BEIJING, Sept 12 (Reuters) - There are women to be found in China's halls of power, but most of them are serving tea.
Nearly 60 years after Mao Zedong's Communists came to power championing women as an economic force, giving them rights to hold land and seek divorce, few have risen through the political ranks to reach the top.
Now, as a five-yearly Party Congress prepares to meet in mid-October and speculation heats up as to who will be promoted to the Party's highest levels, the lack of women among those in contention is more obvious than ever.
"You can't simply say it's about traditional ideas and culture, or simply about China's political system," said Feng Yuan, the gender and women's rights coordinator at ActionAid, a non-governmental organisation.
"Because in reality, those traditional concepts and the political system influence and reinforce each other."
No woman has ever served on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, and there is currently only one on the 24-member Politburo -- Vice Premier Wu Yi, known as China's "Iron Lady" for her toughness in trade talks and crisis management.
Before her, just three women had been full Politburo members, and all were wives of top leaders, including Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, the leader of the Gang of Four jailed for her radical stance during the Cultural Revolution who committed suicide in 1991.
"Women received a real setback when Jiang Qing became so prominent. People saw it as proof that women shouldn't be in Chinese politics," said Christina Gilmartin, an expert on gender in modern China at Northeastern University in Boston.
HALF THE SKY
Wu Yi's example helps redress the balance, she said, but her status does not mark a sea change.
Decades after Mao famously announced that "women hold up half the sky", they make up about 20 percent of the current parliament and comprise less than 8 percent of the Party's elite Central Committee.
With Wu likely to retire from the Politburo this year, attention is beginning to shift down the line to female cadres who may be in contention for the top echelons of power.
The most likely candidate for Politburo status -- and a remote possibility for Standing Committee -- is Liu Yandong, a senior Party official responsible for winning over non-Communists who is said to be close to President Hu Jintao.
"She's relatively young and she's a woman," Zhiyue Bo, a China scholar at St John Fisher College in New York, said of Liu, who was born in 1945.
"She's associated with Hu and the Youth League. She's also a princeling," he said, referring to the sons and daughters of earlier generations of leaders. Liu's father was a vice minister of agriculture.
The Communist Youth League is seen as Hu's power base and the number of leaders with backgrounds linked to the group is rising.
Beyond Liu, the pickings are slim.
Song Xiuyan, governor of the western province of Qinghai, Ma Xiuhong, a vice-minister of commerce and Hu Xiaolian, head of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, are up-and-comers most often named.
But analysts say there are impediments even at the most basic levels that work against women succeeding in politics.
In a system where personnel changes down the line are decided at the discretion of the local Party boss, some worry that choosing a woman will set tongues wagging.
"If they choose a woman, they fear that perhaps people will think it's because they have a special relationship with her. So even though a lot of female cadres are very capable, the Party boss doesn't nominate them for other higher or more important positions," said Feng.
Fear of impropriety also extends to the way daily work is conducted.
"A lot of female cadres and leaders have told me, when male cadres report their work to leaders, they can go into the office and close the door, but when women report their work to leaders, they stand in the doorway," said Feng.
Political systems aside, biases are hard to overcome in a society that traditionally placed more value on men than women -- and where abortion or abandonment of girl babies has led to a gender imbalance of 119 boys for every 100 girls.
"In some areas, some individuals may still be affected by feudal thinking," said Mu Hong, of the All-China Women's Federation, a Party-sponsored group that promotes womens' rights.
"They think women should stay home and take care of the husband and children and should not show themselves in public."
China's political culture, in which deals are as likely to be made in the karaoke parlour as the boardroom, also tends to exclude women, who may be uncomfortable with the attendant heavy drinking and presence of young, female hostesses.
Despite the hurdles, analysts say there are some signs of optimism, and a growing awareness among leaders of the need to include more women in positions of power.
"I think there is a much stronger core group if the higher leaders allow them to continue to come forward and assume more and more responsible jobs," said Gilmartin.
"It would be seen very negatively if China doesn't make some more progress at this next Party Congress in terms of the number of women who are in the higher bodies of the Communist Party."