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BEIJING - Feminists in China are embracing Taiwan's presidential front-runner Tsai Ing-wen as a role model - in a country where the last woman leader was the empress dowager more than a century ago.
If elected, Tsai, the leader of Taiwan's independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will be the first woman president of the Chinese-speaking world. Earlier this month, she topped the last opinion poll before a polling blackout began ahead of the Jan. 16 elections.
Tsai's victory "will be a source of great encouragement for feminists on the mainland," said Zeng Jinyan, a Chinese activist who has written about women's rights.
"In terms of the political participation of women in the Chinese world, she has set an example and is a role model."
Zeng said she hoped that Tsai's victory would led to cooperation and exchanges between feminists on the mainland and in Taiwan.
"When I watch her speeches, I think she has many feminist ideas," said Wu Rongrong, a women's rights activist. "To be a female leader, I think it's an admirable thing."
Democratic Taiwan, viewed by Communist Party rulers in China as a renegade province, has made some of the greatest strides in women's rights in Asia. Taiwan's ruling Nationalists had initially put forward a woman, Hung Hsiu-chu, as a presidential candidate but later replaced her with Eric Chu. The government has imposed quotas to ensure that women are represented in politics.
While Chairman Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that women hold up half the sky, in today's China, top government positions often remain out of their reach.
All seven members of the ruling Communist Party's apex of power, the Politburo Standing Committee, are men. Only two women sit on the Politburo, a top decision-making body.
The proportion of women on the party's 205-strong central committee is less than five percent, lower than in Mao's time. But back then, the women in power, such as Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, only attained their positions due to their marriages.
"In Taiwan, many female political candidates came from the feminist movement," said Zheng Churan, a women's rights activist. "On the mainland, there does not appear to be any space for people involved in social movements to enter the political system."
Last year, Chinese authorities detained Zheng, Wu and three other prominent Chinese feminists on International Women's Day, accusing them of provoking trouble. They released them on bail after a vocal campaign.
"Under Taiwan's social environment, the external conditions are more conducive for women's organizations to speak out," said Feng Yuan, a veteran women's rights activist. "The space for civil society organizations here is quite limited."
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie