The Gender Gap in China’s Belt and Road

By Hope Marshall

'New Perspectives on Asia' highlights the research of junior CSIS staff and interns on issues that are quietly shaping the world's most dynamic region

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), he promised to “promote common development and prosperity so as to bring benefits to our people.” But nearly eight years later, the “people” that have benefited most from the BRI are predominantly men.

The shortcoming is disappointing because development projects can make a positive difference for women in all levels of society. Involving them in initial project planning procedures, be it through the political apparatus or respected organizations, allows further female representation in subsequent project stages. During construction, hiring, and training, the involvement of more women increases their presence in the workforce and ultimately their status in society. Once complete, well thought out infrastructure and enhanced connectivity facilitates social inclusion, providing females with greater access to resources and expanding the possibility of participation in initial development discussions, connecting the loop in a cycle of opportunity.

Press releases show that Chinese companies have not completely ignored gender disparity in the developing world. For example, Huawei has targeted young women in its training initiatives in Africa. Officially, however, BRI and gender have rarely been used in the same sentence. In BRI forum speeches, openness and inclusiveness are mentioned as goals, emphasizing race and religion, but gender equity goes unmentioned. In key vision documents, the Chinese government lists areas ripe for cooperation—from the arts and public health to strengthening sister cities—but fails to state any specific initiative to benefit women. Most notably, China has no gender-specific BRI policy in place apart from its broader commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

There are a few reasons for China’s lack of interest. First, Beijing has mainly supported the status quo in its international engagements. Traditional recipient countries have struggled with prioritizing gender mainstreaming in the past, providing little incentive for China to promote an issue that could easily be opposed.

Second, unlike other Sustainable Development Goals, gender norms present a higher level of contention. Women’s status is deeply embedded in religion, culture, and politics, and may become an explosive issue that is tricky to navigate for foreigners unfamiliar with the subtleties of local social norms. It requires sensitivity when approaching change.

On top of this, China has not addressed its own gender gap. According to the World Economic Forum, the country ranks 107th of 156 in gender equity and maintains a vast gender imbalance resulting from its former one-child policy. Politically, most women in the Standing Committee hold positions at the provincial level, and their presence becomes scarcer with each step up in the hierarchy. No woman has ever held a seat in the CCP’s most influential body, the Politburo Standing Committee. This effectively leaves the highest-level decisions about foreign and domestic policy with no direct female input.

Meanwhile, large-scale international development banks have moved gender nondiscrimination to the forefront of their social initiatives, as seen throughout the Asian Development Banks’s latest Development Effectiveness Review. The report also showed that projects including effective gender mainstreaming rose 89 percent in 2020, demonstrating that inclusion for women is achievable even during an international crisis like Covid-19.

Furthermore, China’s competitors are moving ahead. In June 2021, G7 countries introduced the Build Back Better World Partnership (B3W), an initiative designed to counter China’s influence and offer a more sustainable infrastructure alternative to low- and middle-income countries. Gender equity is one of its four pillars (along with climate, health, and technology), and carries real potential. A report published by the University of Chicago estimated that gender imbalances in the labor market cost OECD member countries alone 15 percent of their GDP. As the World Bank Group’s Women, Business, and the Law 2020 report emphasizes, “equality of opportunity is good economics.”

The stakes have only risen in the aftermath of the pandemic, as women are disproportionately represented in industries that are declining. But whether China will adjust its practices is unclear. Chinese officials have shown an interest in responding to the BRI’s shortcomings in other areas, particularly the environment. And the BRI’s flexible nature allows for continued refinement, as demonstrated by the growing importance of its health and digital dimensions. But if Beijing wants true development to occur, it must recognize and begin closing the BRI’s gender divide.

Hope Marshall is a research intern at the Center for Strategic & International Studies and an MA Candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

'New Perspectives on Asia' is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).