Both humiliated established players and helped orchestrate their ousting. Both were bullies. Jiang was regarded – accurately – as volatile, vicious and vindictive. She caused countless deaths.
“Gucci Grace” is seen not only as corrupt and extravagant, but also erratic and aggressive – unsurprisingly, given two very public cases of alleged assault overseas.
But they were regarded with disdain as well as dislike; hence the frequent reminders that Mugabe worked in a government typing pool, while Jiang was a Shanghai starlet before reinventing herself as a revolutionary.
Their images align suspiciously neatly with archetypes of irrational, vicious women – and look all the worse in light of frequent comparisons with the “good”, selfless, patriotic women who preceded them.
Sally Mugabe was known as the “mother” of Zimbabwe, while He Zizhen, Mao’s third wife, was a committed revolutionary who was forced to leave two of their babies behind during the Long March in the 1930s.
Ruthlessness, even unpredictability, hardly made either Jiang or Grace unique in their political spheres. Yet their allies and rivals never attracted the same visceral hatred.
Both women became lightning rods for the grievances against their husbands. Pillorying them deflected blame from the men who sponsored them.
These women were vehicles for their husband’s desire to maintain their legacies, and for factional interests as well as their own.
As Jiang told her show trial: “I was Chairman Mao’s dog – I bit who he wanted me to bite.”
When the odds are stacked against women politically – more the case in China, then and now, than in Zimbabwe – the chances are that those who rise will have done so through personal connections.
In Asia, this has sometimes allowed them to float above the fray, as if they have merely inherited a mission to fulfil from love and duty.
But more often, and especially when their ambition is evident, these relationships are turned against them. And they, in turn, are weaponised against other women.
Even now, the spectre of Jiang looms in China. For all the rhetoric of equality, no woman has ever reached the top political body.
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