lin Biao and Zhou Enlai were all given positions on the Politburo but their tenures did little to pave the way for other women.
Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, lead a series of purges that, after Mao's death in 1976, resulted in her being sentenced to death for counterrevolutionary crimes.
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 for aspiring female politicians. 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," 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 grassroots 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 female political participation.
One of the few independent web forums dedicated to women's issues, Feminst.cn, has been repeatedly shut down by authorities.
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 corruption watchdog Ma Wen and Fujian Party Secretary Sun Chunlan — only the second woman since 1949 to head a province as party secretary.
Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese politics at the Brookings Institute, says one or two of them are likely to make it — a bleak horizon for women's empowerment.
But he says he expects more women to push their way into government in the coming 10-15 years as younger women come of age with more education and social freedom than their mothers.
Feng says she has noticed more women trying to run as independent candidates at the local government level, suggesting an awakening of political consciousness.
"We ought to be even more bold in our questioning and not just ask why there are no women on the Standing Committee but we ought to ask why there are no women competing for the post of Communist Party secretary or for prime minister," Feng said.