Beijing is a city of epic proportions. Its massive physical presence – a sprawling field of concrete skyscrapers housing its 21 million person population—is matched only by its cultural grandeur. From the thousands of years of history to the blinding spectacle of the Olympic Stadium to the over-the-top amusement of a forest toboggan that takes you down from the Great Wall – China does it big. However, the most powerful part of the Institute of Politics' Women in Public Service Exchange trip in September 2014 was herself only 5’1”.
Professor Wu Qing is a fearless legislator, well-known human rights activist, decorated English language professor, and pioneer in Chinese women’s entrepreneurship. She spoke to our group along with our hosts, a delegation of college students from China Women’s University, about global citizenship, democracy, and leadership. Her two hour lecture was the most impactful I’ve ever attended; the audacity of Professor Wu’s life and her vision for the world was articulated with unparalleled wit and rousing conviction. One of the first legislators to cast a “no” vote in the People’s Congress, she recanted her days as an elected representative serving in an institution that she viewed as deeply flawed.
"I believe in the rule of law. I believe in transparency. I believe in supervision,” she said. "But none of these exist in our Chinese culture. It's always been authoritarian. It's like in a family: 'I'm your father!' and no one else dares say a word."
She spoke to us about her own definition of leadership, emphasizing the importance of listening by telling stories of her own friendships with women in disparate communities around the world, friendships that formed out of her own work to live with an open mind, open heart, and open ears. Professor Wu advocates for democracy and human rights in China by focusing on the rights of rural women, speaking passionately about the need to make progress.
"China is still a Third World country," she said. "To change China, you've got to change the countryside. To change the countryside, you've got to change the status of the rural woman. If you educate a woman, it's like educating a whole family, even several generations of the family.”
It was an honor to speak with Professor Wu and also to share the experience with a dynamic group of women, many of them fighting to improve civil rights and democracy here at home.
I am incredibly grateful to the Institute of Politics, Career Advancement, the State Department, and particularly to the brilliant and unendingly generous students who hosted us at China Women’s University. The intellectual gains made on this trip will, like the friendships made there, impact our lives for years to come.